DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran has arrested a number of people suspected of throwing acid at women deemed to be wearing Islamic headcovering improperly, authorities said on Monday, following a series of attacks in Isfahan that have caused widespread anger.
Morteza Mir Bagheri, deputy interior minister for social affairs, said "three or four" suspects were held in connection with the incidents in Iran's third largest city, which have been condemned by religious clerics as well as ordinary people.
Hossein Ashtari, a police commander in Isfahan, confirmed at least four attacks, according to the official Jaam-e-Jam website, but unofficial reports put the number at up to 11.
Ashtari was reported as saying he suspected that the culprits were likely to be "mentally unstable".
Pictures of the victims carried on official state news agency IRNA showed women covered in bandages lying on hospital beds.
In a description of one of the assaults, IRNA said a 28-year-old woman suddenly lost control of her car, which came to a halt in the middle of a junction.
"Everyone was shocked when they saw the young girl screaming 'I'm burned, I'm burned'," it said.
A witness said they saw the woman get out of her car and take off her headscarf. "The level of acid used was so much that all her clothes were in the processes of melting and I saw the acid create white spots on the asphalt," IRNA reported.
The Interior Ministry and the local government in Isfahan have said they are investigating the matter.
Isfahan's Friday prayer leader, hardliner Mohammad Taghi Rahbar was reported by IRNA on Monday as saying such types of assault "don't exist in any law and don't have any religious backing. The goals of these people is to give religion a bad name."
"No matter whatever excuse is given, even if a woman comes out in the worst possible form, this type of action is not justified. No one has the right to do this type of thing," Rahbar added.
Spurred on by clerical hardliners, Iran’s conservative-controlled parliament has been trying over the past few months to pass a law to provide legal protection to Islamic vigilantes trying to enforce Islamic law in Iran, including strict observance of the Islamic dress code for women.
But opposition from moderates allied to President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist elected last year, has triggered intense debate on the issue and slowed down the pace of the legislature.
"We don't need a new law to enforce virtue," Bagheri said, adding that the proposed law needed changes. He did not elaborate.
Isfahan, with a population of more than 1.5 million people is a popular tourist destination due to its many historic sites. Though the attacks have instilled fear in some women in the city, women remain defiant.
"I'm not afraid," Samira, a 30-year-old gym instructor from Esfahan told Reuters. "I won't change how I dress because we must fight against this strain of thought."
(The story is refiled to fix typo in pagagraph 13)
Additional reporting by Mehrdad Balali in Dubai; Editing by William Maclean and Alison Williams