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Karzai Sees Delay in Afghan Vote

Scheduled June elections may be two months late, the president says at a meeting with Powell.

March 18, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai suggested Wednesday that Afghan national elections may be postponed by a month or two, the latest sign of the instability that has hampered the war-torn country's recovery.

The Afghan leader's statements during a meeting here with U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell are the strongest indications to date that presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June may be delayed.

Only about 15% of the estimated 9.9 million eligible voters have been registered, because of threats against aid workers, poor access to remote villages and difficulties enlisting the participation of Afghan women, United Nations officials say.

"The Afghan government is keen to have elections in June, July or August," said Karzai, surrounded by security guards in the fortress-like presidential palace here in the capital. "At this point, it looks like we should be aiming for elections in midsummer 2004."

The possibility of a delay comes as the Bush administration is striving to focus on the successes of the fight against terrorism that began in Afghanistan with a campaign against the ruling Taliban regime and its Al Qaeda allies shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

It could complicate talks scheduled to begin at the end of this month in Bonn on future aid for Afghanistan. One of the conditions for a $5-billion aid package pledged by the U.S. and international donors two years ago was for "free and fair elections" by June 2004.

Powell, however, moved to shore up support for further assistance by announcing that the U.S. would pledge $1 billion approved by Congress late last year at the upcoming aid conference.

He also downplayed the significance of a delay, saying that the most important thing was for Afghanistan to continue moving toward elections. A delay long has been anticipated, because there are no declared presidential candidates, no political campaigns and few registered voters.

"Whether it's June, July or August remains to be seen," Powell told reporters at the end of his seven-hour visit on a warm, dusty day. "I don't think it makes significant difference, as long as it's done well, as long as it's seen as fair and honest and objective."

Powell spent most of the day focusing on U.S. accomplishments in Afghanistan since the Taliban movement was swept from power in late 2001.

During the morning, he toured a school in Kabul once run by the Taliban, which denied education to girls for religious reasons. Now the school has three shifts, educates more than 8,000 girls and boys in separate classrooms, and doubles as a voter registration center. Powell watched as one woman signed up to vote; 28% of those registered so far are women.

"The United States will remain committed to this effort for as long as it takes to put in place a stable nation," he told a small group of women chosen to represent Afghan civil society. None of them wore a burka, the body-length veil that the Taliban required women to wear.

There were signs of construction throughout the capital. Trucks loaded with dirt and concrete blocks rumbled past. Workers carried bricks on their heads to building sites. U.S. Embassy officials, housed in converted shipping containers that resemble tiny mobile homes, are eagerly awaiting the completion of an office building across the street from the aging embassy.

Powell and Karzai also celebrated the near-completion of a paved highway from Kandahar to Kabul and the signing of a constitution in January as proof that the rebuilding of Afghanistan is progressing.

The two said that although only 8,000 voters a day were being registered, the United Nations would unveil a wide-ranging drive in May to reach a goal of signing up 8 million people.

"Afghanistan, with the help of the U.S., has seen many, many good days," Karzai said, with progress including "reconstruction, institution building and a degree of prosperity in comparison to the past two years."

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