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In show of defiance, Iranian lawmakers take on ayatollah

TEHRAN -- Shattering taboos about public criticism of Iran's unchallenged political and spiritual authority, dozens of reformist lawmakers have accused Ayatollah Ali Khamanei of allowing freedoms to be "trampled" and rigging upcoming parliament elections in favor of hard-line backers.

The daring attack -- in a letter sent on Monday to Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader -- was described yesterday as a "cry of agony" and raised political dissent to levels unimaginable just a few weeks ago.

The letter struck at a core complaint: that Khamenei's regime has corrupted the spirit of the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled a Western-backed monarchy. His supporters believe he is incapable of error and answerable only to God.

"The popular (1979) revolution brought freedom and independence for the country in the name of Islam. But now you lead a system in which legitimate freedoms and the rights of the people are being trampled in the name of Islam," the legislators said in the letter.

The missive also underlined new defiance by liberals booted from the political process. Critics call Friday's parliamentary elections a charade after the disqualification of more than 2,400 pro-reform candidates.

"It is a cry of agony for what's happening to our country," said Reza Yousefian, a parliament member who has joined appeals for a mass boycott of the balloting and who supported the letter. "We may see a strong social backlash."

Hard-line candidates are expected to sweep the elections and retake control of the 290-seat parliament -- the main battleground between the Islamic establishment and liberals since a pro-reform landslide four years ago.

"Institutions under your supervision -- after four years of humiliating the elected parliament and thwarting (reform) bills -- have now, on the verge of the parliamentary elections, deprived the people of the most basic right: the right to choose and be chosen," the letter said.

There was no immediate reaction from Khamenei or other top members of the non-elected clerical leadership. In the past, however, activists and others have been arrested for less provocative statements.

The letter was not signed. But one legislator said more than 100 legislators backed the letter, including deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of President Mohammad Khatami.

The president's stature as a reform leader has been eroding over the years. It took a dramatic plunge this month after he bowed to pressure to hold the elections.

The text of the letter appeared on pro-reform websites but was not mentioned by state-run media. Newspapers have reportedly been warned not to publish it.

Khamenei often blames Iran's troubles on the United States and unidentified "enemies." A low voter turnout would be widely interpreted as a sign of support for reformers.

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