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Afghan candidates make last pitches

Vote is first for a national parliament in 30 years

Election workers push animals off the road to clear a way for a truck taking ballots to Dago, a village in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, Thursday. Police officers, soldiers, militia troops and intelligence agents have fanned out across the country to safeguard Su
Election workers push animals off the road to clear a way for a truck taking ballots to Dago, a village in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, Thursday. Police officers, soldiers, militia troops and intelligence agents have fanned out across the country to safeguard Sunday's vote.
Tomas Munita, Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Candidates in minivans with bullhorns wove through Kabul's chaotic traffic Thursday making final pitches for legislative elections seen as a key move toward stability after a quarter-century of war.

Across Afghanistan, violence left 10 people dead.

With campaigning forbidden after 6 a.m. Friday — 48 hours before polls open — candidates met with people in the dusty heat and stumped in public squares.

The United States hopes Sunday's elections for a new parliament and 34 provincial councils will help sideline a rejuvenated Taliban insurgency, which has threatened to subvert the elections and left more than 1,200 people dead in the past six months.

"I will vote for peace, security and stability for Afghanistan," said Nazira Gul, a woman in her 30s who stopped with her daughter to listen to a candidate in a bustling square. "Twenty years of fighting is enough."

The elections — the first time Afghans will choose a national parliament in three decades — are the last formal step on the path to democracy laid out with international support after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban four years ago.

Officials said 10 people were killed, and three Afghan journalists kidnapped and a female candidate wounded in the past day. Five candidates and four election workers have been killed ahead of the vote.

The American military said a U.S. service member was injured Wednesday when a patrol was hit by a roadside bomb blast and came under fire in volatile Kandahar province. The injured American was in stable condition.

President Hamid Karzai's office said President Bush called to say he was happy that election preparations were going smoothly and offer assurances of continued U.S. support for reconstruction. Karzai invited Bush to address parliament once it convenes.

In a brief state-radio speech, Karzai said officials and security forces "have prepared well" and urged citizens to be alert and report anything suspicious.

"We are hopeful, with the help of almighty Allah and the cooperation of the people, that the elections will be held in a free and fair environment," he said.

Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali tried to reassure the 12.5 million registered voters.

"The enemy is making efforts to threaten people, but they don't have the ability to stop the elections," he said.

Jalali said 55,000 police officers, 28,000 soldiers and about 20,000 militia troops and intelligence agents have fanned out across the country to safeguard the voting. Some 20,000 troops from a U.S.-led coalition force and a separate 11,000-strong NATO-led force are also on alert.

New York-based Human Rights Watch reported "an underlying climate of fear among many voters and candidates, especially in remote, rural areas." It said Taliban violence and intimidation by warlords could undermine the elections — but that they would likely go ahead without major disruptions.

Thousands of campaign posters have been plastered around the capital. Many feature special symbols to help identify candidates — an estimated 72 percent of Afghan over 14 are estimated to be illiterate.

With the country's infrastructure shattered by war, workers were busy getting ballots to more than 6,200 polling centers, using donkeys, horses and camels to reach remote areas.

Mohammad Hasef, a former manager at a state-run textile plant who now shines shoes for a living, was eager to vote.

"I'm not afraid. I have seen a lot of destruction," Hasaf said, recalling how Kabul was devastated as rival warlords battled each other in the 1990s after driving out Soviet forces in 1989. The Taliban took over most of the country in 1996.

There are fears that parliament could be riven by the same ethnic fault lines that have shaped fighting for years.

"I don't think that any election is perfect," U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann said Thursday, calling the vote a "historic milestone in Afghan history."