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Afghanistan Braces For Possible Election Runoff

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

KABUL (Reuters) -- Several international political figures have phoned President Hamid Karzai, his office said on October 17, in what appeared to be an intense diplomatic offensive to end a row over Afghanistan's disputed presidential election.

The phone calls, including from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, came just before the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission was due to announce the findings of its investigation into allegations of fraud in the August 20 ballot.

The allegations have left Afghanistan in a state of political uncertainty at a time when Washington is deciding whether to send more troops 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.

Observers said pressure was mounting on Karzai to either agree to face Abdullah in a second round or form a power-sharing government to put an end to the crisis.

"The second round is definitely on the radar screen right now," said an official close to the process. "This is why there are delays. There are some tense negotiations going on."

A host of high-level foreign visitors arrived in Kabul ahead of the announcement, including French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and U.S. Senator John Kerry, who is also chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, was also in Kabul on a private visit, the U.S. embassy said.

Karzai spoke by phone to Clinton, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, Karzai's office said.

A statement by the French Foreign Ministry said Kouchner's visit was part of efforts to defuse "the tension created by the repeated delays in announcing the election results".

A U.S. diplomat said Kerry's goal was to "highlight the need for a legitimate outcome in this election".

Recommendations On Fraud, Complaints

The protracted election process and fraud allegations have sparked tension between Karzai and his Western backers.

Clinton told CNN that she thought "the likelihood of him (Karzai) winning a second round is probably pretty high".

Karzai won 54.6 percent 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 percent.

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

After several delays, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) was expected to unveil its findings this weekend, a spokeswoman said.

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 U.N. mission which appointed three of the ECC's five members, said preparations were underway for a possible run-off, including measures designed to eliminate any risk of fraud.