Both sides claim victory in Iran's elections
Huge turnout is reported Mousavi warns fraud possible
TEHRAN - Iran's interior ministry says President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a commanding lead after 61 percent of votes were tallied, but his pro-reform rival countered that he was the clear victor and warned of possible fraud in the election.
Ahmadinejad took 66.1 percent in the presidential vote yesterday while Mir Hossein Mousavi, his leading challenger, had 31.6 percent, according to Kamran Daneshjoo, a senior official with the Interior Ministry, which oversees the voting.
Daneshjoo said Ahmadinejad was headed toward victory.
The dispute arose even before polls closed early today, heightening tensions across the capital where emotions have been running at a fever pitch. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the reformist candidate, suggested he might challenge the results.
The messy and tense outcome capped a long day of voting, which was extended for six hours to accommodate a huge turnout. It raised worries that Iran's Islamic establishment could use its vast powers to pressure backers of Mousavi.
During the voting, text messages, a key campaign tool for reformers, were blocked - as were some pro-Mousavi websites. Security officials warned they would not tolerate political gatherings or rallies before the final results were known.
Even before the first vote counts were released, Mousavi held a news conference to declare himself "definitely the winner" based on "all indications from all over Iran." But he gave nothing more to back up his assertion and alleged widespread voting irregularities without giving specifics, suggesting he was ready to challenge the final results.
Moments after Mousavi spoke, however, Iran's state news agency reported that Ahmadinejad was the victor. The report by the Islamic Republic News Agency also gave no details.
It was not reported whether the results were from locations considered Ahmadinejad strongholds or where Mousavi hoped to make headway.
The turnout was not immediately known, but election officials had predicted a possible record among the 46.2 million eligible voters.
During the voting, some communications across Iran were disrupted; Internet connections slowed dramatically in some spots, affecting the operations of news organizations including The Associated Press. It was not clear what had caused the disruptions.
A high turnout was expected to help Mousavi, who is counting on an outpouring from what's been called his "green tsunami" - the signature color of his campaign and the new banner for reformists seeking wider liberties at home and a gentler face for Iran abroad.
The president does not have the power to direct high-level policies, which are dictated solely by the ruling clerics. But the election focused on what the office can influence: boosting Iran's sinking economy, pressing for greater media and political freedoms, and being Iran's main envoy to the world.
Voters streamed to polling sites from the early morning until midnight. Some waited for hours in temperatures that hit 113 degrees in Iran's central desert or in nighttime downpours that lashed many parts of the country. In Tehran, a bride in her wedding gown cast her ballot. Families making traditional Friday visits to relatives' graves filed into polling stations in the capital's sprawling cemetery.
Results are expected today. But worries about the volatile atmosphere were obvious. The Interior Ministry, which oversees voting, said all rallies or political gatherings would be banned until after the formal announcement of results.
In Washington, President Obama said the "robust debate" during the campaign suggests a possibility of change in Iran, which is under intense international pressure over its nuclear program.
"Ultimately the election is for the Iranians to decide," said Obama, who has offered to open dialogue with Iran's leaders after a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze. "But . . . you're seeing people looking at new possibilities. And 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."
There were sporadic claims by Mousavi's aides of voting irregularities, including ballots running out in some provincial sites, but they could not be independently verified. About a dozen Ahmadinejad supporters pelted a Mousavi office in Tehran with tear gas canisters, but no one was injured, said Saeed Shariati, head of Mousavi's Web campaign. The attack could not be independently confirmed.
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.
Only weeks ago, Ahmadinejad seemed ready to coast to reelection with the reformist ranks in disarray. But Mousavi's bid began to gain traction with young voters with his Web outreach and hip "green" rallies. Suddenly, the 67-year-old Mousavi, who served as prime minister in the 1980s, became the hero of a powerful youth-driven movement.
"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.