U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai (search) was nearing victory in Afghanistan's presidential vote, election officials said, as the number of ballots counted passed the half way mark.

A win in the Oct. 9 election would make him the country's first directly elected leader after a quarter-century of conflict. Results Thursday showed Karzai with 59.8 percent support and a 42-point lead over his nearest challenger, former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni (search).

Reginald Austin, chief technical adviser to the election's U.N. and Afghan organizers, said that by the end of the day, more than 60 percent of the votes should have been counted and "it should be fairly clear what the situation is."

"By Thursday, we should be able to make a sufficient determination," he said.

Election spokeswoman Silvana Puizina expected another 1 million votes to be counted Thursday. She said counting was set to continue on Friday — the Muslim holy day usually taken as a holiday in Afghanistan.

"We expect the counting for many places to be finished by Friday or Saturday. Other places will need a few more days," she said.

However, Ray Kennedy, deputy chairman of the Joint Electoral Management Body, stressed that the board would announce the outcome only after all the votes are counted and the probe into alleged irregularities is complete.

Vote counting could be finished by early next week, but the investigation could take longer.

A panel of three foreign experts was called in after accusations of fraud on polling day, especially after problems with ink used to mark voters' fingers in an effort to prevent people from voting twice.

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said the panel had visited counting centers in Kabul and Gardez in eastern Afghanistan and spoken to candidates and Afghan and international election observers. He said the probe could be completed and made public in "one more week or so, perhaps."

As Karzai neared victory, reports emerged that the relative peacefulness of the voting has demoralized the Taliban, who failed to mount major attacks during the landmark election.

U.S. military spokesman Maj. Scott Nelson said intelligence reports from Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan indicated that fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar had fallen out with some of his lieutenants, who blame him for the rebels' failure to disrupt voting.

"There's been serious disagreements between Mullah Omar and some of his lower commanders on the strategy for the follow-up after the election," Nelson said. "There's a lot of frustration with his lack of effectiveness in disrupting the election."

Omar, whose hardline Islamic regime harbored Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers, has been in hiding since a U.S.-led military campaign ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001. The rebels have mounted repeated attacks over the past year on government and coalition targets.

Results posted Thursday showed Karzai with 59.8 percent support, Qanooni with 17.2 percent, Hazara chieftain Mohammed Mohaqeq with 8.5 percent, and Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum 8.1 percent.

Austin said a mathematical projection on Thursday should also indicate whether Karzai will win the majority needed to avoid a second round. "If we have a run off, we have a lot of work to do," he said.