- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | A roadside bomb killed four American troops in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. said Friday, as a U.N.-backed panel finished most of its investigation into whether the level of fraud in the August presidential election would force a runoff vote.

Rising U.S. casualties and the political crisis triggered by a fraud-marred election have prompted the Obama administration to review its entire Afghanistan war strategy, including proposals to send thousands more troops here or shift the focus to missile strikes and special operations raids against al Qaeda figures in Pakistan.

Two of the U.S. service members were killed instantly in the Thursday blast and two others died of their wounds, the U.S. said in a statement. No further details were released.

Elsewhere, four Afghans, including at least two civilians, died during a firefight on Friday between militants and a joint U.S.-Afghan force in Ghazni province. There were conflicting accounts of the battle.

The NATO-led coalition said two militants fired from a two-story building and troops shot back, killing two gunmen. ?When the joint force entered the building, they discovered two civilians who subsequently died from their wounds,? the coalition said. Ghazni police chief Gen. Khail Buz Sherzai said the dead were all civilians from the same family.

President Obama is not expected to decide on a new strategy until the Afghans determine whether they must hold a runoff election between President Hamid Karzai and his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

Preliminary results from the Aug. 20 poll had put Mr. Karzai in the lead with 54.6 percent of the vote compared with about 28 percent for Mr. Abdullah. The fraud rulings could eliminate enough Karzai votes to push him below the 50 percent threshold to force a second round of voting.

A spokeswoman for the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission said the panel has completed the bulk of its investigation but commissioners are still analyzing complaints and calculating figures before deciding about a runoff.

An announcement is widely expected as early as Saturday. Then the country’s Independent Election Commission will announce final results and say whether a runoff is needed. Any runoff is supposed to be held within two weeks, but many fear winter snows and insecurity could make the vote difficult or impossible.

A Western official said both Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah were under international pressure to accept some sort of coalition or unity government to avoid a runoff.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions, said the two appeared open to the idea but there were major differences over timing, details and whether such an arrangement was in line with the Afghan constitution.

A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been meeting with both Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah this week, encouraging them to find way out of the political crisis.

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