- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 19, 2010

TEHRAN | Iran’s supreme leader pushed defiant senior clerics to throw their support behind the government Tuesday as he began a 10-day visit to the city of Qom, hoping to end a split in the powerful religious establishment over last year’s disputed elections.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, publicly supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the June 2009 presidential elections and endorsed his disputed victory in the vote.

But the majority of senior clerics in Qom didn’t side with Mr. Ahmadinejad and have increasingly adopted critical language against the government.

The dispute is damaging for Ayatollah Khamenei because the Qom ayatollahs have wide public followings. More significant, it is embarrassing for a system based on the idea of rule by clerics.

In recent weeks, authorities have blocked the websites of at least three senior reform-minded clerics to limit their access to the public and their supporters.

Ayatollah Khamenei reportedly has made several secret visits to Qom — the revered city that is the center of Iran’s clerical establishment — in recent months aimed at winning support from the defiant clerics. So far there has been little sign of a change in heart among the ayatollahs.

Minutes after he arrived in Qom, 80 miles south of the capital Tehran, on Tuesday, Ayatollah Khamenei told the clerics they should give priority to supporting Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government.

“Solidarity with the three branches of power needs to be strengthened further day by day, specifically with the executive branch, which has a lot of burdens on its shoulders,” Ayatollah Khamenei said, speaking to a crowd in a square near Qom’s holiest shrine. His speech was broadcast live on state television.

Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, one of the top 10 clerics in Qom, accused Mr. Ahmadinejad’s government last month of lying about the country’s economic situation.

“Statistics about reducing inflation are constantly released but contradict what the people see by their own eyes,” Ayatollah Shirazi was quoted by the media as saying. “When state statistics don’t correspond with reality, people lose confidence in government.”

Iran’s central bank says the inflation rate is under 10 percent, though many experts say it is more than 20 percent in certain daily needs of people.