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Afghan Presidential Election Set For August 20

Karzai's support has waned at home and abroad
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan will hold its presidential election on August 20, the head of the election commission has said.

The vote will be only the second time in history the troubled nation has held democratic polls to choose a head of state.

President Hamid Karzai has strongly hinted he will run for re-election, but his popularity has waned due to widespread official corruption and widening insecurity as Taliban insurgents battle daily with Afghan government and international troops.

The Independent Election Commission decided on the date, which comes just before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, after consulting with Afghan and international security forces, commission head Azizullah Ludin told a news conference on January 29.

Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun from the south, has led Afghanistan since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in the wake of the September 11 attacks, first as head of an interim administration, then winning elections in 2004.

But since then, the Taliban has regrouped and relaunched their insurgency to overthrow Karzai's government and drive out foreign troops, with guerrilla attacks and hundreds of suicide bomb attacks that have killed scores of troops and civilians alike.

Once solidly supported by the West, Karzai has since fallen out of favor with his Western backers due to his failure to rein in rampant corruption and govern effectively outside the capital, Kabul.

For his part, Karzai has hit back, strongly criticizing U.S. and NATO forces for killing dozens of civilians in air strikes -- incidents that provoke extreme anger among Afghans and seething resentment against the presence of foreign troops.

According to the constitution, the elections should be held by May, but officials announced last year that that would not be possible, as holding polls in the spring would mean organizing them during the harsh winter when large parts of the country are inaccessible.