ABC's Jim Sciutto: Major Protests Erupt in Iran

ABC's Senior Foreign Correspondent Jim Sciutto reports:

It had been weeks since anti-government protesters gathered in large numbers in Iran. Today, they were out again not just in the capital Tehran but in several large cities. Eyewitnesses reached by telephone in Tehran say opposition supporters turned what is traditionally a day to protest oppression around the world (namely Palestine) into a protest against oppression at home. Mixing among the crowds who came out for the officially-sanctioned marches, protesters shouted the names of opposition leaders Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi and turned the official slogans on their head. When the imam at Friday prayers called for ‘Death to Israel’, the protesters shouted ‘Death to Russia’ instead (a jibe at Russia for supporting the Iranian regime). When the imam talked about Gaza or Lebanon, protesters replied ‘Not Gaza, not Lebanon, what about Iran?’

“I saw something today that I hadn’t seen before: the unity of the people,” one protester told ABC News by telephone from Tehran.

Because of the severity of the crackdown in recent weeks -- the beatings, killings, arrests and show trials -- opposition supporters were not expecting anything like today’s turnout. But today’s show of defiance fits with what opposition leaders had recommended: which is for their supporters to take advantage of the many national holidays when marches are allowed, such as today, and transform them into opposition rallies.

Government militia appeared to be largely outnumbered at first. One witness said she saw the crowd converge on a member of the basij militia and beat him up. But as the pro-government supporters among the crowd went home, the clashes started -- basij attacking the crowd and the crowd throwing rocks and burning garbage.

What does this mean for the opposition?

“It gives us more hope for future demonstrations,” one protester told me by telephone. “I think the regime is getting more afraid and we are getting less scared.”

One of the most repeated chants today: “Tanks, rape and torture have no effect anymore.”

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