TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) - Hundreds of Iranian hardline Islamic vigilantes, police and pro-democracy youths fought sporadic street battles near Tehran University Wednesday, the anniversary of violent 1999 student unrest.
A witness said police fired tear gas at groups of youths near the campus and also fought hand-to-hand with plainclothes Islamic militiamen to prevent them from engaging in further battles with the pro-democracy youths.
"The atmosphere is very tense, the smell of tear gas is thick in the air. Police have clashed with youths, the youths have fought with Basijis (militiamen) and I saw police fighting Basijis trying to get closer to the university," the witness said.
Authorities had banned gatherings and closed campuses in the expectation of possible unrest to mark the day four years ago when hardline vigilantes attacked a Tehran University dormitory, killing one person and sparking five days of mass protests.
The Basij militiamen, identifiable only by their trademark beards, clubs and untucked shirts, are fiercely loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's most powerful figure.
They are outside the control of moderate President Mohammad Khatami who indirectly supervises the civilian police through the Interior Ministry and the National Security Council he heads.
Hundreds of riot police reinforcements later poured in to take control of the area, dispersing crowds and chasing youths into side streets and beating them with batons.
Police appeared to have a firmer grip on security than during last month's unrest, when at times they stood by and watched as vigilantes beat protesters with chains, cables and clubs and roared around on motorcycles attacking protesters at will.
But cars still clogged the downtown area into the night with drivers beeping horns when Basij or police were not looking.   
Many ordinary Iranians have lost patience with Khatami's failure to advance reforms in the face of hardline opposition and are weary of high unemployment and strict Islamic laws.
But analysts point out previous protests have always fizzled out following tough crackdowns, and the number of people prepared to protest in the streets remains relatively small.
Police arrested some 4,000 people during 10 nights of sometimes violent protests across the country in June.
Though dwarfed by official marches, the June protests went a step beyond previous pro-reform demonstrations with chants condemning Khamenei and Khatami alike.
The United States strongly supported the demonstrations. Tehran has accused Washington of blatant interference in its affairs.
At one point Wednesday, a group of armed Islamic vigilantes pushed aside police to seize three reformist student leaders after they held a news conference to announce the cancellation of planned protests.
"We cannot call it arrest, it was a kidnapping," Matin Meshkini, a student leader, told Reuters.
Eight senior members of Iran's largest pro-reform student organization were seized by unidentified assailants before Wednesday and their whereabouts are still unknown, another student leader said.
Khatami's younger brother, the head of Iran's largest reform party, urged the president to prevent torture of political prisoners and accused shadowy organizations of making arrests and operating in parallel to the normal security apparatus.     07/09/03 17:25 ET