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Afghan President Accepts Rivals' Debate Challenge

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is now seen as likely to win reelection.
KABUL (Reuters) -- Incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai has agreed to take part in a public debate with his key rivals as part of presidential campaigning ahead of the August 20 poll, a spokesman for his election campaign has said.

Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the Taliban was toppled and won the country's first direct vote for president three years later, is losing popularity over lawlessness, endemic corruption, and growing insecurity.

Several of his former cabinet ministers, who are among the 40 candidates contesting Karzai's position, last week invited him to spell out the reasons behind these trends.

Wahid Omar, a spokesman for Karzai's campaign, said the president would announce a timetable for taking part in a public debate with key candidates.

Karzai, seen as weak and possibly beatable earlier this year, has consolidated his grip on power in recent weeks by winning endorsements from some former rivals and key ex-leaders of armed groups who helped U.S. forces oust the Taliban.

An opinion poll released last week by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute and conducted before the final list of candidates was published, found 31 percent of the Afghans who were surveyed said they would back Karzai.

The poll also said most of the rest of voters surveyed split their support between candidates who have since dropped out of the race and would now likely back Karzai as an alternative.

Securing the elections and defeating the spreading Taliban-led insurgency will be the biggest test so far for Washington and its NATO allies in Afghanistan, as they deploy thousands of extra soldiers to join the 90,000 already deployed.

The Taliban has called the election a sham and has vowed to step up attacks this year, which U.S. military officials have already described as the bloodiest since the group's ouster in 2001.