Narrow lead for Karzai in Afghanistan election

President Hamid Karzai holds a narrow lead in the Afghanistan election, according to preliminary results announced today as the deaths of four US troops made this the bloodiest year for coalition forces since operations began in 2001.

The deaths in southern Afghanistan take the toll for 2009 to 295, including 69 British service personnel.

An extensive security operation was mounted around last week's election amid fears that Taliban intimidation would deter voters.

The preliminary results announced by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) after 10% of the votes had been counted showed that Mr Karzai has 40.6% of the vote, with his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, on 38.7%.

The results come amid allegations of fraud by both camps.

Mr Abdullah has accused Mr Karzai of widespread rigging, with Mr Karzai's supporters levelling similar accusations in return.

The latest troop deaths were announced by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman Brigadier General Eric Tremblay.

He said: "They were struck while patrolling in one of the most violent areas of Afghanistan.

"We shall always be proud of their courage and sacrifice as they fell fighting for the good of Afghans living in the south."

The website, which records coalition losses, said the death toll has passed the 294 killed in 2008.

The ballot is the first Afghan-led election for more than 30 years - previous contests in 2004 and 2005 were run by the UN - although the international community is providing considerable support.

There are fears that supporters of Mr Abdullah could run riot if he comes in second with no chance at a run-off, which would be triggered if no candidate wins more than 50% of the vote.

But a presidential spokesman said the government was prepared to respond to any post-election violence.

As well as the presidential race, Afghans voted in provincial council elections last week.

The IEC will announce the certified results in the presidential contest on September 17.

If no candidate passes the 50% mark, a second round of voting would be held in late September or early October between the two front-runners.

The deaths of the US troops today followed reports that commanders had requested reinforcements.

President Barack Obama's special representative to the region, Richard Holbrooke, has been told by all four regional commands in Afghanistan that there are insufficient troops to contend with the Taliban insurgency, according to an article in the New York Times yesterday.