Afghan Elections Tentatively Set

An Afghan loya jirga or grand council delegate, left, casts his vote for the new constitutional draft as a United Nations observer looks on, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Jan. 1, 2004. Afghanistan's constitutional convention began voting Thursday on issues including regional autonomy and women's place in politics, the first showdown at the marathon meeting that has been marred by acrimony and a dangerous ethnic rift. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)
Afghanistan's oft-delayed presidential election will take place Oct. 9, its top electoral official said Friday, but a parliamentary vote originally scheduled to be held simultaneously was put off until the spring.

The vote is seen as a referendum on the rebuilding of this war-ravaged nation, and a test of the ability of Afghan and international forces to keep the peace. It will be the first direct election for president in the country's history.

Zakim Shah, head of the joint Afghan-U.N. electoral commission, announced on state television that the body "decided to hold the presidential election on Mizan 18" — a date in Afghanistan's calendar that corresponds to Oct. 9.

He said the parliamentary vote would likely be in April or May.

U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai is expected to win the vote for the top job, but he faces at least a half-dozen rivals in this ethnically and regionally fractured country. It is not clear whether he will garner the 50 percent majority needed for outright victory, meaning a run-off two weeks later may be necessary.

The election was originally set for June, but was postponed to September to allow more time to register voters and demobilize unruly militias.

The United Nations is concerned that if the parliamentary vote is held too soon, anti-Taliban warlords who allied with the United States will consolidate their grip on the country after the failed drive to disarm them.

Only about a quarter of the militiamen supposed to disarm by the end of June have given in their weapons. No new deadlines have been set.

Electoral officials also have no census data to calculate the distribution of seats in parliament, and there are no laws yet on campaign finance or media access for 2,000 expected candidates.

So far, about six million Afghans have registered to vote, out of an estimated 10 million eligible.

Registration has also been uneven, with election teams still unable to enter parts of the Pashtun-dominated south rocked by a series of Taliban attacks apparently designed to disrupt the process.

In the latest reported incident, dozens of suspected Taliban attacked a school used as a voter registration site in southern Kandahar province, shooting one election worker in the leg.

Three female election workers were fatally injured June 26 when a bomb hit their vehicle in the eastern city of Jalalabad. Taliban supporters claimed responsibility.

The day before, Taliban gunmen executed as many as 17 men in Uruzgan province after finding that they were carrying voter ID cards, Afghan officials said.