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Afghan Opposition Candidate Seeks Debate With Karzai

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah held the press conference with U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry
KABUL (Reuters) -- A leading opposition candidate invited Afghan President Hamid Karzai to a public debate on June 21 ahead of the August 20 presidential election.

Karzai, seen as weak and possibly beatable earlier this year, has consolidated his grip on power in recent weeks by winning endorsements from many former rivals.

But Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who came a distant second behind Karzai in an opinion poll released last week by a U.S.-based group, said the president needed to explain the worsening security situation in the country.

"I want to challenge President Karzai in a face-to-face debate. I want to understand how is it...the security situation in Afghanistan after a while turned from a better a bad situation," Abdullah told reporters.

"I have had no contact with the president. I am using this press conference to invite him to the debate," Abdullah said.

He held the news conference alongside U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who has also visited other opposition candidates as part of what a spokesman called an effort to show Washington, with 55,000 troops in Afghanistan, was not picking the winner.

Abdullah said the over-centralised nature of Karzai's government was partly to blame for Afghanistan's increased dependence on foreign troops and repeated pledges to replace the presidency with a parliamentary and prime ministerial system.

In the opinion poll, released last week by the International Republican Institute and conducted before the final list of candidates was published, 31 percent of voters said they would back Karzai.

Much of the rest of the vote was split among candidates who have since dropped out of the race, many telling their supporters to back Karzai. Abdullah scored 7 percent of the vote.

Despite revealing widespread perceptions that the country has become increasingly corrupt and violent, the poll showed 69 percent of Afghans have a positive opinion of Karzai, against 25 percent who had a negative view.