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Karzai rival warns: Vote fraud would doom U.S. involvement

KABUL, Afghanistan — The leading challenger in Afghanistan's national elections warned Monday that if President Hamid Karzai wins another term based on a fraudulent vote, the U.S.-led war against al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan will fail.

"We will have a vacuum of power, security and stability," Abdullah Abdullah told McClatchy. "Five years of illegitimate rule cannot be sustained by more troops or more resources."

Abdullah was the runner-up in the Aug. 20 presidential election that Karzai won, according to disputed initial tallies. Evidence of widespread fraud, however, has put a cloud over the outcome, which has yet to be announced. Abdullah, an ophthalmologist-turned-politician, is hoping that that fraud investigations will strip enough votes from Karzai to force a runoff either this autumn or after the snow clears in the spring.

Abdullah said Western publics are unlikely to tolerate a political outcome based on fraud. He said the Western nations already are paying "to maintain this corrupt government" and have to justify their presence before their own people. "It's not like Western governments can cheat their own populations forever," he said.

A Karzai spokesman on Monday said that Abdullah's comments reflect a candidate who fears defeat, and is now trying to undermine the Afghan electoral system.

Once an international emissary for the United Front, an anti-Taliban alliance, Abdullah received strong support in northern Afghanistan provinces that from 1996 to 2001 served as a stronghold for the Front, also known as the Northern Alliance.

Some of the main supply routes for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan run through Northern Alliance strongholds, and so does some of the country's electrical grid. Many Western officials are concerned that Abdullah supporters might block some of the routes or take control of the infrastructure if Karzai declares himself the winner of the elections.

The issue has also drawn the attention of top tier officials in the State Department as President Barack Obama deliberates future U.S. troop levels for Afghanistan. On Monday, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman denied a McClatchy weekend report that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Karzai last week to urge that the fraud standards not be relaxed.

Abdullah said on a visit to Charikar in Padrwan Province north of Kabul Sunday, he met frustrated supporters who wanted to demonstrate their discontent. He said he urged them to be calm but added that he couldn't predict what will happen.

"I will do my utmost to avoid violence. I know how difficult it is to reverse things once they go in that direction," Abdullah said. "But I can't guarantee anything and everything that will happen in this country. Nobody can."

There already is plenty of violence in this nation spawned by fighting between Afghan and international forces and the Taliban-led insurgency. Last month, 51 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, the highest monthly death toll in the eight-year war, and September is shaping up to be another bloody month.

A spokesman for the Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior said the government would respect the rights of Afghans to protest peacefully, but won't tolerate any actions to disturb the peace.

"We don't expect civil unrest," said Zemari Bashari, an Interior Ministry spokesman. "But bad guys who want to bring insecurity to the people of Afghanistan . . . we are obligated to stop those activities."

The political crisis has been triggered by widespread reports of ballot box stuffing and other misconduct, and hundreds of thousands of votes are now in question.

McClatchy reported Saturday that Afghanistan's independent election commission decided to lower its standards last week to count enough votes to put Karzai over the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff election. On Aug. 29, the commission established a set of standards to exclude questionable votes, but when an analysis of the results showed that the exclusions would put Karzai's tally below 50 percent, the commission cast a second vote on Sept. 7 to loosen the fraud standards, according to a commission official and Western official in Afghanistan.

Abdullah alleged Monday that Karzai had personally intervened to pressure Afghanistan's election commission to relax the standards for ferreting out fraud.

Abdullah also alleged that Karzai has sought to claim the presidency even before fraud investigations are completed and the tallies are officially certified, but has refrained under pressure from Western officials.

A Karzai spokesman dismissed the allegations. Waheed Omar told McClatchy that Karzai hadn't intervened with the election commission and had never contemplated claiming victory until the fraud investigations are complete.

"These are very serious allegations, and if he cannot produce evidence to support those allegations, then that will require an investigation," Omar said. "We believe there are limits to what someone can do."

The initial tally of all the Aug. 20 votes is expected to be announced this week.

Omar said that Karzai's share of the vote likely will bump up slightly from its current level of 54 percent to as high as 56 percent.

U.S. and other Western officials have been monitoring the election aftermath. Senior U.S. officials have met Karzai as well as Abdullah, and the U.S. Embassy urged a full investigation.

The fraud investigations may take weeks to complete, and only then can the vote can gain final certification.

Omar doesn't think these investigations will push Karzai below 50 percent.

"We believe there will be no reason for a runoff."

(Bernton reports for the Seattle Times.)


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