Afghans vote amid violence and widespread fraud
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan officials hailed a parliamentary vote on Saturday as a success despite low turnout, attacks that killed 14 people and widespread fraud that could undermine the result and test the government's credibility.
Taliban attacks and attempts at vote-rigging were reported across the country. While there was less violence, attacks were more widespread than during a deeply flawed presidential vote last year and reached into once peaceful areas.
The election was being closely watched in Washington ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's planned war strategy review in December, which will likely examine the pace and scale of U.S. troop withdrawals after nine years of war.
A flawed poll would also weigh on Obama when his administration faces mid-term Congressional elections in November amid sagging public support for the war, with violence at its worst since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.
"As a whole I would rate this election successful," said Fazl Ahmad Manawi, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) chairman.
Voters appeared hesitant after a series of rocket attacks, beginning with a pre-dawn strike near the main headquarters of NATO-led troops and the U.S. embassy in the capital, Kabul.
The Taliban said on their website after polls closed they had conducted more than 150 attacks, fewer than the 272 blamed on insurgents during last year's presidential poll. Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said there had been 305 "enemy actions."
General David Petraeus, the U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, praised Afghan security forces and voters.
"The people of Afghanistan sent a powerful message today," Petraeus said in a statement. "The voice of Afghanistan's future does not belong to the violent extremists and terror networks. It belongs to the people."
Afghan Interior Minister General Bismillah Khan said three police and 11 civilians were killed, with dozens more wounded. In one of the worst incidents, Taliban gunmen attacked a security post near a polling site in northern Baghlan province.
The Taliban had vowed to disrupt the poll and warned voters not to cast ballots. Their threats appeared to have an impact, with 3,642,444 votes cast, according to preliminary figures released by the IEC.
The United Nations' top diplomat in Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, told Reuters before the vote that a turnout of between 5 million and 7 million could be considered a success. The IEC has put the number of eligible voters at 11.4 million.
Manawi said 4,632 polling centers had opened. The IEC had originally planned to open 6,835 but said before polling day 1,019 of those would remain closed because they were unsafe.
As well as the low turnout and violence, thousands of reported attempts at fraud threatened to undermine the poll's credibility, and that of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai cast his ballot in Kabul for a female Hindu candidate, two palace officials said, a choice that could rankle supporters in the conservative, Muslim nation.
The National Directorate of Security said more than 22,000 fake registration cards were found in the last three days. There were widespread reports of bribery and intimidation also.
An ink-stained fingertip was meant to mark those who had cast ballots but voters, campaign workers and observers said some ink batches washed off easily and others came off with bleach, potentially allowing multiple trips to the polls.
The independent Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan said the problem had hit almost 3,000 centers.
"I voted and you see my finger is washed clean of ink," said Bashir Ahmad from western Herat city, waving his unstained digit.
The Afghan government and foreign observers all acknowledged before the vote the election would be imperfect, many casting their eyes back to last year's presidential poll when a third of votes cast for Karzai were thrown out as fake.
The European Union commended Afghanistan on its second parliamentary election since 2001. It deplored the loss of life but also noted "allegations of irregularities and fraud" and urged Afghan election monitors to address those impartially.
Washington believes graft weakens the central government and its ability to build up institutions like the Afghan security forces, which in turn determines when troops will leave. Obama has pledged to start drawing down U.S. forces from July 2011.
It will not be clear for several weeks who among the almost 2,500 candidates have won the 249 seats in the wolesi jirga, or lower house of parliament. Early results will not be known until at least October 8, with final results not due before October 30.
Poll observers expect thousands of complaints, which must be lodged within 72 hours and could delay the process further.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin, Hamid Shalizi, Tim Gaynor, Jonathon Burch, Emma Graham-Harrison and Bryson Hull in KABUL, Rohullah Anwari in KUNAR and Ahmad Elham in KUNDUZ; Editing by Bryson Hull)