REUTERS: A leading hardline cleric in Shi'ite Muslim Iran warned on Friday of possible vote-rigging in next month's Iraqi elections in the latest of a series of barbed exchanges
between the two neighbours. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, speaking after U.S. President George W. Bush this week told Iran and Syria not to meddle in the forthcoming Iraqi vote, proposed that Iraqi clerics should supervise the Jan. 30 vote
to ensure it is fair. REUTERS

TEHRAN – A leading hardline cleric in Shi'ite Muslim Iran warned on Friday of possible vote-rigging in next month's Iraqi elections in the latest of a series of barbed exchanges between the two neighbours.

Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, speaking after U.S. President George W. Bush this week told Iran and Syria not to meddle in the forthcoming Iraqi vote, proposed that Iraqi clerics should supervise the Jan. 30 vote to ensure it is fair.

"The possibility of fraud is very high in the Iraqi election. Iraqi clerics' comprehensive and strong supervision will protect people's votes," Jannati told worshippers at Friday prayers at Tehran University, without elaborating.

Iraq's interim government, whose Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other key ministers are secular Shi'ites, has accused Iran of backing insurgents in Iraq set on wrecking the poll.

Defence Minister Hazim al-Shaalan has sharply criticised Hussain al-Shahristani, a senior figure in a Shi'ite bloc expected to do well in the election, for links with Iran.

Iran fears that the rise of a secular Iraq could threaten Iran's Shi'ite clerical establishment by displaying a model for Shi'ites to emulate in pressing for change in the Islamic state.

Washington has told Iran to keep out of Iraqi politics amid concerns, shared by some U.S. Arab allies, that Tehran wants to encourage the creation of a fellow Islamic republic in Iraq.

Iran has repeatedly denied any such interference. It welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein, but wants to ensure a future Iraqi government is at least not hostile to Iran and not friendly with its arch-foe, the United States.

In remarks broadcast live on state radio, Jannati said Iran welcomed Iraq's January election as a step towards full sovereignty and an end to occupation by foreign forces.

"If you (Iraqis) want to have a sovereign country, you should vote," said Jannati, who heads Iran's hardline Guardian Council – a powerful, unelected supervisory body.

"Choose the ones who care about Iraq, otherwise dictators will rule your country."

Next month's polls are widely expected to seal the increased influence that Iraq's long-oppressed 60-percent Shi'ite majority has enjoyed since last year's U.S.-led invasion.

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has issued a religious edict demanding Shi'ites vote.

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