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Iranians begin rallies marking 1979 revolution

TEHRAN, Iran — Hundreds of thousands of pro-government demonstrators gathered in one of Tehran's main squares to mark the 31st anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution as Internet speeds dropped dramatically around the capital in government efforts to foil counter-demonstrations.

State television showed images of thousands upon thousands carrying often identical banners marching along the city's broad avenues toward the central Azadi, or freedom square, to attend a speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In Azadi Square itself, massive crowds waved Iranian flags and carried pictures of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic state, and his successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The opposition has vowed to stage counter demonstrations, but eyewitnesses say police have deployed hundreds of forces in central Tehran to confront them.

Iranian authorities again tried to squeeze off text messaging and Web links in attempts to cripple protest organizers. Internet service was sharply slowed, mobile phone service widely cut and there were repeated disruptions in popular instant messaging services such as Google chat.

But several Iranians reached by The Associated Press said some messenger services, including Yahoo!, and mobile phone texting were still sporadically accessible. Many internet users said they could not login in their Gmail account since last week.

"We have heard from users in Iran that they are having trouble accessing Gmail," said Jill Hazelbaker, spokeswoman for Google. "We can confirm a sharp drop in traffic and we have looked at our own networks and found that they are working properly."

Opposition Web sites reported that protesters have gathered in several places in Tehran to display green banners, but there were no immediate reports of clashes or attempts by security forces to disperse the crowds. The reports could not be independently verified.

Opposition members went on roof tops late Wednesday and shouted Allah-u-Akbar ("God is greatest") in protest — echoing similar cries after the disputed June election as well as anti-shah protests more than three decades ago.

Since the election that brought President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, opposition protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets.

Iranian authorities are desperate to show the upper hand on the most important day of the nation's political calendar. But the high-profile events — including a huge gathering in Tehran's Azadi Square and other places across Iran — offers a chance for opposition groups to make another powerful statement of their resolve.

Anti-government Web sites and blogs have called for a major turnout and urged marches to display green emblems or clothes — the color adopted by the anti-government movement since June's disputed presidential election.

The opposition leaders have promised to join street rallies, including the Green movement founder and former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Iranian officials, however, have warned that any protests will be immediately crushed by security forces. At least eight people were killed in clashes during the last major opposition marches in late December.

In recent months, the opposition has built its street protest strategy around days of important political or religious significance in attempts to embarrass authorities. The tone of the rallies, however, has shifted from outrage over alleged fraud in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election to wider calls against the entire Islamic system, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The last large-scale marches — held to coincide with a Shiite holy day in late December — brought the most violent battles with security riots since shortly after the June 12 election.