Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Iran Will Not Yield , Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

TEHRAN — Hundreds of protesters clashed with waves of riot police and paramilitary militia in Tehran on Wednesday, witnesses said, as Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, insisted that the authorities would not yield to pressure from opponents demanding a new election following allegations of electoral fraud.

It was impossible to confirm the extent of the new violence in the capital because of draconian new press restrictions on coverage of the post-election mayhem. But the witnesses reached by telephone said the confrontation, in the streets near the national Parliament building, was bloody, with police using live ammunition.

Defying government warnings, hundreds, if not thousands of protesters, had attempted to gather in front of the parliament on Baharestan Square, witnesses said. They were met with riot police and paramilitary militia, who struck at them with truncheons, tear gas and guns. One witness said he saw a 19-year-old woman shot in the neck. Others said the police had shot in the air, not directly at demonstrators.

Some opposition supporters said that presidential candidate and opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi had been scheduled to address the crowd, but initial reports indicated that he had not appeared.

The violence came as additional details emerged about the sweeping scale of arrests that have accompanied the nation’s worst political crisis since the 1979 revolution. A New York-based human rights group, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, listed the names Wednesday of 240 detained in the crackdown. Iranian state media have reported 645 arrests, but the total number of detained may be as high as 2,000, the organization said, citing human rights activists in Iran.

Among them are people arrested in a Monday night raid of a campaign office for Mr. Moussavi in Tehran, Press TV, state television’s English-language satellite broadcaster, reported Wednesday. The government said the office was being used as “a headquarters for psychological war against the country’s security,” and claimed that evidence had been found of “the role of foreign elements in planning post-election unrest.”

Also detained are 102 political figures, 23 journalists, 79 university students and 7 university faculty, the human rights organization said. By official reckonings, at least 17 demonstrators have been killed.

Earlier Wednesday, Ayatollah Khamenei told legislators that he “insisted and will insist on implementing the law on the election issue,” according to accounts in the state-run media. “Neither the establishment nor the nation will yield to pressure at any cost.”

Coupled with the clampdown on the new demonstration, arrests and other developments, the Ayatollah’s comments reinforced the impression that the authorities have resolved to use all levers of power to choke off protest.

The coalition opposed to the election results suffered a setback Wednesday when one candidate formally withdrew his complaints of vote-rigging, opening a rift among those who had challenged the outcome of the June 12 election.

Some opponents maintained their defiance, calling for continued protests and the release of detainees. Despite efforts to silence dissent and despite an appearance of disarray in opposition ranks, Zahra Rahnavard, Mr. Moussavi’s wife who has played an influential role in the opposition, issued a call Wednesday for the immediate release of Iranians detained in election protests, his Web site reported.

“I regret the arrest of many politicians and people and want their immediate release,” Ms. Rahnavard declared. “It is my duty to continue legal protests to preserve Iranian rights.”

The candidate who withdrew his complaint of election fraud, Mohsen Rezai, had initially complained that while the official count gave him 680,000 votes, he had evidence that 900,000 people voted for him. But on Wednesday, Press TV reported, he decided to abandon the complaint, saying the current “political, social and security situation has entered a sensitive and decisive phase which is more important than the election.”

Trailing Mr. Moussavi and the former Parliament speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, Mr. Rezai was the most conservative of the losing candidates and had been under strong pressure from Iran’s rulers to pull back from the confrontation.

Mr. Rezai was quoted as calling the ballot a “clear sample of religious democracy,” sharing language with a powerful defense of the ballot in a sermon last Friday by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Mr. Rezai’s decision to withdraw, regional analysts said, represented an incremental but significant step back for the opposition, since his status as being part of and loyal to the system adding credibility to the overall electoral challenge.

The electoral controversy continued to boil, spilling over Iran’s own borders, as President Obama issued on Tuesday his harshest condemnation of events there yet, saying he was “appalled and outraged” by the attacks on civilian protesters.

“I strongly condemn these unjust actions,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference at the White House.

Iran’s leadership pressed its own charges that foreign powers had meddled in its internal affairs and instigated the widespread protests. State television showed people identified as protesters saying they had been influenced by foreign news media, Reuters reported.

“I think we were provoked by networks like the BBC and the Voice of America to take such immoral actions,” one young man said.

The government has also worked to underscore that it is under attack by terrorists seeking to take advantage of the post-election turmoil. Press TV, quoting the national intelligence minister, said Wednesday that dozens of alleged terrorists have been arrested in the past week, including suspects in the alleged bombing last Saturday of the shine of Ayatollah Imam Khomeini in Tehran that wounded three.

The arrested were linked with “the Zionist and non-Zionist regimes outside the county,” the intelligence minister, Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, was quoted as saying. Britain announced it had expelled two Iranian diplomats in a tit-for-tat response to Iran’s decision a day earlier to expel two British diplomats. Iran also lashed out at the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, for his call to end “arrests, threats and use of force.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said on Wednesday Tehran was reviewing whether to downgrade ties with Britain, which Iran has accused of interference in its disputed presidential election, the ISNA semi-official news agency said.

