BEHESHT-E ZAHRA CEMETERY, Tehran (Reuters) - Loyalty to Iran's Islamic revolution runs deep among mourners at the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, where thousands of young men who died as soldiers defending the Shi'ite Muslim state are buried.
Many of the pious bereaved at the necropolis say they back hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and defend him against criticism over his handling of the economy ahead of Friday's parliamentary election which may also gauge his own popularity.
Himself a veteran of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, in which 1 million people were killed, Ahmadinejad won the presidency almost three years ago vowing to revive the values of the 1979 revolution in whose name the conflict was fought.
"He is doing what the martyrs would have wanted him to do," said Ali Mokhtari, a bearded 29-year-old who works as a photographer at the cemetery on the outskirts of the capital.
"I'm proud of him," he said about the president's defiance of United Nations demands to halt nuclear work the West fears is aimed at making bombs, a charge Iran denies.
Such comments show Ahmadinejad's speeches denouncing the West, his policies to fight poverty and a crackdown on women flouting Islamic dress codes resonate with socially conservative and less well-off voters.
Ahmadinejad pledged after his 2005 election victory to share out Iran's oil wealth more fairly, but critics say profligate spending of petrodollars has stoked inflation into double-digits to the detriment of the poor he promised to help.
Expected to run again for president in 2009, the outcome of the vote to the 290-seat legislature may help measure his chances for another four-year term, although a vetting process has eliminated many of his main critics from the race.
Nahid Salehi, whose brother-in-law was killed during the war, acknowledged rising consumer prices were a problem but said this was a worldwide issue and not Ahmadinejad's fault.
"He understands the people's pain and suffering," the 35-year-old housewife said, standing next to the tombstone of her husband's brother Hossein.
Hossein lies with fellow "martyrs" -- as the war dead are known -- in one of the seemingly endless row of tombs that are a testimony to the carnage the devastating conflict brought.
"We have seen achievements from this man," Salehi said about Ahmadinejad. Dressed in the black head-to-toe chador, she said it was a religious duty to vote in the election.
She said her husband also took part in the war and was now a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, an elite force which has gained in influence under the presidency of Ahmadinejad, himself a former Guardsman.
The Guards are not only a fully-equipped parallel army to the regular military but have business interests in Iran's vital oil and gas industry, construction and other areas. In the war with Iraq, they led some of the most dangerous missions and took part in "human wave" assaults against enemy lines.
At the cemetery, photographs of the dead are framed in glass cases at each grave, together with flowers and copies of Islam's holy book, the Koran. Solemn faces look into the camera. Some were just teenagers when they died.
"His beard was not fully grown," said Hossein's mother, Iran Hassan Khani, in front of the picture of her bespectacled son.
On this day, the tree-lined cemetery was virtually empty, but as the Iranian New Year approaches on March 20, many families will gather to mourn their loved ones.
"The cult of martyrdom has deep roots in Iran's Shi'ite culture," New York Times journalist Elaine Sciolino writes in her book "Persian Mirrors."
Shi'ites still commemorate with great emotion the death in battle of their religious leader Imam Hussein more than 13 centuries ago.
Kneeling by the grave of her husband, who died when an Iraqi shell slammed into his gun boat, Zahra Mehramiz said she was proud to be the wife of a martyr: "He gave his life for Islam, for his country."
But unlike other mourners at Behesht-e Zahra she said she had never voted and would not cast her ballot on March 14.
"If my husband returned he would not be an opponent (of the Islamic Republic) but he might be critical of certain aspects of it," the 47-year-old mother of two said.
Editing by Peter Millership