Afghanistan tense on eve of election

Karzai's running mate escapes deadly bombing

October 07, 2004|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - The final full day of campaigning in Afghanistan's first presidential election passed uneasily yesterday, graced by hope but marred by political violence.

"By voting, you are laying the first bricks in a wall of democracy that will last for decades and centuries," interim President Hamid Karzai told a friendly but subdued crowd of 6,000 supporters in a soccer stadium in the capital.

About the time he spoke, one of his two vice-presidential candidates escaped an assassination attempt in northeastern Afghanistan.

A bomb went off near the convoy carrying Ahmed Zia Massood along a street in the provincial capital of Fayzabad. One man was killed and up to five others were wounded in the attack.

Kabul was peaceful as night fell, though the mood was tense. Thousands of additional foreign troops, including Americans, have arrived in Afghanistan in recent days to help keep the peace during the election. Scores of aid workers have fled the city, fearing bloodshed.

A day of campaigning began here with Karzai's rally at the municipal soccer field, where the Taliban once staged public beheadings of convicted criminals and shot women accused of adultery.

Karzai is one of 18 candidates running in Saturday's election, in which Afghans will be asked for the first time to pick their nation's leader through a popular vote.

Karzai has been hampered in his campaign by security threats, and on those rare occasions he appears in public he is surrounded by a huge, well-armed security detail.

Pashtuns for Karzai

"I'm excited about the elections," said Zabi Wallah, 17, a high school student from Kabul, who claimed to be 18 to get a voter registration card.

Wallah, like Karzai, is a Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Despite efforts by most candidates to play down tribal differences, the voting is expected to break down roughly along ethnic lines.

"We Pashtuns want Karzai's government!" shouted a man in a stained Afghan tunic. "God is great!"

The signs and banners at the rally were politically correct. "The Afghan Championship Youth Organization says: We Are the Defenders of Youths All Over the Country! We Are Supporting Mr. Karzai!"

Supporters wore caps with Karzai's photo on them.

Snipers in sunglasses stood on the roof as Karzai entered the stadium, and the crowds were kept far away from the reviewing stands by dozens of guards with automatic weapons.

His honeyed voice sounding strained, Karzai pointed to the progress symbolized by Saturday's vote.

"People of Afghanistan used to talk about guns and battles," he said. "Now, everybody is talking about the elections."

Rough democracy

Afghanistan's democracy is rough around the edges. Election monitors have discouraged government officials from participating in campaign events. But among Karzai's supporters on the reviewing stand yesterday was Jamila Mujahed, a news anchor for the government-run television station.

"I remember 12 years ago where we're standing, rockets and mortars were falling like rain," she said.

Several presidential candidates, she noted, participated in the fighting between rival mujahedeen after the fall of the communist government, in which tens of thousands of civilians died. Karzai, Mujahed said, is different.

"He does not have the blood of the people on his hands," she said. "Karzai was not shooting rockets at the people of Afghanistan."

Rivals for power

About two dozen supporters of Karzai's chief rival, Yunus Qanooni, paraded in front of the stadium yesterday, carrying signs bearing their candidate's picture. Qanooni, one of the country's most powerful Tajik political figures, drew a much bigger crowd at his campaign rally in the stadium Tuesday.

In the afternoon, the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum staged a small but boisterous rally at the stadium. Dostum, who at one point fought alongside the communists, portrayed himself as the candidate to unite his country.

"I will create a national police and national army," pledged the longtime militia leader. "I will bring peace to Afghanistan."

He pledged to run an administration "100 times better" than Karzai's.

During the campaign, many of the 18 candidates spent much of their time cutting deals to gain the support of tribal, regional and ethnic leaders. Rumors of imminent alliances between anti-Karzai factions swirled into the evening.

In part because of security concerns, Karzai held his first rally Tuesday, when he flew to a Pashtun stronghold in Ghazni, about 60 miles south of Kabul, and addressed a crowd of about 10,000.

A king's influence

Afghanistan's 89-year-old former king, Zahir Shah, seemed to personify the contest. While he is not running, he is thought to have considerable influence with voters, especially fellow Pashtuns.

At a news conference yesterday at his residence at Kabul's heavily guarded presidential palace, the king mumbled inaudibly while reading a single-page statement. He refused to answer questions and had to be helped to his feet by aides.

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