Afghanistan votes for president

KABUL: Afghanistan went to the polls Thursday to elect a president for just the second time in its war-torn history with a sweeping security clampdown in force to prevent threatened Taliban attacks.

The Islamist militia has struck inside the capital Kabul in a bloody countdown to the elections aimed at putting the country more firmly on the path to democracy eight years after the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban.

Western-backed President Hamid Karzai hopes to win an outright majority to avoid a run-off, but his nervous government has ordered a blackout on reporting violence during polling day, threatening journalists with heavy penalties.

"I'm requesting all our people, wherever they are... to come out and vote in millions to make this country a greater, better success," urged Karzai, faced with fears that weak turnout could damage the credibility of the polls.

Western officials have played down expectations of perfectly free and fair elections over reports of vote-buying and Karzai's reliance on warlords, but say an estimated quarter of a million observers will guard against abuses.

Rising attacks have stoked fears about whether it is safe to vote despite government reassurances and an intensified anti-insurgency offensive by US and allied forces. But many Afghans say they are prepared to brave death.

"I am obliged to elect a president. If I'm killed, I don't care because this is our country," said Kabul taxi driver Dost Mohammad, 26.

Others said the risks were not worth it.

"If there is a suicide bombing, God forbid, I will die. My life is in danger and with the situation like this, if I'm honest, I won't leave the house," said 45-year-old Hanifa Abir, who works in the civil service.

Escalating strikes in recent days, the Taliban claimed responsibility for two suicide bombs targeting NATO in Kabul, pledging to sabotage the Western-backed elections in one of the world's most lawless nations.

Thursday marks only Afghanistan's second direct presidential election, in a crucial test of a system installed after the Taliban were ejected from power in late 2001, following the September 11 attacks.

Seventeen million Afghans have registered to elect a president and 420 councillors in 34 provinces across the largely rural and impoverished country.

It is a difficult process in a nation where more than 70 percent of people are illiterate, and bound into fierce tribal and religious allegiances.

A tense government threatened to expel foreign journalists who violate a ban ordered in the "national interest" on reporting attacks during the elections and vowed to close any local media outlet that does the same.

"This is an extraordinary situation... (If they violate the ban) local agencies will be closed and international journalists will be kicked out," foreign ministry spokesman Ahmad Zahir Faqiri told AFP.

The United States, human rights groups, journalists and United Nations levelled heavy criticism against the government over the attempted ban.

Claims of vote-buying and biased use of government resources have added to concerns about the credibility of the election, along with rampant corruption and Karzai's reliance on warlords who stand accused of rights abuses.

"Don't expect perfect elections in Afghanistan," warned US President Barack Obama's top envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

"The issue is the process if it is credible, then the winner will have legitimacy to address the problems in the country that need to be addressed," added another Western diplomat.

Despite billions of dollars of Western aid, most Afghans still lack electricity, roads are bad, jobs are scarce and graft rife.

Voting centres opened at 7:00 am (0230 GMT) Thursday, but it was still unclear how many sites would be operational despite the deployment of 300,000 Afghan and foreign forces to protect voters.

The number could lie anywhere between the 6,200 polling stations of the 2005 parliamentary elections, and an ideal of nearly 7,000, election officers said.

While Karzai has been tipped to hold on to power, an energetic campaign by ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah has boosted the chance of a run-off that election authorities say would take place six weeks down the line.