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Little Violence as Afghans Cast Votes

Times Staff Writer

Afghan voters defied insurgent threats and elected their parliament for the first time in more than three decades Sunday as a massive security operation foiled Taliban attempts to disrupt the poll.

There were 19 attacks across the country, but they were “very minor,” said Peter Erben, chief electoral officer. Three voters were injured in different incidents in the eastern province of Kunar, he said.

Erben said turnout appeared strong, but some foreign and Afghan observers monitoring the balloting said the participation rate appeared lower than in October’s presidential election. In that vote -- won by Hamid Karzai, a strong U.S. ally -- 8 million voters cast ballots and turnout exceeded 70%.

There were 12.5 million Afghans registered to vote Sunday, and Erben said turnout figures might be available today.

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In Sunday’s vote, Afghans elected 249 members of the National Assembly’s lower house, called the Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People. They also cast ballots for 34 provincial councils. Election workers are set to start counting ballots Tuesday, and final results are not expected for at least two weeks.

It was the first time Afghans had elected the lower house of their National Assembly in 36 years, and only the third parliamentary election since 1964, when the Afghan king introduced democratic reforms.

“We are making history,” Karzai said as he cast his ballot. “It’s the day of self-determination for the Afghan people. After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions.”

Ronald E. Neumann, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said Afghans’ determination to go to the polls despite threats “inspired people all over the world to remember that the right to choose one’s government is precious.”

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There were numerous reports of voting irregularities, including intimidation of voters, attempts to cast more than one ballot, fake registration cards, and men trying to cast ballots on behalf of women in conservative rural areas.

Sixteen out of more than 6,000 polling centers did not open because of security and logistical problems, Erben said.

But election day ended without the widespread protests seen during October’s presidential elections, when voters were able to rub off ink marks on fingers that were supposed to prevent multiple voting.

“I have been relieved at the [low] level of problems we have had today,” Erben said.

In Ghazni, 75 miles southwest of the capital, Kabul, candidate Khan Badshah Khan, 68, said Afghans took the risk and defied Taliban threats as a patriotic duty.

“The Taliban are everywhere around here, but the people of Ghazni are brave,” he said while visiting a polling station where voters cast ballots under trees behind cardboard screens. “We are ready to die for our country.”

U.S. and Afghan forces detained three suspected insurgents Sunday in Ghazni and neighboring Wardak province.

Three days earlier, a roadside bomb in Ghazni had exploded next to a U.S. military vehicle, killing an Afghan interpreter and wounding two U.S. troops. They were patrolling for insurgents trying to disrupt the election.

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The Afghan Interior Ministry said security forces had prevented a car bomb plot in Ghazni on the eve of the election. But there were no reports of significant incidents in the province Sunday, police said.

Afghanistan has been at war for the last 25 years, and more than 1,100 people have died in a stubborn insurgency this year. The 2005 toll includes at least 51 U.S. combat deaths. Suspected Taliban militants killed at least seven candidates and four election workers in the weeks before the vote.

More than 70,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers and about 30,000 foreign troops were able to limit violence to a few incidents, a significant victory against resurgent Taliban fighters and their extremist allies. This has been the deadliest year for U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was removed in late 2001.

A French soldier was killed and another seriously wounded by a land mine blast Saturday in southern Afghanistan, the French Defense Ministry said.

A U.S. soldier and two Afghan troops were hurt Sunday when they came under small-arms and rocket-propelled-grenade fire on patrol near Salerno base, in Khowst province, which borders Pakistan. Attack helicopters provided close air support and two suspected guerrillas were killed, the U.S. military said.

U.S. and Afghan forces also fought off attacks in Nangarhar and Paktika provinces, which also border Pakistan. Afghan officials say Taliban militants frequently launch cross-border attacks from bases in Pakistan, a charge President Pervez Musharraf’s government denies.

Suspected Taliban fighters fired two rockets at a U.N. warehouse in Kabul on Sunday morning, injuring an Afghan worker. In Kunar province, where alleged Taliban forces killed 19 U.S. troops one day in June, attackers fired at polling stations in the Pec valley Sunday morning. But a quick reaction force of U.S. and Afghan troops moved in and voting carried on, Erben said.

In Ghazni, where Karzai won just over 51% of the vote last year, several voters said they were frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction, and accused corrupt officials of lining their pockets with foreign aid money. The new parliament should force Karzai to do more for a region where the Taliban is growing in strength, they insisted.

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“I think the slow process of development will persuade the people to join the Taliban,” said Abdullah, 45, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

In Rawza village, just outside Ghazni, voters complained that electricity was too expensive and only came on for two hours a night.

Apart from repairing the highway linking Kabul to Kandahar, and building up the national army, the government has done little to help the area, said Mohammed Yousuf, 55.

“Nobody cares about the poor,” he said. “They only care for the rich.”

A total of 76 parties had candidates in the election, and Afghan analysts expected no party or alliance to win enough seats to dominate the House of the People.

Instead, bitter enemies including communists, former Taliban members and former guerrilla fighters are likely to squabble with one another and Karzai’s government.

The provincial councils and district councils will choose two-thirds of the members of the upper house. Karzai will appoint a third of that chamber.

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Staff writer Richard A. Serrano in Washington and special correspondent Wesal Zaman in Kabul contributed to this report.


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