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Iran row erupts in brawl

Tehran, Jan. 22 (Reuters): Scores of hardliners attacked a reformist gathering in central Iran, injuring at least five people in the first outbreak of violence of a tense build-up to parliamentary elections, a reformist deputy said today.

Political tensions are running high in Iran after the Guardian Council — an unelected hardline body with sweeping powers — vetoed thousands of reformist candidates from standing in the February 20 vote.

The mass disqualification of allies of moderate President Mohammad Khatami prompted dozens of top officials to threaten to resign and MPs to stage a 12-day sit-in protest at parliament.

But until now most Iranians have appeared unmoved by the political standoff and there had been no reports of large street protests or clashes.

The violence erupted yesterday when a speaker at a pro-reform gathering in the central city of Hamedan accused the Guardian Council of disregarding Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s advice for the disqualifications to be reviewed.

“Some 200 hardliners attacked the podium, broke the microphone and punched people,” the parliamentarian, who asked not to be named, said.

At least five people, including Hamedan MP Hossein Loqmanian, were injured, and one person was hospitalised, the official Irna news agency reported.

It said the attackers in Hamedan chanted slogans such as: “Death to hypocrites” and “We are ready to sacrifice our lives”.

Hardline vigilante groups fiercely loyal to Iran’s clerical establishment have attacked reformist gatherings and student protests in the past.

Reformers insist the 24-year-old Islamic Republic has to become a more democratic state where the rule of law is paramount if it is to survive. Hardliners fear reforms might open the floodgates of change and sweep aside clerical rule.

Liberals accuse the Guardian Council of trying to clear the way for conservatives to regain control of parliament, which they lost to reformists in the 2000 parliamentary election.

The council judged many of those disqualified to have displayed insufficient loyalty to the constitution and the system of clerical rule began after the 1979 revolution.

The Guardian Council has so far re-admitted into the race only 200 of the 3,100 candidates who appealed their bans.

The council — a 12-man body comprised of conservative clerics and Islamic jurists — has until the end of the month to announce its revised candidate lists but reformists accuse it of dragging its feet to disrupt their campaigns.

Public support for reformists has waned since Khatami’s shock election win in 1997 when millions of Iranians backed the mid-ranking cleric and his pledges to enforce the rule of law, bolster democratic institutions and foster a more open society.

But hardliners have used their power bases in the judiciary and Guardian Council to close scores of liberal publications, jail dozens and reformist activists and block legislation proposed by the pro-reform parliament.

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