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Iran opposition calls for vote over candidate bans

TEHRAN, Iran — One of Iran's top opposition leaders called Monday for a referendum on whether to strip the ruling system of the right to ban political candidates — a powerful tool used to blacklist liberal voices from key campaigns.

It's highly unlikely that Iran's theocracy will allow a public judgment on one of the pillars of the constitution. But the appeal by Mahdi Karroubi could signal new strategies by the opposition after their latest street protests were crushed by riot police and militiamen earlier this month.

During the brief demonstrations — timed to coincided with events to mark the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution — some people chanted: "Referendum, referendum."

Karroubi, whose son Ali was detained that day and allegedly beaten by hardline vigilantes, said in a statement that "security forces turned Tehran into a military base."

The statement, carried on the pro-reform Sahamnews Web site, said a referendum on the role of the Guardian Council could be a way to ease Iran's worst internal unrest since the Revolution.

The 12-member Council vets candidates for political office, oversees elections and examines claims of voting irregularities. The members are all are appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who strongly backs President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Before last June's disputed presidential elections, the Council rejected more than 470 potential candidates and permitted three challengers to Ahmadinejad — including former parliament speaker Karroubi. The others were conservative-leaning Mohsen Rezaei and pro-reform Mir Hossein Mousavi, who led the "Green Movement" campaign and claimed massive vote fraud robbed him of victory.

Karroubi accused the Guardian Council of blocking free elections for president and parliament.

"What kind of parliament is a parliament that ... operates under fear of the Guardian Council?" he wrote.

In July, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami suggested a referendum for settling deputes over the election, but the idea went nowhere.

Karroubi also urged authorities to grant opposition permission for a protest gathering to show which group is "majority and minority."

Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, praised the mass turnout at the prostate rally on Feb. 11, describing the "tens of millions" across the country as a wake-up call for the "domestic enemies and deceived groups who claim to represent the people."

In recent months, tens of thousands of protesters have surged into streets in Tehran and elsewhere during marches timed to overlap with important political or religious days.

Iranian authorities have confirmed at least 30 people have died in unrest since the disputed election in June, while the opposition and international human rights groups say the toll is at least 80.

Karroubi accused Iran's leaders of trying to "hide the savagery" of the crackdowns.