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Iranians Prepare to Vote Again for President

Iranians vote yet again Friday in a runoff presidential election. A political novice is pitted against an establishment veteran. Even the mullahs who make up the country's clerical establishment are divided about which candidate to support.

Tehran may be Iran's capital, but Qom is its spiritual center. As the site of one of holiest shrines in Shi'ite Islam, the center of higher religious education, and the hometown of the late Ayatollah Khomenei, Qom is a potent reminder of how religion and politics are inextricably entwined in Iran.

Within the precincts of the holy shrine itself, two Islamic clerics, or mullahs, are having a friendly political debate.

"I'm voting for Mahmood Ahmadinejad on Friday", said Adel Safa, "because he's a man in touch with the poor. I don't agree," says his colleague, Mohammad Naseri. "Just talking with the poor doesn't get them practical help, so I support Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani."

Friday's election pits Mr. Ahmadinejad - a 49-year-old hardline conservative but not a cleric - against the 70-year-old Mr. Rafsanjani, who is a cleric and former president and who has cast himself as moderate and pragmatic.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's populist campaign - plus, some reformist opponents have charged, illegal campaign help from a paramilitary wing of the Revolutionary Guard - help him take second place in last Friday's vote ahead of more experienced and well - known candidates and force a second round of voting. The brief runoff campaign has been unusually bitter.

On Thursday, official news agencies announced the arrests of 26 people, including an unnamed senior military figure, for election violations.

Within the clerical establishment, there is disagreement about whether to support Mr. Rafsanjani, who is one of their own, or vote for someone younger with strong Islamic revolutionary credentials.

"I concede Ahmadinejad has been a good manager as mayor of Tehran," Mr. Naseri said, "but Rafsanajani is better."

Mohammad Reza Sarifi, the Internet Web site designer for the shrine, likes Mr. Ahmadinejad's religious piety and believes he will address the growing gap between rich and poor in Iran. And, in a swipe at the established political order, he also is worried about corruption.

"Something that today we need and is a problem for the Iranian people is the different corruption in some of the administrative affairs [departments], and the different categories between the poor and the wealthy people here," he said.

Supporter of ex-president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani
Since Mr. Ahmadinejad emerged as his challenger, Mr. Rafsanjani has been desperately trying to emulate his populist stance. Just before the campaign cutoff late Wednesday, he suddenly announced a plan to introduce unemployment benefit payments and a scheme to give all Iranian families stock options in privatized state firms. But it will only be known after the votes are counted if Mr. Rafsanjani's last-minute appeal swayed voters to his side, or if Iran experienced the biggest political upset in its post-revolutionary history.