KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's landmark national elections will be delayed until September to give the United Nations more time to register voters and organize the balloting, President Hamid Karzai (search) said Sunday.
Officials had warned repeatedly that the country's first post-Taliban (search) elections, originally scheduled for June, would be delayed because of logistical problems and security fears.
"We are ready to manage both elections, for the parliament and presidency, in September," Karzai told reporters at his palace in the Afghan capital.
So far, only 1.5 million of an estimated 10.5 million eligible voters have been registered for the elections, and it remains unclear how the United Nations (search) intends to carry out a plan to register most of the others in May.
The Afghan government said on Saturday it will disarm 40,000 irregular Afghan militia soldiers and round up heavy weapons around the country in time for the vote to reduce the risk of voter intimidation.
But the world body, the Afghan government and the U.S.-led military coalition that ousted the hardline Taliban in late 2001 are still working on plans to protect election workers from militants of the former regime in the country's south and east.
A Taliban spokesman said the delay until September was "a humiliation and defeat" for Karzai and his American backers, and claimed the elections would be fixed.
"They want to divert the attention of Afghans from the importance of jihad," or holy war, Hamid Agha told The Associated Press in a telephone call from an undisclosed location.
The top U.N. Special Representative in Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, welcomed the delay, saying it would allow time also for NATO to expand its peacekeeping operation beyond Kabul in time for the vote.
He also called on the Afghan government to guarantee a level playing-field for challengers to Karzai and a rash of new political parties.
"Free and fair is not a given," Arnault said. "Many things that haven't happened in the past few years have to happen."
More than 200 people have died so far this year in violence around the country, including aid workers and government employees, as well as militants and foreign and Afghan soldiers.
Five foreign U.N. staffers helping prepare for the elections were attacked March 14 with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire as they slept in a government compound in eastern Paktia province.
Karzai said the United Nations and Afghan electoral officials had told him that the presidential election could have been held in June or July, but that parliamentary elections could only be held in September.
"We want both elections together," Karzai said.
A handful of candidates including a disgruntled former Cabinet minister have said they will run in the presidential election. But none is viewed as a serious challenger to Karzai, who has said he too will seek a new five-year term.
A scattering of new political parties have also been approved in advance of the elections.
But Karzai has yet to sign a decree allowing candidates to formally stand or regulating their access to the media or any government campaign funds.