TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's supreme leader pushed defiant senior clerics to throw their support behind the government Tuesday as he began a 10-day visit to the holy city of Qom, hoping to end a split in the powerful religious establishment over last year's disputed elections.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters in Iran, publicly supported President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the June 2009 presidential elections and endorsed his disputed victory in the vote. But a majority of senior clerics in Qom didn't side with Ahmadinejad and have increasingly adopted a critical language against the government.
The dispute is damaging for Khamenei because the Qom ayatollahs have wide public followings. More significantly, it is embarrassing for a system based on the idea of rule by clerics.
In recent weeks, authorities have blocked the websites of at least three senior reform-minded clerics to limit their access to the public and their supporters.
Khamenei has reportedly made several secret visits to Qom -- the revered city that is the center of Iran's clerical establishment -- in recent months aimed at winning support from the defiant clerics. But so far there has been little sign of a change in heart among the ayatollah.
Minutes after he arrived in Qom on Tuesday, Khamenei told the clerics that they should give priority to supporting Ahmadinejad's government.
"Solidarity with the three branches of power needs to be strengthened further day by day, specifically with the executive branch [Ahmadinejad[']s government], which has a lot of burdens on its shoulders," Khamenei said in a speech that was broadcast live on state television.