Karzai holds majority with almost all votes counted

Monday, October 25, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Hamid Karzai clinched a majority of the votes cast in Afghanistan's first presidential election, near-complete results showed Sunday, leaving him all but certain of becoming his war-wrecked nation's first democratically elected leader.

His chief rival, former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, announced he was willing to accept the election result, but only if irregularities in the vote were acknowledged by a panel of foreign investigators.

"For the national interest and so the country does not go into crisis, we will respect the result of the election," said Syed Hamid Noori, spokesman for Qanooni. "But we also want the fraud to be made clear."

By Sunday evening, Karzai had received 4,240,041 votes, more than half of the estimated 8,129,935 valid votes cast in the Oct. 9 ballot, the joint U.N.-Afghan electoral board said. That means that even if all the remaining estimated votes went to other candidates, Karzai would still have more than the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff.

With 7,666,529 valid votes -- or 94.3 percent of the total -- counted, Karzai had received 55.3 percent, 39 percentage points ahead of Qanooni.

Karzai's campaign spokesman said Sunday's figures confirmed optimism that the interim leader would triumph when the final results are released in the next few days.

"I'm going to see his excellency this evening to see when to start the celebrations," Hamed Elmi told The Associated Press. "We were up against 17 candidates, but the people were behind us. We will sleep soundly tonight."

Karzai has served as the country's interim leader since shortly after U.S. forces drove out the former ruling Taliban regime in late 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida terrorist training camps.

Victory would make him Afghanistan's first popularly chosen leader after a quarter century of war and give him a five-year term in which he has pledged to raise its citizens' pitiful living standards.

It could also could provide a foreign policy boost to Afghanistan's main sponsor, President Bush, in his own bid for re-election on Nov. 2.

Afghans are frustrated at the slow pace of their country's recovery.

Karzai is trusted as a bridge to foreign backers and has rounded up strong support in the cities and among fellow Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.

But his rivals have scored big among ethnic minorities in the north and center of the country, a legacy of the ethnic and factional divides produced by years of infighting.

On Sunday, they were still looking to a panel of three foreign experts to vindicate their charges that Karzai profited from irregularities during campaigning and the vote.

Ethnic Hazara chieftain Mohammed Mohaqeq, who is currently running third at 11.8 percent, refused to concede.

"It's too early to judge the result now," he told AP.

The camp of another main rival, ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, currently fourth with 10.3 percent, said days ago that it accepted that Karzai was likely to win. But on Sunday, Dostum's running mate Chafiga Habibi alleged continuing evidence of irregularities.

"We are waiting for the result of the investigation," she told AP. She said candidates would meet with the expert panel today to decide together whether they would accept the election results.

Sultan Baheen, a spokesman for the electoral board, said it will not announce the official result until the count and the investigations are complete.

"I hope it won't take too long -- maybe two or three days more," he said.

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said the panel met with election observers, some of whom have already said they saw nothing on polling day to invalidate the result, and some candidates' representatives.

On Sunday, after the panel met the electoral board, all but a dozen of some 100 ballot boxes that were set aside under seal as part of its probe were released for counting.

The panel was to present its findings to the board on Sunday, Almeida e Silva said. He gave no indication of whether they had detected major fraud.

Polling day passed without major violence, prompting American commanders and Afghan politicians to write off the Taliban as a fading force.

But that assessment was dampened on Saturday when a suicide attacker detonated grenades in a busy shopping street in Kabul, killing an American woman and an Afghan girl, and injuring three Icelandic peacekeepers.

A purported Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility and said more suicide missions were being prepared.

Karzai, who has repeatedly offered an amnesty to former Taliban ready to join the reconstruction effort, condemned the blast as the work of the enemies of Afghanistan and Islam.

"The efforts of terrorists will be fruitless because the Afghan people are determined to continue on the path of reconstruction, democracy and stability," he said in a statement.

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