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MID: Iran protests mount as Ahmadinejad wins landslide

By Jay Deshmukh
14 Jun 2009 1:31 AM

TEHRAN, June 13 AFP - Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a landslide victory in Iran's hotly-disputed presidential vote, according to official results on Saturday that triggered mass opposition protests and furious complaints of cheating from his defeated rivals.

Riot police clashed with protesters in unrest not seen for a decade as thousands of supporters of main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi took to the streets shouting "Down with the Dictator" after final results showed Ahmadinejad winning almost 63 per cent of the vote.

Moderate ex-prime minister Mousavi cried foul over election irregularities and warned the vote could lead to "tyranny" as some of his supporters were beaten by baton-wielding police.

The interior minister said Mousavi had won less than 34 per cent of the vote, giving Ahmadinejad another four-year term in a result that dashed Western hopes of change and set the scene for a possible domestic power struggle.

Iran's all-powerful supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hailed Ahmadinejad's victory and urged the country to unite behind him after the most heated election campaign since the Islamic revolution,

The vote outcome appears to have galvanised a grass-roots movement for change after 30 years of restrictive clerical rule in a country where 60 per cent of the population was born after the revolution.

The international community had also been keenly watching the election for any signs of a shift in policy after four years of hardline rhetoric from the 52-year-old Ahmadinejad and a standoff over Iran's nuclear drive.

Mousavi protested at what he described as "numerous and blatant irregularities" in the vote which officials said attracted a record turnout of around 85 per cent of the 46 million electorate.

"People are aware and they do not bend in front of those who come to power by cheating," Mousavi said.

In the heart of Tehran, thousands of angry Mousavi supporters voiced their disbelief and frustration at the results, with some pelting stones at police who struck back with batons.

Reformist candidate Mehdi Karroubi, who came a distant fourth with less than one per cent of the vote after ex-Revolutionary Guards chief Mohsen Rezai in third, also declared the result "illegitimate and unacceptable".

"They have ruined the country and they want to ruin it more over the next four years," shouted an irate mob outside Mousavi's office.

But Khamenei hailed Ahmadinejad's victory as a "feast".

"The enemies may want to spoil the sweetness of this event... with some kind of ill-intentioned provocations," he said. "The president elect is the president of the entire Iranian nation and... all should support and help him."

Mousavi had been hoping for a political comeback on a groundswell of support among the nation's youth, with pledges to ease restrictions particularly on women, and fix Iran's ailing economy.

Ahmadinejad's supporters had earlier taken to the streets in triumph, honking their horns and waving Iranian flags.

"I am happy that my candidate has won -- he helps the poor and he catches the thieves," said sandwich seller Kamra Mohammadi, 22.

The election highlighted deep divisions in Iran after four years under Ahmadinejad, who had massive support in the rural heartland, while in the big cities young men and women threw their weight behind Mousavi.

The elite Revolutionary Guards had warned of a crackdown on any "velvet revolution" by supporters of the 67-year-old who was prime minister during the war with neighbouring Iraq in the 1980s.

Iran has long been at loggerheads with the West as Ahmadinejad delivered a succession of fiery tirades against Israel, repeatedly questioned the Holocaust and vowed to press on with nuclear work despite UN sanctions, denying allegations Tehran was seeking the atomic bomb.

"The results of the election show, now more than ever, how much stronger the Iranian threat has become," said Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon.

Ahmadinejad, portraying himself as a man of the people, pledged to stamp out corruption and help the poor -- while his rivals accused him of mismanaging the economy of one of the world's top oil producers and damaging the nation's international standing.

Passions ran high during the campaign, with Ahmadinejad and his challengers hurling insults at each other in acrimonious live television debates while their supporters staged massive carnival-like rallies.

US President Barack Obama, who has called for dialogue with Iran after three decades of severed ties, said he saw the "possibility of change" in relations with the regional Shi'ite powerhouse.

"Whoever ends up winning the election in Iran, the fact that there's been a robust debate hopefully will help advance our ability to engage them in new ways," Obama said.

Former US president Jimmy Carter, who was in power during the Islamic revolution, said he believed there would be no change in US policy "because the same person will be there".

Even if Mousavi had won, it was doubtful there would be any major shift in Iran's nuclear and foreign policy as all decisions on matters of state rest with Khamenei who has been in the nation's top job for 20 years.

The economy was also a key issue for voters, with Iran battling rampant inflation, rising unemployment and plunging income from crude oil exports.