KABUL For the devout, the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is a time of prayer and introspection, but this year, for Afghanistan's warlords and powerbrokers, it is time to decide on a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
Gunmen-escorted convoys of armored cars race around Kabul toward the end of the day as politicians and other leaders gather for the ritual breaking of the Ramadan fast at dusk - and also to set aside rivalries and form alliances which they hope can take them to power in the divided and war-torn nation.
This week, Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, a former Islamist warlord reputed to have invited Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda to Afghanistan, was being spoken of as a consensus presidential candidate of an opposition alliance. Underscoring confusion, he was also being talked of as Karzai's preferred candidate, but neither rumor could be confirmed.
"Kabul is a cauldron of suspicion and rumor at the moment, which we expect will last throughout the elections period," said a top international community official in the Afghan capital, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of his position.
Elections are to be held on April 5 next year to replace Karzai, who came to power in 2001 after U.S.-led forces toppled the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government. Karzai is not eligible to stand for a third term and his replacement will have to negotiate an end to the insurgency as Western troops leave after a 12-year war with the Islamic radicals.
Dismissing fears that the Taliban could sweep the nation after the withdrawal of foreign troops, many Afghans say the elections will be an essential part of bringing in peace.
With Washington seen as keen to push peace talks with the Islamist insurgents, any government in Kabul may have to reach a settlement with them or continue the war.
Ramadan ends around Aug 8 with Eid al-Fitr, Islam's biggest festival. Candidates for the elections will be registered between Sept 16-Oct 6.
Sayyaf, a white-bearded man in his sixties from the same majority Pashtun ethnic group as Karzai, was a much-feared leader of the mujahideen coalition that fought the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Later, he was one of few hardline Islamic commanders to oppose the Taliban as part of the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance.
Sayyaf, now a Kabul MP who presents himself as a voice of wisdom, has not commented on speculation he may stand for president. His supporters say Karzai often consults him, flying by helicopter to Sayyaf's home from his garden palace.
"Sayyaf is very influential and he is known to everyone. President Karzai and his deputies have met him twice at his residence to discuss important agendas," says Farhad Sediqi, also a Kabul MP who knows him well.
He could be a bridge between Islamists, ethnic Pashtuns and members of the government, trusted on all sides, although his appeal may be limited with voters weary of warlords, and women worried about a rollback of recent freedoms.
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Other prominent names being talked of as potential presidential candidates also hark back to the anti-Soviet mujahideen era, including Atta Mohammad Noor, who commanded 20,000 Northern Alliance fighters.
But Noor, an ethnic Tajik with vast wealth and influence as Balkh province governor, may yet prefer to steer events rather than position himself as a presidential candidate.
Other ex-warlords retaining serious clout, like Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Karzai's current Vice President Mohammed Qasim 'Marshal' Fahim and powerful Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqiq are also likely to push forward candidates.
Karzai, a wily dealmaker despite occasional erratic behavior that infuriates even his supporters, has yet to anoint a preferred successor. His reticence lends support to a theory he may somehow try to extend his grip on power.
"We are very worried he will postpone the election, citing security worries, climate reasons or political reasons, which would be in breach of the constitution," said Amrullah Saleh, former head of Afghanistan's intelligence service and now a political opposition activist.
Behind closed doors, according to diplomats in the city, Karzai says "all the rights things" and shares their concern that not to leave on time would set a bad precedent for the country's fledgling democratic process.
Karzai's businessman brother Qayum is sometimes spoken of as a successor, although that risks signaling business as usual for both jaded Afghan voters and Western donors wanting change.
Other names in Karzai's inner circle include the urbane ambassador to Pakistan, Umer Daudzai, a former chief of staff who helped sway opponents to back Karzai in the 2009 elections.
Education Minister Farooq Wardak, powerful Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal and Economy Minister Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal are seen as cabinet members likely to run.
Some of them could form alliances to form a president-vice president ticket.
For the international community, a popular president would be Ashraf Ghani, a former Karzai adviser and finance minister who heads Afghanistan's security transition body.
"At the end of the day there will likely be three agendas, the old, and the new and a conglomerate in between," says Faizullah Zaki, an adviser and spokesman for Dostum's Jabha-e-Milli party.
For Zaki, the old equates to Karzai's circle, while the new is the opposition coalition, while those in the middle are Ghani and some senior ministers yet to show their hand.
"There will be those supporting the incumbent agenda, there will be those wanting an alternative vision for the country beyond old ethnic rivalries, and there will be around a dozen in the middle with their own agenda," Zaki says.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)