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US Says Legitimate Election Vital to Future Partnership with Afghanistan

The United States said Tuesday that a "legitimate" electoral process in Afghanistan is vital to future U.S.-Afghanistan partnership. The comments came amid reports of evidence of fraud in the August 20 presidential election in which incumbent President Hamid Karzai is reported to have a wide lead.

The Obama administration is serving notice on Afghan authorities that the future U.S. relationship with the Kabul government depends on an election process seen as credible. U.S. officials also are cautioning against further release of election tallies before fraud claims are thoroughly investigated.

The comments from the State Department came as Afghanistan's election commission reported that President Karzai has drawn 54 percent of the vote with nearly all of the ballots counted - surpassing the 50 percent plus one vote margin needed to avoid a run-off with his top challenger.

But the announcement came in the shadow of what the country's electoral watchdog organization, the Electoral Complaints Commission, says was "clear and convincing evidence of fraud".

The United Nations-backed commission ordered recounts from polling stations that reported a 100 percent voter turnout and from locations where one candidate - in many cases President Karzai - was said to have received more than 95 percent of the vote.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the vote count announced on Tuesday was only a first phase in a process and that the next phase, dealing with the fraud complaints, will be just as, if not more, important and that it will impact the U.S.-Afghanistan relationship.

"The results of these elections need to be credible and need to reflect the will of the Afghan people. And as a result, we need to have a rigorous vetting of all of these allegations of fraud. And a legitimate electoral process is vital to us and vital to any kind of partnership that we would have with the government going forward," he said.

Kelly counseled patience on the part of all those involved while the fraud charges are examined - a process, he cautioned, that could take months.

A senior State Department official who spoke to reporters advised Afghan officials to withhold announcing further election results until, as he put it, "you're sure that everybody has confidence in them."

He said the way to do that is to take the charges of irregularities seriously and investigate them to the fullest extent. The official said a good system is in place to examine the allegations and that everyone involved needs to "cool it" and let the process play out.

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it had no favorite in the multi-candidate presidential race, which developed into a two-way contest between Mr. Karzai and former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who drew about 28 percent of the vote, according to the electoral commission.

Despite its declared neutrality, the U.S. administration expressed concern last week about reported connections between one of Mr. Karzai's Vice Presidential running mates, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, and Afghanistan's illegal drug trade.

Washington expressed misgivings last month that Kabul officials allowed the return from Turkey of exiled ethnic-Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who threw his support to Mr. Karzai.