Afghan Polls Close Without Much Violence

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    Abbey Normal Senior Member

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    Afghan Polls Close Without Much Violence By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer
    54 minutes ago

    KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghans chose a legislature for the first time in decades Sunday, embracing their newly recovered democratic rights and braving threats of Taliban attacks to cast votes in schools, tents and mosques.

    Violence in the hours before voting began and during the day killed 15 people, including a French commando in the U.S.-led coalition that is helping Afghans build a democracy after a quarter-century of conflict. But there were no signs of a spectacular attack threatened by Taliban militants to disrupt the vote.

    Sunday's vote was considered the last formal step toward democracy on a path set out after a U.S.-led force drove the Taliban from power in 2001, when they refused to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 attacks.

    Washington hopes the political advances will weaken the insurgency and let it begin withdrawing at least some of the 20,000 American soldiers providing security in Afghanistan, but some people worry that a too-rapid pullout could embolden rebels.

    A stepped-up campaign by insurgents over the past six months killed 1,200 people, including seven candidates and four election workers.

    It appeared tight security helped on election day, with only three people injured and no one killed near polling places, although officials said they thwarted plots to smuggle explosives into polling places in pens and a clock.

    Despite violence elsewhere in the country, the focus was on getting out the vote after intense efforts by United Nations officials and the U.S.-led coalition to organize the election and provide security for voters.

    "We are making history," President Hamid Karzai said while casting his ballot. "It's the day of self-determination for the Afghan people. After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions."

    Around 8 million people voted in last October's presidential election, and there were high hopes even more would turn out Sunday. Organizers said they would not have any turnout figures before Monday, but some officials in the field and independent monitors said it appeared fewer people voted.

    "It's hard to gauge the exact numbers, but the impression we have is that the turnout is lower," said Saman Zia-Zarifi, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, which had 14 observers monitoring the elections.

    Chief electoral officer Peter Erben said voting started slowly, but "after the morning, it has seriously picked up all over Afghanistan."

    Polls closed at 4 p.m. (7:30 a.m. EDT), although those already in line were allowed to vote, a process that took hours in some places, Erben said.

    Violence in the two days leading up to the vote left at least 22 people dead. Early Sunday, fierce fighting in eastern Afghanistan killed three militants and two Afghan policemen, while two American soldiers were wounded.

    Erben reported 19 small-arms attacks on polling centers over the previous 24 hours, most with no effect, although a handful of stations in one area closed temporarily because of gunfire and three people were wounded. He said 16 polling centers were unable to open at all, mostly due to security problems.

    Some 12.4 million Afghans were registered to vote for the 249-seat lower house of parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, and 420 seats on 34 provincial assemblies. Nearly 5,800 candidates — including 582 women — were on the ballots.

    A quarter of the seats being voted on were reserved for women, who make up more than 42 percent of registered voters.

    The more than 6,000 polling stations were guarded by about 100,000 Afghan police and soldiers and 30,000 foreign troops in the U.S.-led coalition and a separate NATO peacekeeping force.

    Enthusiasm ran high.

    "Today is a magnificent day for Afghanistan," said Ali Safar, 62, standing in line to vote in Kabul. "We want dignity, we want stability and peace."

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