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Tally has Karzai in lead; EU casts doubt on vote

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai won last month’s presidential election outright in the first round, election officials said on Wednesday, but the European Union said more than a third of his votes might be suspect because of fraud.

Afghan election authorities issued complete preliminary results showing Karzai received 54.6 percent of the vote. His main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, got 27.8 percent.

The results are not final until approved by a separate election fraud watchdog, which has called for a recount of about 10 percent of polling stations.

But a campaign spokesman for Karzai said the result made it almost impossible that any probe could overturn the outcome. Only a “miracle” for his opponents could prevent Karzai winning, Waheed Omar said.

A spokesman for Abdullah had no immediate reaction.

A final result pending the fraud probe could be weeks away, prolonging a state of political limbo that has led to fears of instability and concern among Western donors that a future government may lack a clear mandate.

A European Union election observer mission said it believed as many as 1.5 million votes -- including 1.1 million cast for Karzai -- were “suspicious.”

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“Any claim for any count or of victory will be premature and not credible,” the head of the EU mission, Phillipe Morillon, told Reuters.

Karzai’s campaign called the EU mission’s statement “irresponsible” and said only the official, U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission was empowered to find fraud.


Ali Najafi, a member of the Afghan election commission, also criticised the EU mission for coming forward with its assessment in public before the complaints process was complete.

“Observers observe. They can give advice to the (election commission) but they do not have the right to interfere,” he said. Asked about the votes the EU team described as suspicious, he said: “I don’t know where they got this figure from.”

The fraud accusations have come at a difficult time for U.S. President Barack Obama who has ordered thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan and is expected to make a decision in coming weeks about whether to send more.

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On Wednesday Washington set out its objectives for countering al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that range from boosting Islamabad’s counterinsurgency capabilities to building up Afghan security forces so U.S. assistance can be reduced, according to an internal document obtained by Reuters.

The war is becoming increasingly unpopular at home and Obama may find it more difficult to persuade Americans to send soldiers to die to defend a government whose legitimacy could be called into question.

Western officials initially hailed the August 20 vote, mainly because Taliban attacks and threats failed to prevent it from taking place.

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Fraud accusations have been especially heavy in southern areas that favour Karzai but where Taliban threats had the worst impact on turnout.

Morillon said fraud had been carried out by “unscrupulous, overzealous supporters ... from every camp.”

In addition to the 1.1 million suspect ballots for Karzai, his team found 300,000 suspicious ballots for Abdullah. Disqualifying ballots for Karzai would have the most impact, by potentially putting the president below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off.

The final tally showed Karzai with 3.1 million votes of the 5.7 million valid votes counted. If all the votes considered suspect by the EU were omitted, Karzai would have 2 million out of 4.2 million valid votes, shy of 50 percent.

The U.N.-backed ECC must sign off on any final result, and its fraud probe could potentially force a second round if it invalidates enough ballots to put Karzai below 50 percent.

A second round, if needed, would have to be held within two weeks of the final result being declared, although there has been some concern that this could be difficult if it is delayed into winter when travel is difficult in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, Obama’s top military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, said more troops were needed in Afghanistan, although he did not say how many.

Editing by Janet Lawrence