by Heideh Farmani and Farhad Pouladi
TEHRAN - Hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heading for victory in Iran's presidential election, official results showed, as his supporters early Saturday began celebrating in the streets of Tehran.
With 61 per cent of total ballot boxes counted, amounting to 21,170,263 votes, Ahmadinejad held a commanding lead, receiving 14,011,664 votes, or 66.18 per cent of the total.
That compared with 6,575,844, or 31.06 per cent for his closest challenger, moderate ex-premier Mir Hossein Mousavi, said Kamran Daneshjoo, chairman of the electoral commission at the interior ministry.
Former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai remained a distant third, with 397,117 votes, or 1.87 per cent. Ex-parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi remained in fourth place with 185,578, or 0.87 per cent.
As it became clear that the reformist Mousavi's bid to halt Ahmadinejad's drive for a second term at the helm of the Islamic republic was faltering, the president's supporters began pouring onto the streets of Tehran, honking their horns and waving Iranian flags.
Mousavi, whose supporters had earned the nickname 'the greens' because in recent weeks they had flooded the streets wearing green items of clothing, was loudly mocked.
"Where are the greens? -- in a mousehole," Ahmadinejad's supporters chanted. "It is a Saturday and Mousavi is disgraced."
Sandwich seller Kamra Mohammadi, 22, was ecstatic at Ahmadinejad's success.
"I am happy that my candidate has won -- he helps the poor and he catches the thieves," he said smiling broadly.
Mousavi had earlier claimed for himself an overwhelming victory in Iran's most hotly contested election since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago.
"In line with the information we have received, I am the winner of this election by a substantial margin," he told a news conference in Tehran.
Only minutes earlier, close Mousavi aide Ali Akbar Mohatshemi-Pour told AFP his candidate had won 65 per cent of the vote.
State news agency IRNA, however, announced that Ahmadinejad had won re-election.
"Doctor Ahmadinejad, by getting a majority of the votes, has become the definite winner of the 10th presidential election," it said.
Separately, a former senior member of the National Security Council, Agha Mohammadi, said Ahmadinejad was likely to end the day with a narrow victory, avoiding the need for a runoff.
"According to the information we have the voter participation will be 70 per cent overall (of the 46.2 million-strong electorate) and Ahmadinejad will have a little more than 50 per cent of the total vote," Mohammadi said.
Iran's economic woes and its relationship with the outside world emerged as key issues during a feisty campaign marked by carnival-like street rallies and acrimonious candidate debates on prime-time television.
The election turned the spotlight on deep divisions in Iran after four years under Ahmadinejad, whose firebrand rhetoric further isolated the country from the West while at home he has come under fire over his economic policies.
Ahmadinejad, 52, is seeking a second four-year term, while the 67-year-old Mousavi is hoping to make a comeback after two decades in the political wilderness, pledging better ties with the outside world.
US President Barack Obama, who has called for dialogue with Iran after three decades of severed ties, said on Friday he saw the "possibility of change."
The election has highlighted divisions after 30 years of clerical rule in a country where 60 per cent of the population was born after the revolution, and it is being keenly watched by the international community to determine future foreign policy.
Young men and women in big cities are throwing their weight behind Mousavi while Ahmadinejad, who is pledging to help the poor and stamp out corruption, draws passionate support from rural towns and villages.
Both front-runners promised a better future as they cast their ballots, with Ahmadinejad hailing the large crowds gathered at the polling stations, where men and women, many dressed in black chadors, formed separate lines.
Mousavi -- whose wife is a high-profile artist and academic -- has also pledged to better the lot of women, who face many restrictions under the country's conservative clerical rulers.
"He holds his wife's hand. It's like a European president. Such a person can care about women's rights," said restaurant cashier Mina Faiz. -AFP