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Iran's Guardian Council moves to quiet debate over election

TEHRAN, Iran—Iran's all-powerful Guardian Council shut down two pro-reform newspapers and completed a limited recount Monday in a bid to silence the growing debate over vote-rigging and military interference in last week's hotly contested presidential elections.

The moves followed a rare public protest by the third-place candidate, Mahdi Karroubi, who resigned from his government posts while citing what he said was Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's refusal to investigate alleged voting irregularities.

"Just like you banned the military from being involved in the economy, I asked you to prevent a part of the Revolutionary Guard and Basij (civilian militia) from engaging in political activities, which is far more dangerous," wrote Karroubi, a centrist cleric and former parliament speaker, in a Sunday letter to Khamenei.

He also wrote the leader that he was quitting as his adviser and as a member of the Expediency Council, an un-elected body that mediates between the Guardian Council and parliament.

Karroubi then accused one of Khamenei's sons, Mojtaba, of being behind the scheme that propelled Tehran's little-known, archconservative mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to a surprise second-place finish Friday.

Such public airing of high-level squabbles is rare as well as dangerous in the Islamic Republic, where criticizing the leader, who has final say on all government and spiritual matters, is a crime. Mojtaba Khamenei, according to the letter, accused Karroubi of "helping the enemies who are ready to damage the Islamic revolution and republic," a thinly veiled reference to the United States and Israel. "I will, God willing, not allow anyone to create a crisis in the country."

Authorities on Monday shut down Karroubi's campaign headquarters and cut access to Internet sites carrying the letter. The daily newspapers Aftab Yazd and Eghbal, which had planned to print the letter in Monday editions, were also shut down.

The first paper is linked to Karroubi, while Eghbal belongs to Iran's main political reform party led by the younger brother of the current president, Mohammad Reza Khatami.

How long the ban would last wasn't immediately clear.

Karroubi and Iranian officials in the country's weakening reform movement charge that the much-feared Revolutionary Guard and civilian Basij militias it controls paid off some voters and intimidated others into casting their ballots for Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad, 49, advocates scaling back political and social reform and returning the Islamic Republic to its fundamentalist roots.

Ahmadinejad, who won 19.5 percent of the vote, will face the top vote-getter, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, with 20 percent, a conservative but pragmatic cleric. Rafsanjani, 70, complained in a statement published Monday in several Iranian newspapers about "organized interference" in the elections and urged voters to stop Ahmadinejad, who many here believe is part of a plot by hardliners to consolidate power.

"I seek your help and ask you to take part in the second round of the election so that we can prevent all extremism," said Rafsanjani, who fell far short of the 50 percent plus one vote he needed to clinch the presidency in the initial ballot.

The key reform parties, whose candidate, Mostafa Moin, was trounced in Sunday's vote, endorsed Rafsanjani Monday evening and urged apathetic pro-reform voters who stayed away Friday to turn out for the second round.

"Everyone is worried about a return of a kind of Talibanism or Iranian Ba'athism," said veteran sociologist and Moin adviser Hamid Reza Jalaipour, referring to the severe former regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The 12-member Guardian Council, meanwhile, affirmed the election outcome and said in a statement carried on state-run television that the recount of some 100 boxes in four cities found no irregularities.

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

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