Afghanistan braces for possible election run-off

Afghanistan plunged into a bout of intense diplomacy today as election officials were expected to announce whether President Hamid Karzai must face a run-off following a disputed presidential election.

The August 20 ballot, marred by allegations of widespread fraud, has left Afghanistan in a state of political disarray at a time when the United States is deciding whether to send more troops there to fight a resurgent Taliban.

There were widespread suggestions in Kabul that enough votes would be eliminated from Karzai's tally to trigger a run-off round against former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

"The second round is definitely on the radar screen right now," said one official familiar with the process.

Nearly two months after polling day, the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) was due to unveil its findings of a probe into fraud allegations at some point over the the weekend.

A host of high-level foreign visitors descended on Kabul ahead of the announcemenet, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and US Senator John Kerry.

Washington's influential former ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was also in Kabul on a private visit, the US embassy said.

Separately, Karzai spoke by telephone to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari, Karzai's office said.

It was unclear whether any of the visitors was meeting Karzai or Abdullah as speculation mounted that the two could seek a compromise deal to avoid a second round.

If enough votes were disqualified to push Karzai's share of the vote below 50 per cent, the incumbent would face Abdullah in a second round - barring possible legal steps to invalidate the decision or an Abdullah decision to withdraw.

The ECC is looking into various categories of suspected fraud and complaints, but only a portion of its recommendations are likely to be released today, officials said.

The ECC was holding closed-door meetings with independent Afghan election officials throughout the day. Once it has approved ECC findings, the Afghan election commission will adjust the tallies and announce the final result.

A run-off pitting Karzai against Abdullah would be due within two weeks. Security threats stemming from the insurgency and the onset of the bitter Afghan winter, which makes much of the country impassable, could undermine the effort.

Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the UN mission which appointed three of the ECC's five members, said preparations were under way for a possible run-off, including measures designed to eliminate any risk of repeated fraud.

Karzai won 54.6 per cent of the vote, according to preliminary figures. More than 250,000 votes would have to be thrown out from his tally for it to fall below 50 per cent.

In the United States, policy makers were closely watching the outcome of the protracted process that has sparked tension between Karzai and his Western backers.

Clinton told CNN in an interview she thought a second round was "likely", adding that a run-off would probably lead to a victory for Karzai.