Monday, June 22, 2009

Iran regime ready to fight its own people


John Lyons in Tehran | June 22

I WATCHED a regime prepare for war yesterday - against its own people.

The show of force the Iranian government brought on to the streets and squares of Tehran was extraordinary.

For several hours in and around the battleground -- Englelab Street, Englelab Square and Azadi Square -- I watched the regime bring in a force that would crush almost any uprising. At one point, about 20 vans full of riot police went past in a convoy; riot police stood on almost every corner, sometimes spaced only 2m apart; the motorcycle police were there; snipers were on rooftops; soldiers sat on the mounds around Azadi Square, sitting under trees to get relief from the sun; and the Basij militiamen were out in force, wearing plain clothes but carrying their trademark batons.

And the security forces brought out all their weapons -- pistols, rifles, machineguns, teargas, everything.

State media said yesterday 13 people were killed and 100 wounded as the protest stretched from late Saturday to early yesterday Australian time. This brought to 20 the official death toll for a week of unrest since the June 12 presidential elections.

State-run television reported that a suicide bombing at the shrine of the leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ruhollah Khomeini, killed at least two people and wounded eight.

The bloody battles with police on the streets of Tehran on Saturday came a day after Khomeini's replacement as Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that further protests could lead to bloodshed.

The only safe place I could find to watch from was the Englelab Street bus -- the first-floor shop I had used as a safe house a week before in Englelab Square had its shutters down. Ominously, riot police were clearing everyone out of the shops. And the regime made it clear live ammunition was now part of the equation.

Even the buses don't feel completely safe, but they're better than nothing.

A bizarre daily ritual takes place. Thousands of people come out to demonstrate against the regime -- they're not just protesting about the rigged re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- and make their way to the venue of the rally. They carry green flags and ribbons, the colour of defeated reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and toot their horns.

As if in some grim gladiatorial contest, the police and militia gather to meet them. The only question each day is whether the police and militia will attack.

This has become a strange version of a civil war in which only one side has arms. "We have the numbers, they have the weapons," one protester told me.

Saturday was different. On Friday, Ayatollah Khamenei said the protests must end and warned organisers they would be held responsible for the consequences. It was also different in that it was just for the determined and the brave; most people with children are unlikely to want to walk down a street against all the firepower of the nation. Yesterday only tens of thousands turned up, not the hundreds of thousands of previous rallies or the million-plus of the Mousavi rally last Sunday.

As always, the lead-up to the clash was unnerving. Riot police waited until 4pm (9.30pm AEST), the start time for the rally. Some were so padded up with bullet-proof vests and helmets they looked like American footballers with batons. Sometimes you'd see a group of 10 or so listening to instructions. Likewise, the Basij militia could be seen talking to their commanders.

While one part of Englelab Square prepared for war, at the other end life went on. A fruit seller stood in the middle of the road trying to tempt traffic to stop; some kids were playing volleyball down a side lane; old people sat in a park while children played.

At about 2.30pm panic set in, and you could see people running to get on buses. This was not a place to stay.

Four o'clock came and the contest began. This time the regime seemed more strategic -- the police sealed off streets and intersections, quarantining them into dozens of small battle zones.

This meant those who were trapped had no chance of back-up from other demonstrators. It also meant the security forces could deal with smaller crowds and take their time.

The bus I was on couldn't get into Englelab Square, where bad things were happening. One man got on to the bus saying the police were going wild. One soldier ran from the scene; we could see smoke rising.

Our bus was diverted around Englelab Square and made its way to Azadi Square, the destination of the daily marches.

As our bus stopped at Azadi Square, I saw a man who had his face smashed; people stopped a car and asked the occupants to take him away, which they did.

We had to get off the bus to walk to another. Outside, with no protection, it felt like a scene from Dante's Inferno.

Fires were everywhere, with the stink of burning tyres. People ran in all directions.

Behind us we could see a battle between riot police and protesters. A large group of police suddenly began running into Azadi Square.

I told my companion we should jump on to one of the buses caught in the traffic jam, but they all had their doors shut.

We made our way across Azadi Square and got on another bus. It started as police began chasing people the way we were going -- for a few seconds a group was running alongside our bus.

We escaped, and they did too. But how long can this madness go on?

Source: The Australian

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