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Afghan Election Officials Fired Ahead Of Runoff

Vote counting in Nangarhar Province on August 24
KABUL (Reuters) -- The heads of more than half of Afghanistan's district election offices will be replaced to prevent fraud in a second-round presidential election critical to the country's credibility and foreign support.

After days of diplomatic wrangling, President Hamid Karzai on October 20 agreed to face a second round of voting in Afghanistan's disputed election after a UN-led fraud inquiry tossed out enough of his votes to trigger a runoff.

Karzai will now face his main rival Abdullah Abdullah in a November 7 runoff, more than two months after Afghans went to the polls.

"More than half of the district field coordinators are being replaced to prevent any attempted fraud or because there have been complaints made against them by candidates and observers," said UN spokesman Aleem Siddique in Kabul.

Siddique said 200 district election chiefs from the government-appointed election commission were fired after the UN-backed fraud watchdog found evidence of widespread fraud and vote-fixing. There are 380 districts in Afghanistan.

Karzai's decision to accept a runoff has eased tensions with the West and removed one stumbling block for U.S. President Barack Obama as he weighs whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.

Many within Obama's Democratic Party have spoken out against sending more troops, while Republican opponents say his lengthy deliberations on a new strategy are undermining U.S. troops and emboldening the Taliban.

Rift Over Strategy?

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dismissed reports of rifts between Obama's military and civilian advisers on the Afghan war strategy.

"These rumours of some kind of rift are just not accurate and do not reflect the close working effort between our military and civilians," Gates told a news conference on October 21 during a visit to Japan.

Gates said the problems over the legitimacy of the Afghan government would not be resolved by a runoff alone and described the situation as an "evolutionary process."

"Clearly, having the runoff, getting it behind us, and then moving forward is very important, " he said.

Election officials now face a logistical nightmare, having just over two weeks to prepare for a second round of voting in a race against the fast-encroaching harsh Afghan winter, which makes much of the mountainous country inaccessible.

Siddique said NATO and the Independent Election Commission would meet on October 21 to discuss preparations for the second round.

"All the ballot materials are now in the country and are being packed ready for distribution to the provinces," he said.

A second round of voting also carries great security implications. While not able to completely disrupt the August 20 vote, Taliban attacks around the country kept many voters away from the polling stations.