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Karzai Confident of Win in Afghan Election First Round - 2004-10-06

Afghanistan will hold its first presidential election in decades on October 9. Among the 18 candidates vying for office is incumbent President Hamid Karzai, a respected but sometimes controversial figure who took the reins of the Afghan transitional government in 2002. Hamid Karzai was chosen to lead Afghanistan's transitional government soon after a U.S-led alliance removed the Islamic Taleban from power in late 2001 for harboring international terrorists.

The 46-year-old Afghan leader speaks several languages and comes from the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. Mr. Karzai has long supported efforts to establish a multi-ethnic government to solve Afghanistan's problems caused by three decades of war - including poverty, corruption and uncontrolled private militias.

Mr. Karzai says he has tried to address some of these problems during his three years in power.

"The greatest achievement of Afghanistan of the Afghan people has been the remarkable smoothness with which the political process went forward, that the political process delivered everything on time, and that the Afghan people participated fully in the political process," said Mr. Karzai.

President Karzai comes from the powerful Popolzai tribe in southern Afghanistan, which helped run the nation for centuries until the 1979 Soviet invasion forced them to take refuge in neighboring Pakistan. He was deputy foreign minister in the early 1990s, when Islamic parties ruled the country.

Initially, he supported the fundamentalist Taleban, which took control of the country in the mid-1990s, in the hope it would end chaos and lawlessness.

But within few months he denounced the Taleban as being manipulated by Pakistan. Mr. Karzai and his father Abdul Ahad Karzai began campaigning against the regime from exile in Pakistan. But in July 1999, suspected Taleban supporters killed the president's father.

Soon after United States invaded to oust the Taleban in 2001, Mr. Karzai entered Afghanistan with the support of the American troops to stir a revolt among Pashtuns in the southern Afghan provinces.

U.S. backing helped Mr. Karzai win the support of international community at a conference to create an interim government after the Taleban fell.

Three years later, Mr. Karzai says his policies have not only encouraged more than three million Afghan refugees to return home but also have earned Afghanistan international respect and recognition.

However, he acknowledges his efforts to disarm private militias and tackle corruption have not met with success.

"The progress towards disarmament has been very slow," says Mr. Karzai. "We have not been able to remove militia forces from the country that keep harassing our people and Afghan people are really upset about that. We have not been able so far to handle corruption and probably that is something more difficult to do."

Mr. Karzai faces 17 challengers in the presidential election. Political observers say such a divided field is likely to favor the incumbent but it also may prevent him from receiving the 50 percent of the vote needed to avoid a run-off election in November.

In a recent encounter with journalists in Kabul, Mr. Karzai said he is confident of winning in the first round.

"I don't think it will go to the second round. That's my judgment," he predicted. "But even if it goes, it does not matter. We are entering an era of voting and democracy in Afghanistan. Votes go in lots of countries to second round and why should Afghanistan be an exception? First round or second round, I am very much hopeful that I will win."

Some presidential candidates have complained that Mr. Karzai has an unfair campaign advantage in being able to use government resources.

They also have alleged that U.S. diplomats in Kabul are meddling to ensure a Karzai victory, a charge the United States denies.

The presidential election was due in June, but security concerns, including an ongoing insurgency led by Taleban remnants, forced Mr. Karzai to delay the poll.

Some opposition candidates, such as 61-year-old Ahmad Shah Ahmadzi, complain that security conditions are still too poor for a safe election.

"We proposed to Mr. Karzai that this is not the right time for the election security-wise, and we asked him to delay this election," he said. "But he is in such a hurry that he should have the election before the American election in November."

Mr. Ahmedzai says the Bush administration is eager to use a successful Afghan election as political capital in the U.S. race.

But Mr. Karzai's campaign managers dismiss that criticism, noting that the election is already past the June deadline set by the international agreement that created Afghanistan's transitional government.