- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The head of a U.S.-funded election monitoring mission said Monday that Afghanistan’s presidential elections appeared to be fair, but that there were some “horrific stories” about irregularities in remote areas that could distort the overall results.

Jim Moody, a former U.S. congressman who headed a 60-member observer group from Democracy International Inc., told The Washington Times that more analysis will be required to finalize conclusions.

“Our preliminary conclusion is that it is conceivable that this was a fair election,” he said. “It is hard to tell. A lot of people voted properly.”

Mr. Moody spoke as an aide claimed that incumbent President Hamid Karzai had won Thursday’s elections and as accusations of fraud - most from supporters of former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah - poured into the independent Electoral Complaints Commission.

Grant Kippen, head of the U.N.-backed commission, said 45 of the complaints were grave enough to potentially impact the election outcome, the Associated Press reported.

The allegations of fraud could severely undercut the legitimacy of the vote, which the Obama administration hopes will shore up stability in Afghanistan in the face of a spreading Taliban insurgency. Voter participation - particularly in the south and by women - appeared to be far lower than in 2004, when Mr. Karzai first won an electoral mandate.

Democracy International described the credibility of the elections as “vital to the consolidation of democracy in Afghanistan and a critical component in the Afghan peoples ongoing struggle for peace.”

Preliminary results are to be released Tuesday, but the final results will not be certified for several weeks. If no candidate receives 50 percent of the votes, a runoff election is to be held in October.

Mr. Moody said his delegation, which was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, observed proper voting at a number of polling places in Kabul and other major cities, “but we heard some pretty horrific stories” about irregularities in more remote areas. “Whether they were enough to sway the outcome, we don’t know.”

“There was good and bad,” he added. “There were a lot of security issues,” including Taliban threats to cut off the fingers of anyone who voted. “Bombs went off.” Even members of his observer group had to wear bulletproof vests, though none was hurt. “But some of them couldn’t get out to their polling places,” he said.

Mr. Moody added that there were “some” cases of fraud or ballot stuffing, “but whether it was enough [to change the outcome] we can’t be sure.”

Nevertheless, he said, he found the voting “very uplifting. This is a country that has never before had anything resembling democracy. And here they were, running their own election.”

While foreign observers have urged the candidates not to declare victory before fraud allegations are investigated, both major candidates have claimed to be leading.

Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal said Monday that Mr. Karzai won close to 70 percent of the vote, according to the minister’s top adviser, Najibullah Manalay. The AP said the assertion was made at a private dinner.

“According to this information, President Karzai has won, but nobody in Afghanistan can officially announce any figures except for the election commission, so as I told you the figures presented in this meeting had no official value,” Mr. Manalay said.

A spokesman for Mr. Abdullah dismissed the claim.

Grenade and rocket attacks on polling sites were reported across the country during the vote. In Wardak province west of Kabul, home to many of the capital’s elite, 80 rockets were fired and only 90 of 160 polling sites were able to open, the AP said.

“This area is completely out of control,” Nematullah Habib, a representative for the Independent Election Commission in Wardak, told the AP.

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