Karzai set to address poll decision
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is likely to respond to a UN-backed panel’s report on the flawed Aug. 20 election amid mounting reports that Afghanistan will head to the polls in a run-off vote.
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REUTERS - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, under intense international pressure, is likely to announce on Tuesday he is ready for a run-off in the country's disputed election, Western sources said, after a U.N.-backed panel rejected as fraudulent tens of thousands of his votes.
The Aug. 20 election, marred by cheating allegations, has fanned tension between Karzai and Western governments whose troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan.
The U.S. group Democracy International said a report by the Electoral Complaints Commission showed the number of votes invalidated by the U.N.-backed group pushed Karzai's total below the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off.
Provisional results had given Karzai 54.6 percent.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she expected word from Karzai on Tuesday and hoped for a quick solution.
"I am going to let him do that but I am encouraged at the direction that the situation is moving," Clinton told reporters. "I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order in the next several days."it
Karzai indicated in private meetings this week, including with Senator John Kerry, he would be open to taking part in a run-off with his man challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, but did not commit to a specific timetable, Western sources told Reuters.
Analysts have long said Karzai, a member of the Pashtun community that is Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and its traditional rulers, would likely win a run-off.
But officials cautioned that Karzai could still change his mind and there was likely to be intense political haggling.
The allegations of fraud have complicated U.S. President Barack Obama's deliberations on whether to send thousands more U.S. troops to try to turn the tide in the eight-year war.
The United States cannot wait for problems surrounding the Afghan government's legitimacy to be resolved before making a decision on troops, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said late on Monday.
Speaking to reporters on board a plane traveling to Tokyo, Gates described the situation in Afghanistan as an evolutionary process that would not improve dramatically overnight, regardless of what course is taken following the flawed election.
"I see this as a process, not something that's going to happen all of the sudden," Gates said.
Casualties are rising among the 68,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan and many Americans are tiring of war.
The U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has recommended sending 40,000 additional soldiers to seize the initiative back from Taliban militants.
Democracy International and the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace both said the UN-backed ECC's audit showed Karzai had about 48.3 percent of the vote. Abdullah's total rose to about 31 percent from 28 percent.
"Everything we are hearing is pointing at the second round. That is what we are bracing for," a Western diplomat in Kabul said.
Under Afghan law, the Afghan government-appointed Independent Election Commission must accept the findings, recalculate the tallies and then announce final results.
The picture could be thrown into further disarray if the Afghan election commission rejects the ECC finding, which a member of Karzai's camp has already disputed.
"The main question right now is what the IEC is going to do now, whether they are going to accept it," the diplomat in Kabul said.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said from his conversations with Karzai this week, the Afghan president was open to a power-sharing deal with Abdullah.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister, said he was ready to go to a second round and would discuss with Karzai what to do if a run-off proved impossible due to poor weather and security as the Afghan winter closed in.
Gates said he was confident U.S. and NATO forces could provide security for a run-off, should one be decided, but added bad winter weather could prevent Afghans from voting.
"I think the key consideration before us at this point is actually less (one of) security ... (it's) the weather. So getting something done before winter sets in will be very important," he said.
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