SHIBERGHAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - One of Afghanistan’s most notorious militia leaders threw his support behind President Hamid Karzai at a chaotic rally Monday, the final day of campaigning for this week’s election.
With the outcome of Thursday’s ballot hanging on the threat of Taliban-led violence and the clout of old militia chiefs, Karzai’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, staged an equally frenetic rally in the capital, Kabul.
In the north, thousands gave a rapturous welcome to General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the former Uzbek militia chief who flew back to Afghanistan Sunday from exile in Turkey.
“We need to go with Hamid Karzai into the future,” Dostum told cheering supporters in Shiberghan, his dusty home city.
Polls have shown Karzai with about 45 percent of the vote, a clear lead but not enough to win an outright majority and avoid a run-off against Abdullah, Karzai’s former foreign minister who has strong support among ethnic Tajiks in the north.
Dostum’s backing could deliver enough support for Karzai to win the election in a single round, despite grave fears expressed by the United States and the United Nations over Dostum’s possible return to a position in government.
“We must not let it go to a second round — back Hamid Karzai,” the heavily protected Dostum said before throwing red velvet-covered copies of his political manifesto to the crowd.
“There will be a day, God willing, when I can help all of the people of Afghanistan again,” he said.
Scuffles broke out backstage before Dostum arrived. A choir led by a 15-year-old boy sang “our king is coming.”
Abdullah staged an equally chaotic rally in Kabul’s National Olympic Stadium, once used by the Taliban as an execution ground, his security guards beating back enthusiastic supporters with rifle butts.
Some supporters stampeded through gates and shattered glass doors to get closer to Abdullah, an urbane eye doctor, others clung precariously to a light tower. A makeshift platform used by television journalists collapsed in the crush, lightly injuring several.
Fears of violence could hurt Karzai’s first-round chances. Taliban militants have threatened to disrupt the poll, and this could hurt voter turnout, especially in the Pashtun south which has overwhelmingly supported Karzai, a Pashtun, in the past.
If Karzai fails to win a majority in Thursday’s first round, he would face the second-placed candidate, probably Abdullah, in a run-off in early October.
Officials painted a surprisingly optimistic picture on Monday after earlier warnings that as many as 10 percent of the 7,000 voting stations might not be able to open because of poor security.
Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief of the government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC), said 442 polling stations would have to remain closed Thursday.
While Karzai has focused on behind-the-scenes coalition building, Abdullah’s campaign has built surprising momentum on the strength of popular rallies across the country.
Karzai has secured the endorsements of ethnic chieftains and former militia bosses, but that tactic has alarmed Western donors fearful of a return to power by warlords whose factional fighting in the 1990s tore the country apart.
Few former militia chiefs are viewed with more suspicion by the West than Dostum, a whisky-drinking ex-Communist general whose militia repeatedly changed sides during the civil war. Dostum won 10 percent of the vote in the last election in 2004, and his support could help tip the balance for Karzai.
“We love him like our father. He is our elder and anything he says, I’ll accept,” said Daoud, an 18-year-old working in a juice shop, before the rally in Shiberghan.
Aleem Siddique, a U.N. spokesman in Kabul, said Afghanistan “needs more competent politicians and fewer warlords.” A U.S. official said Washington had made its concerns clear to the Afghan government, and Dostum’s reputation “raised questions of his culpability for massive human rights violations.”
Karzai has also secured the backing of powerful figures in the west and his two vice-presidential running mates are former guerrilla chiefs from the Tajik and Hazara minorities. He also has the support of ex-guerrillas from his own Pashtun group.
Four minor candidates announced Monday they were withdrawing and throwing their support behind Karzai.
The election is a test for U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategy of escalating the 8-year-old war in an effort to turn the tide after Taliban advances in recent years.
More than 30,000 extra U.S. troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, raising the number of Western troops above 100,000 for the first time, including more than 62,000 Americans.
U.S. and British troops have launched major offensives in the south, taking unprecedented casualties. A bomb killed three more British soldiers Sunday.
Additional reporting by Peter Graff and Jonathon Burch in KABUL; writing by Paul Tait; editing by Tim Pearce