KABUL — Citing "clear and convincing evidence of fraud," an Afghan election complaints commission on Tuesday ordered an audit and a recount of votes at numerous polling sites across this warring nation.
The order came on a pivotal day in the drawn-out — and increasingly tense — aftermath of the Aug. 20 presidential election.
In the afternoon, President Hamid Karzai was tentatively awarded enough votes to claim a second term as president. The new voting tallies give him more than 54 percent of the vote, well over the 50 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff with his major challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.
The post-election drama unfolds as the Karzai government's power in Afghanistan erodes amid insurgent gains in northern and other provinces that once were stable. On Tuesday, in Kunar province, insurgents set an ambush that killed four U.S. Marines, eight Afghan troops and police officers, and an interpreter. Also on Tuesday, in the capital city of Kabul, a suicide bomber drove his car into a convoy that was approaching the military gate of the airport, killing at least three Afghan civilians and wounding six.
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The suspected wide-scale fraud cited by the Electoral Complaints Commission, a United Nations-backed body, could be a major setback for the Obama administration's hopes that the elections would strengthen Afghanistan's weak central government. The United States and its allies sent thousands of additional troops to provide security for the polling.
In Washington, Obama spokesmen acknowledged that there clearly were electoral improprieties, but expressed hope that the election will be seen as fair if the complaints are adjudicated.
"These elections need to be credible and need to reflect the will of the Afghan people," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. "And a legitimate electoral process is vital to us ... and vital to any kind of partnership that we would have with the (Afghan) government going forward."
"It's better to get this all out," said a senior State Department official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk more openly, referring to the airing of the fraud allegations. "The real problem is, how do we get to a result that everybody's got confidence in?"
The progress of the vote count has been closely monitored by NATO countries that have sent soldiers, civilians and aid money to Afghanistan in a bid to help stabilize the nation and prevent the Taliban from returning to power. They've become disillusioned with Karzai's government, and have helped press the case for a major investigation of election fraud.
It will take weeks, or even months, for final election results to be decided.
Karzai's victory could yet be derailed if the investigation strips away enough votes. A Karzai adviser appeared confident Tuesday that that won't happen.
"We're not actually declaring officially, but we think we are the winner," said Moen Marastyal, an adviser to the Karzai campaign.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister who's led a high-profile campaign to unmask ballot box irregularities, has cautioned his supporters to have patience. Day after day, however, in news conferences and rallies, he's challenged the legitimacy of the election.
"We will not recognize the results until they fullly investigate the fraudulent votes," Fazil Aqa Sancharaki, a representative of Abdullah campaign, said after the release of the Tuesday vote tallies.
There were visible tensions between the commissions that are charged with certifying the election outcome. Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, whose nine members are appointed by presidential decree, has tallied the votes, including many of the polling sites that now are to be audited.
Meanwhile, the five-person Electoral Complaints Commission, which includes three international members appointed by the U.N., is investigating more than 700 "priority complaints" of ballot-box stuffing, intimidation and other misconduct.
On Tuesday, that commission took its strongest step yet and ordered recounts at polling sites with 600 registered voters or more where the voter turnout was 100 percent or higher. The complaints commission also ordered recounts in any polling place in which 95 percent or more of the votes went to single candidates.
The Independent Election Commission officials didn't accept the order, however, saying that there were discrepancies between the English and Persian translations they were handed. They want those resolved before taking any action, said Dawood Ali Jajafi, a member of the election commission.
In voting results released last week for Kandahar province, voters in 12 polling sites gave all their votes to Karzai. In at least eight sites, more than 100 percent of the registered voters cast ballots.
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor in Kabul and Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed to this article.)
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