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A Presidency In The Balance, Iranians Vote

Above: Supporters of presidential candidate for Iran, Mir Hossein Mousavi, gather during a campaign rally at Haydarniya Stadium on June 9, 2009 in Tehran, Iran. On friday Mousavi will stand as a challenger to current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the June 12 election, as Ahmadinejad seeks to secure a second term in office.

Iranians packed polling stations from boutique-lined streets in north Tehran to conservative bastions Friday to choose between keeping hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power or replacing him with a reformist who favors greater freedoms and improved ties with the United States.

The fiery, monthlong campaign unleashed passions that could bring a record turnout. The mass rallies, polished campaign slogans, savvy Internet outreach and televised debates more closely resembled Western elections than the scripted campaigns in most other Middle Eastern countries.

Lines formed quickly at many voting sites in areas considered both strongholds for Ahmadinejad and his main rival, reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi, who served as prime minister in the 1980s and has become the surprise hero of a powerful youth-driven movement.

With the race considered too close to call, a top election official predicted the turnout could surpass the nearly 80 percent turnout in elections 12 years ago that brought President Mohammad Khatami to power and began the pro-reform movement. A strong turnout could boost Mousavi. He is counting on people under 30, who account for about a third of Iran's 46.2 million eligible voters.

In Tehran's affluent northern districts — strongly backing Mousavi — voters waited for up to an hour to cast ballots. Mahdi Hosseini, a university student, blasted the firebrand Ahmadinejad for "degrading Iran's image in the eyes of the world."

In the conservative city of Qom, home to seminaries and shrines, hundreds of clerics and women dressed in long black robes waited to vote in a long line outside a mosque. Ahmadinejad's campaign has heavily courted his base of working-class families and tradition-minded voters with promises of more government aid and resistance to Western pressures over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

The outcome will not sharply alter Iran's main policies or sway high-level decisions, such as possible talks with Washington. Those crucial policies are all directly controlled by the ruling clerics headed by the unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

But Mousavi has offered hopes of more freedoms at home. If elected, he could try to end crackdowns on liberal media and bloggers and push for Iran to embrace President Barack Obama's offer of dialogue after a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze. He favors talks with world powers over Iran's nuclear program, which the United States and others fear is aimed at making weapons. Iran says it only seeks reactors for electricity.

Mousavi has hammered Ahmadinejad for mismanaging the economy, burdened by double-digit inflation and chronic unemployment despite vast oil and gas riches.

Mousavi's stunning rise also has been helped by his popular and charismatic wife, former university dean Zahra Rahnavard, and their joint calls for more rights and political clout for women. Iranian women work in nearly level of society — including as parliament members. But they face legal restrictions on issues such as inheritance and court testimony, where their say is considered only half as credible as a man's.

The race will go to a run-off June 19 if no candidate receives a simple majority of more than 50 percent of the votes cast. Much depends on how many votes are siphoned off by the two other candidates: conservative former Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei and moderate former parliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi. Results are expected Saturday.

At several polling stations in Tehran, lines were long by midmorning were long with some mothers holding their young children in their arms.

"I hope to defeat Ahmadinejad today," said Mahnaz Mottaghi, 23, after casting her ballot at a mosque in central Tehran.

Outside the same polling station, 29-year-old Abbas Rezai said he, his wife and his sister-in-law all voted for Ahmadinejad. "We will have him as a president for another term, for sure," he said.

Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli said reports to election officials point to an "unprecedented turnout will be recorded in the country's election history," according to the official IRNA news agency. The Interior Ministry oversees the election.

In a possible complication for Mousavi's backers, Iran's mobile phone text messaging system was down. Many Iranians, especially young voters, frequently use text messages to spread election information quickly to friends and family.

"Unfortunately, some of my representatives were blocked from entering polling stations and SMS (text messaging) is also down, which is against the law," Mousavi said after voting, according to his campaign Web site. "We should not be fearful about the free flow of information, and I urge officials to observe the law."

The spokesman for Iran's telecommunication ministry, Davood Zareian, confirmed that the text message system has been down since late Wednesday. "We are investigating the case," he said without elaborating.

Iran's elections are considered generally fair, but the country does not allow international monitors. The ruling clerics, however, put their stamp on the elections from the very beginning by deciding who can run. More than 470 people sought to join the presidential race, but only Ahmadinejad and three rivals were cleared.

During the 2005 election, there were some allegations vote rigging from losers, but the claims never investigated.

The highly charged atmosphere has brought blistering recriminations against Ahmadinejad — who Mousavi said was moving Iran to a "dictatorship" — and a stunning warning from the ruling establishment. The political chief of the powerful Revolutionary Guard warned Wednesday it would crush any "revolution" against the Islamic system by Mousavi's "green movement" — the signature color of his campaign.

There were no reports of unrest or tensions as the vote got under way.

After casting his vote in the white ballot box, the Supreme Leader Khamenei urged Iranians to remain calm. "As far as I see and hear, passion and motivation is very high among people," Khamenei told reporters. "If some intend to create tension, this will harm people," he added.

After voting at a mosque on Friday in eastern Tehran, Ahmadinejad also commented on the high turnout. "A strong and revolutionary decision by the people will mean a bright and progressive future for the nation," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by IRNA. Mousavi voted with his wife at a mosque in Tehran's southern outskirts.

In Shiraz in southern Iran, people waited for hours with temperatures nudging 100 degrees. About 500 people stood in line to vote at the Shahchragh shrine, the burial site of a Shiite saint.

In the southeastern city of Zahedan — where a bomb blamed on Sunni militants killed at least 25 people at a Shiite mosque last month — there were no reports of tensions. The bombed mosque was used as a polling station.

So far, the country's leaders have not rushed to embrace Obama's offer to open a dialogue after three decades of diplomatic stalemate. But they left open the possibility of talks in the future. Ahmadinejad has proposed a "debate" with Obama while Mousavi has said he would seek better relations with Washington to try to soften Iran's international image.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly refused to halt uranium enrichment, a technology that can be used to produce fuel for both nuclear power or nuclear weapons. Mousavi has floated the idea of an international consortium overseeing it in Iran. But both leading candidates say it is Iran's right to pursue nuclear technology.

Mousavi's rallies in Tehran drew tens of thousands of cheering supporters, who later spent their nights shouting anti-Ahmadinejad slogans and dancing to Persian pop songs on the streets.

For the first time in Iran, the forces of the Web were fully harnessed in an election showdown. That catapulted Mousavi into a political star.

On Friday, dozens of Iranian's using Twitter posted messages including one proclaimed: "For Iran, this is the Day of Decision."

Iranians outside the country also cast ballots. In Iraq, polling places were set up in Baghdad and cities in Iraq's Shiite-dominated south, as well as in jails for about 90 Iranian detainees mostly held on charges of smuggling and illegal entry into the country.

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