Panel to probe fraud claims in Afghan vote
Afghan election officials agreed Sunday to create an independent commission to probe opposition charges of fraud in this nation's first-ever presidential poll, while ballot-boxes stuffed with the aspirations of the people of this war-ravaged land started to stack up in counting centers.
International officials met privately in an effort to end a boycott of the ballot by opponents of U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai, a heavy favorite to win.
Tallying of the votes had initially been expected to start Sunday, but with ballot boxes coming in from some remote areas on mules, U.N. officials said the process wouldn't start for three to four days. Final results are not expected until around Oct. 30.
A day after all 15 challengers announced they would boycott the election's outcome, two backed off, saying they wanted a commission to rule on whether the voting was fair and indicating they would accept its decision.
A few hours later, their demand appeared to have been met.
"There is going to be an independent commission made to investigate it," electoral director Farooq Wardak said. "There could be mistakes; we are just human beings. My colleagues might have made a mistake."
There was no immediate reaction from the challengers, but a senior Western official said many of the 15 had decided to back down and support the investigative team, which would consist of about three foreign election experts.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and other officials spent much of Sunday meeting with the candidates.
In Washington, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice predicted that "this election is going to be judged legitimate."
"I'm just certain of it," she said.
The opposition complaint is focused on allegations that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' thumbs in some polling stations could be rubbed off, allowing some people to vote more than once.
International election observers said the complaint did not justify calling for the vote to be nullified. The U.S. International Republican Institute accused the challengers of trying to make up excuses for why they were likely to lose.
Electoral officials said turnout looked extremely high ¡ª a victory in itself in a nation with no experience at direct elections.
Karzai said he was "very disappointed" with the complaint by his challengers.
"They should have respected the vote of the people," he said.
On Sunday, ballots were being carried to eight centers around the country, where they were being readied for counting.
In Mazar-e-Sharif, election officials said they had not received ballots that were supposed to be flowing in from five northern provinces. They said it could take until Tuesday or Wednesday for ballots to arrive from remote villages.
Widespread attacks threatened by the Taliban to disrupt the vote never materialized. The rebels managed a smattering of deadly assaults around the country, but they took the biggest hit, losing 25 men in a clash with U.S. and Afghan forces in the south.
Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told The Associated Press the election could sound the rebels' death knell.
"The Taliban basically didn't show. They had very limited attacks," he said. "Yesterday was a huge defeat for the Taliban."
He predicted Taliban leaders would "eventually look for ways to reconcile with the government that comes in."
Even though Western officials gave the vote the thumbs up, a successful democracy needs an opposition that accepts election results. Karzai's ability to unite the nation, fight warlords and crush the Taliban insurgency might be undermined if his opponents refuse to recognize the vote.
World leaders greeted the election as a great step for democracy, but some voiced caution.
"The peaceful completion and high voter turnout in the presidential election are grounds for optimism, despite the known problems," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, adding that Afghanistan was only beginning "a surely long path into democracy."
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz of neighboring Pakistan said the elections "augur well" for Afghanistan. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia, chairman of the 57-nation Organization of the Islamic Conference, said it was "unfortunate" the elections were marred.
On Sunday, ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq said an electoral commission should be formed to examine the vote and later distanced himself from the challengers' threat to boycott the results.
"To boycott and to criticize are two different things. Their position is to boycott. My position is to criticize," he told reporters outside a mosque where he had come to pray.
The only woman in the election, Massooda Jalal, also indicated she might accept a commission's finding.
The opposition protest was an embarrassment to the international community, which spent $200 million putting on the election.
About 10.5 million registration cards were handed out for the election, a number that U.N. and Afghan officials say was inflated by widespread double registration. Organizers had argued that indelible ink marking voters' thumbs would prevent people from voting twice.