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Campaigning to start for first municipal elections in Iran

TEHRAN, Feb 17 (AFP) - Candidates can begin campaigning Thursday for next week's municipal elections, the first in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution and a vital test for democratic reforms, the interior ministry said Wednesday.

Some 300,000 candidates, including more than 5,000 women, will vie for 200,000 municipal council seats in the February 26 polls which have been the focus of bitter factional rivalry between reformers and hardline conservatives.

The final list of candidates approved by the government's selection committee, anticipated for a week, is due to be displayed in precints Thursday following controversy over the banning of some candidates close to reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

The disqualification of moderate and left-wing candidates has sparked a war of words between Khatami supporters and his conservative opponents.

"It's a kind of inquisition and we condemn it. President Khatami should intervene," Ibrahim Yazdi, head of the banned but tolerated opposition Freedom Movement of Iran (FMI), said Saturday.

Khatami should "respect his electoral commitments and support a true people's participation in power," said the FMI chief, whose candidates have been barred from next week's polls.

Vice President Hassan Habibi, who sits on the candidate selection committee, said earlier this month that "members of illegal organisations and parties cannot run for election."

The showdown between reformers and conservatives will play itself out most fiercely in the big cities, particularly Tehran, where the two factions are battling over 15 seats on the municipal council.

On Wednesday conservatives put up posters across the capital saying that "the city's development can be guaranteed by specialists working for the people."

Nationwide, conservative candidates have been culled from those deemed most faithful to the Islamic regime and the principle -- written into the constitution -- that Iran is led ultimately by its spiritual leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Reformers are meanwhile pledging "real participation in power" as the election promises to be a crucial test of the new political openness at the top of Khatami's agenda since his 1997 election with a landslide majority. One sign of that openness is the vote itself. Municipal elections are also written into the constitution, adopted in 1980, but next week's vote will be the first of its kind since the 1979 overthrow of the shah.

The interior ministry plans to open some 60,000 polling stations -- supervision of most of which will be in conservative hands -- and voting cards will be distributed for the first time ever.

Khatami supporters recently announced the formation of two leading parties for the polling, the Islamic Iran Participation Front and the Islamic Labour Party.

Others close to former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have grouped themselves as the Reconstruction Party.

The backbone of the conservative movement meanwhile is the Association of Combattant Clergy, the oldest religious and politcal organisation in the nation and one with close links to the influential theological schools in the holy city of Qom.


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