Karzai rival draws chaotic poll rally

Surveys predict lead for Karzai; return of Uzbek ex-militia chief alarms West


In the north, thousands assembled for a rally in support of a former Uzbek militia chief who arrived in the country on Sunday night promising to help tip Thursday’s election for Karzai.

Security guards for Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s former foreign minister, beat back enthusiastic supporters with rifle butts at the rally in Kabul’s National Olympic Stadium, notoriously once used by the Taliban as an execution ground.

Several thousand supporters waved blue flags and cheered as Abdullah gave a passionate address, whipping some in the crowd into a frenzy. A makeshift platform used by television journalists collapsed in the crush, lightly injuring several.

Supporters stampeded through gates and shattered glass doors to get closer to Abdullah, an urbane eye doctor, while others clung precariously to a light tower.
Abdullah’s frenetic rally came a day after former Uzbek militia leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum jetted back into Afghanistan from exile in Turkey, perhaps to deliver enough support to swing the election for Karzai in a single round.

Surveys have shown Karzai firmly in the lead with about 45 percent of the vote, but not enough to win an outright majority and avoid a run-off against Abdullah, who has strong support among ethnic Tajiks in the north of the country. The prospect of violence could hurt Hamid Karzai’s first-round chances.

Taliban warning

The Taliban militants have vowed to disrupt the poll, which could hurt voter turn-out.
If Karzai fails to win a majority in Thursday’s first round, he would face the second-placed candidate, most likely Abdullah, in a run-off in early October.

While Karzai has focused on behind-the-scenes coalition building, Abdullah’s campaign has built surprising momentum on the strength of popular rallies across the country.
Hamid Karzai has secured the endorsements of ethnic chieftains and former militia bosses, but that tactic has raised the alarm of Western donors fearful of a return to power by warlords whose factional fighting in the 1990s tore the country apart.

The election is a test for US President Barack Obama’s strategy of escalating the 8-year-old war in an effort to turn the tide after Taliban advances in recent years.

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