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Incumbent Rafsanjani leads in Iranian election

President Hashemi Rafsanjani took a commanding lead Saturday over three little-known challengers in partial returns from an election apparently engineered to ensure his victory.

A victory would give Rafsanjani a second four-year term. He will face a daunting challenge to rally Iran's beleaguered economy, still battered from the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

The Interior Ministry said with 13.1-million votes counted _ more than 80 percent of the returns _ Rafsanjani, a cleric, had 8.3-million votes, or 63 percent, and former Labor Minister Ahmed Tavakoli had about 3.1-million, or 23 percent.

Rafsanjani's other two opponents were trailing far behind. One of them, university chancellor Abdullah Jafar Ali Jasebi, sent a letter congratulating Rafsanjani on his "certain victory," the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said.

But Rafsanjani, 59, appeared headed for a smaller margin of victory than in 1989, when he received 13.5-million of the 14.2-million votes cast, or 95 percent. He was then opposed by Ali Sheibani, a little-known legislator.

Final results were not expected until today, the news agency said.

Rafsanjani has promised to resuscitate the economy and improve living standards. Analysts say he is determined to navigate the sluggish centralized economy toward a free-market orientation.

Opposition groups had urged voters to stay away from the polls, and Iraqi-based dissidents on Friday claimed to have bombed a big oil refinery and killed or wounded 200 Revolutionary Guards. The government denied the claim.

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