LOS ANGELES - Iranian expatriates and their children livingin the United States cast ballots Friday in the Middle Easterncountry's heated presidential election between incumbent MahmoudAhmadinejad and his main rival, a reformist who favors greaterfreedoms and improved ties with the U.S.
Voters around the country gathered at 41 election sites, mostlyat hotels and mosques staffed by volunteers. Typically, expatriatesvote at their country's diplomatic missions, but Iran and the U.S.do not have diplomatic relations.
Long lines formed at some locations, while record voter turnoutwas expected in Iran.
In a race too close to call, Ahmadinejad was defending his seatagainst his main rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who served as Iran'sprime minister in the 1980s. The election was being watched aroundthe world as an indicator of what role Iran will play in a regionplagued by bloody conflict, a powerful drug trade and the war onterror.
The United States is home to about 414,000 Iranians, with morethan half residing in the West, according to the U.S. Census. Theelection was open to expatriates and their children who have validIranian paperwork. Many are legal U.S. residents or citizens.
Amin Khadem, a 21-year-old Iranian student in Los Angeles and anelection volunteer, said he had a civic duty as an Iranian "justlike an American likes to participate in their elections."
Unlike the United States' electoral college, Iranians castballots directly for their candidates, who are chosen by thecountry's clerics. The race will go to a runoff on June 19 if nocandidate receives a simple majority of votes.
Many voters stateside doubted that their ballots would becounted, but said they participated to show support for politicalactivists who took to the streets in Iran in recent weeks.
"I want to support the people in Iran because I hope for theirpolitical and cultural life to improve," said Parandeh Kia, 48.The U.S. resident of 32 years said she wants to see Iran's societybecome more open and democratic.
The two other candidates in the election are conservative formerRevolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezaei and moderate formerparliament speaker Mahdi Karroubi.
Los Angeles resident Kia Kashani, 32, said he boycotted the lastelection but decided to vote for Karroubi in this round. After twoand a half years in the U.S., Kashani said he now feels thatboycott isn't the way to help bring change.
"If people want change in Iran, then they have to bepolitically active," said Kashani.
About 15 protesters outside the Los Angeles voting site calledfor a boycott of Friday's elections, citing human rights violationsand other failures of the current regime. Many waved thepre-Islamic revolution flag used by the previous regime, themonarchy led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
"I'm here for my country," said Fathi Hajimoradi, one of theprotesters. "For 30 years, these Islamists have terrorized thecountry."
Sayed Hashemi, a volunteer running a voting site at the HyattRegency Irvine in Orange County, said he expected about 1,500people to cast ballots there. By Friday morning, people werewaiting about 20 minutes to vote.
Yasha Kishipour, a 32-year-old architect in Costa Mesa, said hevoted for Mousavi and that he was especially keen to see a changefor women in Iran. He also said his mother's dance salon was shutdown by authorities.
Shahab Baniadam, 51, said he had been in the United States for30 years and it was his first time voting in Iranian elections. Hesaid he voted for Mousavi and that he "seems like a reasonableperson."
Electrical engineering student Sara Saedinia, 28, said she alsovoted for Mousavi because she hopes he will improve Iran'srelations with the world and restore credibility to her country'spassport.
"I am a U.S. citizen, but I feel bad in the airport when theysearch Iranians," she said.