THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Karzai lead grows in Afghan voting

But rival sees fraud as results are trickling in

The Afghan election commission says Hamid Karzai (in poster) is nearing the 50 percent mark that would let him avoid a run-off. The Afghan election commission says Hamid Karzai (in poster) is nearing the 50 percent mark that would let him avoid a run-off. (Farzana Wahidy/ Associated Press)
By Jason Straziuso and Robert H. Reid
Associated Press / August 30, 2009

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KABUL, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai widened his lead over his main challenger in election returns released yesterday, creeping toward the 50 percent mark that would enable him to avoid a run-off in the presidential contest.

Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s top challenger, stepped up his fraud charges, raising doubt whether the former foreign minister’s followers would accept Karzai if he wins in the first round.

Accusations of fraud in the Aug. 20 vote have poured into the Electoral Complaint Commission, which must investigate them before final results can be announced.

Fraud allegations from Abdullah and other presidential candidates, as well as low turnout in the violent south, could strip the election of legitimacy, not only with Afghans, but also with the United States and its international partners who have staked their Afghan policies on support for a credible government.

A widely accepted Afghan government is one of the pillars of President Obama’s strategy to turn the tide of the Taliban insurgency. The election controversy has boiled over as US and NATO casualties are rising, undermining support for the war in the United States, Britain, and other countries with troops here.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain paid a surprise visit yesterday to British troops in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, hoping to counter critics who accuse his government of failing to support Britain’s mission here. A British Marine was killed by a bomb in Helmand on the day of the prime minister’s visit, the Ministry of Defense said in London.

Figures released yesterday show Karzai with 46.2 percent of the votes against Abdullah’s 31.4 percent. The results are based on results from 35 percent of the country’s polling stations, meaning that the percentages could still change dramatically.

Karzai’s aides appeared confident that the president would score a first-round victory and avoid a run-off, which would probably be held in October if needed.

By contrast, Abdullah has been stepping up his charges, telling Italy’s RAI television that Karzai was responsible for “state-crafted, massive election fraud.’’

Abdullah’s drumbeat of charges appear aimed in part at the United States and its allies, which would face some hard choices if a substantial number of fraud complaints are found to be true.

“If we allow he who robbed the votes of this country to move forward, we would give the Afghan people a future that they do not want to see, and I think this goes also for the international community,’’ Abdullah said in the Italian interview.

Senior officials from 27 countries, including special US envoy Richard Holbrooke, are to meet in Paris on Wednesday to discuss Afghanistan, and the disputed election is likely to dominate the agenda.

During his visit with British forces, Brown promised to provide more equipment to help his soldiers cope with Taliban roadside bombs, the major threat to NATO forces.

More than 200 British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001, more than Britain lost in the Iraq conflict.