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Khatami says no turning back on justice

By Jonathan Lyons

HAMADAN, Iran, July 27 (Reuters) - President Mohammad Khatami, his reformist policies under attack by hardliners after some of the worst unrest since the 1979 Islamic revolution, pledged on Tuesday to stand by his election promise to protect civil liberties.

Khatami kicked off a three-day tour of the western province of Hamadan with an address to a capacity crowd in the local sports stadium, his first public appearance since pro-democracy student protests on July 8-13.

``I reiterate my promise to protect civic freedoms and the legitimate rights of the nation,'' he said.

``I have made a covenant with the nation to move with you towards justice,'' added the president, who pleaded with the tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters not to interrupt with applause or chants of support.

Khatami, whose vision of a government at once Islamic and republican has drawn heavy fire from the conservative clerical establishment since his election in May 1997, said the Iranian people remained at his side.

``They try to say religion and freedom do not mix and say that the universities are a danger to Islam and the revolution. They are striving to say that security and freedom do not mix and that in order to establish security, freedoms must be crushed. But the nation will not be fooled.''

As a little-known presidential candidate riding a wave of populist enthusiasm, Khatami travelled around much of Iran by bus. The trip to Hamadan, an ancient settlement with roots deep in Persian history, will rekindle memories of those glory days.

His campaign bus brought his message of social and political reform to millions of voters who might otherwise have been unaware of his platform. As a maverick candidate running against an entrenched insider, the former newspaperman and national librarian received little attention from state-run radio and television.

His aides said he was eager to reconnect with Hamadan voters who gave him more than his national total of almost 70 percent in what his reformist allies routinely call ``the epic of May 23.''

``This was already planned beforehand but naturally we are sure that on this trip Mr Khatami is going to tackle the issue of the recent events,'' his brother and political confidant, Reza Khatami, told Reuters ahead of the presidential trip.

Residents of the this provincial centre said earlier they were eager to see the president but wanted him to pay more attention to the region's problems, chiefly chronic unemployment and a weak industrial base.

Local students said they were keen to push Khatami further along the road to reform.

Ali Reza, a mathematics student who joined pro-democracy protests at the local university, said he and his classmates wanted Khatami to break new ground.

``We do not just want to go there to listen to him -- we already know what he will say,'' said Ali Reza, who declined to give his full name.

``We are going there to show him he is not alone. He must not be afraid.''

Earlier, truckloads of youngsters brandishing the Iranian tri-colour and portraits of the president buzzed around the town squares, drumming up support for the visit. Local mosques, factories and offices decked out Hamadan with banners and posters.

Khatami's brother, who heads the president's political faction, and other aides hope the return to Hamadan, where he campaigned two years ago, can once again touch the people of this multi-ethnic province.

``Unfortunately it is one of the weak points in the political structure of our country that due to the absence of political parties we have to maintain and restore direct connection through these kinds of trips,'' said the president's brother.

While campaign stops were aimed at publicising his underdog status -- a huge plus in a society riddled with themes of martyrdom and hopeless struggle against all odds -- and getting out the vote, Khatami as president did not arrive empty-handed.

The official IRNA news agency said 93 development and industrial projects will go on stream during his visit to rural areas of Hamadan province, some 330 km (200 miles) west of the capital Tehran.


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