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Iranians endure long wait at polls in presidential vote

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad holds a decisive lead in his reelection bid, Iran’s Interior Ministry said this morning, while his main rival claimed victory and alleged election irregularities.

Ministry officials said that with more than 75% of ballots counted, the incumbent had received nearly two-thirds of the vote. More than 46 million people were eligible to vote, officials said.

Official results are expected today, but news outlets loyal to the president claimed that he had scored a decisive victory over moderate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who had received about a third of the votes counted. This morning, security forces shut down Mousavi’s offices, his campaign said.

The election is expected to have broad domestic and international repercussions, as the Islamic Republic and the West remain at odds over Tehran’s nuclear program and support for militant groups that oppose Israel. The results were being closely watched by officials in capitals around the world.

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President Obama said the “robust debate” during the campaign suggests change may come to Iran.

“You’re seeing people looking at new possibilities,” Obama said. “And whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there’s been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways.”

Ahmadinejad had not made any public statements about the initial election results by early today.

However, Mousavi said at a news conference late Friday in north Tehran that he had won the majority of votes but the election was marred by irregularities that tilted the table in favor of Ahmadinejad. Mousavi also questioned the impartiality of the Interior Ministry, which oversees the counting.

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“We have definitely won this election,” he said, and called on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to ensure a fair vote and address alleged abuses.

An insider in the Mousavi campaign angrily complained afterward that a still-unexplained decision to shut down the nation’s cellphone networks’ text messaging service just before the vote had cut off their ability to systematically monitor the ballot boxes for irregularities.

The normally soft-spoken Mousavi suggested that he would not accept the results of an election he considered flawed. He said there were ballot shortages at polling stations in districts that leaned toward his camp, and that sites were closed early. Thousands of his campaign workers were barred from monitoring polling stations, he said. He also mentioned attacks on his campaign offices.

“We cannot let these things go,” Mousavi said of the alleged abuses. “This is not something we can step back from.”

Beyond bread-and-butter concerns, the election hinged on basic questions of national identity: whether Iran should serve as a base of Islamic resistance to the West or whether it should moderate its social and foreign policies 30 years after its revolution.

Droves of voters endured long lines in stifling heat and a rare June rain shower to cast ballots in the showdown. Ahmadinejad appeared to fare well in the countryside, which accounts for a third of the electorate, as well as among millions of government supporters and members of the Basiji militia, a hard-line organization that answers to the Revolutionary Guard.

Mousavi drew huge and unprecedented crowds of middle-class voters to polling stations in urban centers, where his green-clad supporters had taken to the streets in a display of public politicking in the weeks before the election. He also drew strong support among fellow Azeris in northwestern Iran, home to the large and powerful ethnic minority.

Though both camps appeared to be girding themselves for a drawn-out fight over the election results, they could also be engaged in game of brinkmanship intended to intimidate the other side.

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The Mousavi camp alleges that Ahmadinejad will try to use his hold on the government to steal the election.

Ahmadinejad’s backers fear Mousavi will refuse to recognize a victory for the president no matter what.

Both sides were trying to pre-empt the other -- Mousavi by threatening to question the election’s legitimacy and Ahmadinejad by making his victory a foregone conclusion.

Other Iranian elections have been disputed. In 2005, former parliament Speaker Mehdi Karroubi, who also was a candidate in this race, publicly alleged that Ahmadinejad had cheated in the first round of the election, but quickly backed down.

There are signs that any prolonged impasse this time could escalate. One of Mousavi’s high-powered supporters, a former president and influential ayatollah, Hashemi Rafsanjani, sent a letter to supreme leader Khamenei this week warning of the dire consequences of an unfair vote.

“A part of the public, parties and groups can no longer tolerate the present situation,” he wrote. “The volcanoes inside their burning chests will erupt in society.”

Trying to beat the crowds, and recognizing the high stakes of the election, voters began lining up as early as 90 minutes before polls opened at 8 a.m.

In upscale neighborhoods of north Tehran such as Niavaran and Farmanieh, lines of voters snaked around corners outside schools and mosques being used as polling places. Some polling stations stayed open until midnight.

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Some reported waiting as long as 2 1/2 hours to cast ballots, in what many described as a vote of protest against the Ahmadinejad era, characterized by increased Islamic morality patrols and a confrontational stance toward the West.

“We’re voting with confidence,” said Fatemeh Rashid-Mahmoudi, a 62-year-old retired nurse who said she was voting for Mousavi. She said it was the first time she had voted in a presidential election since 1997, when reformist President Mohammad Khatami won.

Rashid-Mahmoudi came to vote with daughters Mahsa, 24, and Mitra, 31, both professionals chafing under the restrictions of the Islamic Republic. They arrived at the polls wearing makeup and sporting elegant handbags.

“We’re hoping that the issue of pressure on women will be remedied,” Rashid-Mahmoudi said. “And we hope that our relations with the rest of the world will improve.”

But among poorer voters, plenty supported Ahmadinejad, who is widely perceived as a scrappy and pious nationalist who stands up to fat cats at home and bullies abroad.

“The level of social and individual freedom as it is now is enough for us,” said Omulnabi Khatibi, a 40-year-old homemaker wearing a black chador. “More than this level, things go out of control,” she said.

Voters dutifully showed up at the polls in the countryside, where Ahmadinejad has earned wide support and trust with giveaways, low-interest loans and flashy construction projects as well as his tirades against the rich and elite.

Ahmadinejad lavished funds on rural voters during the last six months of the campaign. Supporters of Mousavi allege that the president’s campaign distributed food coupons to the poor and envelopes of cash to clerics, asking them to call worshipers to support him.

In the sleepy farming town of Varamin, 40 miles southeast of Tehran, trickles of voters showed up at polling stations.

“I didn’t vote for 10 years,” said Hassan Hatami, a 27-year-old wholesale clothing distributor, a tall, clean-shaven man who proudly showed off the blue ink on his index finger.

“But I’m voting now to show my support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I see he’s done good things for the people.”

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daragahi@latimes.com

Mostaghim is a special correspondent.


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