By Heidi Vogt
Thursday, August 27, 2009
KABUL, Aug. 26 -- President Hamid Karzai extended his lead over his top challenger in Afghanistan's presidential election, new results showed Wednesday, but he remains short of the 50 percent threshold that would allow him to avoid a two-man runoff.
Afghan election officials are slowly releasing results from last Thursday's election, but final certified results will not be ready until at least mid-September, after fraud complaints have been investigated.
Low voter turnout and the fraud allegations have cast a pall over the vote, seen as critical to efforts to stabilize the country, which is beset by Taliban insurgents and doubts over its fragile democracy. Top challenger Abdullah Abdullah has accused Karzai of widespread cheating, including ballot stuffing and voter intimidation; Karzai's camp has denied the accusations.
The latest returns boost Karzai's standing to 44.8 percent. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has 35.1 percent. The count is based on returns from 17 percent of polling stations nationwide, meaning the results could still change dramatically. Tuesday's returns had Abdullah trailing by two percentage points.
Although millions of Afghans voted, apathy and fear of insurgent attacks kept turnout low compared with the nation's first direct presidential election, in 2004, which was swept by Karzai.
This summer has been Afghanistan's most violent since the 2001 U.S. invasion. President Obama ordered an additional 21,000 troops to the country this year, in part to help secure the elections. But violence has continued to rise.
NATO said two U.S. troops died Wednesday in separate attacks.
Late Wednesday, a rocket exploded in the southern city of Kandahar, causing no casualties but setting a wood shop on fire, police said. The attack occurred a day after a huge bombing in Kandahar killed at least 43 people and wounded 65.