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In rare pre-election violence in Iran, multiple bombs killed as many as 9

TEHRAN, Iran—Iran's lackluster presidential election season erupted in violence Sunday, with five bombs killing as many as nine people and Iranian police beating and arresting protesters at a women's rights demonstration in Tehran.

Four bombs exploded shortly after 11 a.m. local time in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, killing at least six people and wounding 70 more, the provincial governor told state-run Iranian television. Iranian journalists based in Ahvaz put the figure at eight dead and 80 wounded, however.

The fifth blast occurred in Tehran at about 9 p.m. local time, killing one person and wounding four more, according to state-run television and eyewitness accounts.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, the deadliest in the Islamic Republic in more than a decade and a rarity since the Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. But Iranian television, which is controlled by Iran's conservative powerbrokers, accused the bombers of trying to disrupt this coming Friday's presidential elections.

Iranian apathy over a flagging economy and a government in which un-elected clerics wield the true power has made voter turnout a key issue for the dominant conservatives. They are keenly aware that the polls are being watched not only by Iranians, but also by the international community as a measurement of the popularity of the 26-year-old Islamic system of government.

Three of Sunday's bombs in Ahvaz exploded outside government buildings, including the governor's office, officials said. One eyewitness told state-run television that at least one of the bombs blew up inside a Kia Pride.

Television footage showed shattered windows, pools of blood and mangled cars. One shot featured a wailing elderly woman clad in Iran's traditional head-to-toe black veil waving her hands in desperation.

"Unfortunately, most of those killed were women and children," the governor of this oil-rich province on the Iraqi border told Iranian television.

The Tehran bomb, meanwhile, exploded inside a trashcan near a gas station at Imam Hussein Square in the city's center, said one Iranian journalist at the scene.

Earlier that afternoon, police clashed with protesters attempting to join a sit-in for women's rights outside of Tehran University, beating back people with batons and arresting at least one person. A group of nearly 200 demonstrators—most of them women—were allowed to continue their hour-long, peaceful protest, whose organizers had not sought a government permit for fear it would be rejected. Five Nobel laureates had signed a petition in favor of the women's efforts to amend Iran's constitution so it affords them equal rights.

Police scattered some 200 more people who wanted to join the protest. This reporter saw at least two people being arrested and 10 being beaten with batons. The police also parked buses in front of the protest to prevent passersby along the busy Enghelab, or "Revolution," Boulevard from seeing it.

While Iranian authorities often beat and arrest people attending unauthorized demonstrations, violence is unusual this close to elections. Authorities have relaxed social and political restrictions during the official three-week campaign period, including last Wednesday, when Iran's soccer victory over Bahrain sent hundreds of thousands of raucous Iranian youth partying in the streets until dawn.

Women and youth's issues have been a staple of the campaigns of most of the eight presidential candidates, who represent the entire political spectrum. But the women at Sunday's protest accused the candidates of simply trying to gain votes by mouthing slogans used by outgoing President Mohammad Khatami.

"It's just talk," said Farzaneh Taheri, widow of the famous liberal Iranian author Houshang Golshiri, and one of the women able to join the sit-in. "We shouldn't expect them to do anything, we should do it ourselves."

Adding to women's ire is the fact the un-elected Guardian Council, which vets candidates, banned each of 89 women who sought to run for the presidency, saying that the Islamic-based constitution prevented it.

That argument is a chauvinistic interpretation, said Mohsen Kadivar, a dissident Iranian cleric and political and social reform advocate who has been jailed by the Islamic regime for his views.

"There is no religious obstacle," he said. "It's only traditional Iranian customs and traditional interpretations of Islam."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-ELECTIONS

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