Afghanistan postpones parliamentary elections

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Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Dubai, United Arab Emirates -- Under strong international pressure to reform Afghanistan’s electoral system before holding another nationwide vote, the government of President Hamid Karzai on Sunday put off balloting for a new parliament until September.

Election officials and Karzai had said the voting would take place in May, but Western diplomats had made it clear that their governments would refuse to pick up the tab for any balloting held before “root-and-branch” electoral reforms.

The West was dismayed and embarrassed by August’s fraud-tarred presidential election, which had a price tag of about $120 million. Virtually the entire cost was borne by the international community. Karzai was eventually declared the winner, but about 1 million votes -- a third of the ballots cast for him -- were thrown out by an auditing panel.

The announcement of a Sept. 18 election date was made by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, which despite its name is heavily influenced by the presidential palace.

It came as Karzai left for an international conference to be held this week in London, where his government is hoping to shore up support for the war effort and attract pledges of continuing reconstruction aid.

Support for Karzai’s government has been falling among some NATO allies amid doubts the Afghan leader will move aggressively to clean up corruption in his government. Sunday’s announcement was seen as an effort on his part to show he is willing to carry out reforms.

Although Karzai had been under intense behind-the-scenes pressure to put off the parliamentary vote, Western diplomats’ public reaction to the move was low-key, lest they appear to be trampling Afghanistan’s sovereignty.

The U.S. Embassy and the United Nations mission to Afghanistan issued carefully worded statements saying they respected the government’s decision.

The growing military cost of the Afghan conflict is likely to be a theme at the London conference and a separate gathering Karzai will attend in Turkey. Military officials said Sunday that three more American soldiers had been killed in separate explosions in southern Afghanistan. Neither their identities nor hometowns were immediately released.

Roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, account for the overwhelming majority of Western troop deaths and injuries.

Sunday’s deaths brought to 26 the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan so far this month, according to the independent website, which tracks casualties in the conflict. Fifteen U.S. troops were killed in all of January 2009.

Most of the 30,000 additional American troops arriving this year are likely to be deployed in the south, which is a center of the insurgency and the drug trade. U.S. Marines are expected to embark soon on a major offensive in Helmand province, where much of the heaviest fighting has been.

Faiez is a special correspondent.