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US says Iran protest death toll may surpass 1,000

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Washington (AFP)

The United States said Thursday that Iranian authorities may have killed more than 1,000 people in a crackdown on demonstrations, which Washington cast as the clerical regime's worst-ever internal challenge.

The damning account came as the US put new pressure on its arch-enemy by not ruling out sending more forces to the region.

"It appears the regime could have murdered over 1,000 Iranian citizens since the protests began," Brian Hook, the US pointman on Iran, told reporters.

He acknowledged that information was difficult to verify in Iran, which has severely curtailed the internet, but said: "We know for certain it is many, many hundreds."

Hook said that "many thousands" of Iranians have been wounded and that at least 7,000 protesters have been detained.

President Donald Trump, receiving UN diplomats at the White House, called the crackdown "brutal" and a "horrible situation" as he vowed to respond "strongly" to any threat from Iran to US interests.

Protests broke out on November 15 in Iran, whose economy has suffered under sweeping sanctions from the United States, after the government abruptly hiked fuel prices.

Hook said the ensuing crackdown showed that the regime has had to rely on brute force and was losing support even with its traditional working-class base.

"This is the worst political crisis the regime has faced and its 40 years," Hook said.

- Supreme leader softens stance -

The death toll is sharply higher than the figure of 208 dead given by Amnesty International, which said it was cautious due to difficulties in verifying information.

Iran has dismissed the high death tolls as "utter lies" and confirmed only five dead -- four security force personnel killed by "rioters" and one civilian.

But in a softening of stance that indicates a need to address grievances, Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that people killed in the violence would be considered "martyrs" as long as they did not foment the unrest.

Hook said the US was basing its toll in part on photos and videos sent by 32,000 people after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invited Iranians to defy internet restrictions.

Hook said videos sent from Mahshahr, a southwestern city home to many from Iran's Arab minority, showed the elite Revolutionary Guards chasing protesters into marshlands with machine-guns mounted on trucks.

"They then spray the protesters with bullets. Between the rounds of machine-gun fire, the screams of the victims can be hurt," Hook said, charging that as many as 100 people were killed there alone.

- US considers more troops -

Hook demanded the release of prisoners and further diplomatic isolation of Iran, while a senior Pentagon official did not rule out sending more forces to the region to counter Iran's regional role.

"We're continuing to look at that threat picture and have the ability to dynamically adjust our force posture," John Rood, the Pentagon's policy chief, told a Senate hearing.

But Rood denied a Wall Street Journal report that Trump was considering sending another 14,000 troops to the region -- equal to the number already deployed over the past six months as tensions rose with Iran.

Trump, who has close ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel, has tried to block all Iranian oil exports after withdrawing last year from a denuclearization deal, vowing to reduce Iran's clout in around the Middle East.

Hook said that a US warship on November 25 seized a major shipment of Iranian-made weapons bound for Yemen's Huthi rebels including anti-tank and air-defense missiles.

Britain, France and Germany, which still back the nuclear deal, in a joint letter to the United Nations also accused Iran of developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the allegation a "desperate falsehood" and accused the Europeans of "bowing to US bullying."

Hook voiced pride that the protesters have targeted Iran's "corrupt religious mafia" and not the United States and its sanctions.

Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, in an interview with France 24 backed Western efforts to weaken the regime but criticized economic sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians.

Iranians across ideological lines have also widely criticized Trump for imposing a ban on most Iranians from traveling to the United States.

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