(AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
President Hamid Karzai's rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, announced Wednesday he was ready to contest the runoff, a day after the incumbent acknowledged under intense U.S. pressure that he fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed for victory in the Aug. 20 election. U.N.-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of Karzai's votes because of fraud.
In Washington, U.S. officials said a power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and Abdullah to avoid a runoff was still possible although it would be up to the Afghans. One senior defense official said that a power-sharing deal at this point had equal odds of coming together or falling apart.
Nevertheless, Afghan officials are scrambling to organize a new election in the face of a growing Taliban insurgency and ahead of the advent of winter, which begins in much of the country around the middle of November.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission, dominated by Karzai supporters, is under huge pressure to avoid a repeat of the massive fraud, which discredited the government and threatened to undermine public support for the war in the United States and Western European countries that provide most of the 100,000 NATO-led troops.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said it would be a "huge challenge" to hold another election without repeating massive fraud. The U.N. has set aside more than $20 million to support the poll, according to the U.N. spokesman in Kabul, Aleem Siddique.
In an effort to tamp down cheating, officials will cut about 7,000 of the 24,000 polling stations which they set up for the August ballot. Some of those stations were in areas too dangerous to protect. Others never opened, enabling corrupt officials to stuff the ballot boxes with impunity.
About 200 of the 2,950 district election coordinators will be replaced following complaints of misconduct leveled by candidates or observers, the U.N. said.
Finding replacements for coordinators and poll workers implicated in fraud will be difficult, especially in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is illiterate. The government had to scramble this summer to recruit enough election officials and poll workers, especially at voting stations reserved for women.
It's unclear if they would be able to fill open posts with better-qualified people.
Siddique said the decision to close thousands of polling stations should not prevent people from voting.
"Voters will be redirected to polling centers in the same district where they can vote, where security can be assured and where we have staff that are able to implement the procedures according to law," he said.
As with the August vote, the Nov. 7 election will be run by the Afghan election commission and not by the U.N., which plays a support and oversight role.
Commission Chairman Azizullah Lodin met repeatedly with Karzai in the days before the final results were released. At the time, his group was challenging the findings of the auditors on the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, a separate body.
Lodin told The Associated Press that he saw nothing improper in those meeting.
"President Karzai is president of Afghanistan. When there is some problem he must ask what happened," Lodin said, insisting he was not pressured to reject the auditors' findings.
Lodin told reporters Wednesday that despite control measures, there was no way his commission could guarantee a fair vote on its own. He said most of the thousands of poll workers were students and teachers given only one day's training.
"It is your duty, my duty. It is every Afghan's duty to guarantee" a fair election, Lodin said.
Afghan police and soldiers will also have the primary responsibility for securing polling stations against Taliban attack, with U.S. and other NATO forces standing by in case they are needed.
Taliban fighters killed dozens of civilians during the August election and cut off fingers stained with ink to identify people who had already cast ballots.
During his news conference Wednesday, Abdullah called on Afghan and international forces to do all they can to protect voters. He said voters "are taking a risk in some parts of the country and they should be confident that that risk is worthwhile."
Associated Press writers Todd Pitman and Rahim Faiez in Islamabad, and Anne Gearan and Matthew Lee in Washington, contributed to this report.