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U.S./World

Afghan election fraud feared

| Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2009

KABUL -- The threat of violence is clouding Afghan presidential election Thursday. And not just from Taliban militants.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who is President Hamid Karzai's top rival, told a crowd of flag-waving supporters in Kabul on Monday that he will win the election -- "if they don't steal your votes," confident rhetoric that analysts say could stoke a violent backlash if his supporters believe they've been cheated.

Serious questions over the fairness of the balloting could result in a winner without real legitimacy -- a serious problem in a country where the central government is struggling to exert control beyond the capital. The United States is spending millions of dollars and pressing a new military offensive this month to make sure the voting comes off well.

Abdullah, a trained ophthalmologist who has railed against government corruption, isn't the only one who expects fraud. Voting observers warn that cheating will most likely take place at polling stations in remote or dangerous areas where independent monitors won't be able to be present.

A black market for voter registration cards is said to be flourishing, and a suspiciously high number of women -- far more than men -- have been registered to vote in culturally conservative provinces where Karzai expects to do well among his fellow ethnic Pashtuns who form the majority there.

Mindful of the possibility of cheating, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for "credible, secure and inclusive elections" and urged Afghans "to make election day secure, to eliminate fraud, and to address any complaints fairly and quickly."

"We call on candidates and their supporters to behave responsibly before and after the elections," she said in a statement.

Abdullah's core group of supporters -- ethnic Tajiks -- have taken to the streets before. In May 2006, a U.S. military truck crashed into a line of vehicles, sparking riots by hundreds of Tajiks who rampaged through Kabul. About 20 people were killed in the crash and subsequent unrest.

Abdullah's campaign manager was quoted last month as predicting street violence if Abdullah doesn't win, contending that Karzai can't prevail unless he steals the vote -- an allegation similar to those which triggered violent protests in Afghanistan's western neighbor, Iran, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed victory in the June 12 balloting.

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