KABUL, Afghanistan, March 17 -- Parliamentary elections scheduled for spring will not take place until at least September, President Hamid Karzai said Thursday, confirming a long-rumored delay in a key step toward democracy.
Officials have faced logistical problems, including a lack of census data and district boundary disputes, in preparing for the election. But the parliamentary vote, originally slated to coincide with last October's presidential election, has also been repeatedly put off because of disagreements among Afghanistan's ethnic and political factions.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with President Hamid Karzai, revealed new delay at news conference.
(Tomas Munita -- AP)
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is on a weeklong tour of Asia, let slip during a news conference with Karzai here Thursday that the elections would take place in the fall . "I hope that I've not broken a story," Rice said after a reporter inquired about her statement, as a perturbed-looking Karzai stood next to her. He then confirmed the elections would probably be held in September.
Later, in an interview with ABC News, Rice said she told Afghan officials that the elections could not be delayed again. "I made the point to them that it is important that they hold them on time in September if that's what they announced, because the Afghan people are impatient to have their elections," she said.
At an international conference in Bonn in December 2001, Afghanistan's interim government agreed to prepare for free and fair elections in 2004. But the presidential elections, which had been scheduled for June, were pushed back until October. Some of Karzai's rivals have accused him of stalling the parliamentary vote to strengthen the power of the presidency.
During the news conference, Karzai also said security was improving despite a bomb attack that killed five people Thursday in Kandahar, a city 250 miles southeast of Kabul, the capital.
Afghanistan is "among the least violent states in this part of the world," Karzai said as private guards armed with assault rifles kept close watch over reporters. Rice arrived on a military transport plane and spent barely six hours on the ground under heavy security.
The secretary moved around Kabul in a motorcade that sent up clouds of dust as it roared through the streets. On stops, she shook hands with U.S. troops and held meetings with election commission officials, leaders of 11 small political parties and a selected group of prominent women.
Rice's meeting with officials from the smaller parties was part of an effort to bolster groups that espouse democratic principles and support Karzai. The meeting was organized by the National Democratic Institute, a non-profit group based in Washington that receives some funding from the U.S. government. The institute is trying to foster political parties based on policy platforms rather than ethnic group interests, according to Peter Dimitroff, the organization's country director for Afghanistan.
Rice also received a briefing from U.S. officials on the country's drug-production problem. She praised Karzai's efforts to combat the drug trade, which have included passionate public condemnations of poppy growing.
Correspondent N.C. Aizenman contributed to this report.