In Iran, Ahmadinejad opponent sees surge of enthusiasm
Days before June 12 vote, Mir Hossein Mousavi gets 'savoir's' welcome in a former presidential stronghold
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Voters in 2005 favored the firebrand in higher percentages here than in any other city. Mr. Ahmadinejad returned the favor by making Birjand his first stop as president, lavishing the underdeveloped area, 800 miles southeast of Tehran, with projects and cash.
So no one would have been more surprised than the president himself to see the exuberant welcome given to his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, just one week before Iran's June 12 presidential election.
A raucous welcome
Mobbed from the moment he stepped out of the airport terminal on Friday night, Mr. Mousavi's supporters cast him in the role of savior-in-chief.
Two cows and a number of sheep were slaughtered to honor the former prime minister, and bloody handprints slapped onto the hood of his silver SUV, to offer a traditional form of protection.
When Mousavi stood up through the sunroof, Iranians lunged forward to touch his outstretched hands, or held up babies in search of a blessing as the motorcade passed. Smiling wanly, the reform-leaning candidate basked in what analysts say is a fresh surge.
Acolytes of the uncharismatic Mousavi call it a "green wave," after the color of the campaign, and they compare it to the level of electoral excitement that swept reformist Mohammed Khatami to a surprise landslide in 1997.
"He can be our savior," says Gholamreza Ghanbari, a veteran who lost both his legs in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. He says Mousavi was "in the war with me," because he was Iran's premier at the time.
"We hope, with the people's vote, their good choice will bring a bright future and restore Iran's national dignity," says Mr. Ghanbari.
The veteran personally met Ahmadinejad twice during Birjand visits, but "nothing changed," he says.
Many manufacturing companies like his shut down. "He didn't solve the problems," he says. "He speaks very well [but] hopefully there will be change."
Mousavi faces tough challenge
Toppling Ahmadinejad, who has been in perpetual campaign mode for four years, visiting every province at least twice and spreading cash and favors to the millions of Iranians who have written letters to him, was never going to be easy.
Ahmadinejad has received frequent support from Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei. And he has the quiet institutional backing of the ideological basiji militia and Revolutionary Guards, who have benefited hugely from presidential largesse.
But in Birjand, new Mousavi adherents are angry over Iran's tanking economy, the president's failure to fulfill extravagant promises, and, finally, disgust over a head-to-head debate last Wednesday in which Ahmadinejad's knifetwisting criticism exposed past regime deeds, corruption of top leaders, and even dragged Mousavi's wife into the mix.
An electrifying rally in stultifying heat
The result in Birjand was an opposition rally in which thousands of wildly cheering supporters draped in green welcomed their candidate in a sports arena with deafening cries of support and "Death to the dictator."
The political electricity was as palpable as it was unexpected, and the steaming temperature a stuffy 15 degrees hotter than the warm night outside.