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Ahmadinejad: No Rift With Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

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TEHRAN, Iran — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad begins his second term next week undermined by a deepening feud with his fellow hard-liners and under assault from a pro-reform opposition movement that has shown it can bring out thousands of protesters despite a fierce seven-week-old crackdown.

Ahmadinejad on Friday sought shelter with his top supporter, declaring that Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is like a father to him. Ahmadinejad accused his hard-line rivals of trying to drive a wedge between him and the man who sits at the top of Iran's clerical leadership and who has final say in all state matters.

On Monday, Khamenei leads a ceremony formally approving Ahmadinejad's second term, and two days later Ahmadinejad is to be sworn in before parliament, despite opposition claims that he won the June 12 presidential election by fraud and that his government is illegitimate.

In a sign of the growing challenge the president also faces from some in the religious establishment, an influential clerical group at the seminary in the holy city of Qom called Friday for the opposition to continue its campaign against the election results.

A statement on the Web site of the Association of Teachers and Researchers also criticized arrests of protesters and abuses in prisons.

"Reports of inhuman torture are heard every day. They don't allow funeral and memorial ceremonies for victims, and unfortunately all this is done under the name of Islam," the group said.

The supreme leader has stuck by Ahmadinejad – in part because doing otherwise would be a blow to Khamenei's prestige after he strongly declared the election clean. Still, some hard-liners have warned they'll judge the president's administration by his loyalty to Khamenei, and that if he falls short he doesn't deserve to lead.

Sensing fragility in the president, rivals within Ahmadinejad's own camp seem to be seeking a greater say in his next administration.

During Friday prayer services in Tehran, a senior ultraconservative cleric bluntly told Ahmadinejad to listen to hard-line lawmakers in the makeup of his new Cabinet. "Before naming individuals for ministries, the government and parliament must coordinate," Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said.

He criticized Ahmadinejad's attempt this month to appoint a vice president opposed by hard-liners and his firing this week of his intelligence minister, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi.

"I say to my dear brother (Ahmadinejad) in a friendly manner so no one gets upset, the appointments and dismissals indeed caused an outcry from the people," Jannati said. "The sudden dismissal of a veteran ... and competent minister is not correct. It is not possible to defend this sort of activity."

Ahmadinejad has frequently feuded with his own conservative camp, where some complain he keeps power among a tight circle of associates. His attempt to appoint Esfandiar Rahim Mashai this month as his top vice president angered hard-liners because of past comments by Mashai seen as too pro-Israeli. The supreme leader ordered Mashai's dismissal, but Ahmadinejad stalled, trying to retain him. The president finally obeyed the dismissal order but then named Mashai as his chief of staff.

The debacle outraged hard-liners, who accused Ahmadinejad of insufficient loyalty to Khamenei.

In a speech Friday in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Ahmadinejad said his rivals were trying to create a rift between him and Khamenei.

"What they don't understand is that the relationship between us and the supreme leader goes beyond politics and administration. It is based on kindness, on ideology, it is like that of a father and son," he said in the speech, parts of which were aired on state TV.

He said the attempts by "ill-wishers" would fail and "this path with be shut in the face of devils."

The speech suggested Ahmadinejad will not yield easily to conservatives' meddling. But his rivals seem to see him as vulnerable, since the protest movement that erupted with Ahmadinejad's re-election shows no sign of flagging.

Thousands of protesters held a memorial Thursday at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery on Tehran's outskirts to commemorate those killed in the crackdown since the disputed election. Police fired tear gas and beat protesters with batons, but the march continued, with protesters chanting the name of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who they say is the vote's real victor.

Protesters then streamed back into central Tehran – some chanting on the subway, "Traitor Mahmoud, we want you to become homeless" – and again clashed with security forces.

Police arrested 50 people in the marches, Tehran police commander Azizollah Rajabzadeh said Friday, according to news agencies.

A top Mousavi ally, former President Mohammad Khatami, vowed protests would continue. "Our people ... won't let go of their demands," he said. "Our nation wants freedom, independence and the advancement of Iran, and it seriously wants democracy and rule of the people with all its advantages."

Activists on the Web have called for protests during Ahmadinejad's inauguration Wednesday, though Mousavi has not backed the calls. Mousavi has said upcoming religious holidays are a chance to take to the street – particularly next Friday's birthday of the Imam Mahdi, a messianic figure in Shia Islam.

The government and Khamenei's clerical leadership have also come under fire over alleged abuses of detained protesters. Authorities say 30 people were killed in the seven-week-old crackdown, but human rights groups say the number is far higher. In recent days, several young protesters arrested in the sweeps turned up dead, apparently from abuse in prison.

Even government allies joined the criticism. On Friday, Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, seen as a conservative among the top clerics, said detainees should be released by the Imam Mahdi holiday.

Khamenei closed down one prison this week, and at least 140 detainees were freed. Also, several prominent pro-reform politicians were allowed to talk to their families for the first time in weeks. One senior reformist, Saeed Hajjarian, who uses a wheelchair after a 2000 assassination attempt, was moved from Evin prison to a detention center with better medical facilities in a nod to worries over his health, according to pro-opposition Web sites.

Still, authorities are pressing ahead with trials of around 20 protesters on Saturday, and later plan to prosecute the jailed opposition politicians on charges of fomenting the unrest.

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Karimi reported from Tehran. Keath reported from Cairo.

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