Afghanistan Readies For Key Vote

A U.S. soldier from the First Battalion 19th Special Forces mans his M-60 machine gun from a Black Hawk helicopter protecting the aircraft from possible enemy attack en route to Asadabad Fires Base, about 100 kilometers (63 miles) southeast of Kabul, from Bagram, Afghanistan, Thursday, April 29, 2004. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Three years to the day after U.S. forces attacked Afghanistan, the interim leader vowed that violence would not derail the country's first direct presidential elections this weekend.

In a BBC television interview broadcast on Thursday, Hamid Karzai also said that voters will be able to cast their ballots Saturday without being intimidated.

"They will go to the booth, they will be on their own there, they will mark the person that they want and then they will drop their card in the ballot box," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

The elections in Iraq, which have been delayed three times, could be a key test of the Bush administration's policy in Afghanistan. With the war on terrorism a key issue in the presidential race, Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry has accused the White House of failing to finish the job in Afghanistan before invading Iraq.

President Bush has cited the looming elections as proof of progress in Afghanistan. Ten million Afghans have registered to vote.

However, by some counts more than 900 people have been killed in election violence. Karzai has acknowledged problems of violence against election workers and ordinary citizens from still-vigorous Taliban insurgents and warlords.

On Wednesday, campaigning ended with a burst of violence when attackers set off a bomb near a convoy carrying Karzai's vice presidential running mate in Badakhshan province. Ahmed Zia Massood wasn't hurt, but one person was killed and four others wounded.

The Afghan government on Thursday blamed drug smugglers for the attack, saying the country's landmark elections are a threat to their business.

Asked whether the elections could go ahead in the present "atmosphere of fear," he replied: "That is there. But how long should we wait for the guns to go before we have elections?

"That's what the Afghan people want, the election to decide their future, to choose their president and then to go forward. ... I very much hope that this election will produce for the Afghan people the result that they like."

Karzai is widely expected to emerge the winner from a large field of candidates. On Wednesday, the last day of campaigning, two minor candidates dropped out and threw their support behind the president. Still, with 16 people left in the race, some wondered whether Karzai would be able to reach the 50 percent majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Meanwhile, the general-turned-governor of part of northern Afghanistan accused strongman Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is running for president in this weekend's election, of stalling in disarming his militia.

A few of the candidates in this Saturday's landmark election are former warlords. Under campaign rules, they must give up their command and their militias must surrender their weapons as part of a nationwide disarmament campaign.

Balkh province Gov. Atta Mohammed — whose ethnic-Tajik forces have clashed repeatedly with Dostum's ethnic-Uzbek fighters since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime — said Dostum hadn't fulfilled these obligations.

"He has to give all his military power to the government. There is no place for militarism any more," Atta told The Associated Press in an interview. Dostum "hasn't given up as much as us."

However, a Dostum spokesman rejected the allegations and said 80 percent of the presidential hopeful's forces have given up their weapons and the remaining 600 militiamen still with them would soon disarm.

"All of our weapons will be given up," spokesman Sayed Noorullah Agha said. "Dostum has promised to hand over all his weapons."

Dostum told supporters during a campaign rally Tuesday that he has given up command of his militia forces. However, he is still believed to have the allegiance of many commanders — as does Atta from his former fighters.

The allegation of drug ties to the attack on Massood may indicate a shift in Afghanistan from a largely rebel and al Qaeda-based threat, to one increasingly centered around the drug trade.

Heroin and opium production has boomed here since the fall of the Taliban regime.

There has been speculation that drug traffickers might have had a hand in an Aug. 28 car bombing outside a private U.S. security company in Kabul, which killed 10 people — three of them Americans who were helping train anti-narcotics police. Taliban or al Qaeda militants are also prime suspects in the blast.

Wednesday's attack was the third against Karzai and his political allies since campaigning began on Sept. 7. The president survived a rocket assault on his helicopter on Sept. 16 in the eastern city of Gardez, and one of his four current vice presidents survived a bomb attack four days later. The Taliban was suspected in those attacks.

The Taliban has kept up a drumbeat of violence, but so far has not succeeded in launching a high-impact assault that could derail the vote.

The Taliban fell after the U.S. attack that began on Oct. 7, 2001, when U.S. warplanes struck targets in Kabul and Kandahar after Taliban rulers refused to close training camps and hand over Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Defense Department Web site devoted its front page to the anniversary Thursday, displaying pictures of U.S. troops aiding Afghans. A message from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, "the promise for Afghanistan's future is bright."

Germany's intelligence chief said Thursday he believes that Osama bin Laden is alive and continues to exert influence in his al Qaeda terror network.

"All indications are that he is alive," August Hanning, head of Germany's Federal Intelligence Service, said at a news conference.

German intelligence officials believe, as they have for some time, that bin Laden is living in the Afghan-Pakistani border area, Hanning said. He did not specify which side of the border.

As of Wednesday, 104 troops have died in Afghanistan — 55 as a result of hostile action.