GHAZNI, Afghanistan (AP) — Watched over by American
bodyguards and sharpshooters, Afghanistan’s eternally
optimistic interim president told a campaign rally of 10,000 people
yesterday that this weekend’s election is a key step in their
recovery from decades of war and hardship.

Beth Dykstra
Afghan President Hamid Karzai looks out over the crowd during a campaign stop in Ghazni, Afghanistan, 110 kilometers outside Kabul yesterday. (AP PHOTO)

The gathering was one of three big rallies by leading
presidential contenders on the most active day yet in a campaign
that has mostly been waged behind closed doors, with the candidates
courting the support of tribal elders who can influence how whole
villages vote.

It was only President Hamid Karzai’s second campaign trip
out of the capital since an assassination attempt by Taliban rebels
last month, and security was tight. Truckloads of Afghan police
lined the road leading to the dusty field, and everyone attending
the rally had to pass through security checkpoints as U.S.
helicopters flew overhead.

Karzai, the overwhelming favorite among the 18 contenders, said
Saturday’s election is an opportunity to build a new future
for a country that has known nothing but war, drought and poverty
for a quarter century.

“Brothers and sisters of Afghanistan, I ask you to vote
for me freely, with no pressure,” Karzai told the crowd in
Ghazni, about 75 miles south of Kabul. “We want a proud
Afghanistan, a stable Afghanistan, a peaceful
Afghanistan.”

After the rally, he mingled in the crowd, shaking hands with an
old man who pressed closer to meet him.

“Don’t push him! Don’t push him!” Karzai
told his security detail when they tried to keep the man away.
“This is democracy. This is emotion!”

People in the crowd danced and sang, while drummers beat out a
traditional song.

Karzai’s main rival, former Interior Minister Yunus
Qanooni, addressed more than 2,000 people at the Kabul sports
stadium to appeal for support. Qanooni, an ethnic Tajik, is
expected to finish second but hopes to hold Karzai below the
majority vote needed to avoid a runoff.

In the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif, Uzbek strongman Abdul
Rashid Dostum told several thousand people that Karzai’s
government had fallen short on promises of reconstruction and
improved security. Afterward, Dostum mounted a brown horse —
his electoral symbol — as the crowd pressed in around him,
chanting his name.

In the conservative south, about 500 leaders of Karzai’s
ethnic Pashtun kinsmen joined one of Karzai’s brothers at a
tribal council in a village near Kandahar to endorse the interim
leader.

Speakers lauded Karzai as the only man to stop infighting among
Afghan warlords, keep Taliban rebels at bay and maintain the
world’s interest in helping the country.

“He doesn’t smoke and nobody ever heard him use bad
language,” said Maulawi Obeidullah, a white-bearded cleric.
“He’s a Muslim, a holy warrior and a great
Afghan.”

The lackluster campaigning has been in part a product of
Afghan-style politics, and in part due to fears that Taliban and
al-Qaida rebels could attack campaign gatherings.

On Monday, Afghan soldiers and police raided a hideout where
Taliban militants were suspected of preparing attacks to disrupt
the presidential election, prompting a three-hour battle that
killed seven insurgents, officials said yesterday.

Seven police officers were reported killed yesterday when their
vehicle struck a land mine close to the Pakistani border, and
police said gunmen shot at a U.N. vehicle, wounding three Afghan
election workers.

The Taliban, which was driven from power by a U.S.-led coalition
in late 2001, has staged a string of attacks on election workers,
made frequent rocket assaults on U.S. bases and sprung occasional
ambushes.

But the rebels have not launched the major assault that many
people had feared in the days leading up to the vote.

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