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IRAN-ELECTION 06-10

Mudslinging intensifies as Iranian election nears

(PHOTOS, GRAPHIC) (HAS TRIMS)

By Warren P. Strobel

McClatchy Newspapers

(MCT)

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TEHRAN, Iran — Two days before voters go to the polls, opposition campaigns in Iran’s increasingly raucous presidential election campaign warned of vote-stealing, and decades-old political rivals slung more mud at one another.

At a massive rally in western Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused his rivals — chiefly former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi — of exaggerating the country’s economic woes and said his enemies were trying to take revenge for his election four years ago.

"Their problem and target is not Ahmadinejad; rather, they want to take revenge on the nation because the Iranian nation’s sin was its new choice in the former elections, thus ... saying a big ’no’ to arrogant and corrupt individuals," Ahmadinejad told the crowd, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Politicking is banned after Wednesday night, and all four candidates used the last full day of campaigning to make appeals to an electorate far more energized and polarized than in 2005.

Ahmadinejad, who wields the powers of incumbency but seems embattled at times, in a televised debate last week accused other politicians of financial corruption. Among them was former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of Iran’s most powerful — and perhaps wealthiest — men.

Rafsanjani responded Tuesday with an extraordinary public letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, that appeared to criticize Khamanei — who’s normally above public reproach — for not intervening.

Ahmadinejad demanded television time to answer opponents’ charges against him, and late Wednesday he got it.

News reports said that Ahmadinejad would have nearly 20 minutes of airtime on state-run television, while rivals Mousavi, former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi and former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaie would each get about a minute to respond to accusations at debates made when they weren’t present. The candidates debated in pairs.

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The election’s outcome could affect economic policy in Iran and social restrictions here. But it’s unlikely to have a major impact on relations with the U.S. or Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, which are under supreme leader Khamanei’s purview.

All the same, Friday’s contest has electrified many Iranians. Mousavi is mounting a stiff challenge to Ahmadinejad. His overwhelmingly youthful supporters stand in the middle of busy Tehran streets, chanting "Ahmadi, bye-bye," as traffic roars past.

A small conservative newspaper aligned with Ahmadinejad, Vatan Emrooz ("Homeland Today"), claimed in its lead story Wednesday that the president’s political opponents planned to instigate political unrest after what the paper predicted would be a defeat at the polls.

Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, the spokesman for Iran’s Guardian Council, a 12-member body that vets candidates and oversees elections, appealed for calm.

"We ask all the candidates and their supporters not to disturb the (peace). We are sure all candidates, respectful candidates, have such a view," he told a news conference. "We hope, with cooperation of people, (the) situation becomes better."

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM)

Kadkhodaei said a ban on politicking — including the sporting of colored ribbons that symbolize support for the candidates — will be strictly enforced on election day. Government election monitors will be stationed at each polling place, he said, and a special "monitoring headquarters" was set up Wednesday to receive reports of election irregularities and dispatch inspection teams to Iran’s provinces if necessary.

Candidates’ representatives will also be permitted at polling places, he said.

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"Each single vote will be protected, and what will be cast in the (ballot) boxes will be announced," Kadkhodaei assured the public.

(END OPTIONAL TRIM)

Opposition representatives said they feared attempts at vote-rigging, although they couldn’t as yet cite any evidence.

"It’s not impossible. They can do such a trick," Elyas Hazrati, a top adviser to Karroubi, the most reform-minded of the four candidates, said in an interview at campaign headquarters.

"We take every necessary measure to be careful ... not to see a rigged election," said Hazrati, the editor of the reformist newspaper Etemaad and a former member of parliament.

((EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

"In Iran, the high (voter) turnout can stop the government’s trick," he said, expressing a widely held opposition view that only a massive polling-day effort will beat the incumbent.

Results likely won’t be known until Saturday, and if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held on June 19.

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(c) 2009, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Visit the McClatchy Washington Bureau on the World Wide Web at www.mcclatchydc.com.

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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-ELECTION

GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20090610 Iran parliament

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