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Afghan Election Schedule May Have to be Changed, says US Official

A senior U.S. official says the timetable for Afghanistan's elections - set for June - may have to be changed. But there is still a strong desire to keep to the original schedule.

Speaking to a Washington gathering by telephone from Kabul, U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said presidential and general elections may have to be held separately.

"It will take some time - perhaps another two months - to determine whether, with every effort, whether elections can take place - meaning parliamentary along with the presidential - at the same time," said Ambassador Khalilzad.

At the gathering, which was sponsored by the non-governmental U.S. Institute for Peace, Mr. Khalilzad was more optimistic on the prospects for the presidential election than the parliamentary polls.

"I remain reasonably optimistic that a presidential election will take place on time," he said. "And I remain hopeful and will make, will encourage, that every effort be made that the parliamentary election take place at the same time."

Under the terms of a new constitution agreed upon last month, both elections are to be held in June. But the United Nations announced Wednesday that only one million of Afghanistan's 10.5 million eligible voters had been registered.

Mr. Khalilzad blamed the sluggish pace of registration on poor U.N. planning and continuing problems with security in the countryside.

One factor that explains the limited number of [registration] stations, currently, is poor planning on the part of the U.N.. And [factor] two has been this issue of security," said Mr. Khalilzad.

Nevertheless, he said, every effort will be made to salvage the original deadline to avoid sparking any controversy.

Speaking at the conference, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who is a longtime observer of Afghan affairs, said separating the elections could cause severe problems for the current interim president, Hamid Karzai. He noted that a number of factions at the constitutional convention voiced staunch opposition to holding the presidential poll separately.

"The opposition groups were adamant that, if you do not have these elections together, we will consider Karzai as a dictator, and we will oppose him tooth and nail," said Mr. Rashid. But he says Mr. Karzai is determined to hold the presidential poll on time.

The issue of rescheduling elections is among those to be considered at an international conference late next month in Berlin.