By Jonathon Burch and Maria Golovnina
KABUL (Reuters) – Half of the top Afghan district election officials will be fired, U.N. officials said on Wednesday as they sought to prevent more fraud in a run-off presidential poll crucial to the government’s credibility and foreign support.
The announcement of a November 7 run-off on Tuesday had removed one stumbling block for U.S. President Barack Obama as he weighed whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.
In Washington, the White House said it was possible Obama could make a decision on troop levels before the run-off, but there was no guarantee.
Amid flagging U.S. public support for the war, the Obama administration has stressed a credible government must be in place in Kabul for any U.S. strategy there to succeed.
“The president and the entire team see legitimacy of a partner in the government of Afghanistan as crucial,” said spokesman Robert Gibbs.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s decision to accept the run-off against his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, came after days of diplomatic wrangling and helped ease tensions with the West.
Concerns about a repeat of the widespread fraud that tainted the first round in August cast a long shadow as hasty preparations for the second round kicked off.
Karzai agreed to face a second round after a U.N.-led fraud inquiry tossed out enough of his first-round votes to push him below 50 percent and trigger a run-off.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan, which provides assistance with election-related operations, said preparations were under way to block any risk of mass fraud.
Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. mission, said 200 of 380 district election chiefs from the government-appointed Independent Election Commission were being replaced after the watchdog found evidence of fraud and vote-fixing.
“More than half of the district field coordinators are being replaced to prevent any attempted fraud or because there have been complaints made against them by candidates and observers,” said Siddique.
Afghanistan now faces a logistical nightmare, having just over two weeks to prepare for a second round of voting as the harsh Afghan winter, which makes much of the mountainous country inaccessible, closes in.
Security is also a big worry, with the Taliban at their strongest in the eight-year war. While not able to disrupt the August 20 vote completely, Taliban attacks around the country kept many voters away.
ELECTION IS KEY
The election is a key element in Western plans to stabilize Afghanistan and deny sanctuary to al Qaeda militants who used it as a base for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Many within Obama’s Democratic Party oppose sending more troops while Republican opponents say his lengthy deliberations on a new strategy are undermining U.S. troops and emboldening the Taliban.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, however, dismissed reports of rifts between Obama’s military and civilian advisers on the Afghan war strategy.
The prospect of another ballot has disillusioned voters after many stayed at home during the first round, intimidated by insurgent violence and threats.
“I voted last time with great risk and fear, but I am not going to do that again,” said Ghamai, an Afghan from the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
The Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan’s main election authority, vowed to prosecute anyone suspected of having committed fraud during the first round.
“If the IEC staff were involved in fraud … we will replace them or hand them over to justice in order to hold a more transparent election, including government officials,” said IEC chief Azizullah Ludin.
Abdullah, Karzai’s former foreign minister, met campaign managers on Wednesday. He said his team was mapping out specific conditions and recommendations to avoid fraud.
U.N. spokesman Siddique said NATO and the IEC would meet to discuss preparations for the second round, adding that the distribution of ballot materials would start on Thursday.
He said polling stations in areas where first-round turnout was low due to bad security and where a lot of fraud took place would not open. Voters would be encouraged to cast ballots in nearby locations, he said.
He said he hoped about 16,000 polling stations would open this time. About 25,000 stations were open in the August 20 vote.