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Tuesday, October 20,2009

Karzai to accept fraud-audit results; government deal uncertain

By McClatchy-Tribune News Service

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai was expected to announce Tuesday his acceptance of a U.N.-backed fraud audit reducing his vote in the August election to less than 50 percent, but it wasn't clear if he'd consent to a deal with his chief rival to forge a national unity government and forgo a second-round runoff, U.S. officials said Monday.

Karzai was expected to make his announcement at a Kabul news conference with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, who has been involved in an intense U.S.-led effort to pressure Karzai into dropping his objections to the United Nations-sponsored Electoral Complaints Commission's fraud audit.

As part of the full-court diplomatic press, the White House said it wouldn't consider a request by U.S. military commanders for as many as 80,000 additional troops for Afghanistan until it was convinced that Afghanistan had a credible government.

The prospect that Karzai might reject the EEC's audit, which was released Monday, had threatened to drive Afghanistan deeper into crisis as the Obama administration struggles to re-craft a war strategy to reverse the growing Taliban-led insurgency and stem the bloodiest violence in the country since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Two U.S. officials in Washington, who requested anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly, said that Karzai was expected to accept the audit results at a news conference with Kerry on Tuesday.

However, they said they didn't know whether he'd agreed to embrace the offer by the second-place finisher, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, to forgo a runoff and form a new unity government.

Abdullah told U.S. diplomats last week that he'd drop out of the race if Karzai accepted the audit findings, agreed to form a national unity government that included some Abdullah allies and pledged to pursue reforms that would dilute the presidency's power, including a change to permit the popular election of provincial governors.

"We would like to see a coalition government, but it's up to him (Karzai)," said one U.S. official. "From our standpoint, having him respect the election process will be significant. And it speaks to the credibility of the entire process: that an executive is subject to checks and balances."

Some experts, however, were deeply skeptical of the prospects for any government led by Karzai, whose first five-year term has been marred by massive incompetence, nepotism and corruption fueled by drug smuggling and the billions of dollars in foreign reconstruction aid that's poured into one of the world's poorest nations.

"I don't think there is a place we can go from here that's good," said Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University. "This is a war that we can't win with this partner."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday alluded to Karzai's expected acceptance of the fraud audit, saying, "I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order in the next several days."

Speaking at a news conference with visiting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Clinton declined to provide details, but said she was "encouraged at the direction the situation is moving."

The U.N.-backed Election Complaints Commission's audit released Monday stripped hundreds of thousands of voters from Karzai, confirming massive ballot box-stuffing and other malfeasance mostly on the Afghan leader's behalf in the second presidential election in the country's history.

The audit dropped Karzai's vote tally from a preliminary total of 54.6 percent to 48.3 percent, according to an analysis by Democracy International, an organization that has been observing the election on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The audit also found far lesser amounts of fraudulent votes for Abdullah, but nonetheless his final total would rise from less than 28 percent to about 31 percent.

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