As night falls, Tehran still ablaze

TEHRAN, Iran— The Iranian capital was still in the grip of rioting as darkness fell Saturday night. Vali Asr Avenue, the city's most historic thoroughfare which traverses the city, has not seen anything like it since the 1979 Iranian Revolution

Authorities discontinued cellphone communications, blocked several websites and moved swiftly to squash pockets of resistance.

Rioters continued battling riot police on motorcycles and bassiji militias, as residents watching the violence from balconies and rooftops shouted "death to the dictator."

It was an eerie reminder of the revolutionary days from whose ashes the Islamic Republic was born.

In 1978-79, Iranians across the country took to their roofs every night to shout the name of the man who later became the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Friday's disputed election has prompted similar scenes with thousands of demonstrators battling police and religious paramilitaries who swear allegiance to incumbent Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Supporters of the opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, say that the questionable vote has damaged their already weak faith in Iran's ability to carry out free and fair elections.

"The fact that the Supreme Leader waded in is of concern because it shows there's a bigger fight going on at top of system and we're only seeing the broad contours of this at the moment," said an analyst, who insisted on anonymity. "I'm not sure this street thing will carry on for much longer except if a feasible leadership emerged to lead it but even so I wouldn't know what they could fight for. The key word right now is unpredictability which makes it all the more dangerous."

In central Tehran, fires raged in banks and witnesses reported gunfire. Private businesses were left untouched by the demonstrators, who focused on government-owned banks such as Saderat, Bank-e Melli and Bank-e Sepah.

In exclusive North Tehran, there were running street battles. Thousands of cars were backed up on the multilane Modaress highway as protesters struggled in hand-to-hand combat with a police unit atop a burning footbridge. Screams and the crush of stone against plastic shields and metal surfaces echoed over the running engines and the hubbub of motorists commenting on the extraordinary sight.

Car headlights illuminated a surreal scene of hundreds of bearded paramilitaries, police and T-shirt wearing protesters running back and forth across a rocky expanse of ground over which several fires blazed.

Further up, plump vigilantes vaulted over road dividers and waved metal clubs at motorists parked by the side of the highway shouting at them to move on.

Dozens of riot police clashed with demonstrators at the conjunction of the ritzy Jordan Avenue, a boulevard of boutiques and embassies, and the open cement expanse of a highway.

"I've had the back of my car windows smashed in by rocks, the side is badly grazed and the only thing that saved me from a rock aimed straight at me was how strong my windshield is," a heavily made-up blonde demonstrator said as she sat in the Renault 206 car, a cigarette dangling from her hand, waiting for the backed up cars to move. "And about an hour ago, 50 protesters kicked to death an intelligence guy in plain clothes right in front of me."

Rumours whipped round Tehran that the police had shot dead demonstrators and a heavy security presence was visible on all streets. In the absence of mobile communications, people stayed at home, calling each other on overloaded phone lines and exchanging news. Tehran's phone network was cut off from the rest of the family. Rioting was also reported in the heavily Kurdish western areas, and the cities of Zahedan and Shiraz (see map).

"If this continues for another three days, the hand of the regime will be forced," said one of the demonstrators as he carried a large plastic road blocker into the middle of the street and tried to set it on fire. Others poured gasoline over a guard shack and threw in a match.

The demonstrators were organised enough to disappear into waiting cars at the first sight of vigilantes riding motorcycles. Storing stones in their cars, they moved around.

By 3.30 a.m., the length of Vali Asr Avenue, Tehran's main North-South boulevard was cleared of protesters. Cars trundled over broken glass and veered away from smouldering bonfires. Dust and soot rose from the scorched tarmac and Tehran's historical highway was reclaimed by celebrating Ahmadinejad demonstrators waving Iranian flags.

"We're happy because the right man won," one Ahmadinejad protester leaned out of his car to say.

Waving flags and singing, the Ahmadinejad supporters stuck close to the ranks of police taking a breather after a day of violence on the streets. Sirens blinked on every street corner and swarms of Bassiji motorcyclists drove along the pavements to places where they were reports of continuing resistance. The suffocating mix of car exhaust and acrid remnants of extinguished tires marked the devastated landscape.

(Iason Athanasiadis is reporting from Iran on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)