- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 26, 2009

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | A cluster of vehicle bombs was detonated simultaneously Tuesday in the Taliban’s spiritual homeland near a foreign-owned construction company that had recently taken over a contract to build a road through an insurgent-held area. At least 41 people were killed, all civilians, officials said.

In Kabul, meanwhile, first fragmented returns from last week’s presidential election showed President Hamid Karzai and his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, were running very close, raising the possibility of a runoff that could drag the process out for months.

The timed explosions in Kandahar occurred just after nightfall in a district that includes U.N. facilities and an Afghan intelligence office. The force of the blasts shattered windows across the city and sent flames into the sky.

So many houses and nearby buildings collapsed that officials feared the death toll could rise. At least 66 people were wounded, said Gen. Ghulam Ali Wahabat, a police commander in charge of southern Afghanistan.

It appeared the main target was the Japanese company that is involved in reconstruction efforts in the southern Afghan city. The company recently took over a contract to build a road that insurgents had stalled for several months.

An intelligence office is about a quarter mile from the attack site and a U.N. office is located about a half mile away.

The cluster blast in the center of the city was one of the largest since the Taliban was expelled from the country in 2001. It destroyed about 40 shops.

Provincial council member Haji Agha Lalai said five vehicles filled with explosives were detonated together, causing the massive blast. But provincial police Deputy Chief Mohammad Sher Shah said the vehicles used were an oil tanker filled with explosives and two car bombs.

Kandahar is the spiritual home of the Taliban, and the militants have carried out several complex attacks here in recent years.

In other violence, a bomb blast killed four U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, said military spokeswoman Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker. No other information was released pending the notification of family members.

The deaths bring to 41 the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this month, the second deadliest month in the country since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Last month a record 44 American troops died.

This year has been the deadliest of the war for U.S. troops. Including the latest deaths, at least 172 American forces have died in the Afghan war this year, according to an Associated Press count.

The figures from the election results announced Tuesday came from 10 percent of the more than 27,000 polling sites nationwide - too small a sampling either to draw a conclusion about the outcome or silence criticism that the ballot was marred by fraud and Taliban violence.

The Independent Election Commission announced that Mr. Karzai was leading with 40.6 percent and Mr. Abdullah was trailing with 38.7 percent of the roughly 525,000 valid votes counted so far. Most of the votes came from Kabul, nearby Parwan and Nangarhar provinces, Kunduz and Jowzjan provinces in the north and Ghor province to the west.

However, the figures did not include votes from 12 of the country’s 34 provinces, including some where Mr. Karzai was expected to run strong.

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