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Bush fuel to Iran fire

Tehran, June 15 (Reuters): Iran’s normally feuding officials closed ranks today to criticise the US for backing five nights of pro-democracy protests by thousands in Tehran.

There were reports of smaller demonstrations in at least three other cities, a sign the momentum of the protests, which Washington hailed as a cry for freedom, may be gathering pace.

“This is the beginning of people expressing themselves toward a free Iran which I think is positive,” President George W. Bush said during a weekend break at Kennebunkport on the US Atlantic coast.

Iran’s foreign ministry accused the US of “flagrant interference in Iran’s internal affairs” and said US officials were overstating the significance of the events.

“The Americans ignore the presence of millions of people to welcome the supreme leader and president, but they call the protests of a few individuals the voice of the people,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza Asefi said in a statement.

Sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran’s clerical establishment is unnerved by mounting US pressure since the end of the war in Iraq. Washington accuses Iran of seeking nuclear arms, sponsoring terrorism and fomenting unrest in Iraq.

Iran’s reformist government headed by moderate President Mohammad Khatami and his allies who control parliament have been locked in a six-year largely losing battle with unelected conservative clerics who control the key elements of power.

While venting most of their anger at the clerical appointees, protesters also lambasted Khatami, accusing him of failing to deliver reform after six years in office.

In an unprecedented critique of Iran’s clerical rulers, more than 250 prominent intellectuals wrote an open letter on today accusing the clergy of setting themselves in the place of God.

“Occupying or appointing someone to a position of divine and absolute power is clear polytheism and an obvious oppression of humanity,” said the letter.

Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution instituted a political system headed by a supreme leader who deputises during the absence of the 12th Imam who Shias believe has been in hiding since the ninth century and will one day reappear to bring in an era of peace and justice.

The White House yesterday voiced concern over the violent suppression of the protests by hardline Islamic vigilantes brandishing clubs and chains.

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