Iran mourning ceremony called off as pressure mounts

A ceremony to mourn protesters slain in Iran's post-election turmoil was called off as the regime clamped down hard on the opposition, vowing not to back down over the disputed vote, reported AFP.

But a leading dissident cleric issued a blunt warning to the nation's Islamic rulers that continued suppression of opposition protests would destabilise the government.

Mehdi Karroubi, a reformist parliament speaker who came a distant fourth in the June 12 presidential vote, cancelled the mourning ceremony as he was unable to find a site but plans to hold it next week, his party website said.

His decision came after a large force of riot police and Islamist Basij militiamen stopped a crowd of several hundred people trying to assemble outside parliament on Wedesday, according to a witness.

Another witness reported seeing police charge at passers-by, who dispersed into nearby streets, with some reports of shots being heard.

Iran's rulers have stepped up the pressure on the opposition, with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisting he would not back down over the disputed vote and security forces moving swiftly to stop public protests.

Iran's interior ministry has banned all gatherings by opposition groups, which have staged sometimes massive protests in Tehran over what they say were rigged results of the election that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.

At least 17 people have been killed in the post-election violence, state media reports say, but the foreign media is banned from the streets under tight new restrictions imposed in the aftermath of the election.

But top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, once tipped as a possible successor to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, warned the government over its crackdown and called for an "impartial" committee to be set up to resolve the crisis.

"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," he said in a statement faxed to AFP.

World leaders have voiced increasing alarm over the situation in Iran, facing the worst unrest since the 1979 revolution brought an Islamic regime to power in one of the world's top oil exporters.

In the latest diplomatic snub, the United States said it would no longer issue invitations for Iranian diplomats to attend July 4 Independence Day parties at US embassies, following the violent suppression of protests.

Iran has accused the United States and its close ally Britain in particular of stoking trouble, with Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki announcing on Wednesday that Tehran may downgrade ties with London, reported AFP.

The two governments have already expelled diplomats in a tit-for-tat move, while a number of other European nations have hauled in Iranian envoys to protest at the election and crackdown on protestors.

Khamenei, grappling with an unprecedented challenge to his 20-year rule, warned on Wednesday the regime would not tolerate dissent.

"In the recent incidents concerning the election, I have been insisting on the implementation of the law and I will be (insisting). Neither the system, nor the people will back down under force," he said.

Iran has refused to overturn the results of the poll but Khamenei has extended by five days a Wednesday deadline to examine vote complaints.

The Revolutionary Guards, the elite force set up to protect the Islamic republic, has already warned of a "decisive and revolutionary" riposte to any further protests.

The authorities have also intensified a crackdown on opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi with the arrest of 25 staff at his newspaper and vitriolic attacks from the hardline press.

Mousavi, who lost heavily to Ahmadinejad despite mounting a high-profile campaign that some observers said could lead to a second-round runoff, has urged supporters to continue protesting but to show restraint to avoid bloodshed.

In the latest backlash against the West, Iran's interior minister also took aim at the United States, saying rioters were being funded by the CIA and the exiled opposition group the People's Mujahedeen.

The authorities have expelled the BBC correspondent in Tehran and arrested two foreign reporters working for the US media.

Many hundreds of protesters, prominent reformists and journalists have been rounded up by the authorities, including some people close to top regime officials such as former president Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Another defeated candidate, former Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai, has withdrawn his protest about election irregularities, in a blow to the opposition.

Despite the restrictions of the foreign media, images of police brutality have spread worldwide via amateur video over the Internet.

US President Barack Obama, who has called for dialogue with Iran after three decades of severed ties, said on Tuesday there were "significant questions about the legitimacy" of the poll but insisted Washington was not interfering.

Hans-Gert Poettering, president of the European parliament, said he hopes to lead a delegation of European deputies to Iran to study an election which appears to be "a massive fraud."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a visit to France, reiterated his call for action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

"What we need is a change in Iran, a change of policies, for moderation, for freedom and for peace."

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