Iran's war veterans turn against Ahmadinejad

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Their lungs still suffer the after-effects of Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons, but many veterans of Iran's devastating eight-year war with Iraq have thrown their influential voices behind the reformist contenders in Friday's presidential election.

As the men who saved the Islamic Republic from extinction, the "Basijis", or "volunteers", are hugely respected in Iranian society. Murals celebrate their deeds on countless street corners, while the hundreds of thousands who survive are regarded as embodying the values of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Yet increasingly, many veterans complain their identity has been hijacked by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hardliners. Today the term "Basiji" is generally used to refer to the militia of bearded, fundamentalist youths who attack liberal gatherings and harass young Iranians for wearing Western clothes.

According to Mr Salehi, Iran has about 500,000 surviving Basijis. The war with Iraq, between 1980 and 1988, was triggered by Saddam's invasion of his neighbour and became one of the deadliest in modern times, killing some 230,000 Iranian soldiers and claiming perhaps a million lives in total.

Since then, Iran's regime has made a point of looking after veterans and the families of "martyrs", providing many of the injured with free homes and hospital treatment. But veterans complain that not all receive the help they need.

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