Mousavi blames organisers of 'rigged' Iranian poll for bloodshed during street protests

• Senior cleric urges neutral committee to resolve crisis
• Women singled out for attacks by security forces

Iran's embattled opposition leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, today kept up the pressure on the government and blamed those behind the "rigged" presidential election for the bloodshed during two weeks of mass street protests.

Mousavi's statement on his website came during a day of relative quiet, attributed in part to the fact that more than 1 million students were sitting their final exams. There was also confusion over whether calls for a day of mourning for the 17 known victims of the protests had been cancelled or ignored. State media reported that eight members of the pro-government Basij militia had been killed.

"I am not ready to stop demanding the rights of the Iranian people," Mousavi said – another direct challenge to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ruled out any concessions to those who believe their vote was "stolen" and handed to the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei also faced a stark warning from another senior cleric and onetime rival, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri. "If Iranians cannot talk about their legitimate rights at peaceful gatherings and are instead suppressed, complexities will build up which could possibly uproot the foundations of the government, no matter how powerful," Montazeri said. He called for an impartial committee to be set up to resolve the Islamic Republic's worst crisis since the 1979 revolution.

Reinforcing the hardline message from the regime, Ahmadinejad lashed out at Barack Obama after the US president said on Tuesday that he was "appalled and outraged" by Iran's post-election crackdown.

"Mr Obama made a mistake in saying those things … our question is why he fell into this trap and said things that previously [former president George] Bush used to say," the semi-official Fars News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.

While the US and the UK have criticised Iran's crackdown on the opposition, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said at a G8 foreign ministers' meeting in Italy that no one was willing to condemn Iran over its disputed presidential election, which he called "an exercise in democracy".

As the crisis continues, it appears that women demonstrators are being singled out and subjected to brutal attacks by heavily-armed Iranian security forces. While there are no authoritative figures for the number of women killed or hurt, anecdotal evidence suggests they have been targeted for especially rough treatment.

The approach mirrors the regime's uncompromising attitude to women's rights campaigners, many of whom have been arrested or jailed for promoting gender equality through movements such as the One Million Signature campaign.

The vulnerability of women protesters came to attention after last weekend's shooting of Neda Soltan, who has become a symbol of the demonstrations since graphic film of her dying moments was beamed around the world after she was shot in Tehran's Karegar Street. Soltan, 26, appeared to have been deliberately picked out among a crowd of people.

Two women are believed to have been among at least five students killed after security forces raided Tehran University halls of residence last week. Some reports suggest that another young woman was shot dead at a gathering outside parliament in Tehran's Baharestan square on Wednesday.

The sight of female protesters, many dressed in clothes that give them the appearance of affluent liberated women by Iran's standards, may be a provocation to zealous agents, most of whom adhere to the regime's traditional view on gender roles. The supreme leader is believed to equate the demand for women's equality with a western-backed "velvet revolution".

Women have also become symbolic of the relatively liberal values represented by Mousavi's campaign, thanks to the prominent role played by his wife, Zahra Rahnavard. Mousavi had pledged if elected to get rid of the country's hated morality police, who, among other things, monitor women's dress.


Robert Tait and Ian Black

The GuardianTramp

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