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Obama urges Iran stop 'violent and unjust actions'

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged the Iranian government on Saturday to “stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people” as protests continued in Iran against the alleged rigging of last week’s election.

“The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost,” Obama said in a statement.

“The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights,” he said.

Obama’s most forceful comments yet on the government crackdown in Iran came as opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi said he was “ready for martyrdom,” according to a Mousavi ally, in leading protests that have brought warnings of bloodshed from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Riot police were deployed in force in Tehran on Saturday, firing teargas and using batons and water cannon to disperse protesters, although the estimated crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 on the streets was much smaller than previous demonstrations.

White House officials said Obama, who again refrained from commenting directly on Iranian politics or on the fairness of the disputed election, had been receiving intelligence updates throughout the day on the situation in Iran and meeting with his senior advisers.

“We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people,” Obama said.

Obama has walked a fine line this week in his comments on the election, wanting to avoid be seen as “meddling” in Iranian politics but facing pressure from some Republicans to be a more forceful advocate for those protesting the election in which hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner by a landslide.

Since taking office in January, Obama has softened the tone of U.S. diplomacy toward Iran, seeking dialogue with the government with which Washington broke relations shortly after the Islamic revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran.

In recent years, Washington has accused Iran of supporting terrorism and seeking to nuclear weapons. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful, and that U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan create regional instability.

Earlier this week, Iran accused the United States of issuing “interventionist” statements on the election.

On Friday, Obama, commenting on the unrest, told CBS News that Washington must be careful not to become “a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States.”

“The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion,” Obama said in his Saturday statement.

Reporting by Doug Palmer; editing by Mohammad Zargham