Turnout appears low in Afghan poll

KABUL: Taliban threats kept voter turnout low in the capital and the militant south Thursday as Afghans chose the next president for their deeply troubled country. Militants launched scattered rocket and bomb attacks but no major assaults.

Turnout, particularly in the violent south, will be key to the vote's success in the country's second direct presidential election. Taliban militants have pledged to disrupt the vote and circulated threats that those who cast ballots will be punished.

International officials have predicted an imperfect election, but expressed hope that Afghans would accept it as legitimate — a key component of President Barack Obama's war strategy.

An Associated Press reporter who visited six polling centers in Kabul said he saw no lines at any of them. An AP reporter in Kandahar, the south's largest city and the Taliban spiritual birthplace, also said he saw few voters.

Scattered reports of violence trickled in from around the country, including a rocket that landed near voters in Helmand and an explosion at a voting site in Kabul. Security companies in the capital reported at least five blasts.

President Hamid Karzai, dressed in his traditional purple and green striped robe, voted at 7 a.m. at a Kabul high school. He dipped his index finger in indelible ink — a fraud prevention measure — and held it up for the cameras.

"I request that the Afghan people come out and vote, so through their ballot Afghanistan will be more secure, more peaceful," Karzai said. "Vote. No violence."

Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was ousted in late 2001 by a U.S.-led invasion, is favored to finish first among 36 official candidates, although a late surge by former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50 percent.

Preliminary results were expected to be announced in Kabul on Saturday.

U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique said there were no early reports of widespread irregularities, though there had been a number of attacks in the south and east. However, presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost, who had 10 percent support in pre-election polls, said he washed off the ink that is supposed to prevent double voting and called on authorities to "immediately stop this election."

"This is not an election, this is a comedy," Bashardost said.

Militants carried out a string of minor assaults in the early hours.

An AP reporter in southern Helmand province said more than 20 rockets had landed in the capital of Lashkar Gah, including one that landed near a line of voters and killed a child.

A blast at a high school in Kabul serving as a polling center wounded an election monitor and briefly shut down voting, an election observer named Ezatullah said. Abdullah Azizi, a 40-year-old teacher, said he was at Abdul Hai Habibi school when the explosion occurred.

"We don't care about these blasts. It's just people who want to sabotage the place," Habibi said after voting reopened. "My wife, my mother and father are going to come now. The women were afraid when they heard the explosion, but now I'm going to tell them come here."

The Foreign Ministry asked news organizations to avoid "broadcasting any incidence of violence" during voting hours "to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people." Because of that order, Afghan officials were reluctant to confirm violence reports.

At a high school in eastern Kabul, election workers were ready at 7 a.m., but no one was there. A 30-year-old shopkeeper whose store is about 100 yards (meters) away said he didn't see the point. "I am not voting. It won't change anything in our country," said Mohammad Tahir, 30.

Long lines of voters showed up at the polls in the more peaceful north, a turnout that could boost Abdullah's chances, especially if the country's ethnic Pashtuns in the south don't vote.

Some voters in the capital wanted to assess the security before voting.

"Yes, we are going to vote," Abdul Rahman, 35, said as he stood 50 yards (meters) outside one polling center. He and his friends were waiting to see people vote safely before casting ballots. "If anything happens to the polling center, we don't want to be too close to it."

The next president will lead a nation plagued by armed insurgency, drugs, corruption and a feeble government. Violence has risen sharply in Afghanistan the last three years, and the U.S. now has more than 60,000 forces in the country close to eight years after the U.S. invasion following the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001.

Karzai, a favorite of the Bush administration, won in 2004 with 55.4 percent of the vote, riding into office on a wave of public optimism after decades of war and ruinous Taliban rule. As the U.S. shifted resources to the war in Iraq, Afghanistan fell into steep decline, marked by record opium poppy harvests, deepening government corruption and skyrocketing violence.

Karzai has sought to ensure his re-election by striking alliances with regional power brokers, naming as a running mate a Tajik strongman whom he once fired as defense minister and welcoming home notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, allegedly responsible in the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war.

Voter turnout — especially in the insurgency-plagued Pashtun south — is likely to be crucial not only to Karzai's chances but also to public acceptance of the results. Karzai is widely expected to run strong among his fellow Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group which also forms the overwhelming majority of the Taliban.

Abdullah, son of a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother, is expected to win much of his votes in the Tajik north, where security is better.

One fear is that Abdullah's followers may charge fraud and take to the streets if Karzai claims a first-round victory without a strong southern turnout.

The country has been rife with rumors of ballot stuffing, bogus registrations and trafficking in registration cards on behalf of the incumbent, allegations his campaign has denied.