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Afghans head to polls as Taliban threats mount

The elections - the first since a fraud-ridden presidential poll a year ago - are seen both as a test of the Afghan government's commitment to rooting out corruption and as a measure of the strength of the insurgency.

world Updated: Sep 18, 2010 09:11 IST

The Taliban have written threats on leaflets passed out at mosques, whispered them in villages, proclaimed them to journalists and posted on the Internet: If you vote in Saturday's parliamentary elections, prepare to be attacked. How many Afghans ignore this intimidation campaign and turn out at the polls will be one measure of whether the vote is considered a success.

The elections - the first since a fraud-ridden presidential poll a year ago - are seen both as a test of the Afghan government's commitment to rooting out corruption and as a measure of the strength of the insurgency.

Hanging in the balance is the willingness of the U.S.-led international coalition to continue supporting Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government 1with 140,000 troops and billions of dollars nearly nine years into the war.

On the eve of the balloting, the head of a voting center in southern Helmand province was killed when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb - a reminder that the insurgent group usually makes good on its threats. At least 24 people have been killed in election-related violence in the run-up to the vote, including four candidates, according to observers.

In the past two days, Taliban militants abducted 18 election workers from a house in northern Bagdhis province, and a candidate was kidnapped in eastern Laghman province. Coalition forces also detained an insurgent in eastern Khost province who was "actively" planning attacks during the elections, NATO said. About 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 parliamentary seats, allocated among the 34 provinces according to population. A quarter of the legislative seats are reserved for women. Final results aren't expected for weeks.

The Afghan parliament is relatively weak so the outcome of the races is unlikely to change the workings of the government. Voters tend to select candidates of the same ethnic group and are often motivated mostly by a desire for patronage jobs or federal funds for a road or a school in their district.

The U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told reporters in Islamabad on Friday that he knows the parliamentary elections will have plenty of problems. "They're going to be flawed," Holbrooke said. "We've had experience in our country with flawed elections, and not in the middle of a war. We're not looking for perfection here." "You'll want to look at how much the Taliban are able to disrupt" the balloting, he added.

The Afghan government has installed extra checkpoints throughout the country and dispatched about 280,000 security forces to help secure polling stations.

Afghan security forces patrolled the mountains and hills that encircle Kabul on Friday to prevent insurgents from setting up rocket-firing points, Deputy Police Chief Khalilullah Dastyar said. Police used bomb-sniffing dogs while searching every car heading along main roads into the city.

In volatile Kunar province in the northeast, police said they were unable to deploy soldiers to remote areas but set up checkpoints on roads into the provincial capital. Police were stopping vehicles and questioning anyone wearing a burqa - the full-body robe often worn by Afghan women in conservative areas. Insurgents previously have hidden under burqas to pass checkpoints. "We are talking to anyone with a burqa to make sure it's actually a woman," said Khalilullah Zaiyi, the provincial police chief.

In eastern Khost province, police said mosques were blanketed with leaflets overnight promising a violent election. "The people of Khost should not go to the voting centers. If anyone goes, we will punish them," the notes said, according to provincial police Chief Abdul Hakim Isaqzai. The same message was written on leaflets the Taliban were passing out in the southern city of Kandahar.

In the eastern province of Ghazni, a Taliban operative told The Associated Press that the group had warned residents they would be targeted if they left their homes or opened shops anytime Saturday or Sunday.

Those who vote will be easy to identify _ marked by a fingertip covered with the indelible ink used as an anti-fraud measure that stains the skin for at least 72 hours.

Even in some of the most violent areas, however, some Afghans said fear would not stop them from voting.

In Kandahar, where the Taliban have waged an assassination campaign against government workers in recent months, some residents said they felt they wouldn't have a right to complain about the outcome of the election if they didn't cast a ballot. "I cannot predict if the election will be fair or not - we will see that in time. But I will go vote and so will my family," said Abdul Razak, a businessman. He said he's been encouraged by the increased NATO presence in the city over the summer and trusts they will provide the needed security.

Karzai urged citizens to vote despite the threats. "Tomorrow's election is very important," Karzai told reporters. "I hope that all our people in all corners of the country, in any village, will go to the polling centers and to vote for their favorite candidate."

Asked what message he wanted to give to the Taliban, Karzai replied: "Those Taliban, who are sons of Afghanistan, are Muslim. They should serve their country and participate, and build their country and build stability."