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Iranians Jam Polling Places in Hard-fought Presidential Election

Both President Ahmadinejad and his main reformist challenger, Moussavi,declared victory in Iran’s election Friday shortly after the polls closed.

The Interior Ministry released partial results showing hard-line Ahmadinejad with a strong lead. It said he had 68.8 percent of the more than 10 million ballots counted so far. His main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi had 28.8 percent, according to the AP.

Official results are not expected to be released until Saturday.

Iranians packed polling stations from boutique-lined streets in north Tehran to conservative bastions in the countryside with a choice that’s left the nation divided and on edge.

Voting was extended by one hour because of long lines at polling stations, said the Interior Ministry, reported Reuters. The ministry said earlier it expected a turnout of more than 70 percent, approaching the record of nearly 80 percent when reformist Mohammad Khatami swept the 1997 election.

A strong turnout could boost Moussavi, who is counting on under-30 voters who account for about a third of Iran’s 46.2 million eligible voters.

Even before the vote was over, Khatami predicted Moussavi will emerge the winner. “All indications suggest that Mousavi has won,” Khatami told reporters.

Crowds formed quickly at many voting sites in areas considered both strongholds for Ahmadinejad and his Moussavi, who served as prime minister in the 1980s and has become the surprise 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, reported the Associated Press.

Former Tehran mayor and current president Ahmadinejad is associated with the country’s ultra-conservatives and has taken a hard stance against the United States and Israel.

Outside the same polling station, 29-year-old Abbas Rezai told the AP that 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.

Iranians around the world also took part in the vote. In Dubai, home to an estimated 200,000 Iranians, the AP reported streets around the polling station at the Iranian consulate were jammed with voters overwhelmingly favoring Mousavi.

Ahmadinejad has insisted on continuing Iran’s nuclear program, saying it is for energy purposes only, despite several rounds of U.N. Security Council and European Union sanctions against the country.

He has seen his popularity in Iran flag, however, because of the country’s continued economic slump, soaring inflation and rising unemployment.

Like Ahmadinejad, Moussavi has said he would continue uranium enrichment for a peaceful nuclear program, but also would seek improved relations with the United States.

Moussavi supporters wearing bright green campaign colors have poured into the streets each night for rallies. His wife, Zahra Rahnavard, has campaigned vocally by his side, helping draw support from women.

Ahmadinejad’s supporters have held huge rallies of their own.

Two other candidates are in the mix: Mehdi Karroubi, a moderate cleric and former speaker of the Parliament, and conservative Mohsen Rezai, who served as head of the Revolutionary Guards from 1981 to 1997.

If no candidate receives an outright majority on Friday, the two leading candidates would enter a run-off on June 19.

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