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Iran elections 'can heal wounds'

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TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Iran's pro-reform President Mohammad Khatami said he hoped Friday's local elections would heal some of the wounds caused by years of bitter political infighting in the Islamic Republic.

Friday's vote to elect tens of thousands of city and rural councillors coincided with growing disillusionment in Iran with the slow pace of Khatami's promised reform agenda.

Khatami's allies have tried to present the election as a referendum on his liberal social and political reforms which have been hindered by religious hardliners who fear an erosion of Islamic values.

Elected in 1997 and re-elected in 2001 with landslides, Khatami has the backing of the reformist-dominated parliament.

But he has encountered stiff opposition from hardliners who wield great power from their strongholds in the judiciary and an unelected constitutional watchdog known as the Guardian Council.

"I hope that this election will cause national solidarity and reconciliation of the (political) groups," Khatami told reporters after casting his vote at the Interior Ministry in downtown Tehran.

"Stability is growing in our country, therefore anxieties are becoming less and less," added Khatami, who last year threatened to resign if his reforms continued to be blocked.

Around 218,000 candidates have registered to stand for roughly 170,000 posts up for grabs in only the second local council elections since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Polling stations opened at 9:00 a.m. local time (0530 GMT) and were due to close at 5:00 p.m. (1330 GMT). But Interior Minister Abdolvahed Mousavi-Lari said the closing time could be extended if there was a late rush to vote.

The results of the elections should be known within 72 hours, he said.

Analysts have forecast a low turnout among the country's 41 million eligible voters, many of whom have grown tired of the constant political infighting which led to the dissolution of Tehran's city council in December.

"Enough is enough," said Issa, 41, a taxi driver in Tehran. "Khatami has failed to meet the pledges he made. My family and I have voted in all previous elections. But anyone who stands for election is only concerned with lining their own pockets."

Only a handful of people turned up to cast their vote on Friday morning at one polling centre set up in a mosque near Tehran's labyrinthine bazaar.

"I vote because I think it's my duty to do so," said Yarmohammad, 44, a shopkeeper. "I vote for efficient and devout people, those who can provide services to people," he said.

He said he was very disappointed with the work of the previous city council in the traffic-clogged and polluted metropolis of 12 million people.

"They did not do anything tangible," he said.

Khatami called on Iranians, particularly the young and women, to create a "great victory" by voting en masse.

"Even a less than 50 percent participation does not mean that people are disappointed. We cannot always expect 80 or 90 percent turnout," the mid-ranking cleric said.

The turnout in the last local elections in 1999 was 64 percent.

Split by internal disagreements over how to hasten change, Iran's 18 reformist parties have put forward three main rival lists of candidates. Conservatives, aware of their unpopularity, have listed their candidates mainly as independents.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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