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Discontent fans flames within Middle East

Iranian demonstrators take part in an antigovernment protest Monday in Tehran, Iran. Sporadic clashes erupted in central Tehran’s Enghelab, or Revolution, square between security forces and protesters. Protesters chanted “Death to the dictator.”

Associated Press

Iranian demonstrators take part in an antigovernment protest Monday in Tehran, Iran. Sporadic clashes erupted in central Tehran’s Enghelab, or Revolution, square between security forces and protesters. Protesters chanted “Death to the dictator.”

TEHRAN, Iran — Violent protests erupted Monday in Iran, Yemen and Bahrain as the revolutionary fervor unleashed by the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rippled across the Middle East, propelling people onto the streets to demand change from a spectrum of autocratic regimes.

In the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, thousands of demonstrators marched to call for reforms to their hereditary monarchy, clashing with police who fired teargas and rubber bullets. In Yemen, a key U.S. counterterrorism ally, government supporters armed with sticks and knives attacked pro-democracy protesters calling for the ouster of Yemen's dictatorial president, in the fourth straight day of protests in that troubled Arab nation.

But it was in a non-Arab country, Iran, that the fallout from Egypt's revolution seemed to be most acutely felt. In Tehran, large crowds defied tear gas to march down a major thoroughfare chanting "Death to the dictator'' in the biggest demonstration since the Iranian government effectively crushed the opposition movement in December 2009.

The crowds, which numbered in the tens of thousands, suggested that the Green Movement that emerged to challenge Iran's theocratic regime after disputed elections in June 2009 had been inspired by the success of Egypt's revolutionaries. Many protesters wore green ribbons, the symbol of the opposition movement.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the Iranian demonstrators, saying White House officials "very clearly and directly support the aspirations" of the protesters.

Clinton's comments appeared to signal a shift in tone by an administration that previously refrained from directly endorsing the Iranian opposition out of fear that U.S. support would backfire against the protesters.

In Tehran, thousands converged on Azadi, or Freedom, Square in the heart of the city, the symbolic epicenter of the protest movement that brought millions of people onto the streets in summer 2009. Some witnesses said Monday's protests drew more than 100,000 people.

The police initially seemed either caught off guard or disinclined to prevent a demonstration that had been called for more than a week in advance by Mir Hossein Mousavi, the former presidential challenger and de facto leader of the opposition movement. Mousavi was placed under house arrest on Monday, opposition websites said.

By nightfall, as more and more people converged, there were reports that the feared Basiji militia had taken to the streets on their trademark motorcycles and were beating demonstrators with batons.

The semiofficial Fars News Agency reported that at least one person had been killed and several wounded in a "shooting incident" connected with the protests, and there were also reports of violent clashes in other Iranian cities.

In Syria, there were signs that the government was cracking down on the opposition. A court there on Monday sentenced a 19-year-old blogger, under arrest since 2009, to five years in jail, after finding that she had illegally revealed information to a foreign country.

The protest in Bahrain had also been called for before Mubarak's resignation on Friday.

Bahrain is considered more vulnerable than most other regimes in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, because of its restive 70 percent Shiite majority, which has long chafed under the rule of the nation's Sunni monarchy.

The protests in Bahrain, as well as Yemen, have nonetheless been much smaller than those in Egypt. The protest in Yemen's capital, Sana, on Monday was less well attended, but more violent, than others in the city in recent weeks.

A few thousand protesters marched in Sana chanting "Hey Ali, Get Out," a reference to Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has governed the impoverished nation since 1978.

But they were confronted by a crowd of government supporters waving pictures of Saleh and chanting slogans in support of him, who chased the democracy protesters with sticks, knives and stones.

Discontent fans flames within Middle East 02/14/11 [Last modified: Monday, February 14, 2011 10:45pm]
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