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Voting Under Way in Controversial Iranian Parliamentary Election - 2004-02-20

Iranians have begun to vote in a controversial parliamentary election that saw thousands of reformist candidates banned from running by Iran's conservative leaders.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was among the first to cast a vote Friday. Iranian television showed the ayatollah smiling as he placed his ballot into a white voting box.

The ayatollah told Iran's state television that people who are against the Iranian nation are trying hard to prevent voters from participating in the election. But he expressed confidence that Iranians won't be deterred from voting.

The ayatollah has called for widespread participation in Friday's vote, while many reformists have urged voters to boycott.

Many observers are predicting low voter turnout. But analyst Amal Hamada, an expert on Iran and lecturer at Cairo University, says it's just too early to tell.

"After this crisis, people are even more pessimistic and apathetic toward the whole issue of elections," he said. "But there is something that should be said about the Iranian people. You can never predict what they will do."

Hard-line conservatives disqualified some 2,400 pro-reform candidates from the race last month, sparking a political crisis that coincided with the 25th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution.

Reformists accuse the conservative authorities of trying to stage a takeover of parliament, which had been dominated by reformists for the past several years.

Because so many candidates have been barred from the election, reformist candidates are running for only about half of the 289 legislative slots. One parliamentary representative from the earthquake devastated city of Bam will be elected later.

Iran's pro-reform president, Mohammed Khatami, has called the election unfair, but he still urged people to cast their ballots.

According to Iran's interior ministry, 46 million people are eligible to vote in Friday's election.(