KABUL, Afghanistan – Early results Friday showed interim leader Hamid Karzai (search) far ahead of his chief rivals in Afghanistan's first democratic presidential election after a quarter-century of war.
But with vote counting on hold for a day as Muslims began the holy month of Ramadan (search), a preacher at Kabul's main mosque warned that Afghans won't stand for arrogance in whoever wins.
"If the president becomes too arrogant, we will cut him down! Isn't that right?" Mullah Obeid-ul Rahman said to hundreds of worshippers at Pul-e-Chishti mosque, drawing cries of "God is great!"
He exhorted the new leader to rule according to Islamic principles and stay in touch with the people.
Rahman did not name any of the 16 contenders in the Oct. 9 election, yet Karzai, who has led this predominantly Muslim country since the ouster of the Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces in late 2001, is widely expected to win the vote and become Afghanistan's first popularly chosen president.
The U.N.-backed election, which cost about $200 million, has generated huge interest among Afghans, who are aching for peace after conflicts spanning the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, a murderous civil war in the early 1990s, and then the Taliban's tyrannical rule.
Many see the U.S.-backed Karzai as a bridge to the country's international backers and a leader untainted by the fighting. But they are impatient for him to deliver on pledges to rebuild their impoverished country.
Of 35,986 valid votes tallied in six northern and central provinces during the first day of counting Thursday, Karzai won 20,213, or 56.2 percent of the total, according to the official election Web site. If he keeps that up, he'll secure the simple majority needed to avoid a runoff vote with his closest rival.
Former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, expected to be Karzai's closest challenger, was running at 17.2 percent, ahead of ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum with 15 percent. No other candidate mustered more than 2.5 percent.
The tally represented only a tiny fraction of the estimated 8 million votes cast. Counting hasn't started yet in the Pashtun-dominated south where Karzai is expected to make his strongest showing.
Final results are due at the end of October, although it should be clear who has won after about a week.
Counting had been delayed for five days while a panel of foreign experts probed allegations of electoral fraud, including multiple voting, ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation. On Friday, the 1,000 Afghan counting staff had a day off to celebrate the start of Ramadan. Counting was to resume Saturday.
With the formation of the panel, most of Karzai's 15 challengers have stepped back from a boycott of the election that had threatened to undermine the victor's ability to rule this ethnically diverse country. They had declared the boycott on election day after it emerged that the indelible ink used at some polling stations to mark voters' hands to stop them casting more than one ballot had been easy to wash off.
Threats of Taliban attacks to sabotage the vote proved largely unfounded, but the insurgency simmers on in the lawless south and east of the country.
A remote-controlled mine detonated Thursday under an American jeep on patrol in southern Uruzgan province, injuring one U.S. soldier, said provincial Gov. Jan Mohammed Khan. In response, a U.S. helicopter opened fire on the suspected attacker as he fled on a motorbike, killing him, he said.