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Polls close in Iran with no clear winner

TEHRAN, Iran—Millions of Iranian voters cast ballots Friday in the most contested presidential election in the Islamic Republic's 26-year-history, but were left with few clues as to whom their new leader would be.

Preliminary results for the No. 2 spot in Iran's government were expected Saturday, Interior Ministry officials said. But none of the seven candidates was expected to get the simple majority needed to win outright, meaning the two top vote-getters will likely square off in an unprecedented runoff to be held in the coming weeks.

Two-term former president and conservative cleric Hashemi Rafsanjani, 70, led the polls in recent weeks, but dozens of exit interviews conducted by journalists across this sprawling capital suggested voters had cast their ballots for fundamentalist Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 48; conservative former national police chief Mohammad Bahger Qalibaf, 44; and the most liberal of the candidates, former Cabinet minister Mostafa Moin, 54.

If one of those three were ultimately to win, he would become the first non-cleric Iranian president since Mohammad Ali Rajai, who was assassinated in 1981.

Polling hours were extended by at least four hours Friday night to help boost voter turnout. The international community is using the election to measure the popularity of the Islamic system of government, in which the supreme leader and other unelected clerics wield the true power.

Voter apathy is strong, given Iran's flagging economy and frustration over the slow pace of political and social reforms.

Calls for a boycott from mostly expatriate Iranians opposed to the regime and President Bush's recent comments denouncing the polls as undemocratic increased pressure on the Islamic government to ensure a high turnout among 46.8 million eligible voters. The government is hoping to at least equal the 51 percent who turned out for the last major national elections, held in February 2004.

How many voters heeded the clerics' call won't be known until Saturday morning.

But by Friday evening the number of voters had swelled at the nation's 41,000 polling stations, which stayed open until at least 11 p.m. Ghorbanali Bakhshandeh, head of the polling station at Somayeh Girls' High School in central Tehran, said he wouldn't close his doors as long as voters turned up.

Voters, in turn, said they were grateful to be able to cast their ballots late in order to escape Friday's unseasonably high temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit. Bakhshandeh, 39, said his poll workers ran out of their allotment of 16,000 ballots and had to order more.

People lined up to present their red identification booklets to officials, place their right index fingerprints on paper ballots, scribble in their candidate's names, and then drop the ballots into boxes enclosed in white sheets and sealed with wax to prevent tampering.

"If we vote or not, the elections are going to forward," said Leila, a 26-year-old hairdresser who cast her ballot for Qalibaf at the Al-Hussein Mosque in the southern Tehran neighborhood of Shush. "I'm voting so I don't feel bad later about letting someone else make my choice."

Many voters expressed outrage at what they viewed as outside interference in an election that not only will determine whether the Islamic republic moves ahead with political, social and economic reforms, but also will influence Iranian negotiations with the West over its nuclear program.

Iran's conservative-run TV news networks fed on that anger, embellishing Bush's statement Thursday that criticized the Iranian election as undemocratic and telling viewers the American president had called on voters to stay home.

"It made us want to come more," said Mahboubeh Askari, 33, a homemaker who voted for Ahmadinejad at the Somayeh school. "It's a matter of national pride."

"Tell George Bush that he is not the master of our destiny," shouted Mohammed Ali Tavakoli, 61, who voted for Rafsanjani in Shush.

Besides Tavakoli, only a handful of voters interviewed here said they had selected Rafsanjani. Some expressed displeasure over Rafsanjani's often-flamboyant presidential campaign, which included an outdoor disco ball and techno music to appeal to young voters.

But analysts said Rafsanjani's appeal is likely to be far greater in regions outside the capital.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator also came to his aid on Friday, endorsing Rafsanjani at an impromptu press conference in Tehran six hours before the polls closed.

"If he (the new president) is the most powerful, it will have positive effects on our foreign policy," said Hassan Rowhani, the negotiator. "If, God forbid, if he's not the most powerful, we will have ups and downs."

Iranians have strong, nationalistic feelings about their country's burgeoning nuclear program and, like Rowhani, most here believe their leaders should reject Western pressure to end its uranium enrichment.

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(Special correspondent Saeed Kousha contributed to this report from Tehran, Iran.)

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

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

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