TEHRAN, Iran — A senior cleric aligned with Iran's hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called Friday for leaders of the mass protests over the country's disputed presidential election to be dealt with "mercilessly" and treated as enemies of God, a transgression meriting death.
Ayatollah Ahmed Khatami's nationally televised sermon signaled a possible intensification of a regime crackdown that's used force, censorship and unknown numbers of arrests to clamp a lid for now on Iran's bloodiest political turmoil in 30 years.
There was speculation that the denunciation of protest leaders was aimed at setting the stage for the prosecution of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the second-place finisher, whose charge of fraud in Ahmadinejad's unexpected landslide re-election June 12 has fueled nearly two weeks of rallies by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of angry Iranians.
"Anarchy, destruction, setting mosques on fire and damaging public property, terror and harassing people is against the law, and it's the responsibility of the Islamic leader to fight the perpetrators until they perish completely," Khatami said in his sermon at Tehran University, a hotbed of anti-regime dissent.
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He said that, "Such people are called mohareb" — enemies of God — whose deaths are sanctioned under Islamic law.
"I ask the judicial system to treat the leaders of the recent anarchy, who are being led by the United States and Israel, mercilessly so that others may learn a lesson," Khatami declared.
In Washington, President Barack Obama conceded that the crisis would affect his diplomatic initiative to engage Iran in direct talks on its nuclear program and other issues. He also condemned anew the regime's iron-fisted treatment of protesters, and he ridiculed an Iranian demand that he apologize for his previous criticism.
Flanked by visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Obama said that the use of force against protesters was "outrageous. In spite of the government's efforts to keep the world from bearing witness to that violence, we see it and we condemn it."
The 12-member body of senior clerics who investigated the allegations of vote-rigging reiterated Friday that no evidence was found to substantiate the charges.
"The Guardian Council supervised the elections completely, and its polling agents were present in all the polling stations around the country," declared the panel's spokesman, Abasali Kadkhodayi. "In fact, no signs of rigging were ever seen in any of the elections in Iran, and the recent presidential election was one of the healthiest of all."
Mousavi indicated that while he'll continue to defy demands by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to accept Ahmadinejad's victory, he'll bow to the regime's pressure to end the demonstrations.
In a message posted late Thursday on his Web site, Kalameh.com, Mousavi announced that he'll apply for permits in the future, something he knows he has no chance of securing.
Press TV, the English-language service of state-run television, reported that one of Mousavi's top aides, Abolfazl Fateh, was prohibited from leaving the country for Britain, where he's completing a doctoral degree.
Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi, the fourth-place candidate, who also has accused the regime of electoral fraud, haven't been seen in public for days. With the opposition movement largely rudderless and unable to communicate, and huge numbers of security forces deployed, demonstrations have diminished.
Many analysts, however, think the crisis is far from over, but they said that it remained to be seen how opposition to Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would be expressed in the future.
They said that a behind-the-scenes power struggle was under way, pitting Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and other hard-liners against Mousavi's patrons, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who're more open to some domestic reforms.
State-run media have put the death toll in the protests at 27 demonstrators and eight members of the Basij, a hard-line militia whose brutal tactics against what began as peaceful rallies have been blamed for igniting the violence.
In his sermon, Khatami pressed a regime effort to discredit the opposition by accusing the United States, European countries and Israel of fomenting the unrest.
"In this unrest, Britons have behaved very mischievously, and it is fair to add the slogan of 'down with England' to the slogan of 'down with USA,' " he said.
In Trieste, Italy, the foreign ministers of the Group of Eight industrialized powers denounced the regime's use of violence against the protesters.
"We express our solidarity with those who have suffered repression while peacefully demonstrating and urge Iran to respect human rights, including freedom of expression," the G-8 ministers said.
(The McClatchy special correspondent's name is being withheld for reasons of personal security. Landay reported from Washington.)
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