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US base attacked as Afghans prepare to vote
Updated: 2004-10-08 22:05

Taliban guerrillas fired rockets in parts of Afghanistan on Friday, the eve of the first presidential election in the rugged, war-torn land, underlining the threat of sabotage by the Islamic fundamentalist insurgents.

Despite the scattered and inevitable violence, there appeared to be growing optimism that Saturday's landmark poll, which President Hamid Karzai is favorite to win, would go off fairly smoothly and that turnout would be relatively high.

"Yes, security is a concern," said an elderly man with a trim salt-and-pepper beard as he shopped in a Kabul bazaar. "But this will be a great day. I will vote. I'm optimistic that an elected government can improve people's lives."

One rocket exploded in the air above the main U.S. military compound in Kabul before dawn, damaging vehicles in a nearby car park. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, a rocket plowed into a house, wounding two young children, officials said.

Six rockets were fired during the night at the home of the governor of restive Zabul province in the south, but they all missed. Troops killed three Taliban rebels in nearby Kandahar.

About 18,000 U.S.-led troops, hunting al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, were helping a 42,000-strong Afghan police and military force and 8,000 NATO-led peacekeepers to provide security. They were on full alert.

"The risk is at the maximum level," Colonel Maurizio Collavoli, who heads the Italian contingent with the NATO force, said of the situation in Kabul. "Yesterday, it was medium."

A large turnout and victory for the U.S.-backed Karzai would legitimize his rule and mark a turning point for a country shattered by more than a quarter-century of war.

He said on Thursday that the vote could not be delayed any more -- it would go ahead successfully and reflect the wishes of his 28 million people.

"How long can we wait for the guns to go before we have elections?" Karzai said in a BBC interview. "No election in the world is free of tension. Afghanistan is in a more serious situation because we are emerging out of war."


As worshippers thronged Kabul's mosques for weekly prayers on Friday, much of the talk was about the poll.

"The majority of the people will vote," said Zabihullah Jawad, a university student at the Pul-i Khishti Mosque, the largest in the city.

"The election will not only make the destiny of one man, it is important for every individual Afghan. It will make the destiny of each one of them."

The priest said in the sermon: "Be happy tomorrow, it is a very important moment for Afghanistan. It is important to vote."

More than 10.5 million Afghans within the country have registered to vote, despite threatened Taliban reprisals. Women make up more than 40 percent of those who have registered, organizers say. An additional 1.3 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran are also eligible.

Karzai is reported to be hoping for a turnout of about 60 percent, which would go a long way to proving democracy has made a strong start. But many believe numbers will fall below that, and many women may not vote.

In the volatile south, the Taliban heartland and a hotbed of Islamic conservatism, some men said they would not vote nor allow their wives and daughters to.

"We are against these elections," said Mullah Hassan, speaking at his home in the city of Kandahar.

"I never wanted to take part in it. A successful election here is just a success for the Americans."

President Bush has held up the election as his foreign policy success and a victory for democracy.

Bush, who faces a re-election fight himself next month, is hoping that a smooth Afghan election could provide a model for January polls in Iraq, which has been plagued by violence since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein last year.

Washington installed Karzai in office after U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban in late 2001 for refusing to hand over Osama bin Laden, the architect of the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. cities.

Taliban spokesman Latif Hakimi claimed responsibility for the rocket fire in Kabul and Jalalabad, and warned of more to come. Those claims could not be independently confirmed.

"We plan to carry out more attacks," Hakimi said by satellite telephone. "We claim the responsibility for all the attacks that take place today and tomorrow. You will hear more such news."

But Defense Ministry spokesman General Zahir Azimy said Afghan troops had arrested two men believed to be suicide bombers, who were armed with explosive devices, and also intercepted a fuel truck with explosives concealed in it.

Karzai has always been favorite to win but the withdrawal this week of two of his 17 rivals in his favor may help him gain the 51 percent of the vote he needs to avoid a November runoff.

One was not a heavyweight but the other, Sayed Ishaq Gailani, was a fellow ethnic Pashtun from one of Afghanistan's best-known families. Pashtuns make up about 40 percent of the population and are Afghanistan's traditional rulers.

Voting opens at 7 p.m. (0230 GMT) on Saturday and closes at 4 p.m. Counting will start immediately afterwards and first trends will be available by Monday but a full count is unlikely until late October.

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