Afghanistan's repeatedly delayed presidential election will take place Oct. 9, its top electoral official said Friday, but a parliamentary election scheduled to be held at the same time was put off until spring.
The presidential election, the first direct one in the country's history, is seen as a referendum on the rebuilding of this war-ravaged nation and a test of the ability of Afghan and international forces to keep the peace.
Zakim Shah, head of the Afghan-U.N. electoral commission, announced on state television that the council "decided to hold the presidential election on Mizan 18" -- a date on Afghanistan's calendar that corresponds to Oct. 9.
He said the parliamentary vote would probably be held in April or May and appealed to Afghan authorities and international organizations and foreign countries to do more "to create a more secure atmosphere for the candidates and the voters."
The State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, welcomed the decision. "We think that the elections will mark another major step in Afghanistan's transition to a constitutional and representative government and constitute another milestone," he said.
"We join the Afghan government in fully supporting the electoral body's decision," he added.
Boucher said the United States would provide funds, training and expertise, as well as security.
Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-backed interim president, is predicted to win the vote for the top job, but he faces at least half a dozen rivals in this ethnically and regionally fractured country. If he wins fewer than the 50 percent of the votes needed for outright victory, a runoff will be held two weeks later.
The elections are meant to crown a faltering U.N.-sponsored drive to stabilize Afghanistan, begun at a conference in Bonn after the ouster of the ruling Taliban militia in late 2001.
International peacekeepers have brought relative calm to the capital, Kabul, which is enjoying a boom. Millions of Afghan refugees have returned, and a debilitating drought has eased. But persistent violence is depriving much of southern Afghanistan of desperately needed reconstruction, and the elections are threatened by the warlords who hold de facto power outside of Kabul.