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MEHTAR LAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed Afghanistan's powerful deputy head of intelligence and at least 22 other people in an attack on Wednesday claimed by the Taliban.
Abdullah Laghmani, deputy head of the National Directorate for Security, was one the highest-ranking security officials in President Hamid Karzai's government to be killed in the conflict. The Taliban said he was targeted for assassination.
In other developments, new preliminary vote tallies showed Karzai inching closer to a first-round victory in last month's presidential election but the outcome remains so close that fraud investigations could decide if a run-off is needed.
The poll was a major test for Karzai after eight years in power and for U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy of sending more troops to fight an increasingly lethal foe in what Washington sees as the frontline in its war on terrorism.
Laghman province governor Lutfullah Mashal, who escaped injury in the latest attack, told Reuters the bomber burst from a shop and blew himself up while officials were getting into cars outside a mosque in the provincial capital Mehtar Lam.
He said the 23 dead included two provincial officials as well as Abdullah Laghmani.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the Islamist group had sent a suicide bomber to carry out the Mehtar Lam attack.
"Laghmani was one of the most important targets for the Taliban that we successfully eliminated," Mujahid said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Afghanistan's election commission released new partial results from the presidential election which showed Karzai maintaining his lead over his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, 47.3 percent to 32.6 percent.
The tally, with more than 60 percent of polling stations counted, suggests Karzai could yet be on course to a win in a single round, although the outcome is close enough that investigations into fraud allegations could prove decisive.
Votes have yet to be tallied from many parts of the south where Karzai draws strong support. Abdullah accuses Karzai's camp of stuffing ballot boxes there on a massive scale.
An independent Electoral Complaints Commission, headed by a Canadian, is probing 652 complaints it considers serious enough to alter the outcome. It can set aside questionable ballots or order results from whole districts be excluded from the count.
A second round run-off must be held if no candidate wins more than 50 percent, most likely in early October.
President Obama's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said the process of counting ballots and investigating fraud needs to run its course.
"During the process there will be many claims of irregularities," he said in Paris, where he met officials from other donor countries to discuss Afghanistan. "It happens in democracies, even when they are not in the middle of a war."
International officials initially hailed the August 20 election because Taliban militants failed to scupper it. Those assessments have become more guarded as fraud charges have mounted.
Violence in Afghanistan this year reached its highest level since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001 and escalated further in the run-up to the ballot.
Obama has sent thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan this year, the deadliest of the 8-year-old war for foreign troops.
The attack in Laghman was one of the biggest this year.
A Reuters witness in Mehtar Lam, a town in mountains about 100 km (60 miles) east of Kabul, saw a pickup truck carrying wounded people covered in blood. Eight ambulances left the scene headed toward Jalalabad, the nearest major city.
"By conducting such a vicious act and killing of religious scholars and innocents, the terrorists showed that they trample Islamic values on the orders of their masters and can go to any extent in committing a crime," Karzai said in a statement.
The commander of the 103,000-strong U.S. and NATO force in Afghanistan said this week the situation was serious and deteriorating and existing military strategy must be changed.
In rare good news, the United Nations reported that land under opium poppy cultivation had fallen by nearly a quarter this year. The biggest fall was in Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province and site of major U.S. and British offensives this year.
Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's opium used to make heroin. Political leaders and military commanders believe the illegal trade funds the insurgency, fuels corruption and undermines the government they are fighting to support.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Sayed Salahuddin, Jonathon Burch in KABUL; Estelle Shirbon in PARIS; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Angus MacSwan For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here