By Alireza Ronaghi

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran hailed nationwide elections to local councils and a powerful clerical body as a success on Saturday and said healthy voter turnout would help the Islamic Republic confront its Western foes.

Friday's vote was the first popularity test for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose anti-Israel rhetoric alarms many in the West, since he took office 16 months ago.

Official results for the twin polls for local councils and the so-called Assembly of Experts are not expected until late on Saturday at the earliest, officials said.

Unofficial opinion polls and partial results cited by some local media suggested voters backed a range of candidates, giving all political groups something to cheer but allowing none to claim outright victory.

Ali Alavi, an official involved in electoral supervision, told the ISNA students news agency that about 26 million people had voted. That would mean a turnout of around 56 percent, well up on previous votes.

"Well done to this nation: The enemies once again were stupefied by the epic presence" at the polls, the ultra-conservative Kayhan daily declared.

Jomhuri-ye Eslami, another hardline daily, said: "The success of the December 15 elections will definitely be effective in disappointing America and its allies and will be counted as a great advantage for the Iranian nation."

Some 233,000 candidates stood for more than 113,000 council seats in cities, towns and villages across the country.

Voters also chose representatives for the Assembly of Experts, a body of 86 clerics with the power to elect, supervise and dismiss Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. That result could be ready by Sunday, election officials said.

The main battle in the municipal vote was in the capital, where conservatives were split between supporters of Ahmadinejad and backers of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf.

A united list of reformist candidates, many of them former cabinet ministers, was also competing for Tehran.

The semi-official Mehr news agency said Qalibaf supporters had taken eight Tehran City Council seats, Ahmadinejad's backers four and reformists three. Mehr did not say where it obtained its information.

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.