Afghans Prepare To Count Votes

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Ballot boxes poured into centers Monday for the vote tally in Afghanistan's troubled presidential election, with organizers hoping an independent panel's probe into the balloting will end an opposition boycott that threatens the country's chances for peace.

Organizers of the vote are hoping the establishment of the panel — made up of about three foreign election experts — will end an opposition boycott that could seriously undermine the winner's ability to rule this war-ravaged nation.

International officials and the man heavily favored to win the election — U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai — are urging all of the 15 other candidates to accept the outcome of the weekend election despite claims that the ink marks used to prevent multiple voting were flawed.

At least two of the candidates backed away from the boycott by Monday, while some observers said the complaints over the ink were being raised by candidates as an excuse for why they were likely to lose.

An exit poll conducted by an American non-profit group found that interim Karzai won with the outright majority needed to avoid a second round, and by a wide margin over his nearest competitor. The survey by the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit group that seeks to promote democracy abroad found Karzai ahead of second place finisher Yunus Qanooni by 43 percentage points.

Boxes of ballots from Saturday's election, some arriving by mule, were not expected to finish reaching counting centers until at least Tuesday.

Before the tallying of votes can start, the numbers of received ballots are checked against a list of votes cast to ensure none of the ballot boxes have been stuffed with fraudulent votes, U.N. officials said.

Then, the ballots from various districts are mixed together so no one knows which area favored which candidate.

Actual counting may not start until Wednesday or Thursday, said electoral spokesman Sultan Baheen. Final results are not expected until the end of October.

Security chiefs in the provinces and Baheen said there had been no reports of major attacks on the transporting of the ballot boxes.

"It shows people want the rule of law instead of the rule the gun," the spokesman said. "This is such a success for the Afghan people."

The weekend voting came off without the major bloodshed threatened by Taliban militants, and electoral officials said turnout looked extremely high — a victory in itself in a nation with no experience at direct elections.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, told The Associated Press the election could sound the rebels' death knell, and that Taliban leaders might "eventually look for ways to reconcile with the government that comes in."

Poll organizers decided Sunday they would form an independent commission to investigate the weekend balloting.

"There is going to be an independent commission made to investigate it," electoral director Farooq Wardak said. "There could be mistakes; we are just human beings. My colleagues might have made a mistake."

In Washington, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice predicted that "this election is going to be judged legitimate," adding, "I'm just certain of it."

The opposition complaint is focused on allegations that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' thumbs in some polling stations could be rubbed off, allowing some people to vote more than once.

Even though Western officials approved the vote, a successful democracy needs an opposition that accepts election results. Karzai's ability to unite the nation, fight warlords and crush the Taliban insurgency might be undermined if his opponents refuse to recognize the vote.

World leaders greeted the election as a great step for democracy.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he hoped the presidential vote would bring peace and stability to the nation.

"This was a great step toward democracy and stability in the country and I'm sure other steps will follow," Schroeder said during a one-day visit to the country to meet with Karzai and German peacekeepers. He made no mention of the political turmoil still swirling around the vote.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz of neighboring Pakistan said the elections "augur well" for Afghanistan. Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of Malaysia said it was "unfortunate" the elections were marred.

The opposition protest was an embarrassment to the international community, which spent $200 million putting on the election. It could also stain a vote that President Bush has hailed on the campaign trail as a symbol of the success of his war on terrorism.

Mr. Bush has pointed to the 10.5 million Afghans who registered as evidence of that success. But critics note that the figure is close to the total number of eligible voters, suggesting the possibility of fraudulent registrations.

Saturday's presidential election was postponed twice, and the parliamentary vote that was supposed to accompany it has been put off until next spring at the earliest.