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Iran votes, rebuffs US barbs

Tehran, June 17 (Reuters): Iranians voted for a President today and their leaders rebuffed US criticism of the poll which pragmatic cleric Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani is the narrow favourite to win.

Queues formed at some polling stations in Tehran soon after they opened in hot sunshine for Iran’s 47 million, mostly young, voters. Official results are due tomorrow.

Many Iranians say they will not endorse a system where real power is held by unelected clerics who barred all but a handful of more than 1,000 presidential hopefuls. Yet the poll has aroused more interest than expected among voters.

“Even if we think it is pre-cooked, we should vote. I’ll vote for Moin,” said Siavosh Kayyal, 22, a computer engineer, referring to leading reformist candidate Mostafa Moin.

Keeping up a barrage of US criticism, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice said democracy in Iran was “moving backwards” and Washington would watch to see if Tehran adopted a course “more in step with what is going on in the region”.

Iran denies US claims it seeks nuclear weapons and backs terrorism.

Bush’s pre-emptive attack on the election drew derisive responses from many Iranian leaders, including reformists vowing to strengthen democratic institutions and entrench human rights.

“It might not be an ideal election for us, but the basics are there,” Moin said at his campaign headquarters.

Intelligence minister Ali Yunesi said Bush’s remarks were disrespectful to Iran and the rival candidates. “No politician calls an election undemocratic before it is even held,” he said.

Unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iranians they were not just choosing a president.“Whoever you vote for among those seven candidates, it’s a vote for him, the Islamic republic and the constitution,” he said.

Aides to Moin have complained that hardliners beat up his supporters at some campaign meetings.

Rafsanjani, who wants better ties with the West, has topped most opinion polls, often unreliable in the past, before what could be Iran’s closest vote since the 1979 Islamic revolution. “I have promised people to continue reforms and I am sure I can deliver my promises,” the 70-year-old said after voting.

The wily cleric, who served as President from 1989 to 1997, needs to win over half the votes cast to avoid an unprecedented run-off, probably next Friday, between the top two vote-getters. His nearest rivals are Moin, 54, and conservative ex-police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, 43, with Tehran’s ex-mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad emerging as a dark-horse conservative contender.

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