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Two Candidates Drop Out of Afghan Presidential Race  - 2004-10-06

In a surprise move on the eve of Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election, two candidates say they are withdrawing from the race and throwing their support behind current transitional President Hamid Karzai, also a candidate.

In separate announcements on the final day of the presidential campaign Wednesday, Syed Ishaq Gilani and Abdul Hasseb Aryan said they were dropping out of the race.

Although it is now too late to strike the two men's names from the ballot, both publicly called on their supporters to vote instead for President Karzai.

Mr. Gilani, the more prominent of the two candidates, is known for his religious fervor and his past service as a fighter against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

His support is believed to be strongest among conservative ethnic Pashtuns in the south and east of the country, who respect his pious image.

Mr. Aryan, the other candidate leaving the race, is a former policeman whose sparsely attended rallies have marked him as a minor candidate in the field of 18.

Mr. Aryan says in exchange for his support, he expects Mr. Karzai to redouble his efforts to stamp out illegal drug production and to disarm militia leaders, whom he referred to as warlords.

Mr. Aryan did not give a clear reason for his decision to drop out and Mr. Gilani said he was acting the unity of Afghanistan.

With no comprehensive opinion polls published on the Afghanistan presidential election, set to take place Saturday, the importance of the new support for Mr. Karzai is difficult to judge.

But for his own part, Mr. Karzai has previously said he expects not only to win, but to get more than 50 percent of the vote and avoid a second run-off election.