(Recasts, adds police minister quotes; details)
By Jalil Hamid
KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Police in the Malaysian capital used water cannon and fired tear gas on Saturday to disperse protesters in one of the nation’s biggest anti-government rallies in nearly a decade.
Police arrested at least a dozen people as tens of thousands of protesters, led by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, marched in heavy rains to the King’s palace to demand changes to the country’s electoral system.
Hundreds of policemen, including riot police with shields and batons, guarded Kuala Lumpur’s landmark Merdeka (Freedom) Square, the main mosque and the National Palace to foil the rally.
Police sprayed water cannon twice to disperse a crowd of about 500 protesters chanting slogans outside a historic domed mosque guarded by about 50 riot police, as helicopters hovered overhead.
Nearby, more than 2,000 protesters, chiefly teenagers wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Bersih", or "Clean" in Malay, marched in heavy rain towards the city’s colonial-era railway station.
They chanted "Allahu akbar" (God is greatest) and "Reformasi", a reform demand that was the war chant of 1998 opposition protests, while waving banners reading "Save Malaysia" and "Election Commission, stop your tricks".
Groups of demonstrators later converged on the palace of Malaysia’s king, where opposition leaders handed over a list of election reform demands.
The opposition said it would organise bigger rallies if its demands were not met.
Police minister Johari Baharum said the crowd numbered less than 10,000, but organisers put the figure at more than 30,000.
"I’m happy that the police managed to control the crowd. But they shouldn’t do it again," Johari told Reuters. "We will come down hard on them."
Anwar said he was happy with the turnout despite the government’s condemnation of the protest.
"I think this is a major success in the expression of public sentiment against fraudulent practices in the elections," Anwar told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"We will have to persist in this campaign to send a message to the government that people are tired of this kind of fraud."
Anwar was speaking after he and several opposition colleagues, including Hadi Awang of the hardline Islamist Parti Islam-se Malaysia and Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party, submitted their list to a representative of the ruler.
"THE PEOPLE’S RIGHT"
Mohamadiah Sohod, 33, a government worker from southern Johor state, said he was upset because police had refused to issue a permit for the rally. "This is the people’s right, to assemble and air their grievances," he added.
Police effectively shut down the city centre, throwing up barricades on main roads to halt cars and turn away protesters, although crowds dispersed peacefully after the protest ended.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said on Friday the government would not tolerate street demonstrations. "They are challenging the patience of the people who want the country to be peaceful and stable," he said.
Previous protests of similar scale were anti-government rallies led by Anwar in 1998 before his arrest and jailing.
The rally was organised by Bersih, a loose coalition of 26 opposition parties and non-government groups that is pushing for reforms to an electoral process it says favours the ruling coalition.
Abdullah won a record victory in a 2004 election, and is widely expected to call snap polls in early 2008.
Two people were seriously injured in September when police opened fire to disperse rioters at a Bersih rally in the northeastern state of Terengganu. (Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Jahabar Sadiq; Writing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by xxxx xxxx)