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Iran's Facebook decision hit

Leaders blocked access with elections near. The opposition had hoped to rally the youth vote.

TEHRAN, Iran - Iran's decision to block access to Facebook less than three weeks before nationwide elections drew sharp criticism yesterday from a reformist opposition hoping to mobilize the youth vote and unseat President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The decision, critics said, forces Iranians to rely on state-run media and other government sources ahead of the June 12 election. It also appeared to be a direct strike at the youth vote that could pose challenges to Ahmadinejad's reelection bid.

More than half of Iran's population was born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and young voters make up a huge bloc - which helped former reformist President Mohammad Khatami to back-to-back victories in 1997 and 2001 but failed to rally behind Ahmadinejad's opponent, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, four years ago.

Young voters are now strongly courted by the main reformist candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, as the possible swing factor.

"Every single media outlet that is seen as competition for Ahmadinejad is at risk of being closed," said Shahab Tabatabaei, a top aide for Mousavi, the leading reformist candidate. "Placing limits on the competition is the top priority of the government."

Tabatabaei said the Facebook block was "a swift reaction" to a major pro-Mousavi rally Saturday in a Tehran sports stadium that included an appearance by Khatami and many young people waving green banners and scarves - the symbolic color of the Mousavi campaign.

Iranian authorities often block specific Web sites and blogs considered critical of the Islamic regime, but critics of the latest decision said the loss of Facebook - and possibly other Web sites popular with reformists - means Iranians must rely on the government for information.

"Facebook is one of the only independent sources that the Iranian youth could use to communicate," said Mohammed Ali Abtahi, a former vice president and now adviser to pro-reform candidate Mahdi Karroubi, a former parliament speaker.

Internet use has mushroomed in Iran. There are currently 23 million people there with access, according to Internet World Stats, a marketing company that tracks usage worldwide. With a population of 68 million, Iran is one of the most connected countries in the Middle East.

During the last presidential race in 2005, information about rallies and campaign updates were sent by text message. In recent years, political blogs by Iranians in the country and abroad have grown sharply. Newcomers such as Twitter also are gaining in popularity.

Iranian officials did not comment on the reported blockages.