More than one-third of Iran's lawmakers resigned in protest Sunday over disputed elections and the parliamentary speaker charged ruling clerics with trampling on the rights of his countrymen.

Speaker Mahdi Karroubi (search) appealed to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (search), to help resolve the crisis caused by disqualification of thousands of liberal candidates from the Feb. 20 vote.

Some 124 lawmakers in the 290-seat Majlis (search), or parliament, resigned Sunday in a dramatic gesture intended to force the clerical hierarchy to reinstate the disqualified candidates.

The mass resignation "will determine Iran's direction: rule of absolute dictatorship or democracy," reformist lawmaker Mohammad Kianoush-Rad told The Associated Press.

Karroubi said he and reformist President Mohammad Khatami (search) started new efforts to resolve the crisis, holding discussions with Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.

But Khamenei left the capital Tehran for an undisclosed location, making it difficult to reach him, parliamentary officials said.

Karroubi, the parliamentary speaker, launched a rare verbal attack on the Guardian Council (search), the unelected body of hard-line clerics that disqualified more than 2,400 reformist candidates from the legislative elections.

"Are you loyal to Islam if you pray daily, but then trample on the rights of the people?" said Karroubi, himself a cleric.

He accused the Guardian Council, whose 12 members are appointed by Khamenei, of "disrespecting democratic values and having no faith in a popular vote."

The furor began in early January when the Guardian Council disqualified more than 3,600 of the 8,200 people who filed papers to run in the polls. After protests and an opinion from Khamenei, the council on Friday restored 1,160 low-profile candidates to the list.

Reformists say the council disqualified liberal candidates to fix the election in favor of conservatives. Hard-liners lost control of the parliament in elections four years ago, and repeatedly have thwarted Khatami's efforts toward greater democracy and a relaxation of the Islamic social code.

The council denies political motives and argues that the disqualified candidates lacked the criteria to stand for election, even though more than 80 of them were elected in 2000.

Those lawmakers resigned Sunday.

"An election whose result is clear beforehand is a treason to the rights and ideals of the nation," resigning legislators Rajab Ali Mazrouei told the parliament.

The leader of the biggest reform party in parliament, Mohammad Reza Khatami, resigned and accused the Guardian Council of killing all opportunities for resolving the dispute.

"There is no hope for a solution. We will not participate in this sham election. Even if all those disqualified are reinstated today, there will be no time for competition. Elections on February 20th are illegitimate," said Reza Khatami, the president's younger brother and a deputy speaker.

Iran's leading reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, has called a meeting Monday and is expected to announce a boycott of the polls.

President Khatami called an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the dispute Saturday, but was forced to postpone it when he suffered severe back pain and was confined to his house by doctors.

On Saturday, President Khatami suggested his government would call off the elections.

"My government will only hold competitive and free elections ... the parliament must represent the views of the majority and include all (political) tendencies," he said.

If he follows through, that would leave voting in the hands of hard-liners most likely relying on elite Revolutionary Guards and supporting military forces to organize the polls.

Many hard-line legislators did not attend Sunday's session, apparently hoping to deny it a quorum. But the quorum of 194 of the Majlis' total 290 seats was reached.

Of those attending, 124 resigned.

Karroubi said each resignation would be considered and put to the vote in future sessions, but he did not say how long that process would take.

One resigning legislator, Mohsen Mirdamadi, said that if hard-liners tried to hold the elections without government support, it would be "a full-fledged coup with the help of military forces."