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Rockets, attacks strike as Afghan poll opens

Kabul, September 18, 2010

Afghanistan's parliamentary election were marred by attacks before voting began on Saturday in a poll the Taliban vowed to disrupt and that will be a crucial test for the credibility of the government and security forces.

A rocket fired by insurgents landed near the US embassy and the headquarters of NATO-led forces in central Kabul about three hours before polls opened at 7 a.m. (0230 GMT), police spokesman Abdul Rahman said. There were no casualties or major damage.

The Taliban also attacked five polling stations in Badakhshan, Herat and Ghazni provinces, Rahman said. The stations had not yet opened and there were no casualties.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the poll and urged potential voters to stay at home even as President Hamid Karzai called on Afghans to come out to polling stations for what is their second chance to choose their own parliament.

Faizal Ahmad Manawi, the head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC), cast the first ballot when polls opened but traffic was reported to be light at other centres around Kabul. Observers fear the Taliban's threat could discourage voters.

"This is for Afghanistan's future," said student Sohail Bayat after casting his vote in Kabul. "People don't want the Taliban back, so every Afghan needs to go out and vote."     Significant security failures would be a major setback, with Washington watching closely before US President Barack Obama conducts a war strategy review in December likely to examine the pace and scale of US troop withdrawals.

Corruption and fraud are also serious concerns after a deeply flawed presidential ballot last year. A third of votes cast for Karzai were thrown out as fake. Even though he is not standing, Saturday's vote is seen as a test of Karzai's credibility.

Washington believes corruption weakens the central government and its ability to build up institutions like the Afghan security forces, which in turn determines when Western troops in Afghanistan will be able to leave.

Election watchdogs have reported thousands of fake voter registration cards across Afghanistan in the lead-up to the poll, although the IEC maintains it has put measures in place that will guard against major fraud.

Complaints

It will not be clear for several weeks at least who among the almost 2,500 candidates have won the 249 seats on offer in the wolesi jirga, or lower house of parliament.

Preliminary results from Saturday's voting will not be known until Oct. 8 at the earliest, with final results not expected before Oct. 30.

Election observers expect thousands of complaints from losing candidates, with Afghanistan's own poll watchdog expecting a "disputatious" election, which could delay the process further.

Almost 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are providing security for the poll, backed up by some 150,000 foreign troops.

A heavy security clampdown was imposed on Kabul on Friday.

A wave of abductions spread across much of the rest of the country on Friday, however, with 23 kidnappings of people working on the elections, including two candidates.

The Taliban staged dozens of attacks on election day last year but failed to disrupt the process entirely. However, voter turnout was low in the south and east where Pashtuns, Afghanistan's main ethnic group, dominate and where the Taliban has its strongest support.

Voter turnout may also be hit by cynicism and disillusionment. Billions of dollars in foreign aid cash have flowed into Afghanistan over the past nine years but, for many people, have brought no real improvement in their lives. – Reuters




Tags: Karzai | Kabul | Taliba | elections | Afghan polls |

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