In a rare challenge, Iran's president and parliament speaker on Saturday jointly accused hard-line clerics of trying to sway upcoming elections by banning liberals from running for two thirds of seats in the parliament.

A statement by President Mohammad Khatami (search) and Speaker Mahdi Karroubi (search) denounced the ban by the hard-line Guardian Council as being against "Islamic democracy."

It was a remarkable act of solidarity by Iran's highest reformist figures, openly confronting the figures in the unelected Guardian Council who seek to cling to power despite great unpopularity.

The battle over who can run in the Feb. 20 elections has turned into Iran's worst political crisis in years, with powerful hard-liners in Iran's Islamic government trying to seize control of the 290-seat Majlis (search) that is currently dominated by liberals allied with the president.

"An election in which there will be no possibility of competition for 190 seats ... is (designed) so that it gives a greater chance to a certain thinking," said the joint statement, made available to The Associated Press.

The Guardian Council's ban disqualifies one-third of 8,200 would-be candidates who want to stand for election.

The president and speaker warned that the disqualifications, and the manner in which the elections are building up, are "against the dignity of the noble Iranian nation."

"We insist on fair, free and competitive elections and hope ... the Guardian Council reconsiders (the) disqualifications as soon as possible," the statement said.

Still, Khatami and Karroubi stopped short of calling for a boycott of the vote.

Hard-liners claim the disqualified candidates failed to meet the legal criteria for being members of parliament. Among those barred from running are 80 liberals with seats in parliament already.

The head of the Guardian Council, Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati, defended the disqualifications Friday, saying they were legal.

It appeared, however, that the council was softening its stance: Mohammed Jahromi, another Guardian Council official, said Saturday that some 400 banned candidates had been reinstated, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

But Saeed Shariati, a leader of Iran's largest reformist party, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, dismissed the move, saying that the "approval of a few little-known hopefuls by the Guardian Council is meaningless.

"As long as prominent names and thousands of liberal hopefuls remain blacklisted for their reformist views, there will be no possibility of free elections," Shariati told AP.

A majority of the Front's candidates have been disqualified, including Mohammad Reza Khatami, the president's brother and the party leader.

Leading reformists in the civil service and parliament have warned that they will make "important decisions" in the next few days if the disqualifications were not overturned.

Already, most ministers in the Cabinet and six vice presidents have submitted resignations in protest, although Khatami has not accepted them. Legislators have staged daily sit-ins and dawn-to-dusk fasts in the parliament lobby.