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    Afghanistan's Karzai Holds Firm Lead in Disputed Vote

    Nearly complete but still preliminary - and controversial - results show Afghanistan's incumbent as the winner in the country's presidential election. However, President Hamid Karzai is going to have a difficult time claiming a legitimate victory and his closest challenger is not ready to concede.

    In another trickle of preliminary results released by election commissioners, President Karzai retains his firm lead with more than 54 percent of the ballots. Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has 28 percent. Out of the 5.8 million votes deemed valid so far, the incumbent has three million while the top challenger has just more than half that amount. Other candidates are far behind with about 95 percent of all ballots tallied.

    United Nations spokesman Aleem Siddque in Kabul tells VOA News that it is premature, however, to judge the outcome.

    "The game is far from over. There are no winners in this election yet. There have been over 2,000 complaints made during this electoral process. And it's imperative that those complaints are thoroughly investigated before any provisional results can be finalized," said  Siddque.

    That means a resolution is weeks - or possibly, months, away. The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission may end up putting into quarantine hundreds of thousands of ballots until the major allegations stemming from the August 20 election are resolved.

    Asked at a press conference in Kabul why the criteria for quarantined votes has changed from 600 per ballot box to more than 1,000,  chief electoral officer Daoud Ali Najafi says the ECC just made this decision and the Afghan government's Independent Election Commission agreed to it.

    "Tomorrow morning the IEC (Independent Election Commission) and ECC will meet together to establish a procedure to implement the decision," he said.

    A delay in the final vote count is raising fears of further instability in a country already divided by a Taliban insurgency and smoldering ethnic tensions.

    Staying in power, at least for the mean time, is President Karzai. He enjoys support from his fellow Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.

    Abdullah, of Tajik and Pashtun descent, is backed by Tajiks.

    If election authorities invalidate enough ballots to bring President Karzai's total below a majority then he and Abdullah would face each other in a run-off. But that would have to happen quickly before snow fall would make many areas inaccessible for the winter.

    The political uncertainty comes as Afghanistan faces its worst violence since the invasion that ousted the Taliban in late 2001.

    Officials say a roadside bomb in Uruzgan province, apparently meant to target Afghan and foreign troops, struck two passenger cars Saturday killing 14 civilians. Another such explosion in Kandahar province killed six civilians.

    Also in Kandahar two Taliban suicide bombers attacked a government intelligence office killing one agent.

    In the northern part of Kunduz province, the U.S. military says, an overnight raid by Afghan and coalition forces killed 11 militants who were in possession of bomb-making material and rocket-propelled grenades.


    Steve Herman

    Steve Herman is VOA's Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, based at the State Department.

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