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    News & Views

    Bitter battle over landmark poll overshadows Iranian anniversary

    TEHRAN, Feb 3 (AFP) - Iran's sqabbling political factions continued a bitter war of words on Wednesday over the country's first ever municipal elections, despite repeated calls for unity on the Islamic regime's 20th anniversary.

    The landmark vote, due on February 26, is considered the Islamic regime's first great test in local democracy, and has provoked a violent squabble between supporters of reformist President Mohammad Khatami and conservatives who have striven to bar radicals and moderates from standing as candidates.

    Khatami and his supporters, including moderate Interior Minister Abdul Vahid Musavi-Lari, have urged widespread participation by all political tendencies as well as the country's 30 million or so youngsters in a bid to give the poll, and the regime, the popular seal of approval.

    But conservatives who dominate the various election supervision committees, have barred a number of prominent moderates and radicals in a bid to restrict candidates to hardline supporters of the regime and its leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

    While moderates believe widespread participation will boost Khatami's reformist agenda, conservatives are keen to consolidate their local power base.

    The interior ministry has slammed the move as arbitrary, insisting the committees are overstepping their supervisory role.

    The committees, manned mostly by conservative MPs, have rejected the accusation as "unfounded," accusing the ministry of politicising the poll.

    The wrangle coincides with lavish celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the Islamic revolution and official attempts to strengthen popular support for the regime, particularly among those born in the past 20 years.

    Khatami urged young people to turn out as massively in the coming poll as they did in presidential elections in 1997 which ensured his shock victory over concervative opponent Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri and gave him uncontested popular legitimacy.

    "One of the greatest things about the last presidential election was the presence of young people and women -- I salute you," he told cheering schoolchildren at a special youth venue on Tuesday.

    Moderates are concerned the vetting of candidates will dampen popular enthusiasm and participation, in a repetition of previous parliamentary and other elections.

    The preparation for the poll has once again brought out the divisions within the Iranian regime, even as senior officials have called for unity.

    Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani Monday called on the rival factions to stop their "endless bickering," which was threatening the regime like a "poison."

    Iran's supreme leader Khamenei meanwhile advised youngsters to ignore the squabbles.

    "I have already told (the factions) to stop the squabbling and I advise you not to pay any attention to them," he said in a meeting with a group of selected youngsters, broadcast on television Tuesday.

    About 330,000 candidates, including 5,000 women, have been approved so far to stand in elections for 200,000 council seats.


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