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More Afghan Violence Targeted At Election

Afghan women registering to vote. 8 August -- The U.S. military said today that a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan killed two American soldiers and their Afghan interpreter while they were on a mission to protect Afghan election workers.

The attack is the latest in a series of violence by suspected Islamic militants that appears to be aimed at undermining the country's 9 October presidential election.

The attack on the lightly armored Humvee patrol vehicle took place in a rural part of Ghazni Province where suspected Taliban militants have clashed regularly with U.S. and Afghan troops. But a U.S. military spokesman, Major Scott Nelson, says it is not immediately clear who carried out the bombing:

"It was an I.U.D attack -- so basically, an improvised explosive device set on the side of a road," Nelson said. "And when a convoy drove by, this humvee was unfortunate enough to be in the blast zone when this IUD went off. We don't know exactly if it was a remote-controlled blast or if it was timed. But we have three dead and one wounded."

Nelson confirmed that the U.S. soldiers were on a mission to protect election officials from the UN-Afghan "Joint Electoral Management Body," or JEMB:

"From what I understand, this mission was specifically supporting election security for the team of JEMB folks registering [voters at] a village out in that area, and they were on a specific patrol for providing security for that team and for guiding security in that village for the registration process," Nelson said.

The latest deaths bring to about 58 the number of American soldiers killed in action in Afghanistan since U.S. forces entered the country in 2001 to drive the Taliban from power and attack its Al-Qaeda allies. Twenty-three of the combat deaths in Afghanistan have occurred this year. That makes 2004 the deadliest year yet for the U.S. troops. Analysts say it also undermines assertions by U.S. and Afghan officials that Islamic militants are on the defensive and security is improving.

Indeed, violence has intensified in recent months as Afghanistan prepares for the election, which U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai is widely expected to win.

During May and June offensives in Afghanistan, U.S. forces reportedly killed more than 100 suspected militants in the Taliban strongholds of Uruzgan and Zabul provinces. But those U.S-led operations have failed to halt insurgent attacks.

In the past week, militants have killed two Afghan election workers in Uruzgan Province and two Afghans working for a German relief agency in Paktia Province. Six American soldiers also have been injured in recent attacks against their military convoys in Zabul Province.

Despite the violence, UN spokesman Manual de Almeida Silva told reporters in Kabul today that about 90 percent of Afghanistan's estimated eligible electorate has been registered to vote in October -- a figure that far exceeds initial expectations:

"As of 3 August, the number of Afghans who had registered as voters had reached a bit over nine million," Silva said. "Of these, 58.6 percent are men and 41.4 percent are women."

Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, was among those who registered today for the ballot. Parliamentary elections have been scheduled for April of next year. Islamic militants have vowed to disrupt both ballots.

But U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad expressed confidence today that both elections will go ahead despite the attempts at disruption.