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Asia Crisis

Afghan leader Karzai campaigns in Taliban heartland

(For full coverage on Afghanistan, double click on [ID:nAFPAK])

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, July 13 (Reuters) - Vowing to win insurgents over to the political process, Afghan President Hamid Karzai flew to the Taliban heartland of Kandahar on Monday on his first major campaign tour for next month's presidential election.

Karzai flew by helicopter and was whisked under tight security to a government guest house in the southern city, where he survived an assassination attempt by a Taliban gunman in 2002.

The Aug. 20 presidential poll, the second in Afghanistan's short history as a democracy, is seen as a crucial test for both Washington and Kabul, with violence in Afghanistan at its worst since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.

Thousands of U.S. Marines launched a major offensive in neighbouring Helmand earlier this month, the first such operation of President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its allies and stabilise Afghanistan.

Washington has identified growing Taliban insurgencies in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan as its main foreign policy priority. Thousands of extra troops being poured into Afghanistan are meant in part to provide security for the August poll.

Kandahar is also Karzai's birthplace. The man who has led Afghanistan since 2001, and won its first presidential vote three years later, has survived several other attempts on his life since his narrow escape in 2002.

A clear front-runner, he faces 40 rivals in next month's poll. His two most serious rivals, former cabinet ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, attracted only single-digit support in an opinion survey by a U.S.-based group in May.

Karzai told a gathering in Kandahar he would crack down on corruption in his administration -- a common complaint at home and abroad -- and fight against poor governance if re-elected.

"If I come to power again and people vote for me ... I will reconcile with the opponents, will push for good ties with all countries and will make a good government, void of graft," Karzai told a group of tribal chiefs in the basement of the guest house.

The Taliban have repeatedly rejected the election as a Western-inspired sham.

The possibility of talks with moderate elements of the Taliban has been raised periodically in Kabul and Washington but the austere Islamists similarly reject such suggestions.

They say no talks will be possible until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan.

CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

Karzai also reiterated his appeal for foreign troops to limit air strikes while hunting militants because of the number of civilian casualties such attacks cause.

The U.S. military in Afghanistan last week issued new combat orders designed to reduce such casualties, calling on commanders to limit the use of close air support on residential compounds and other areas likely to result in civilian deaths and injuries.

Karzai also said he would encourage foreign troops to stop searching Afghan homes in line with the new tactical directive.

Many of the tribal chiefs, wearing turbans and beards, promised to vote for Karzai, who is a Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and the country's traditional rulers.

Karzai later opened a road linking Kandahar with a district in Helmand and spoke briefly with a few shopkeepers inside Kandahar city, where roads were closed as security for his trip.

Regarded as weak in some Western capitals and at home early this year, Karzai has managed to consolidate his position in recent months by winning the support of key leaders of former armed groups in return for promising them posts in a new government.

But Karzai's alliance with such leaders, two of whom are his vice presidential running mates -- Afghanistan's government has two vice presidents -- has drawn stern criticism at home and abroad over allegations of human rights abuses. (Writing by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Paul Tait and Jerry Norton)

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