TEHRAN, Iran - A backstage struggle among Iran's ruling clerics burst into the open yesterday as the government arrested the daughter and other relatives of an ayatollah who is one of the nation's most powerful men.
State media said former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's daughter and the four others were arrested and later released. The arrests appeared to be a warning from the hard-line establishment to a cleric seen as aligned with the opposition.
Tehran's streets fell mostly quiet for the first time since the bitterly disputed June 12 presidential election, but cries of "God is great!" echoed again from rooftops after dark, a sign of seething anger at a crackdown that peaked with at least 10 protesters' deaths Saturday.
The killings drove the official death toll to at least 17 after a week of massive street demonstrations by protesters who say hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole his reelection win. But searing images posted online - including video purporting to show the fatal shooting of a young woman - hinted that the true toll may be higher.
Police and the feared Basij militia swarmed the streets of Tehran to prevent more protests, and the government intensified a crackdown on independent media - expelling a BBC correspondent, suspending the Dubai-based network Al-Arabiya, and detaining at least two local journalists for U.S. magazines.
English-language state television vilified the opposition by attributing the street violence to an exile group and to British-controlled agents.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who maintains he was cheated of victory over Ahmadinejad, argued in a posting on his banned newspaper's Web site that Iranians have the right to protest fraud.
"The heartrending news of the martyrdom of yet another group of protesters to the recent fraud in the elections put our nation in shock and sorrow," Mousavi wrote in the statement.
"Shooting at the people, militarizing the city, scaring the people, provoking them, and displaying power are all the result of the unlawfulness we're witnessing today," Mousavi wrote. "How surprising it is that the people who instigate all this, accuse others of these very events."
Another statement on one of his campaign Web sites denied news reports that the former prime minister had said he was ready for "martyrdom."
Mousavi made no public appearance yesterday, and some analysts in Tehran were concerned that a campaign by official media that featured at least one militia leader and a law professor questioning the legality of Mousavi's actions was preparing the ground for his arrest.
The 1979 Islamic revolution installed a system in which Iran's elected officials are constrained by Shiite clerics with ultimate authority. Mousavi is a veteran of the revolution, but his chances of success within the system would be far higher if he has backers among those clerics.
In the clearest sign yet of a splintering among the ayatollahs, state media announced the arrests of Rafsanjani's relatives, including his daughter, Faezeh, a 46-year-old reformist politician vilified by hard-liners for backing Mousavi.
State media said Rafsanjani's relatives were arrested for their own protection.
"By going after family members, they have sent a warning as to the stakes involved and the price to be paid if Rafsanjani refuses to be quiescent," said Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst with the Century Foundation in New York.
Rafsanjani heads the cleric-run Assembly of Experts, which can remove the supreme leader, the country's most powerful figure.
Rafsanjani and his family have been accused of corruption by Ahmadinejad. The 75-year-old ayatollah was conspicuously absent Friday from an address by the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, siding with Ahmadinejad. Rafsanjani has made no public comment since the election.
The Assembly of Experts has never reprimanded Khamenei since he succeeded Islamic revolution founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. But this crisis has shaken his once-untouchable status.
Protesters have defied his orders to leave the streets, and witnesses said some shouted "Death to Khamenei!" on Saturday.
The images posted online and others flooding out from Iran in recent days could not immediately be independently verified because of government restrictions on foreign media, which were banned from reporting on Tehran's streets.
Ahmadinejad criticized British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and President Obama, who on Saturday urged Iranian authorities to halt "all violent and unjust actions against its own people."
"With that behavior you will not be among Iran's friends," Ahmadinejad said, in a potentially ominous sign for Obama's recent efforts to warm relations with Iran and persuade it to end its suspected nuclear-weapons program.
Videos posted on YouTube and Facebook after street battles Saturday in Tehran showed a particularly tragic scene yesterday - a young woman with blood pouring from her nose and mouth as people around her, shouting in Farsi, frantically tried to help.
The YouTube video described the location as being in central Tehran and said the woman, identified on the video as "Neda," had been fatally shot.
The images began to appear around the world, including at protests by Iranian Americans in Los Angeles. The AP noted the existence of the videos but could not verify the location or date of the incident. Iranian authorities have clamped down on media coverage of the protests, including by arresting journalists.
The AP conducted phone interviews and exchanged e-mails with protesters who witnessed Saturday's clashes, but none of those interviewed had witnessed the scene shown on the Web sites.
- Associated Press