HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A Taliban roadside bomb killed at least 12 people Monday in a key commercial city in western Afghanistan, officials said, amid worsening security before a presidential poll this month.
The remote-controlled device may have been aimed at a local police chief but killed mainly passers-by when it exploded during rush hour near a blood bank in Herat, a relatively peaceful city near the Iranian border.
Violence has escalated ahead of the August 20 presidential poll that is seen as a key test of Western-led efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
Nine foreign soldiers, including six Americans, were killed in the south and east, where the Taliban is strongest, in the last three days.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who took over Saturday, said he wanted Afghanistan’s own forces to play a greater role in providing security over the next four years.
“I believe that during my term as NATO secretary-general, Afghans must take over lead responsibility for security in most of their country,” he told a news conference in Brussels.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates met on Sunday at an air base in Belgium with Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, a Pentagon spokesman said.
Gates obtained an update on a review of the war being conducted by McChrystal. The unusual meeting, attended by other top U.S. defense officials, was not announced in advance.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the election and have called on Afghans to boycott the ballot, the second direct presidential poll since the Islamists were toppled in 2001.
In Ghazni province, a Taliban stronghold southeast of the capital, insurgents have posted notices in mosques and to walls, warning people to stay at home a day before the poll.
“In order that this illegitimate process faces failure, fighters will intensively attack polling centers, and warn voters to stay home one day before,” one item posted overnight read.
Among those killed in Monday’s blast in Herat were a woman, a 12-year-old girl and two policemen, said provincial security commander General Esmatullah Alizai.
A Reuters witness saw several women and children being carried out of ambulances into a military hospital in Herat.
Alizai said 12 people were killed and Khoja Issa, a district police chief, was seriously wounded. Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yousuf said Issa was the target of the attack.
In Kabul, the Interior Ministry put the death toll at 10 and said 29 were wounded. Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the Herat bombing as “a terrorist attack.”
Herat, one of Afghanistan’s three largest cities, is usually a safe and prosperous center because of its strong trade links with nearby Iran and Turkmenistan.
July was the deadliest month for foreign forces in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, with at least 71 killed. August has so far followed that deadly trend.
A total of 41 U.S. troops were killed in July, compared to the previous monthly high of 26 in September 2008.
Britain has also suffered heavy battlefield casualties, with the 22 killed in July taking its toll in the eight-year-old war to 191, 12 more than were killed in Iraq.
Attacks across Afghanistan this year had already reached their worst level since 2001. They escalated further after thousands of U.S. Marines launched a major operation in southern Helmand province last month, long a Taliban stronghold and the source of most of the opium that helps fund the insurgency.
The U.S. operation, along with a similar British offensive, is the first under President Barack Obama’s new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.
The election is seen as a test for Obama’s new strategy, as well as Kabul’s ability to stage a legitimate and credible poll.
Civilians are also dying at record rates. The United Nations said last week 1,013 civilians had been killed between January and June this year, up from 818 in the same period last year.
The Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for 59 percent of those deaths, the United Nations said.
There have also been a series of election-related attacks, with one of Karzai’s campaign convoys ambushed in southeastern Ghazni Saturday. A bodyguard was killed and a candidate for provincial elections was wounded.
Karzai is seen as a clear front-runner in a field of 35 challengers. While his main rivals, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, have been campaigning vigorously, Karzai has been quietly building coalitions among the large field of contenders.
Monday, he announced Abdul Majeed Sameem, a minor candidate from Jawzjan province in the north, had become the latest to pull out in favor of Karzai.
Poor security appears to be one of the few threats to the man who has ruled since 2001 and won the first direct vote in 2004.
Low voter turn-out in the ethnic Pashtun south, Karzai’s power base, could raise the possibility of a second run-off vote if no one gets more than 50 percent in the first round.
Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Writing by Golnar Motevalli; Editing by Jon Boyle and Philip Barbara