KABUL, Afghanistan -- Nine out of 10 eligible Afghans have signed up for landmark October elections, the United Nations said yesterday, a resounding endorsement of a democratic experiment intended to help Afghanistan turn its back on years of debilitating war.
Women and ethnic minorities are strongly represented among those registered for the first-ever direct vote for president. But parts of the south risk being left behind because of stepped-up attacks on election workers and Afghan and US security forces.
The first tallies since the eight-month registration drive began winding down Saturday indicate that 8.7 million of the estimated 9.8 million eligible voters have collected identification cards for the Oct. 9 election. Forty-one percent of those registered were women.
"The participation is amazing," UN spokesman David Singh said. "There was a lot of skepticism . . . at the beginning, but the targets have been fulfilled."
The turnout is a relief for the world body, which has overcome misgivings about Afghanistan's readiness for elections under strong pressure from the United States. The vote had been delayed from June because of slow progress in disarming warlords' private armies. A vote for Parliament was put off until next spring.
It is also a boost for President Hamid Karzai, who is widely expected to defeat 22 rivals to secure a new five-year term. The US-backed interim leader was still saying in June that 6 million registered voters would be enough.
"We are overwhelmed with joy at the sheer enthusiasm," presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said. "It's essentially the first important step toward a successful and legitimate election process."
Afghans have flocked to register in the north, west, and center of the country, where regional leaders, including opponents of Karzai's drive for a centralized state, have encouraged their supporters to sign up. Ethnic rivalry in a country deeply scarred by years of infighting also has encouraged communities to make sure they are fully represented.
UN figures suggest that a third of the estimated 1.05 million voters in five southern provinces dominated by the country's main Pashtun ethnic group are not registered.
In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Singh said, the number of those registered had exceeded the projected total, suggesting either fraud or that the estimate of the electorate is far too conservative.
Officials acknowledge cases of people registering more than once, but say a dab of indelible ink on every voter's finger will limit fraud on polling day. Many underage Afghans also may have slipped through.
Still, officials say registration teams will have to continue working for weeks more in the perilous south and southeast, where a virulent Taliban insurgency threatens to decouple militant heartlands from the rest of the country.
Shootings and explosions have killed at least nine election workers since May, including a worker and a would-be voter killed Wednesday by a bomb in a mosque used as registration center in Ghazni Province. Afghan officials said a land mine seriously injured three election workers in Uruzgan on Friday.
The US military says it has killed more than 100 militants in the region since mid-May, opening the way for registration teams.