KABUL (Reuters) - Violent protests in reaction to a plan by a small U.S. church to burn copies of the Koran have the potential to delay this month’s Afghan parliamentary election, the head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan said on Thursday.
Staffan de Mistura, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special representative, said Afghanistan was at a critical juncture and the U.S. church’s “abhorrent” plan could derail the September 18 ballot.
“It could affect the timing and it could affect the way the elections take place,” de Mistura told Reuters in an interview.
“Imagine, God forbid, this took place, then it could have a substantial effect on the election process,” he said.
A small group of Afghan parliamentarians told Afghanistan’s TOLO private television a large protest was being planned for Saturday outside the U.S. embassy in Kabul.
De Mistura said violence was the biggest threat to the election and the Taliban could attempt to exploit anger over the Koran-burning plan. The Islamists have vowed to disrupt the poll by attacking foreign forces and then hitting Afghan targets.
“As we have heard the Taliban have publicly urged Afghans not to got to vote,” de Mistura said. “At the same time, they could use this type of event in order to send a signal.”
The pastor of an obscure church in the southern U.S. state of Florida has vowed to go ahead with the plan to burn copies of the Muslim holy book in commemoration of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
The plan has drawn global condemnation. U.S. President Barack Obama said it would be a “recruitment bonanza” for al Qaeda and risked violent reactions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as attacks in the United States and Europe.
On Thursday, hundreds of angry protesters attacked a security post in Mahmoud Raqi, the capital of Kapisa province northeast of Kabul, over the Koran-burning plan, police said.
A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said there were 500-700 protesters. “The Afghan national police prevented the protesters from overwhelming an Afghan military outpost,” James Judge said.
Police have been put on alert in Kabul after angry demonstrators gathered outside a Kabul mosque chanting “Death to America” earlier this week.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said this week there were provisions to postpone the election in one or more of the 34 provinces if security was not good enough to guarantee safe voting, although there were no plans yet to do so.
The poll is seen as a test of stability in Afghanistan before Obama conducts a strategy review in December. He plans to begin pulling out U.S. troops from July 2011 if conditions allow.
The IEC has said about 1,020, or 15 percent, out of 6,835 polling stations will not open because of security fears.
While measures are being taken to help voters in those areas cast ballots at other centers, de Mistura said violent protests and Taliban threats could lead to more centers being closed, effectively disenfranchising thousands of Afghans.
He said a turnout of between 5 million and 7 million from the roughly 17.5 million registered voters should be considered a success.
Last year’s presidential poll was hit by what de Mistura said was “massive fraud” but he said preparations for the parliamentary vote were much improved.
Editing by Diana Abdallah