Thousands of Iranians protest near university


TEHRAN, June 11 (Reuters) - Thousands of Iranians took to the streets in the early hours of Wednesday, chanting anti-government slogans in largely peaceful protests after police surrounded a Tehran student dormitory, witnesses said.

Uniformed and plain-clothes police officers with batons later moved to break up the protest, but there were no major clashes and witnesses said they saw only a handful of arrests.

But several motorcycles were torched and some shops' windows and a state bank were smashed as demonstrators dispersed.

Residents said a student protest over plans to privatise universities developed into a political demonstration by some 3,000 people who gathered upon hearing that police had surrounded the dormitory.

"Political prisoners must be freed," the crowd shouted in a square near Tehran University, the scene almost four years ago of the biggest pro-reform unrest since the 1979 revolution -- which was also led from the same campus.

Other chants were directed against Iran's clerical rulers. Residents said the chants were the most extreme since the unrest four years ago.

Many people said they had gathered after hearing calls by U.S.-based Iranian exile satellite television channels to go to the campus after the student protests on Tuesday.

But hundreds of police blocked their way and stood guard around dormitories where Tuesday's student protests took place. The witnesses said some protesters lit fires in the streets.

"I heard the students had gathered from television," said 46-year-old housewife Parvin. "I came here to send a message to (U.S. Secretary of State) Colin Powell that we want change."

The head of security at Tehran governor's office said more protests might be expected.

"As we come closer to the atmosphere of July 9, (1999) these issues can be used as a pretext for the same thing to happen," the ISNA student news agency quoted Ali Taala as saying. "We will not allow that to happen."

FRUSTRATION AND DISCONTENT

Many in Iran have lost faith in moderate President Mohammad Khatami and his lack of progress in reforming the 24-year-old Islamic Republic in the face of strong conservative opponents in powerful positions within the state.

High unemployment and frustration with Iran's strict Islamic laws have fed discontent among the overwhelmingly youthful population, around 70 percent of which is under 30 and has little memory of life before the revolution.

Analysts say the reformers have been further weakened by a resurgent hardline faction which is determined not to loosen its grip on power now that U.S. troops are on both the eastern and western borders of Iran, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite the reformers' overwhelming victories in presidential and parliamentary polls since Khatami came to office in 1997, most of their efforts to institute change have been blocked by conservatives appointed as political watchdogs.

Iran saw its biggest pro-reform protests in three years last year after academic dissident Hashem Aghajari was sentenced to death for blasphemy. The verdict was later overturned.

The initial court verdict in November sparked almost two months of protests as thousands of students boycotted classes and staged rallies, insisting Aghajari's trial and sentencing highlighted political repression and a lack of free speech.

The largely peaceful protests turned violent at times. Hundreds were arrested by baton-wielding police, and Basij militiamen attacked rallies.

Dozens of pro-reform intellectuals, journalists and student leaders have been jailed as part of a conservative crackdown that followed the student protests in 1999.