“We are reviewing this issue,” Manouchehr Mottaki said, according to ISNA. He was also quoted as saying Iran would not participate in a meeting of the G-8 countries this week in Italy to discuss Afghanistan with regional powers. The G-8 brings together industrialized nations including the United States and Britain along with other western countries, Japan and Russia.

US security adviser meets army chief

ISLAMABAD: The United States National Security Adviser, Gen James Jones, arrived here on Wednesday to discuss troop surge in Afghanistan and to encourage Pakistan to intensify the military operations against extremists, according to sources.

Gen Jones began his trip to the country with a meeting with Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani after arriving from Kabul.

He will meet President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Thursday.

Although neither side exchanged any formal agenda, diplomats said the adviser was likely to discuss surge in US troops in Afghanistan, the Swat operation and the possible military offensive in Waziristan.

The adviser and his interlocutors were likely to take forward their discussions on the acquisition of counter-insurgency equipment from the US.

Gen Jones is also expected to discuss the US assistance for displaced people in the NWFP. He is likely to call for resumption of Pakistan-India peace talks when he visits New Delhi on June 25.

US moves to isolate Iran with full Syria embassy

The United States is to appoint a new ambassador to Syria after a gap of four years, the strongest sign yet of President Obama’s desire to re-engage the pariah state and draw it away from the influence of Iran.

The move to a fully staffed embassy will be an important boost to Syria, which has suffered years of diplomatic isolation because of its strong trade and strategic ties with Iran.

The US Administration hopes that engaging with Damascus will encourage it to further pursue peace talks with Israel, most recently held under the previous Israeli Government of Ehud Olmert.

George Mitchell, the US Middle East envoy, has described Syria as playing and “integral role” in the peace process. Syria has called for America to act as mediator in any future direct talks between it and Israel, in which it is demanding a return of the Golan Heights, a strategic border plateau captured by Israel in 1967.

Syria is still under US sanctions over its support of Islamist insurgents crossing into Iraq to fight the US-backed Government there. Washington withdrew its last ambassador in 2005 after the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, in which Syria was believed to have played a role.

The new Administration believes that wooing Syria back into the diplomatic fold may encourage it to withdraw its support to insurgents in Iraq, loosen its ties with Iran and prevent the flow of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, the Shia militia that operates as a state-within-a-state inside Lebanon. The US also hopes that forging ties with the Syrian Government may put pressure on the Hamas leadership in exile in Damascus.

A senior US official told The New York Times that "there is a lot of work to do in the region for which Syria can play a role. For that, it helps to have a fully staffed embassy."

Ath-Thawra, a Syrian government newspaper,has lauded Washington's extended hand in a way that Iran has not. "Today, there is real optimism because the two parties realise the importance of improving bilateral relations in order to achieve global peace," it said recently.

Many analysts believe, however, that while Syria, with its struggling economy, would welcome the chance to open up to the world again, its leadership is unlikely to cut its profitable ties to Iran quickly . It is believed that Bashar al-Assad, the President, will try to play both sides off against the other for maximum benefit, while keeping his authoritarian regime in power.

US drones prowl over South Waziristan

WANA :US drones prowled the sky over South Waziristan on Wednesday, a day after one of the aircraft attacked a stronghold of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, killing about 70 militants.

The US attack came as the Pakistani army is preparing an all-out assault on al Qaeda ally Mehsud, who has been accused of orchestrating a campaign of bombings in Pakistan, including the 2007 assassination of former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto.

The push into South Waziristan on the Afghan border looms as the army is finishing off an offensive in the Swat valley.

The pilotless US drone strike late on Tuesday, on a funeral for one of six militants killed in a similar strike earlier in the day, suggests closer coordination between the United States and Pakistan.

But Pakistan, which officially objects to such strikes, is unlikely to confirm that in a country where many people are suspicious of the alliance with the United States in its global campaign against militancy.

Intelligence officials said late on Tuesday 45 people had been killed in the drone attack as mourners were leaving the funeral. On Wednesday they said about 70 people had been killed. A Taliban spokesman said 65 had been killed.

A Taliban official said Mehsud had been in the area but was not hurt. Security officials and villagers said the Taliban had sealed off the site.

"Bodies are still lying there and the Taliban are not allowing anybody close while their men are coming and going in vehicles," resident Ghulam Rasool told Reuters by telephone.

The militants also fired at US drones flying over the remote, mountainous region.

"Militants fired with machineguns at two drones in Makeen and Laddah, forcing them to fly back," said another resident, referring to two areas under Mehsud's control.


The military has been launching air strikes on Mehsud's bases over the past week or more while soldiers have been securing main roads into the region, sealing off his stronghold.

A military convoy, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, headed towards the area on Wednesday, a Reuters reporter in the region said.

On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Wali-ur-Rehman said that the group had claimed responsibility for killing the rival militant commander, Qari Zainuddin.

The killing of Zainuddin, in Dera Ismail Khan, showed Mehsud's reach and would be a setback for government efforts to win over ethnic Pashtun tribal factions for the campaign against Mehsud, analysts said.

The offensive against the Taliban has widespread support among politicians and the public but a fragile civilian government could see that backing evaporate if the displaced are seen to be suffering unduly.