Saturday, November 7, 2009

Obama, Obama, You're Either with Them, or with Us!

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The Associated Press

The contrasts were vivid: Pro-government supporters chanted "Death to America" and stomped on U.S. flags Wednesday while not far away hundreds of opposition protesters denounced Iran's leaders and appealed to America's president to choose sides. "Obama, Obama, you are either with them, or with us," the anti-government protesters chanted in Farsi, in an amateur video clip widely circulated on the Internet. The new and startling appeal to President Obama came as Iran's opposition protesters returned to the streets in large numbers for the first time in nearly two months. Authorities were ready with the same sweeping measures they used to quell fierce election-fraud protests this summer and early fall: Sending paramilitary units to key locations to fire tear gas and beat people with batons. The protests showed the determination of Iran's opposition to reassert its voice. But the latest marches drew far fewer demonstrators than in the summer or even in September, suggesting the relentless pressure by authorities could be taking a toll. In Washington, the White House called for an end to the violence against anti-government protesters. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama administration leaders "hope greatly that violence will not spread." The administration has pursued talks with Iran's government even as it has pushed for more concessions on Iran's controversial nuclear program. Mr. Obama said in a statement Tuesday that he wanted the U.S. and Iran to move beyond "suspicion, mistrust and confrontation." Wednesday - marking the 30th anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover - had major symbolic importance for Iran's leaders. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for 444 days, and the two nations have never resumed diplomatic ties. Thousands of people attended a pro-government rally called to mark the anniversary, chanting "Death to America" and walking over and stomping on U.S. flags outside Washington's former embassy.

Just blocks away, hundreds of opposition marchers in Haft-e-Tir Square denounced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with cries of "Death to the dictator" and trampled a poster of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, witnesses said. In all, several thousand protesters joined the marches in various spots across the city. But those numbers were far smaller than at the height of the outrage after opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi claimed Mr. Ahmadinejad stole the election by fraud this summer. Participants in the main marches were quickly dispersed by security forces - including paramilitary forces and militiamen linked to the powerful Revolutionary Guard - who used clubs and tear gas, witnesses said. All the witnesses spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals from authorities. Mobile phones were disrupted as was Internet access and text messaging, in another echo of the summer. Yet amateur videos like the one appealing to Mr. Obama were posted on Web sites, showing protesters in fall clothes and coats in Tehran's streets. Pro-reform Web sites said police fired into the air to try to clear Haft-e-Tir square - about half a mile from the former U.S. Embassy. Some demonstrators were injured and arrested, witnesses said, but a clear number could not be independently obtained. There were no reports of serious injuries. A pro-reform Web site said militiamen on motorcycles prevented Mr. Mousavi from leaving his office to attend the marches. Another leading opposition figure, Mahdi Karroubi, fell to the ground after being overcome by tear gas, according to a posting by his son Hossein on Mr. Karroubi's Web site. Mr. Karroubi did not need medical attention, his son said.