KABUL, Afghanistan | President Hamid Karzai and leading challenger Abdullah Abdullah both claimed to be ahead Friday in Afghanistan's second presidential election, after a vote marred by sporadic violence and low turnout.
In Washington, President Obama congratulated the Afghan people for conducting the presidential election amid violent threats from Taliban militants, but cautioned that more difficult days are ahead.
"This is an important step forward in the Afghan people's efforts to take control of their future, even as violent extremists are trying to stand in their way,["] Mr. Obama said Friday at the White House.
"Over the last few days, in particular yesterday, we've seen acts of violence and intimidation by the Taliban, and there ... may be more in the days to come,["] he said.
With counting complete at Afghan voting stations and ballots on their way to the capital to be tallied, election officials say they are still several days away from releasing preliminary results indicating who will head the embattled government against a Taliban-led insurgency.
Reports of fraud, vote rigging and a lack of securitythat closed dozens of voting stations are in line with statements made by international observers in the run-up to the vote that balloting would be less than perfect.
This has not stopped either candidate from political maneuvering to shape public opinion now that the polls have closed.
"As far as my campaign is concerned, I am in the lead, and that's despite the rigging which has taken place in some parts of the country," Mr. Abdullah told the Associated Press, claiming that pro-Karzai officials in some instances hampered the work of vote monitors.
The former foreign minister and Northern Alliance candidate added that there "is a likelihood" that neither he nor Mr. Karzai would get the 50 percent of votes needed to prevent a runoff.
The Karzai camp countered that the president is "well ahead" based on emerging reports from individual polling sites, where votes were initially counted. However, campaign spokesman Waheed Omar expressed doubts over the country's capacity to hold a second round of voting in the event of a runoff.
According to analysts, a second round between Mr. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, and Mr. Abdullah, who draws support from Tajiks in the north, would risk dividing the country along ethnic lines, and that a disagreement over the outcome could lead to civil unrest, the AP reported.
U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke, who met with Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah in Kabul on Friday, said he was sure the outcome would be disputed and urged candidates to keep a lid on tensions.
"We always knew it would be a disputed election. I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days," the AP quoted him as saying.
The International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization with 30 monitors on the ground, said the vote was at a "lower standard" than the 2004 and 2005 Afghan elections but that "the process so far has been credible." As expected, voter turnout was significantly less in the southern provinces where the Taliban is strongest.
In southern Helmand, just one voting station was open. The U.S. military has waged an offensive over the past several months to regain ground and boost public confidence ahead of elections.
In neighboring Kandahar province, militants fired rockets into the capital city in an effort to make good on pre-election promises to "punish" those who did not boycott the vote. Unconfirmed reports said that two people were hanged.
To prevent panic among would-be voters, the government enforced a ban on media coverage of violence on polling day - a move that was criticized by media and civil rights groups as a sign of the Karzai government's fragility.
Richard S. Williamson, the IRI's delegation leader in Afghanistan and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the election "was defined by violence."
The Taliban had vowed to disrupt the elections with "new tactics." So-called "night letters" said that people who voted would have their index fingers cut off.
While many braved the threats, some reports suggest that voter turnout was as much as 40 percent less than the 2004 presidential election.
Even in the north, a region that has remained relatively stable, militants showed their ability to strike with consequences.
"We had to tell our people to save your [ballot] boxes and save yourselves," the head of the country's Independent Election Commission, Azizullah Lodin, said at a press conference on election day in Kabul.
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