- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans prepared themselves, amid concerns of terror attacks and Taliban threats, for today’s first parliamentary election in decades, part of the country’s ongoing effort to transform from an extremist religious state to a democracy.

Election officials expect the vast majority of Afghanistan’s 12.4 million registered voters to converge on thousands of polling centers in 34 provinces, where balloting began shortly after the break of dawn today to choose federal as well as local leaders.

“It is a matter of great happiness, thank God, that today we, the people of Afghanistan, are electing our national assembly and provincial council delegates after 30 years of hardship, suffering and migration,” said Afghan President Hamid Karzai after casting his vote today.

Citizens of this battle-ravaged nation who haven’t witnessed a democratic parliamentary election since the 1960s expressed guarded optimism about electing a “Wolesi Jirga,” or “House of the People,” as the parliament is known in the Pashto language, one of many spoken in this multiethnic nation.

“God willing, we will be safe here where nothing will happen,” said Abdul Habib, an election administrator at a polling station in a Kabul working-class neighborhood inhabited by Hazaras, an Afghan ethnic minority.

For the elections, a Hazara community center adjacent to a mosque has been transformed into a polling center. Inside, Mr. Habib and two dozen others sat on a threadbare carpet going over final election preparations.

His female counterpart, Khadiga Chariz, described how the voting area will be divided into two sections separated by a curtain: one for men; the other for women.

That women will head to the polls to choose among female candidates is a major victory in itself, she said, considering it was just four years ago that the Muslim extremist Taliban forbade women from showing their faces in public and removed them from schools and the workplace.

In stark contrast to the days before the Taliban were removed from power by U.S. forces in late 2001, electoral law guarantees female candidates 25 percent of the 249 Wolesi Jirga seats nationwide. For Miss Chariz, which candidates are elected is not much of a concern.

“Our expectation is simply that all women that can vote will come to the polls to exercise their new right,” she said, beaming with excitement from beneath a modest headscarf, worn by the majority of Afghan women in lieu of the Taliban-imposed burka.

In Kabul, candidates stumped vigorously for votes from slow-moving vehicles mounted with loudspeakers blasting campaign mantras for more jobs, better schools and improved security.

Countless campaign posters plaster just about every building downtown, a sign of Afghan’s exuberance for a first go at choosing a democratically elected legislature.

Yet there are real concerns about election-day violence.

At least two police officers, one a police chief, were killed in a district south of Kabul in attacks blamed on militants, though it was not a confirmed assault by the Taliban.

On Friday, a candidate from the southern province of Helmand was killed, raising the tally to seven slain candidates since the campaign began in August. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the death of Abdul Hadi, calling him “an American supporter.”

Today, two policemen and four suspected Taliban rebels were killed in clashes near Kandahar hours before polls opened, police said.

The Taliban has urged Afghans to boycott the polls to avoid being caught up in election-day violence.

Polling centers are being guarded by the Afghan national army and police, as opposed to last year’s presidential elections, when U.S. forces were in charge of security.

“We are 100 percent certain we can handle our own security this time,” said Said Jaun, chief of security at a polling station in the upper-middle-class neighborhood of Baharistan, where more than a half-dozen men will guard the center with automatic rifles and pat down every voter before entering. A female security official will handle the women’s inspections.

“This is our country now, and therefore, it is our responsibility to make sure this election is a success,” stressed the 52-year-old Mr. Jaun, surrounded by his young staff of policemen.

U.S. forces will be on standby for the election to assist if asked by Afghan leaders in case of an emergency, military officials said.

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