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Afghan vote counting complete: Karzai is nation's first president

Now leader must tackle booming narcotics trade

KABUL, Afghanistan — More than two weeks after Afghanistan's first presidential election, vote counting wrapped up Tuesday and interim leader Hamid Karzai emerged with a resounding victory.

With his inauguration to a five-year term a month away, the U.S.-backed Karzai already is under pressure to ditch his coalition with powerful warlords and tackle a booming narcotics industry that has become a major economic force in one of the world's poorest nations.

Officials declared the vote count complete Tuesday afternoon, giving some 1,500 weary staff at eight counting centers a well-earned rest in the middle of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. Investigators were still examining about 100 suspect ballot boxes, but the election's chief technical officer said the count was effectively "over and done."

"It's just these last dribs and drabs to be approved," David Avery told The Associated Press. Showing 98.4 percent of the votes counted, the Web site of the U.N.-Afghan election commission said Karzai had 55.5 percent of the votes, 39 points ahead of his closest rival, former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni.

An estimated 8.2 million ballots were cast in the historic vote Oct. 9, a turnout that U.S. and Afghan officials hailed as a nail in the coffin of the former ruling Taliban, whose threats to disrupt the election proved hollow.

Karzai, 47, a member of the Pashtun community, the largest ethnic group in this diverse and often divided country, portrayed himself as the best candidate to weld a unified Afghanistan.

He also promised to double the income of Afghans and pursue a reformist agenda that can finally begin to deliver basic services such as health and education to people impoverished by a quarter-century of fighting.

So far, the country's re-emergence — cities such as Kabul and Kandahar are in the grip of a real estate boom — appears to be founded more on lucrative drug exports than the legal economy.

Under pressure from the United States, Karzai is expected to announce a crackdown on refiners and traffickers who use Afghan opium poppies to supply most of the world's heroin.

"His mind is made up to do something, finally," a Western official who advises the Afghan government on counternarcotics policy said on condition of anonymity. "They know that this government will not survive if they don't take action."

Karzai must deal with the opium traffickers at the same time he grapples with regional leaders who still control much of the country with the help of private militias that have so far escaped a U.N.-sponsored disarmament drive.

Francesc Vendrell, the European Union's special representative, said Karzai took an important step before the election by excluding Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, a powerful warlord, from his presidential ticket and then sidelining the most influential warlord in western Afghanistan, Ismail Khan.

"He's now got a mandate to have a reformist government," Vendrell told British Broadcasting Corp. radio, adding that the United States and European nations would support his efforts.

Election officials said formal confirmation of Karzai's victory could come by the weekend, when investigations into irregularities were expected to be complete and the election ruled "free and fair."

Karzai would then have until his swearing-in in late November to think about how to reorganize his Cabinet, which now contains a string of former militia leaders who helped the United States drive out the Taliban in late 2001.

Before his victory becomes official, investigators must clear the last of several hundred ballot boxes held back because of allegations of foul play on election day.

Ray Kennedy, deputy chairman of the joint U.N.-Afghan electoral commission, said Tuesday that some ballot boxes were "obviously stuffed" and would probably be disqualified. But he said the problems were not on a scale that could overturn Karzai's majority.

His remarks were an indication that the commission would officially acknowledge some irregularities in its final report — the key condition set by Karzai's closest rival for conceding defeat.

"If the fraud was not so serious, we would accept that Karzai has won," Qanooni's running mate, Taj Mohammed Wardak, told the AP.

"I hope there was not so much fraud so our democracy is safe. If it was serious, then we are sad and it will affect the election result. We will accept the conclusion" of the investigation.

Contributing: Matthew Pennington, Amir Shah.