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Afghan challenger plans to withdraw from runoff election

KABUL, Afghanistan — Abdullah Abdullah, the chief rival to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, plans to announce today his decision to withdraw from the runoff election Saturday, effectively handing a new five-year term to Karzai but potentially damaging the government's credibility, according to Western diplomats here and people close to Abdullah.

But Abdullah seemed to be keeping his options open until the last second, perhaps maneuvering for more bargaining power, as he has done throughout the Afghan political crisis.

Those close to him, speaking to the New York Times on condition of anonymity, said Abdullah had committed to leaving the runoff. But they said he was still trying to decide whether to publicly denounce Karzai, whom he has accused of stealing the Aug. 20 election, or to step down without a fight during a news conference scheduled for this morning.

"Abdullah is not going to participate in the election, full stop," an Afghan close to Abdullah said. "He is still trying to figure out what he wants to say."

Abdullah has called this morning's meeting at a historic venue — the large tent that was the site of the loya jirga gathering where Afghan leaders met to set up a transitional government after the fall of the Taliban.

American and other Western diplomats said they were worried that a defiant statement by Abdullah could lead to violence and undermine Karzai's legitimacy, and they were urging him to bow out gracefully. White House officials have scrambled for weeks to end the deadlock, trying to ensure a smooth government transition as President Barack Obama weighs whether to increase the American military presence in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the war has intensified. October was the deadliest month of the war for U.S. forces with at least 57 American deaths.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, traveling in Abu Dhabi, gave the Obama administration's only comment. "We see that happen in our own country where, for whatever combination of reasons, one of the candidates decides not to go forward," she said. "I don't think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election. It's a personal choice which may or may not be made."

People close to Abdullah said his representative met with Karzai on Saturday but that they were unable to make progress on the issue that has brought the two campaigns to loggerheads: Abdullah's demands that the Afghan election system be overhauled to head off more fraud in the second round. After the first round of voting, a United Nations-backed panel threw out nearly a million of Karzai's ballots — one-third of his total — on the grounds that they were fake.

Abdullah, who has served as Karzai's foreign minister, had sought the removal of the chairman of the Afghan Independent Election Commission as well as three Cabinet ministers. He charged that all four had used their positions to help Karzai win the first round of voting.

If Abdullah pulls out, there would still be the question of the runoff vote itself. The possibility of Taliban violence alone would appear to render pointless another Afghan election where the winner is known in advance.

The United Nations estimates the second-round elections will cost more than $20 million and require extensive military preparations to try to secure polling places. But the election commission, with members largely appointed by Karzai, said even without Abdullah's participation, the second-round election will take place Saturday.

"The time for a withdrawal has ended. According to the law, Abdullah must participate, and the votes he gets will be counted," said Daoud Ali Najfi, a commission official.

Information from McClatchy Newspapers and the Associated Press was used in this report.

Afghan challenger plans to withdraw from runoff election 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 11:39pm]
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