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Afghanistan's Karzai agrees to election run-off

KABUL (Reuters) - President Hamid Karzai agreed to face a second round of voting in Afghanistan’s disputed election on Tuesday after a U.N.-led fraud inquiry tossed out enough of his votes to trigger a run-off.

Karzai’s decision immediately eased tensions with the West and removed one stumbling block for U.S. President Barack Obama as he weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.

Obama called Karzai to congratulate him for accepting the run-off and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed Karzai’s decision.

“It is now vital that all elements of Afghan society continue to come together to advance democracy, peace and justice,” Obama said in a statement.

“We look forward to a second round of voting, and the completion of the process to choose the president of Afghanistan.”

Obama also telephoned Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister whom Karzai faces in the November 7 run-off, to thank him for his “constructive efforts,” the White House said.

Obama administration officials have stressed that for Washington to succeed in Afghanistan it is essential that there be a legitimate and credible government in Kabul.

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Obama was to meet with his war council this week and next on the request by his top military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, for 40,000 or more reinforcements.

After hours of closed-door talks with Western diplomats, Karzai appeared tense as he accepted the ruling by the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC). The ruling cut his tally to 49.7 percent from the preliminary first-round result of 54.6 percent -- below the 50 percent needed for an outright win.

“We believe that this decision of the IEC is legitimate, legal and constitutional and that it strengthens the path toward democracy,” said Karzai, with U.S. Senator John Kerry and U.N. Afghanistan envoy Kai Eide at his side.

The IEC made its ruling after a separate U.N.-backed fraud panel invalidated tens of thousands of votes for Karzai this week. Karzai had earlier said the extent of fraud was exaggerated and expressed confidence in his first-round victory.

Abdullah’s camp said they were prepared for the run-off.

“We had hoped the president would accept the second round,” said his spokesman, Fazel Sangcharaki.

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Karzai, who is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, is almost certain to win the run-off but the level of mass fraud alleged in the first round will cast a shadow over the new vote.

Security issues are also of concern at a time when the insurgency is as strong as it has ever been and with winter approaching, which could disrupt voting.

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“The Taliban no doubt will try their best to disrupt it,” said Waheed Mozhdah, an Afghan analyst. “It (the run-off) will be difficult if our intention is for a better and (more) transparent election compared to the first round.”

Kerry said holding the second round would be tough in the present environment. But the West, he said, was committed to assisting Afghanistan.

“We know it will be difficult and require sacrifice,” he said. “But we are committed to this effort.” [ID:nSP359291]

The uncertainty has added to pressure on Washington, where polls show Americans are weary of the eight-year-old war.

Many within Obama’s Democratic Party have spoken out against sending more troops, while Republican opponents say his lengthy deliberations on a new strategy are undermining U.S. troops and emboldening the Taliban.

Afghanistan’s other allies, Britain in particular, also face pressure due to mounting casualties.

In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said it was not certain Obama would announce a new strategy before the run-off.

“Whether or not the president makes a decision before that I don’t think has been determined,” he told reporters. “I continue to say that the decision will be made in the coming weeks as the president goes through an examination of our policy.”

Earlier, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the United States could not wait for problems surrounding the Afghan government’s legitimacy to be resolved before making a decision on whether to send more troops.

More than 100,000 foreign troops, two-thirds of them Americans, are in Afghanistan fighting Taliban insurgents.

Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli, Maria Golovnina and Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul, Ross Colvin and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; writing by Golnar Motevalli, Maria Golovnina and Jackie Frank; editing by David Storey and Mohammad Zargham