Official: Karzai Clear Winner of Afghan Vote

Counting in Afghanistan's (search) presidential election concluded Tuesday, with U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai (search) the clear winner even though some ballot boxes were "obviously stuffed," election officials said.

Investigators were still examining about 100 ballot boxes to clear up lingering fraud allegations, but the election's chief technical officer said the count was effectively "over and done."

"It's just these last dribs and drabs to be approved," David Avery told The Associated Press. "It's really nothing that can affect the outcome."

Election officials have said they will not announce the official results of the Oct. 9 vote until investigations into irregularities alleged by Karzai's main rivals have been concluded. That could be this weekend.

The winner will be inaugurated in about a month.

Final results were not posted on the election Web site, either. But in a tally based on 98.4 percent of total votes cast, the U.S.-backed Karzai had 55.5 percent, which was 39 percentage points ahead of his closest challenger, former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni (search).

"If the fraud was not so serious, we would accept that Karzai has won," Qanooni's running mate, Taj Mohammed Wardak, told AP.

"I hope there was not so much fraud so our democracy is safe. If it was serious, then we are sad and it will affect the election result. We will accept the conclusion of the panel."

Karzai had to receive more than 50 percent of the votes cast to avoid a runoff and secure a five-year term. He has pledged to raise impoverished Afghans' living standards after a quarter-century of fighting.

Karzai has been the interim leader since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 after a U.S. invasion. An election victory would make him Afghanistan's first popularly chosen leader.

It also could provide a foreign policy boost to Afghanistan's main sponsor, President Bush, in his own bid for re-election next week.

"He is happy and satisfied" with his lead, presidential spokesman Jawed Ludin said of Karzai. "God willing, he will hold onto it."

Karzai has racked up more than 90 percent support in many parts of the south and east, which is dominated by his fellow Pashtun tribesmen, and leads in all major cities.

But rivals have eclipsed him across much of the north and center, the heartlands of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, and charge that Karzai is ahead only through cheating.

Investigators had held back hundreds of boxes and say they have clear evidence of ballot-stuffing in some cases, though not on a scale that could overturn Karzai's majority.

"Some boxes were so obviously stuffed that we don't believe they were legitimately cast votes," Ray Kennedy, deputy chairman of the joint U.N.-Afghan electoral commission, told The Associated Press.

That was an indication the commission will acknowledge irregularities — the key condition set by Qanooni, Karzai's closest rival, for conceding defeat.

Avery said all but about 100 of the ballot boxes were released Tuesday after inspectors found no evidence of foul play. Officials were expected to complete their inspection of the remaining boxes by Thursday.

Election managers say they will reserve overall judgment on whether the election was "free and fair" until they issue their final report.

While irregularities detected during the counting process are being examined by the electoral board's legal experts, a panel of foreign election specialists is looking separately into problems on polling day.

The three-member panel was established after Qanooni and 14 other candidates threatened to boycott the poll because of a mix-up in which washable, instead of permanent, ink was used to mark people's fingers in an effort to prevent multiple voting.