Monday, October 11, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Opposition candidates began backing away from their fierce rejection of the handling of presidential elections yesterday after winning the promise of an independent commission to examine their complaints.

However, the reversal appeared to be influenced, at least in part, by popular support for Saturday’s groundbreaking election, in which millions of first-time voters defied threats of violence to cast ballots.

Final reports yesterday showed that the only voters killed were two farmers in the south, whose tractor was blown up by a land mine while they were returning from a polling station.

Thirteen of the 15 candidates opposing President Hamid Karzai had announced a boycott of the election on Saturday after the discovery that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark the thumbs of voters could be washed off easily.

But Western officials said yesterday that many of the candidates appeared willing to abandon the boycott after election officials announced that there would be a full investigation of that and other complaints.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad played a role in talks that led to the apparent reversals.

“There is going to be an independent commission made to investigate it,” electoral director Farooq Wardak was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “There could be mistakes. We are just human beings. My colleagues might have made a mistake.”

Officials said vigilant citizens and the newly created Afghan army and police forces, until now considered unreliable and ineffective, played a major role in thwarting Taliban plans to disrupt the voting.

In a 48-hour period ending with the close of polling, citizens across Afghanistan turned in 25 improvised explosive devices (IEDs), authorities said.

The Afghan army and police, meanwhile, were credited with intercepting some dramatic terrorist attempts.

The most sensational was the seizure by the army on the outskirts of Kandahar, once the nerve center of the Taliban, of a truck carrying 10,000 gallons of gasoline wired to rockets, anti-tank mines and other explosives.

“Even the truck’s tires were packed with explosives,” said Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi. “The truck, with three Pakistanis in it, was heading for the center of Kandahar. It would have been a catastrophic explosion that would have overshadowed everything else.”

The Taliban also tried other methods to strike at Afghan cities during voting. In the eastern city of Jalalabad, police caught three women with a coffin packed with IEDs.

“Some of us had doubts about Afghanistan’s emerging security forces, but they rose to the occasion and fully supported international forces,” a Western official said.

The willingness of Afghans to assist the security forces went hand in hand with enthusiasm for the election, putting pressure on the 13 dissenting candidates to consider backing away from their boycott.

Mohammed Mohaqiq, a presidential candidate and a powerful militia commander of ethnic Hazaras from the central highlands, declared at a mosque meeting in Kabul yesterday that criticism of the election day shortcomings was justified, but a boycott was not.

“The election authorities have agreed to set up a commission of inquiry, and we should wait to see the result,” he said.

Even Mr. Karzai’s main rival, former Education Minister Younus Qanooni, was said to be reconsidering the boycott after meeting Mr. Khalilzad. So was the northern warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum.

“Some candidates now believe they made that statement in too much of a rush,” said a senior Western official. “It did not have an impact. People continued to go to the polling stations.”

“Afghans haven’t reacted well either to the demand for a re-election,” the official added. “So now the candidates are looking for a way out, but without losing face altogether. After all, this is Afghanistan.”

In order to appear impartial, the promised commission is to have only non-Afghan members, arranged through the International Foundation for Election Systems. However the U.N.-appointed election commission — the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) — ran into difficulties yesterday finding any international expert willing to sit on the panel.

“We are working on it,” said a JEMB official, who noted the complexity of inquiring into the conduct of elections in a country such as Afghanistan and possible security worries.

Not all the disgruntled candidates will support the commission. Homayoun Shah Assefy, a brother-in-law of the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, said he considered the malpractice too serious to be remedied by an inquiry.

“I have with me a witness who saw just one person cast 100 votes in Spin Boldak on the Pakistan border,” he said. “It was like an election in some African banana republic.”

But Kabul taxi driver Mohammed Zaman questioned the sincerity of the objectors.

“All this protest is because they know they are losing,” he said. “How can there be unity in Afghanistan with these guys around?”

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