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Reformists assert right to criticize Iran's rulers

In Tehran, students protest amid heavy police presence

Masked students demonstrate in front of Tehran University.
Masked students demonstrate in front of Tehran University.

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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Iranian students protested against the country's conservative spiritual leadership for the sixth consecutive night Sunday.

About 100 youths marched through downtown streets chanting antigovernment slogans amid a heavy paramilitary and police presence.

Security forces, some in riot gear, patrolled the city's center. In one area near university dormitories, 20 to 30 security personnel on motorcycles drove through the streets in a show of force.

A string of bloody street brawls have taken place since Tuesday. The student news agency, ISNA, said dozens of students were wounded Friday night and several more are missing.

In a rare public criticism of the government, a statement signed by 248 reformists, liberal politicians, journalists and intellectuals was sent to news organizations in Iran on Sunday night. The statement said Iranians have the right to criticize their leaders.

In an apparent reference to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the statement said, "Holding absolute power is heresy in Islam."

Insulting the leader is regarded as a serious offense in Iran.

Sunday night's procession made its way down Amir-Abad Street, a main thoroughfare of the capital. At one point, plainclothes security people beat two young people with batons and put them into a car.

Police set up checkpoints on the street, where they asked young people to identify themselves and explain what they were doing.

Police block a Tehran street during a protest against the establishment.
Police block a Tehran street during a protest against the establishment.

Plainclothes officials, many of them carrying walkie-talkies and described by residents as intelligence operatives, appeared to be lending a hand to the police.

The Iranian government said Thursday that 80 people were arrested in Wednesday night's protests, but has not commented since.

The protesters want government reforms and a liberalization of the Islamic law that dominates Iranian life. Demonstrations have begun each night with a celebratory atmosphere before degenerating into street fighting.

No deaths have been reported by the students or the government, but reporting on the protests has been difficult. The Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has warned international journalists that police will not protect them in the area of the protests.

The protests began over a reported plan, backed by the conservative clerics, to privatize the university, but quickly turned into a general antigovernment protest.

Iranian officials have accused the United States of instigating the protests. Since the end of major combat in the Iraq war, the Bush administration has kept a sharp focus on Iran, accusing the Iranian government of building nuclear weapons and harboring al Qaeda members.

In Kennebunkport, Maine, President Bush -- who named Iran part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea last year -- expressed guarded support for the students Sunday.

"Freedom is a powerful incentive, and I believe that someday freedom will prevail everywhere," he said. "Freedom is a powerful drive for people, and it's the beginnings of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran, which I think is positive."

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