- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 8, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | Afghan election officials said Wednesday that scores of additional polling stations will be closed during the Sept. 18 parliamentary vote because of the deteriorating security situation in the country.

The state electoral commission said 81 of the 458 polling stations planned in Nangarhar province will be shut during the elections “due to deteriorating security conditions.”

The tense eastern province bordering Pakistan is a center of the Taliban insurgency, with many militants entering the country from safe havens across the border.

Meanwhile, Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s shadowy leader, told Afghans on Wednesday that the insurgents are winning the war and warned Americans that they are wasting lives and billions in tax dollars by continuing in the conflict.

“The victory of our Islamic nation over the invading infidels is now imminent and the driving force behind this is the belief in the help of Allah and unity among ourselves,” Mullah Omar said in an end-of-Ramadan message posted on jihadist websites and relayed by the Site Intelligence Group.

“In the time to come, we will try to establish an Islamic, independent, perfect and strong system,” he said.

Mullah Omar has not been seen in public since the Taliban were driven from power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. U.S. officials think he is hiding in Pakistan, despite denials by Pakistani authorities.

Earlier this week, Afghan election officials had announced that more than 900 other polling stations would remain shut nationwide because of security concerns and that 5,897 voting sites would be opened throughout Afghanistan.

During last year’s fraud-marred presidential vote, 6,167 voting centers nominally operated.

The government and its foreign partners hope the elections will help consolidate the country’s shaky democracy and political stability, allowing the withdrawal of the roughly 140,000 NATO-led foreign troops in the country.

But many Afghans and international observers fear the vote could turn bloody after the Taliban vowed Sunday to attack polling places and warned Afghans not to participate in what it called a sham vote.

Security concerns were underscored by an assassination attempt Wednesday on the head of Zhari district in turbulent Kandahar province. It killed one of his bodyguards and wounded several others.

Kareem Jan said Taliban insurgents ambushed his convoy as he was returning to Kandahar city, adding that it was the third attempt on his life since he assumed office in June.

The election fears come amid pledges by Florida-based Dove World Outreach Center — a small, evangelical Christian church that espouses an anti-Islam philosophy — to burn copies of the Koran to mark the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States that provoked the Afghan war.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, has warned that the burning of the Koran could endanger U.S. troops in the country and Americans worldwide.

“If this happens, I think the first and most important reaction will be that wherever Americans are seen, they will be killed,” Mohammed Mukhtar, a cleric and an election candidate for the Afghan parliament, said in Kabul. “No matter where they will be in the world, they will be killed.”

Muslims consider the Koran to be the word of God and insist utmost respect be accorded to it and any printed material containing its verses or the name of Allah or the Prophet Muhammad. Any intentional damage or show of disrespect to the Koran is considered deeply offensive.

In 2005, 15 people died and scores were wounded in riots in Afghanistan sparked by a story in Newsweek magazine alleging that interrogators at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, placed copies of the Koran in washrooms and flushed one down the toilet to get inmates to talk. Newsweek later retracted the story.

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