Thu Sep 17, 2009 7:20am EDT
By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Thursday fraud claims in last month’s presidential poll were exaggerated, just before six Italian troops were killed in a suicide attack that showed the Taliban-led insurgency was undiminished.
Karzai spoke at a news conference, his first since the August 20 vote, in his sprawling presidential palace several hundred meters away from a main road where a suicide car bomber struck a convoy of Italian troops.
The attack killed six Italian soldiers and seriously wounded three, an Italian Defense Ministry source told Reuters in Rome. Afghan’s Public Health Ministry said three civilians were killed and 38 wounded.
The disputed election has raised concern about instability in Afghanistan, where violence had already reached its worst levels since the austere Islamist Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
It has become a headache for U.S. President Barack Obama, who is considering deploying more troops and has set out broad goals for boosting the ability of Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight militancy, his main foreign policy priority.
Complete preliminary results released on Wednesday showed Karzai winning the election in a single round with more than 54 percent of the vote. The European Union however has said more than a third of his votes might be suspect because of fraud.
The result is not final until a U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission finishes a complaints process, including a recount of about 10 percent of polling stations, after finding what it called “clear and convincing evidence of fraud”.
Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted, spoke confidently but stopped short of declaring victory.
He said complaints must be properly investigated but played down suggestions fraud could have taken place on a big enough scale to overturn the outcome and force a second round run-off.
“I believe firmly, firmly in the integrity of the election and the integrity of the Afghan people, and the integrity of the government in that process,” Karzai said.
“Like other elections of the world … there were problems and sensitivities in the Afghanistan elections, but it has not been to the extent which the media speak of,” he said.
The head of a European Union observer mission said on Wednesday as many as 1.5 million votes — including 1.1 million for Karzai — were “suspicious”. Karzai’s campaign has called the EU’s claims “irresponsible”.
Western officials initially hailed the August vote, mainly because militant attacks failed to prevent it from taking place.
But their response has since become more equivocal.
A final result could still be weeks, or even months, away, prolonging a state of political uncertainty.
Karzai’s main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, won about 29 percent of the vote but has complained of widespread vote rigging.
Karzai repeated an offer to Abdullah of a government post but Abdullah has said he is not interested in joining the government.
Abdullah has backed an interim government while fraud claims are investigated, provided neither he nor Karzai are part of it.
The fraud accusations have also come at a particularly difficult time for Obama, who has already ordered thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan.
But he may find it difficult to persuade Americans to send more troops to defend a government whose legitimacy could be called into question if large-scale fraud affected the outcome of the election, a point also made by foreign diplomats.
Uncertainty over the election result, and record military deaths, have also raised questions among Washington’s allies, particularly Britain and Germany, about how long their troops should remain or whether they should be there at all.
In Rome, the defense ministry source said the blast hit two vehicles traveling in a convoy from the main airport to their quarters in the Afghan capital.
At least one NATO soldier lay dead on the street in front of a wrecked armoured vehicle bearing an Italian flag and the insignia of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
Afghan troops carried wounded victims into ambulances after the blast, which blew out windows in neighboring buildings.
The blast was the fourth of its kind in Kabul in the past month, including one outside ISAF headquarters days before the election and another at a gate into a NATO base at the airport.