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Nearly 1,000 killed in Afghan political violence this year
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The killing in Afghanistan goes on, with less than a week to go before a historic experiment with democracy -- direct presidential elections.
The deaths of three Afghan soldiers and two militants over the weekend -- barely noted in news reports -- brought to at least 957 the number of people reported killed in political violence this year, according to an Associated Press review. The toll includes about 30 American soldiers.
With Afghanistan three years removed from the brutality of Taliban rule, President Bush has acclaimed Saturday's presidential vote a beacon of hope for the Islamic world, and a prelude to even more tricky balloting slated for January in Iraq.
But the tally of dead in Afghanistan -- a haven of tranquility compared with Iraq -- is an indicator of the task facing both the U.S. military and whomever becomes Afghanistan's first directly elected president -- most likely the American-backed incumbent, Hamid Karzai -- to consolidate a shaky peace.
The number of dead was drawn from a review of hundreds of daily stories by The Associated Press since Jan. 1. The actual toll is believed to be higher, since many killings in remote areas are not reported.
"Nobody relishes figures like that," said Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan. "I think we've only just begun in terms of a permanent and lasting secure environment in Afghanistan."
Afghanistan's first post-Taliban vote will draw the world's attention to Kabul, the battle-weary capital being transformed by a building boom as many Afghans bet on peace after more than two decades of horrific war.
The focus of the continuing insurgency lies in the south and east of the country, where regrouped Taliban rebels and other anti-government groups are expected to mount coordinated attacks before or on election day.
Western intelligence reports seen by AP warn of militants slipping over the border from Pakistan to attack the United Nations and polling stations in and around towns like Kandahar, the former Taliban capital.
Some also talk of possible car-bomb attacks, others of attempts to hide explosive charges in fruit carts -- a tactic already used to tragic effect with the slaying of 14 children in Kandahar in January. The Taliban claimed it was planning to target passing American patrols.
"For sure, we are expecting some casualties," said Talatbek Masadykov, the U.N. official in charge of a swath of southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar. Most foreign aid workers have already left the city because of the heightened threat of violence.
Based on AP reports nearly half of those killed in just over nine months have been militants.
Some 260 Afghan security forces also have died -- although that figure includes the victims of factional violence -- alongside 160 civilians, more than 40 aid or reconstruction workers and about 30 U.S. soldiers.
Officials at the Afghan Interior Ministry and presidential palace were not available to comment on the figures.
Military officials and foreign diplomats say militants still are able to slip back and forth across the rugged Afghan-Pakistan frontier, making it hard for the 18,000-strong U.S. force and its Afghan allies to destroy them.
Meanwhile, a government offer of amnesty to former Taliban willing to end their resistance has seen hundreds of former fighters released from Afghan jails but has failed to produce any obvious political gains.