Tens of thousands of hardliners poured into the streets in support of Iran's clerical rulers at state-sponsored rallies Wednesday, some chanting calls for the execution of opposition leaders as the country's internal strife turned more bitter.
Some wore white funeral shrouds to symbolize a willingness to die in defense of the ruling system. An ominous online threat in the name of a previously unknown group said suicide squads were ready to assassinate the opposition leaders should the judiciary fail to punish them within a week.
The display of popular support for the government and the stirring, violent rhetoric from the crowd appeared to be a genuine outpouring, though some supporters were bused in by the government. The rallies showed Iran's rulers could forcefully take back control of the streets after opposition demonstrations Sunday that triggered the worst bloodshed since the height of the unrest over the summer.
Iran's official news agency reported that the top two opposition leaders fled Tehran. But the son of one of the men, Mahdi Karroubi, disputed that report and told The Associated Press that Karroubi and the other leader, Mir Hossein Mousavi, were both at their homes in Tehran.
"The people who must escape are the ones whose hands are tainted with the blood of Iranian people," Taghi Karroubi said. "Unfortunately, the government news agency is spreading false news like the government itself."
Despite the pro-government outpouring, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a rare, candid acknowledgment that the country's Islamic rulers had lost some supporters since the disputed presidential election in June. Still, he put the blame squarely on the hands of the pro-reform opposition leaders.
"The reality in the society is that as some (supporters) dropped out, twice that number joined (us)," he said, according to the official IRNA news agency.
Wednesday's rallies drew tens of thousands of government supporters in Shiraz, Arak, Qom, Isfahan and Tehran, among other cities. Demonstrators in Tehran chanted "Death to Mousavi." Some shouted "Rioter hypocrites must be executed" and held up a banner that read: "We sacrifice our blood for the supreme leader."
The government gave all civil servants and employees a day off to attend rallies and organized buses to transport groups of schoolchildren and supporters from outlying rural areas to the protests.
Hardline cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda called opponents of the supreme leader cows and goats, and said they were supporters of Satan.
"Enemies of the leader, according to the Quran, belong to the party of Satan," Alamolhoda told demonstrators in Tehran in comments broadcast on state TV. "Our war in the world is war against the opponents of the rule of the supreme leader."
The Internet threat against the opposition leaders appeared on a blog in the name of an unknown group calling itself the Bright Shooting Star Suicide Bombers Brigade. It said a group of suicide attackers has been set up in the holy city of Qom, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the capital.
"We are giving judiciary officials just seven days to put an end to this sedition. After that, we will punish ... riot leaders anywhere and at any event," the group warned.
It was the clearest threat to kill Iran's opposition leaders to have emerged since the election. However, there was no way to verify whether the posting was in the name of a real group.
Police chief Gen. Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam warned opposition protesters to stay off the streets or face harsh consequences. At least eight people were killed in street violence Sunday, the country's worst unrest since the aftermath of the June 12 election.
"In dealing with previous protests, police showed leniency. But given that these opponents are seeking to topple (the ruling system), there will be no mercy," Moghaddam said, according to IRNA. "We will take severe action. The era of tolerance is over. Anyone attending such rallies will be crushed."
One of those killed Sunday was the nephew of Mousavi.
The opposition says Ali Mousavi was shot and killed by security forces. But Iran's deputy police chief, Ahmad Reza Radan, was quoted by IRNA as saying that the way he was killed suggests he was assassinated while walking by unidentified assailants. The New York Times has quoted a family friend as saying he was run over by a vehicle outside his home in an assassination.
Ali Mousavi was buried Wednesday in a hastily organized ceremony that was attended by the opposition leader and other family members. Authorities had taken his body from the hospital earlier in the week in what was seen as an attempt to prevent the funeral from turning into another pro-opposition protest.
Iranian authorities were questioned about a graphic video broadcast on the Internet purportedly from Sunday's demonstrations. It showed two white and green police pickup trucks plowing separately into a group of protesters.
One truck is first seen driving into the crowd, then reversing away from a body lying face down on the asphalt. The second truck then speeds up and runs over the body, lying in a pool of blood, as people nearby cry out. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
When asked about the video and whether police trucks intentionally ran over people, Moghaddam became enraged. "Don't ask lies," he said. "There are no pictures showing police cars running over people."
The deputy, Radan, said police have a video showing a black car running over two people during Sunday's violence. He said the owner of the car had been arrested and that the car had been stolen for that purpose. He didn't provided other details.
Associated Press Writer Eliane Engeler contributed to this report from Geneva.