TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's lackluster presidential election season erupted in violence yesterday, with five bombs killing at least seven people and Iranian police beating and arresting protesters at a women's rights demonstration in Tehran.
Four bombs exploded about 11 a.m. in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, killing at least six people and wounding 70, the provincial governor told state-run Iranian television. Iranian journalists based in Ahvaz put the figure at eight dead and 80 wounded.
The fifth blast occurred in Tehran about 9 p.m., killing one person and wounding four, according to state-run television and eyewitness accounts.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, the deadliest in the Islamic republic in more than a decade and a rarity since the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. Iranian television, which is controlled by Iran's conservative powerbrokers, accused the bombers of trying to disrupt Friday's presidential elections.
Iranian apathy over a flagging economy and a government in which unelected clerics wield the true power has made voter turnout a key issue for the dominant conservatives. They are keenly aware that the polls are being watched by the international community as a measurement of the popularity of the 26-year-old Islamic system of government.
Three of the bombs in Ahvaz exploded outside government buildings, including the governor's office, officials said.
Television footage showed shattered windows, pools of blood and mangled cars.
"Unfortunately, most of those killed were women and children," the governor of this oil-rich province on the Iraqi border told Iranian television.
The bomb in Tehran exploded in a trash can near a gas station at Imam Hussein Square in the city's center, said an Iranian journalist at the scene.
Yesterday afternoon, police clashed with protesters attempting to join a sit-in for women's rights outside Tehran University, beating them with batons and arresting at least one person. A group of nearly 200 demonstrators - most of them women - was allowed to continue the peaceful protest, whose organizers had not sought a government permit for fear the request would be rejected. Five Nobel laureates had signed a petition in favor of the women's efforts to amend Iran's constitution to afford equal rights.
Police scattered about 200 others who wanted to join the demonstration and parked buses in front of the protest to prevent passers-by along busy Revolution Boulevard from seeing it.
While Iranian authorities often beat and arrest people attending unauthorized demonstrations, violence is unusual this close to elections. Authorities have relaxed social and political restrictions during the official three-week campaign period, including Wednesday, when Iran's soccer victory over Bahrain sent hundreds of thousands of Iranian youths partying in the streets until dawn.
Women's and young people's issues have been staples of the campaigns of most of the eight presidential candidates. But women at yesterday's protest accused the candidates of simply trying to gain votes by mouthing slogans used by departing President Mohammad Khatami.
"It's just talk," said Farzaneh Taheri, widow of the famous liberal Iranian author Houshang Golshiri, and one of those able to join the sit-in. "We shouldn't expect them to do anything. We should do it ourselves."
Adding to women's ire is that the unelected Guardian Council, which vets candidates, barred the 89 women who sought to run for the presidency, saying that the Islamic-based constitution prevented it.
That argument is a chauvinistic interpretation, said Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident Iranian cleric and reform advocate who has been jailed by the Islamic government for his views.
"There is no religious obstacle," he said. "It's only traditional Iranian customs and traditional interpretations of Islam."