A convoy carrying Vice President Nematullah Shahrani was attacked by remote-control explosives Monday in northern Afghanistan, just four days after President Hamid Karzai's helicopter was rocketed as it attempted to land at a school in southern Afghanistan.
The roadside bomb attack in Kunduz province, in which Shahrani was unhurt but one driver was injured, came amid escalating threats from Islamic extremists and other groups who seek to sabotage the country's first-ever presidential elections, scheduled for Oct. 9.
The incident coincided with the deaths of two U.S. soldiers in a gunbattle with Islamic militants in Paktika province, with reports that three Afghan soldiers were beheaded in Zabul province, and with warnings from a renegade Afghan militia leader in Pakistan that Afghan refugees there will be at risk of attack if they attempt to vote.
In a separate political development Monday that could dramatically affect the election, Karzai's chief rival for the presidency, former education minister Yonus Qanooni, publicly rejected a proposal by Karzai that they join forces in a future government and said he would announce his campaign platform today.
"We haven't made any deals," Qanooni told several journalists, confirming widespread reports that intermediaries for him and Karzai had been meeting.
Qanooni, 43, a respected political figure, is viewed as Karzai's only serious challenger in a field of 18 candidates. He had been part of Karzai's Cabinet since the government was formed under a U.N. plan in December 2001, but he decided to run against Karzai in July after Karzai dropped a close Qanooni ally, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, as a vice presidential running mate.
Karzai, 47, is still considered unbeatable, but Qanooni's last-minute entry into the race has raised fears that the election will be dangerously fragmented along ethnic lines, with Qanooni representing the Tajik minority against Karzai, a member of the larger Pashtun group.
Meanwhile, there has been very little election campaigning by any of the candidates, with few public rallies or news conferences except for formal manifesto readings at the Ministry of Information. Foreign election experts in Kabul said that many candidates are inexperienced in politics and that few have the wherewithal to launch a national campaign.
"There is a clear lack of awareness about the election process," said Grant Kippen of the National Democratic Institute, an organization funded by the U.S. Congress that is promoting and monitoring the Afghan elections.
The most serious obstacle to a successful election remains lack of security. There are widespread fears of voter intimidation by local political or militia bosses, and of physical attacks on candidates and polling facilities by fighters from the former Islamic Taliban regime and other groups who oppose the elections.
During the voter registration drive this year, there were numerous assaults on registration workers, vehicles and sites, with 12 people killed. On Aug. 29 a car bomb left 10 people dead in Kabul, and on Thursday Karzai's helicopter was rocketed near the city of Gardez. Now one of his two running mates, who he had said would be largely campaigning in his place, has come under attack.
Officials said Shahrani and other Cabinet members were traveling between Kunduz and Takhar provinces when a remote-controlled explosion struck their convoy, injuring one driver. They blamed forces linked to al-Qaida for the attack, which occurred in a relatively peaceful region that was the first to begin formally disarming Islamic militias last October.
At the same time, a flurry of anti-election threats has been issued by Taliban-affiliated groups and others based in Pakistan. Leaflets distributed Monday in the name of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan official and fugitive militia leader in Pakistan, warned an estimated half-million Afghan refugees there not to vote.
Both the United States and NATO have agreed to send extra military forces to Afghanistan during the elections, in addition to the 5,000 international peacekeepers who patrol Kabul and 16,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country.