Iran president largesse wins over some, but prices up

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SARTAF, Iran, Sep 20 (Reuters) For wheelchair-bound Farangis, sitting in the yard of her newly built home in one of Iran's poorest provinces, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has lost none of his ability to connect with the poor.

''God bless Ahmadinejad. He is a leader engaged with the masses.

He is one of us,'' the 68-year-old said, proudly pointing out her house paid for by the government after the president visited her village of Sartaf in the western province of Ilam.

Ahmadinejad, the son of a blacksmith, came to power in 2005 vowing to share out Iran's oil wealth more fairly, but rising prices and other economic problems have drawn growing complaints from lawmakers, the press and ordinary Iranians.

The president has however travelled across Iran delivering speeches and cash pledges to provinces like Ilam that long felt neglected by the state.

Economists say such largesse may be welcome by some now but is having damaging economic effects by pushing up inflation, something that is likely to hurt the poor most.

But that's not worrying Farangis and some others like her.

''I will kill myself if he is not elected again. He is our hero.

He cares about poor people,'' she told reporters on a visit by journalists this month with Ahmadinejad's advisors to see whether presidential pledges have been kept by local officials.

Ahmadinejad is about half way through his four-year term, with the next presidential election in 2009. Before then, his political backers face a test in parliamentary elections in March.

But gauging support for the president is tricky because there are no reliable opinion polls and even elections, critics say, are skewed by a conservative body which can bar candidates.

Pro-reform politicians, who unlike Ahmadinejad tend to seek better ties with the West, say they are often blocked. However, in municipal council elections in December, Ahmadinejad's supporters fared poorly, particularly in big cities like Tehran.

BROKEN PROMISES But analysts say much of Ahmadinejad's support is in the provinces. In Ilam, a border province of 600,000 people ravaged by the 1980s war with Iraq, plenty voiced backing for him.

''Our village was forgotten by every other president. We did not have hospital, mosque, water network and other facilities until his visit,'' said Zahra Tayyebzadeh, 33, an Ilam resident.

Ahmadinejad has been to more than 380 cities and towns. At rallies, he berates the West for the way it opposes Iran's nuclear plans but some of the loudest cheers come when he promises handouts for the area. Queues form to deliver him letters with requests.

More than 9 million have been given to him so far and 70 people have been assigned to review the letters, of which about 40 percent ask for loans, an official said. Others seek jobs, houses or medical care.

''The aim of the trips is to remove deprivation from all parts of the country,'' said presidential adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr.

But not everyone is happy.

Reza, 35, a jobless father of two, mutters about broken promises.

''In a letter to Ahmadinejad I asked for a bank loan. I have not heard anything yet,'' he said with tear-filled eyes.

Unemployment is a common complaint, particularly among the young in Iran, the world's fourth largest oil producer now enjoying windfall energy revenues. Others grumble about rising prices.

Inflation is officially put at more than 17 percent.

Saeed Leylaz, an economic commentator, said Ahmadinejad was exchanging Iran's ''petrodollars for people's votes'' on the trips.

An economist, who asked not to be identified, said: ''Giving promises and spending oil income during provincial trips do not help the economy.'' Reuters SZ DB0934

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