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Rebuff by hard-liners casts doubt on Iranian election

Iran's hard-line Guardian Council vetoed a bill Sunday that would have curbed its power, throwing elections into doubt in a historic confrontation between reformers and conservatives.

The Guardian Council rejected a bill reinstating thousands of candidates that it disqualified earlier. The veto is likely to provoke a boycott of the Feb. 20 legislative elections by reformers.

The bill that Parliament passed earlier Sunday sought to overturn the disqualifications. Reformists have condemned the disqualifications as an attempt by the hard-liners to skew the elections in their favor.

"We've been informed that the Guardian Council has vetoed the legislation on the grounds that it contradicted the constitution and sharia (Islamic) law," Mohsen Mirdamadi told the Associated Press. Mirdamadi heads the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Parliament and is one of the lawmakers disqualified from running again.

Members of the Guardian Council could not immediately be reached for comment.

Another reformist legislator who has been disqualified, Fatemeh Haqiqatjou, told the AP that with its veto, "The Guardian Council effectively pushes the country towards greater political chaos."

"The rejection brings reformers and all those who want free and fair elections closer to boycotting the elections," Haqiqatjou said.

"Iranians never allow dictators to decide for them," she said.

Members of President Mohammad Khatami's government have said they will not hold "sham elections" if the disqualifications are upheld.

In a session broadcast live on state radio, legislators voted Sunday to approve the bill. They categorized it as "triple-urgent," meaning highest priority. It was the first time since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution that Parliament has approved a triple-urgency bill.

The bill would have amended the national elections law to force the Guardian Council, which oversees elections, to reinstate all candidates unless legal documentation proves them unfit for Parliament.

The council's members are chosen by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has asked the body to reconsider its disqualifications. The council has reinstated only a few hundred candidates. Its slow response has angered reformists, who say it does not act without the supreme leader's approval.

After the bill was passed, and before it was vetoed, lawmaker Rajabali Mazrouei said the crisis would determine in which direction Iran moves: toward dictatorship or democracy.

He said the council was dedicated to "imposing brazen dictatorship."

On Friday, Khatami and parliamentary speaker Mahdi Karroubi warned that unless the disqualifications were withdrawn, there would be no liberal candidates in more than two-thirds of the electoral districts.

The battle over who can run on Feb. 20 has turned into Iran's worst political crisis in years.

Reformers believe the conservatives are trying to tilt the elections so they will regain control of the 290-seat Parliament. In the 2000 polls, the hard-liners lost the majority in the assembly for the first time since the 1979 revolution.

Hard-liners claim the disqualified candidates _ who include more than 80 sitting lawmakers _ failed to meet the legal criteria.

Speaking by telephone from Tehran, Saeed Laylaz, a reformist analyst, said the outcome would push events along a course conservatives determined from the outset.

Laylaz said Iran's right wing is united and confident, and the council's reluctance to review the reformist candidacies indicated it would not approve candidates in numbers that might threaten a conservative victory at the polls.

_ Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.