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Hard-line mayor's presidential victory threatens to radicalize Iran

TEHRAN, Iran—This city's archconservative mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was declared the winner early Saturday of Iran's contentious presidential election, a victory that threatens to return the Islamic Republic to its radical roots.

According to initial Interior Ministry figures, Ahmadinejad received almost two votes for every one that went to his rival, the more pragmatic former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, in a contest that deepened the divide between Iran's rich and poor.

"Maybe if I was rich I would have voted for Rafsanjani," said Ali Shahbazi, 30, a songbird salesman in the city's modest southern Molavi neighborhood, expressing a common refrain Friday. "Ahmadinejad is more popular among the people. He's from the deprived poor class of society and understands us."

Ahmadinejad, a 49-year-old civil engineer, ran on a campaign to return the 26-year-old Islamic Republic to its revolutionary roots, with strict religious tenets and a harsher tone toward the Bush administration.

Rafsanjani, 70, a veteran cleric with a reputation as a shady tycoon who cracked down on political dissidents during his 1989-97 presidency, had recast himself as a moderate candidate eager to continue departing President Mohammad Khatami's vision for more personal freedom for Iranians and detente with the United States.

Rafsanjani had squeaked past Ahmadinejad by barely 2 percentage points to claim 21 percent of the vote in the initial election June 17, in which seven candidates competed and forced a runoff for the country's No. 2 post.

Voting hours for the runoff were extended four hours until 11 p.m., and Interior Ministry officials had said that the polling stations would stay open as long as people arrived to cast ballots.

Friday's turnout in the sprawling capital highlighted the class divide. Most voters interviewed in the poorer, religious southern neighborhoods said they'd cast their ballots for Ahmadinejad, while voters in the affluent northern neighborhoods said they'd selected Rafsanjani.

Some voters, such as homemaker Shahzanan Karimpour-Eskandari 54, said they didn't vote in the first round but came out Friday not because they liked Rafsanjani, but to vote against Ahmadinejad.

"We heard some discussions that make us not want him to win. One of the things is that he was likely to make things more difficult for us (women)," she said, casting her ballot at a polling station near the trendy neighborhood that goes by its shah-era name of "Jordan" in northern Tehran.

Her worries were fueled by a campaign blitz by Ahmadinejad's opponents in recent days predicting that an Iran under his rule would mean increased oppression and a return to the purges common in the early years of the Islamic Republic. Ahmadinejad has dismissed such claims as nonsense.

Supporters of the key reform candidate defeated in the first round, Mostafa Moin, rallied around Rafsanjani this week in hopes of weakening Ahmadinejad, who's aligned with the unelected conservative religious leaders, including the ultimate authority in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But most voters interviewed Friday said they thought Ahmadinejad would be a better president because he'd take a tougher stance against the West, especially on Iran's coveted nuclear program.

Even in northern Tehran, where women flout Islamic laws on modest dress by wearing brightly colored scarves and snug, short overcoats, Ahmadinejad voters said they preferred their candidate because he'd honed a reputation as an honest and effective mayor.

"I don't want there to be nepotism, for someone who finished high school being assigned to a very high post," said Elnaz Ashtari, 23, a fashionably dressed dentist. "Ahmadinejad says he'll clean house."

Adding to the apprehension during the lingering election were multiple allegations of voter fraud. On Friday, Rafsanjani aides demanded that at least six voting stations in mosques across Tehran be shut down because of allegations of cheating. The aides charged that Ahmadinejad workers were helping illiterate people fill out their ballots and were campaigning illegally.

Interior Ministry officials, part of Khatami's reformist Cabinet, refused to close any voting stations. But they did warn the elite Revolutionary Guards and their vigilante, "Basij" militias, which support Ahmadinejad, to stay clear of polling sites after accusations that they'd intimidated voters and illegally campaigned for the candidate in the first round of balloting.

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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050622 IRAN ELECTION

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