TEHRAN, Iran — The Iranian government stepped up its crackdown on supporters of presidential challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi on Sunday as violent protests continued for a second day over the disputed result of Friday's presidential election.
The government took steps to prevent widespread reporting of the protests, which were triggered by the government's declaration Saturday that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been re-elected by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin — despite a record-breaking turnout many analysts had expected to favor Mousavi.
The Dubai-based Arabic language satellite news channel al Arabiya, which can be viewed in Iran, reported that authorities ordered its bureau here closed for a week, and access to the social networking site Facebook remained blocked. Text messaging, a major means of communication here, continued to be unavailable.
Mousavi backers assembled in small bands throughout the day, some setting fires in the street. Police and militia forces, swinging batons, waded into the groups to disperse them, only to have them reassemble elsewhere. Near a hospital downtown, some protesters wore masks to protect against tear gas. Passing cars honked their horns in solidarity.
Never miss a local story.
There was no word on casualties or deaths but gunfire could be heard beginning around 10 p.m. local time from the vicinity of Vanak Square, where angry Mousavi supporters had clashed earlier with police, militia and Almadinejad supporters.
Speaking at a two-hour news conference, Ahmadinejad dismissed the protests as "not important" and compared the situation to a soccer match.
The whereabouts of Mousavi and other opposition leaders remained a mystery.
Mousavi issued a statement calling for Iran's 12-member Guardian Council, which oversees elections, to nullify the vote, according to news reports. He urged his supporters to continue peaceful protests.
Mousavi, however, hasn't been seen in public since Friday, and his supporters said they worried he may be under some form of house arrest. Other reformist politicians were reported to have been rounded up.
Ahmadinejad, asked specifically about Mousavi, did not explicitly guarantee his safety. "There is rule of law in this country, and all the people are equal before the law," he said.
Mousavi's refusal to bow to authorities could keep his passionate youthful supporters out on the streets. But there were few expectations that the demonstrators would force a reassessment of the election or shake the hold of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei.
"At the elite level, Iran could become less governable," Cliff Kupchan of the private Eurasia Group wrote in an assessment. Khamanei, who holds most important levers of power, probably would emerge from the election even stronger, Kupchan said, predicting a crackdown on limited social freedoms within the country.
Skeptics continued to assail the government's declaration that Ahmadinejad had won with 62 percent of the vote — more than 24 million ballots. The government said Mousavi received 13 million votes and two other candidates, reformist cleric Mahdi Karroubi and former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaie, received less than a million votes each.
Mousavi advisors and supporters called the reported results preposterous, given the challenger's strong support in Tehran, a city of more than 12 million, and in Azerbaijan province, his home area. They also cited the fact that Ahmadinejad's reported vote far exceeded his tally when he was first elected president in 2005.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, said there were "an awful lot of questions about how this election was run," but he stopped short of calling the vote a fraud.
"We are waiting to see. We do not have enough firm facts to make a judgment," he said.
Ahmadinejad, dressed in his trademark white jacket, told a news conference at his presidential offices that the election "showcases a new model of democracy."
"No one has even provided any document or evidence about the nature of the elections. .. Of course, they face unexpected results," he said of the opposition. Repeating what has become a standard government talking point, he said that foreign governments and news media were encouraging the protests.
Ahmadinejad flexed his own considerable political muscle Sunday, speaking to a diverse crowd of tens of thousands of supporters who waved the Iranian flag and chanted "Mousavi, you are a liar!" and "Ahmadi, Ahmadi, we support you!"
The crowd filled Vali Asr Square and backed up into nearby streets.
"Now Mr. Ahmadinejad is our president. We should support him," said Fatima Farookh, as she sat on a railing with family members a little away from the main crowd. She acknowledged there were real political divisions evident among Iranians, but added: "The foreigners just put oil on the fire."
Not far away, and just down a side street, a group of four youths who supported Mousavi sat glumly.
"I think our society, our country is at a very critical time," said one young man, who carried a rolled up poster of Ahmadinejad ready to display as a bit of personal protection. "I'm really disappointed. I can't tell you how I feel."
After he talked for several minutes with a McClatchy reporter, a half-dozen security agents, some bearing truncheons and others in plain clothes, approached and broke up the discussion.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy's national security reporting at Nukes & Spooks.