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Iran stages pro-government rallies, cleric urges firm punishment for protest leaders

The protests spread to more than 80 cities and rural towns, staged by thousands of young and working class Iranians angry about official corruption, unemployment and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

Tens of thousands of government supporters rallied across Iran on Friday, swearing allegiance to the clerical establishment and accusing arch enemy the United States of instigating the largest anti-government protests in nearly a decade, state TV reported.

Tehran’s Friday prayer leader called on authorities to deal “firmly” with those responsible for igniting over a week of illegal rallies, in which 22 people were killed and more than 1,000 people were arrested, according to Iranian officials.

“But those ordinary Iranians who were deceived by these American-backed rioters should be dealt based on Islamic clemency,” cleric Ahmad Khatami told worshippers at Tehran university, TV reported.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

Read: Russia warns US against interfering in Iran’s affairs

The anti-government rallies erupted on December 28 in Iran’s holy Shia city of Mashhad after the government announced plans to increase fuel prices and dismantle monthly cash handout to lower-income Iranians.

The protests spread to more than 80 cities and rural towns, staged by thousands of young and working class Iranians angry about official corruption, unemployment and a deepening gap between rich and poor.

The authorities have produced no evidence to support assertions of US involvement in the protests, which lacked a unifying leader.

Guards Quelled Unrest

Residents contacted by Reuters in various cities said the protests had shown sign of abating since Thursday, after the establishment intensified a crackdown on the protesters by dispatching Revolutionary Guards forces to several provinces.

Iran’s elite Guards and its affiliated Basij militia suppressed the country’s 2009 unrest over alleged election fraud, in which dozens of pro-reform Iranians were killed.

Iranian officials said the protests were the result of foreign instigation and mocked US President Donald Trump’s support of protesters against what he called a “brutal and corrupt” establishment.

Read: Protests strike a blow at Iran’s prestige

On Friday rallies, protesters chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, carrying pictures of Iran’s top authority Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and waved Iranian flags.

Television footage of rallies in several cities showed people chanting “We support Imam Khamenei … We will not leave him alone in his fight against enemies”.

“Demonstrators demand the punishment of those behind foreign-linked riots which insulted religion and our authorities,” state television reported, referring to the anti-government protests in which social media footage showed protesters tearing down pictures of Khamenei.

Khatami also called on the government to “pay more attention to people’s economic problems.”

Read: As protests rage in Iran, Trump’s Iran policy faces sanctions test

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