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In Kabul, huge car bomb near NATO headquarters

At least three people are killed and dozens injured in Afghanistan's capital as tension rises before nationwide elections.

August 15, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — An enormous blast rocked the Afghan capital this morning, five days before the nation's widely anticipated presidential election. The explosion, near the gates of the main Western military base, killed at least three people and wounded 70 others, Afghan officials said.

Afghanistan's Defense Ministry called it a suicide car bombing. The Taliban claimed responsibility, according to the Associated Press.

Black plumes of smoke rose into the air at the site of the blast, a heavily fortified area of Kabul. U.S. military officials indicated that the attacker did not penetrate the base, headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is based.

However, witnesses said the bomber appeared to have made it past an Afghan army checkpoint, to within 20 feet of the main entrance of the base.

The U.S. Embassy is nearby.

Scorch marks could be seen on concrete barriers blocking off the street in front of the base, and Afghan adults and children wandered nearby, some with blood running down their faces. Afghan and foreign forces sealed off the area.

At least four vehicles were destroyed and were covered by downed trees.

Taliban insurgents have threatened to disrupt Thursday's vote. Last week, militants fired rockets into the capital, but they did not cause deaths or serious property damage.

A survey released Friday suggested that President Hamid Karzai has a wide lead over his opponents, but he may not be able to muster enough support to avoid a runoff.

The poll, conducted by the International Republican Institute, was the second in a week to give Karzai a lead of nearly 20 percentage points over his main opponent, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. But the president would need more than 50% of the vote to win outright in Thursday's balloting, and both surveys point to the likelihood of him falling short of that.

The apparent tightening of the race has come amid growing fear of fraud and violence.

Intimidation of candidates and voters has also intensified in some parts of the country. Some Taliban commanders have reportedly threatened to cut off people's fingers if they are found stained with ink, a sign that a person has voted.

The IRI poll, conducted July 16- 26, showed Karzai's voter-approval rating rising from 31% in May to 44%. But Abdullah's support grew from 7% in May to 26%, according to the survey.

The poll also suggested that other rivals were gaining strength, which could reduce Karzai's chances of winning a majority. Ramazan Bashardost, a former Cabinet minister and populist lawmaker who uses a tent outside parliament as his campaign headquarters, had the backing of 10%, up from 3% in the previous IRI survey. Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, increased his support from 3% to 6%.

If a runoff is needed, it would be between only the top two candidates. There, too, Karzai could face trouble, if other candidates were to throw their support to Abdullah.

The IRI survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, said the nongovernmental group, which receives funding from the U.S. government.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Times staff writer Carolyn Cole contributed to this report.

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