Kabul Blast Kills 6 Italians, 10 Afghans; Karzai Hails Vote

An Afghan woman cries for help near the site where a suicide bomber attacked an Italian military convoy. More than 50 people were injured.
An Afghan woman cries for help near the site where a suicide bomber attacked an Italian military convoy. More than 50 people were injured. (By Ahmad Massoud -- Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 18, 2009

KABUL, Sept. 17 -- A powerful car bomb killed six Italian troops and at least 10 Afghan civilians in downtown Kabul on Thursday, moments after President Hamid Karzai told journalists in his heavily guarded palace nearby that last month's fraud-plagued presidential election had been "a big success for Afghanistan."

A spokesman for the Taliban asserted responsibility for the midday attack, which injured more than 50 people when the bomber rammed his Toyota sedan into an Italian military convoy at a traffic circle near the city's international airport, NATO and Afghan authorities said. The blast, which could be heard across the city, left bodies strewn among market stalls and vehicles incinerated in the streets.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said in Rome later that it would be best for international troops to leave Afghanistan soon, the Associated Press reported. But he added that Italy is "dealing with an international problem" that Afghanistan could not be left to address by itself. "That would betray the agreement and trust with the other countries" in the mission, he said.

The third suicide bombing in the capital since mid-August underscored the growing audacity and reach of the insurgents during a season of political turmoil here. In recent weeks, as findings of election fraud have emerged, Afghans have grown increasingly fearful of political violence, while foreign diplomats have nearly come to blows over how to solve the country's leadership crisis.

Yet Karzai, holding his first full-fledged news conference since the Aug. 20 election, appeared confident as he joked with journalists and chided them for being overly critical of the voting problems. The fraud had been "very limited," he said, although he acknowledged for the first time that some election officials had been "partial" to him.

A U.N.-backed electoral review panel is continuing to investigate allegations of ballot stuffing and "ghost" voting that could affect hundreds of thousands of votes. It has also called for a recount of questionable ballots that could encompass 10 percent of all votes cast.

On Wednesday, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced a full, uncertified tally that showed Karzai had won 54.6 percent of the vote, more than enough to win the election outright, and that his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, had won 27.7 percent. But the results will not be official until the U.N. panel completes its fraud investigation.

Karzai, wearing his traditional lamb's wool cap and green striped cape, stopped short of claiming victory Thursday, but he hinted that he was anticipating a second five-year term. "My national plan will be a broad plan for security, reconstruction, development, good relations with the United States, good relations with our neighbors," he said. "When I am reelected, I will do my best for the welfare of Afghanistan."

Striking a magnanimous tone, Karzai said he would welcome Abdullah or any of his other challengers into a new government. He also reached out to his foreign allies, saying that a recent NATO airstrike in northern Afghanistan that killed at least 70 people, including civilians, was "wrong" but that Germany, whose forces ordered the bombing, was a "great friend" of Afghanistan and had "no intention of hurting anybody."

On the other side of the capital, where Abdullah met with journalists at his home Thursday afternoon, after news of the midday suicide bombing had spread, the atmosphere was more somber. Abdullah, who wore a dark double-breasted suit, paused to express condolences.

But his political message was stern and his tone sardonic. He insisted that the election had been marred by large-scale pro-government fraud that must be thoroughly investigated. He said a runoff must be held if the U.N. panel finds enough fraud to alter the outcome, and he vowed that he would never enter a coalition with Karzai, even to prevent political instability.

"My aim was not to get a ministry in the government, but to bring major change in the system of governing," Abdullah said. "Illegitimate rule itself is a recipe for instability, and it cannot be sustained with more troops. If we surrender to fraud, we will only strengthen the insurgents' hands."

Some international officials have suggested that the fraud be played down and a political deal struck to avoid a contentious runoff and a period of political drift in the middle of a war with the Taliban. Others have insisted on following the full legal process to its conclusion, and the dispute has sharply divided Kabul's diplomatic community.

Abdullah, who was foreign minister under Karzai from 2002 to 2006, said he would have been "the first to congratulate him" if Karzai had won reelection fairly. But he was sharply critical of the president, who entered power with U.N. backing after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Since then, Abdullah said, Karzai had "turned a golden opportunity into a disaster. Eight years down the road, this gentleman cannot remain in his palace eight more minutes without foreign troops" in the country.

With no new election-related announcements expected in the coming week and the multi-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr -- with its themes of thankful celebration and forgiveness -- about to begin Sunday, several analysts here said they hoped the break would relieve some of the political animosity that has been building since the election.

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