- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | A suicide car bomber attacked an Italian military convoy in the heart of Afghanistan’s capital Thursday, killing six Italian soldiers and 10 Afghan civilians.

The fourth major attack in the capital in five weeks, it was the latest reminder that even heavily guarded Kabul is vulnerable in a guerrilla war that has expanded far beyond Taliban strongholds in the south.

The suicide bomber rammed his explosives-filled car into two military vehicles in the convoy about midday, Italian Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa said in Rome. Six of those aboard were killed and four wounded.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid took responsibility for the attack.

Violence has increased since the U.S. sent thousands more troops to push back the resurgent Taliban and bolster security for last month’s presidential election. The Taliban made good on threats to disturb the vote, and militant attacks have risen not just in the group’s southern heartland but also in the north and in Kabul and surrounding areas.

President Hamid Karzai defended the integrity of the disputed election, saying Thursday he had seen only limited proof of fraud. Full preliminary results showed him with 54.6 percent of the vote, well ahead of the leading challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. But recounts and fraud investigations could drive Mr. Karzai’s total below 50 percent, forcing him into a runoff.

The bombing shattered windows in buildings about a half-mile away and shook offices and homes throughout the central Kabul neighborhood that contains a number of embassies and military bases.

Charred vehicles littered the area around the blast site - a road just off a main traffic circle that leads to the airport. An Associated Press reporter saw at least six vehicles burned, including an Italian Humvee, and two burned bodies that were later covered with plastic sheets.

The Interior Ministry said 10 Afghan civilians were killed and 55 wounded.

Shopkeeper Feraudin Ansari said he felt the blast in his store about 50 yards from the site. Windows were broken in all the shops on the street. He said he was angry at NATO forces for patrolling in downtown areas.

“Why are you patrolling inside the city? There is no al Qaeda, no Taliban here,” said Mr. Ansari, 25. “My shop is destroyed, and my head hurts from the blast.”

In the latest attack in the south, a NATO service member died from a bomb strike Wednesday, NATO forces said.

The increased fighting and fraud allegations threatening the legitimacy of the election have raised questions about whether the U.S. and NATO are using the right tactics to win the war.

Acknowledging fraud for the first time, Mr. Karzai said “there were some government officials who were partial toward me,” but he claimed that others had manipulated results to favor Mr. Abdullah.

“I believe firmly in the integrity of the election, in the integrity of the Afghan people and in the integrity of the government in that process,” Mr. Karzai said.

On Wednesday, European election monitors said about a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast have been set aside pending an investigation.

The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which is the final judge of the vote count, has ordered a recount of about 10 percent of polling stations countrywide because of suspect results. The complaints panel has also thrown out results from 83 polling stations because of “clear and compelling” evidence of fraud.

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