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TEHRAN - Iran's Guardian Council revealed on Tuesday it had so far reversed only a tiny fraction of its bans on candidates for parliamentary elections despite a poll boycott threat by reformist President Mohammad Khatami's party.

The 12-man unelected conservative watchdog has barred nearly half the 8,200 candidates from running for the February 20 elections. Allies of Khatami, including 80 of the standing 290 MPs, have been most affected.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on all state matters, has urged the Council to review its decisions, but it has been in no apparent rush to lift bans and has until the end of the month to review 3,100 appeals.

"So far...200 [disqualified] candidates have been approved," said a statement on the hardline Council's Web site. The figure represents about five percent of the bans.

The disqualifications sparked a bitter political dispute. Apart from the poll boycott threat by Khatami's party, government ministers considered resignation and liberal MPs have reached the 10th day of a parliamentary sit-in.

Firebrand MP Fatemeh Haqiqatjou said the attritional row between reformists and conservatives had reached breaking point and the outcome would determine whether the country's Islamic constitution could survive.

"This is the climax of a confrontation between the elected and the appointed...on how to run the country," she was quoted as saying on the official IRNA news agency.

"The elected bodies are the representatives of the people and their will is the will of the people. They must be the true defenders of the people's rights," she added.

Who should rule?At stake is the idea of how Iran should be governed.

The Guardian Council, composed of six clerics and six Islamic jurists, wields a power of veto over the elected parliament and has blocked dozens of its reformist bills.

Hardliners believe concessions to a Western-style democracy could destroy Islamic rule. Reformists believe the system needs to be overhauled to keep up with the demands of a youthful population.

Haqiqatjou observed the key question would be whether the people threw their weight behind the protesting MPs.

The parliamentary sit-in has so far elicited little sympathy from students, the vanguard of Iran's reform protests, or the public, frustrated by the reformists' fudged compromises with hardliners and sluggish social and economic reform.

"The people will either back us, or the epidemic mistrust that has spread in the minds of various classes will prevail and the nation will not back the strikers," said Haqiqatjou, herself one of MPs blocked from standing again.

Political analyst Mahmoud Alinejad said the students could get involved if the dispute dragged on.

"If it goes on, more groups may get involved," he said.

But the secretary of the country's largest student activist group said the students would express their anger by not voting.

"Parliament lacks the real power for decision-making...our participation in elections would increase the power of undemocratic structures," said Abdollah Momeni of the Office to Consolidate Unity.