Iranian police detain thousands as death toll climbs from weeks of protests

By Zeina Karam, Sahar Vanniouni and Hatem Abudry

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — In a massive crackdown against demonstrators, Iranian police detained hundreds of protesters overnight in northwest Iran and army soldiers deployed in Tehran and other cities ahead of Friday prayers, state TV reported Thursday, as the death toll from weeks of protests climbed to 31.

Demonstrators shouting “Death to the dictator!” and “Allahu Akbar” took to the streets of dozens of cities and towns, the state-run IRNA news agency reported, including the capital, Tehran. Some carried banners reading “Down with the regime!” as well as banners calling for holding a vote on the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, whose second term in office ends next month.

“So far more than 150 police officers and 35 civilians have been injured and eight cars and one motorcycle have been burned,” IRNA reported in an earlier report about the unrest.

Many of the rallies this week have been held in rural areas where unemployment is high and clerical leaders still hold sway.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard put out a statement late Thursday saying it had raided militant websites that posted details about “infiltrations” into mosques and army bases. The armed force, a key arm of the government that answers only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has long fought a decade-long campaign against hard-line Sunni militants.

Iranian authorities and state TV describe the protests as caused by economic woes sparked by rising prices and alleged corruption. Demonstrators deny government accusations that they are acting with foreign agendas, particularly the U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, as well as with an affiliate of the extremist Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

The protests, which erupted in late October, followed a rare presidential election in 2009 that sent former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into exile, accused by the West of rigging the vote.

Some protesters this week had chanted “rejection is the mother of resistance.”

“The Islamic Republic will not leave its guards alone to the sword and will not leave the people to fear for their rights,” said Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, as he addressed a recent military parade.

The IRNA and Tasnim news agencies said at least six people were killed and hundreds arrested in northwestern Iran overnight in clashes between security forces and protesters. The reports cited unnamed security sources.

A number of other demonstrations were reported in Tehran. One that began at a Tehran university grew into a large rally that some demonstrators fired on police and threw Molotov cocktails, according to IRNA. Later, “some people” tried to storm Tehran’s heavily fortified former British Embassy, a rerun of a protest there nearly 40 years ago, state television reported.

Iranian state TV said heavy security measures were put in place in Tehran, including hundreds of riot police.

State media reported earlier that at least one rioter had tried to blow up a gas station. That was broadcast live on state TV as authorities attempted to contain the growing trouble.

The unrest comes during Iran’s 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah and ushered in an Islamic government. This week, some held rallies in Tehran for the revolution’s anniversary, demanding the release of political prisoners.

The protests followed a sharp increase in the price of a staple food, eggs and poultry, attributed by authorities to a cull after several birds died of bird flu. Many Iranians also expressed anger over the rising costs of living and alleged corruption.

Some demonstrators carried signs demanding elections to the clerical council that rules Iran. Other signs criticized the economic policies of Rouhani, a key architect of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that saw Iran curb its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of some international sanctions.

State TV later said the Treasury’s supreme prosecutor has ordered the seizure of properties of economic offenders over the recent economic difficulties and disputes.

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