Ahmadinejad's reelection prompts mass protests in Iran

Supporters of challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi clash with riot police and Hizbullah vigilantes.

By , Staff writer

Thousands of Iranians took to the streets of Tehran on Saturday to protest the re-election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, clashing with riot police over the surprise result and crying fraud.

Elderly women wove their way among cars stalled in traffic to hand out sweets in celebration. But hundreds of riot police, and later at night alongside Ansar-e Hizbullah vigilantes, sent a different message as they took control of the streets with beatings and violence.

The sounds of ambulance sirens, car horns, whistles, and shouting echoed long into the night. Protestors shouted "Death to the Dictator" and pelted police with stones.

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Election officials declared Ahmadinejad the winner, claiming that he had won 62.6 percent of the vote, nearly twice the 33.75 percent given to his top challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei hailed the vote as a "divine assessment" and told losing candidates to rein in "provocative behavior." Ahmadinejad was the "chosen and respected president," the Leader said, so every Iranian "must unanimously support and help him."

But supporters of the former prime minister – who had rekindled popular interest in politics with a string of vast street rallies that attracted tens of thousands and led to an unprecedented 80 percent turnout – say they were betrayed.

"The people's vote does not matter – it is all about Ahmadinejad winning," said Majid, as a line of some 30 motorcycles with two helmeted riot policemen on the back of each roared past on their way to shut down the Mousavi campaign headquarters. "These guys are serious – they don't care about anybody."

Baton-wielding police chased gathering crowds as clashes erupted at several points across Tehran where just days before Mousavi supporters with little incident had thronged together in all-night parties of dancing and anti-Ahmadinejad bombast.

After nightfall, police were supplemented at one crowded downtown intersection by 75 vigilantes on motorbikes, who held aloft wooden sticks and clubs and chanted "Hizbullah!" as they arrived.

Fires continued to burn in some streets, as mobile phone service was cut and Ahmadinejad made a victory speech. The street violence was the worst in Tehran since days of student-led protests in July 1999 and June 2003.

State television ignored the protests, showing instead repeated footage of the mass turnout and voting from the day before, though many Iranians tuned into the BBC Persian service, which is only available on illegal but common satellite dishes.

Mousavi complained on his web site that his headquarters staff had been beaten with truncheons and electrical cable.

"I'm warning that I won't surrender to this manipulation," he said on the site, according to the Associated Press. "The outcome of what we've seen from the performance of officials ... is nothing but shaking the pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran's sacred system and governance of lies and dictatorship."

After voting on Friday, Mousavi had declared himself the winner by the same large margin that Ahmadinejad now officially holds. He warned that "people won't respect those who take power through fraud."

In his victory speech broadcast nationwide late Saturday, Ahmadinejad took aim at the foreign media.

"All political and propaganda machines abroad and sections inside the country have been mobilized against the nation," he said. "They have launched the heaviest propaganda and psychological war against the Iranian nation. Many global networks continuously worked, employing very complicated methods, that work against our nation and arranged a full-fledged battle against us."

Yet despite Ahmadinejad's declaration that the vote "awakened" Iran's pride and dignity, many Iranians expressed outrage, from a tea boy to taxi drivers to young professionals.

"I can't accept the results," said one Iranian journalist. "When I left home yesterday I saw so many people line up. I've never seen that many, and many of those people came out for Mousavi."

Accusations from rival candidates that Ahmadinejad lied about facts and figures stuck in the mind of this journalist.

"This guy is lying to the people everyday," said the journalist. "And if he has permission to lie, then he has the permission to change my vote."

Many Iranians recoiled at the thought that the sky-high expectations they had created during the run-up to the election would now become only memories.

"I was crying all the morning," said law graduate Tooska, who then spent the evening on the streets taking part in the skirmishes. She was featured in the Monitor last week as one of three young Iranians who had been energized enough by Mousavi's moderate candidacy to reengage with politics and vote.

"Can you believe it? Do you think it could be true? How could it be possible?" asks Tooska, who asked that this pseudonym be used. "I will never vote again. Never. Never."

"You see this sadness in the eyes of the people," says Tooska's mother, who joined her daughter at the protests. "They think we are foolish. Like a doll, they used us and then pushed us aside."

"That's why it hurts. It's shameless," says Tooska.

Her mother last voted during the reformist icon Mohammad Khatami's landslide elections of 1997 and 2001. But his failure to deliver promises of looser restrictions turned her off.

"I promised I would never vote again," said the mother. "That is why I am angry, because I was fooled again."

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