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Afghans Vote For President Amid Militant Threats

Above: Afghan women cast their ballots at a local mosque used as a polling station August 20, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Election officials in Afghanistan kept the polls open for an extra hour today, after fears of violence evidently kept many potential voters from participating.

Despite a massive military and police presence to protect the balloting, the day was marred by sporadic attacks by Taliban militants.

President Hamid Karzai is seeking reelection, facing challenges from nearly 40 rivals including Abdullah Abdullah, his former foreign minister.

The election comes after an increase in violence in Afghanistan amid vows by the Taliban to disrupt the process and intimidate voters.

NPR's Jackie Northam reported from the Afghan capital, Kabul, that voter turnout was low in the opening hours of the election. She said election officials predicted that many people would stay home until they saw that the balloting was proceeding safely.

A spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission said polls across the country were kept open until 5 p.m. Afghan time (8:30 a.m., EDT) to accommodate more people. Officials said turnout appeared to get better in the afternoon.

Some 17 million people were reportedly registered to take part in the balloting to choose a president and members of the country's provincial councils.

Preliminary results could be released as early as this weekend, but the first official results will not be announced until early September. Karzai was leading in pre-election polls, but if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote, the two top vote-getters will meet in a runoff on Oct. 3.

There were reports of sporadic attacks around the country, despite a government attempt to ban reports of violence that might further dampen voter turnout. Northam said that both international and domestic news media had decided to defy the government ban.

In the southern city of Kandahar, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported that voters were trickling into polling places, despite "about a dozen" explosions heard in various parts of the city.

Kandahar is known as the birthplace of the Taliban, and many of the surrounding southern provinces are either strongly influenced or controlled by militants, who threatened to attack anyone attempting to vote.

The Associated Press reports that election officials in the city said voter turnout appeared to be about 40 percent lower than it was during the last presidential election in 2004.

Afghan women wait to cast their vote at a school converted to a polling center in Herat.

Nelson said security was tight in the central part of Kandahar, with many Afghan police and army checkpoints. She said there was very little sign of either U.S. or NATO troops. "The foreigners want to make sure they don't appear to be part of this election. They really want this to be about Afghans, for Afghans," she said.

Despite that concern, the Associated Press reported that U.S. Marines delivered presidential ballots to the town of Dahaneh, in Helmand province, which was recently recaptured from Taliban fighters. International monitors generally disapprove of foreign military personnel having any involvement in the custody of ballots.

Nelson noted that although Afghan election officials said that most polling places were open, those assertions were suspect, given the government's attempt to suppress reports of violence.

She reported visiting one polling center for women, where she saw very few people. "It's interesting to note that the ballot boxes were very full," Nelson said, "which raises the question of whether there is in fact the transparency and fairness and honesty that the Afghan government says it wants to see in this election."

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