KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai's (search) main challenger Monday backed off a boycott of Afghanistan's landmark election over allegations of fraud, saying he would accept the formation of an independent commission to look into any irregularities in the vote.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (search), the first foreign leader to visit since Saturday's election, all but declared Karzai the winner before a single ballot was counted.
The announcement by ethnic Tajik candidate Yunus Qanooni (search) that he would accept the formation of the election commission followed similar statements Sunday by Massooda Jalal, the only female presidential hopeful, and ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq.
"I don't want to be against the election and I appreciate the good will of the people of Afghanistan," Qanooni said. "I want to prove to the people of Afghanistan that the national interest is my highest interest."
He said he made his decision after a meeting with U.N. representative Jean Arnault and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Abdul Satar Sirat, a minor Uzbek candidate who rallied the others to support the boycott, also appeared to back down. His spokesman, Ramatullah Jalili, also said Sirat would respect the decision of an independent electoral commission.
The announcements were a huge victory for election organizers, who agreed to set up the panel Sunday in hopes it would end the crisis that emerged when all 15 opposition candidates declared the boycott in the middle of Saturday's voting.
Their complaint focused on allegations that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters' thumbs in some polling stations could be rubbed off, allowing some people to vote more than once.
The election has been hailed as a success by U.N. officials, President Bush and other world leaders. International electoral observers have criticized the 15, saying their demand to nullify the vote was unjustified.
Schroeder said the poll "was a great step toward democracy and stability" and predicted a Karzai win.
"It is my opinion that he will do it, and in the first round," the German leader said.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also praised the elections as an "enormous accomplishment" and voiced hope that the January vote in Iraq will be an equal success.
"It is not an easy task to turn the dictatorship, as in the case of Afghanistan, and it won't be an easy task in Iraq," Rumsfeld said in Macedonia after a visit to Iraq.
A high voter turnout in Afghanistan, which never before has tasted democracy, and a failure of Taliban rebels to launch a massive attack have also been held up as proof of success.
"The numbers and enthusiasm both were very, very great," Karzai said Monday on NBC's "Today" show. "People braved attacks by terrorists and went to the election."
The U.S.-backed candidate said the polls should be a slap in the face to Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers, and "show that people don't want them, that the people want a different life."
Bin Laden "should be much more afraid today than he was the day before yesterday or before that. He must be trying to hide even in a tighter place than he was a few days ago. We will find him one day, sooner or later," Karzai added.
In the latest in a series of minor attacks, at least five rockets slammed into Kabul not far from the U.S. Embassy on Monday, killing a 16-year-old Afghan youth and damaging the roof of a mud-brick house, officials and witnesses said. An embassy official said staff went into bunkers as a precaution, although there was no indication any of the rockets hit embassy grounds.
Boxes of ballots, some arriving by mule, were not expected to finish reaching counting centers until Tuesday at the earliest. About 10.5 million registration cards were handed out for the election.
Before the tallying can start, the numbers of received ballots are checked against a list of votes cast to ensure the boxes have not been stuffed with fraudulent votes, U.N. officials said. Then, the ballots from various districts are mixed together so no one knows which area favored which candidate.
Actual counting may not start until Wednesday or Thursday, said electoral spokesman Sultan Baheen. Aykut Tavsel, another electoral spokesman, said candidates have until Tuesday evening to file formal complaints, and that the commission doesn't want to start the count until after it has reviewed them.
Final results were not expected until the end of October.
"The counting will be done in full view of cameras," Karzai told NBC. "Afghan television will telecast it direct from the counting stations. I am confident enough the count will be conducted properly."
The Afghan vote has played a role in the U.S. presidential campaign, with President Bush holding it up as an example of flourishing democracy and a precursor to elections his administration insists will move forward in January in Iraq, despite continuing violence there. John Kerry, the Democratic challenger, has complained that the war in Iraq has served as a distraction from the overall war on terrorism and has pulled needed resources from the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, an exit poll conducted by an American group closely tied to the U.S. Republican Party projected that Karzai would win with the outright majority needed to avoid a second round. The survey by the International Republican Institute said Karzai would finish ahead of Qanooni by an overwhelming 43 percentage points.
The group, which sent a 13-member observer team to monitor the elections, said that Karzai was well over the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid a runoff. But it did not give a breakdown of support for all the candidates, nor did it release supporting data.