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    US Election Observers Closely Watching Tally of Afghan Election Results

    Afghanistan's election commission is still counting votes from the country's August 20 presidential and provincial council elections. There have been widespread allegations of election fraud. Tribal leaders in southern Afghanistan have accused police of shutting down polling sites and stuffing ballot boxes with thousands of votes for President Hamid Karzai. A delegation of U.S. election observers recently returned from Afghanistan.

    President Karzai, according to the country's election commission, is maintaining his lead over his closest rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah as the votes are tallied.

    But accusations of fraud in Afghanistan's August 20 presidential election continue to pile up.

    A tribal leader from Helmand Province, Haji Manan, says he supports Abdullah but never got to cast his vote. "In my district, (Azarjoft) nobody went to the polling station to cast their vote for any candidate on election day, but now there are 20,000 boxes full of votes in favor of Karzai," he said.

    The threat of violence from the Taliban complicated the election process by scaring voters away from the polls. "Many people actually said security was actually used as an excuse to disenfranchise some voters. We heard quite a number of voters that areas were deemed to be insecure because they were not areas that were expected to support the incumbent," said Christine Fair, an American election observer from the National Democratic Institute who recently returned from Afghanistan.

    U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke has played down allegations of election fraud. "During that process there are going to be many claims of irregularity. That happens in every democracy," he said.

    Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission, made up of Afghans and representatives from the international community, are looking into accusations of fraud. Results cannot be certified until the investigation is finished.

    Observers say about 2,000 complaints have been filed. About 500 of these cases are considered serious.

    Mr. Karzai needs at least 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off.

    International observers say a run off could help redeem the election process. "The long term consequences of not having a run off and not having a president which is seen to be credible will have much more significant consequences in terms of trying to deal with the insurgency," Fair said.

    Ken Wollack, another election monitor, says lack of funding from the international community made it easier for fraud to occur. "Hopefully the lesson learned from that experience is that there will not be a funding gap, that more support, more security related, is given should there be a run off," he said.

    The Electoral Complaints Commission is expected to finish its investigations within the next two weeks.

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