Rocket attacks mar Afghan election in the south; voters venture out in areas secured by troops

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — A loud explosion 20 minutes before the polls opened set the tone for election day in this Taliban stronghold, where a series of rocket attacks and bombings dampened turnout despite a heavy presence of security forces.

One bomb attack narrowly missed the Kandahar provincial governor's convoy as he traveled between polling stations to observe Saturday's parliamentary vote.

International troops and Afghan forces have been ramping security in this key southern region — the birthplace of the Taliban movement — in an attempt to keep insurgents from staging attacks and turn the tide of the nine-year war.

Those who ventured out to vote did so slowly at first, a few members of one family at a time. Later, groups of voters left their homes and headed to polling stations. But when the polls closed, it was clear that turnout had been lower than during last year's presidential election.

Voters' sentiments ranged from defiance and pride in exercising their democratic right, to deep skepticism about the political process.

Bibi Zarghona, said she was excited to cast a ballot for her own candidate.

"I'm happy that we have female candidates who can deliver our own message," she said. "If we sit in our homes scared, this thing, this terror will never come to an end. We have to face some difficulties to have a better and secure future."

Malalia Bibi said she didn't believe in the election and only voted because her husband asked her to. She said she became disillusioned by the democratic process after the candidate she voted for in the nation's first parliamentary election didn't help people with their problems. The lawmaker was rarely in Kandahar and very difficult to reach, she said.

"I don't have any expectations for this election," Bibi said.

At a news conference in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak boasted of the security gains since last year's ballot.

"Why the participation was low? Nobody can be sure definitively, but it might be as a result of the enemy's negative campaign to terrorize the people not to participate because they were claiming that they would be able to create much more damage than what they were actually physically able to inflict," he said.

Altogether, insurgents launched about a dozen attacks on the city. No one died but about a half-dozen people were injured, according to hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they said the government instructed them not to disclose information about election-related violence.

One rocket damaged the wall of a police station. Another fell near a market, but a tree took the brunt of the blast.

Throughout the day, law enforcement, intelligence and government officials monitored areas in the province via satellite television hookups from the compound of Kandahar provincial Gov. Turyalai Wesa. Security was tight; the city looked like it was under curfew.

In July, hundreds of Afghanistan's most elite police unit arrived in Kandahar to help staff new checkpoints — one of the first visible signs of NATO's attempt with Afghan forces to bolster security in the largest southern city. The Afghan National Civil Order Police, partnered with international forces, are manning new checkpoints around the clock, forming a security perimeter around the city.

On election day, vehicles without special election passes were banned from the streets.

Wesa, who had high hopes for greater turnout, appealed to voters to go to the polls despite threats.

"There's nothing to be afraid of," Wesa said. "The enemy wants the election to fail so if you want the insurgents out of your land, you'll have to come out and vote."

A few hours later, one bomb exploded about the same time that his convoy was moving into a southern district and another bomb nearly missed his vehicle as he was moving between polling centers.

"Thanks to God, we have no casualties," Wesa said later.

Voting stations were busier in Zhari district, an area just outside Kandahar where Taliban leader Mullah Omar's radical Islamic movement was born, because the strong troop presence assured voters it was safe to go to the polls.

"People are fed up with the Taliban. That's why they're coming out more and more so they can get rid of the Taliban," said Saleh Naeem, a businessman. "Because of the Taliban, business is in a bad condition in Zhari."

In Panjwai district to the west of Kandahar, people voted in town, but Taliban threats kept people in outlying areas at home. In Dand district, just south of Kandahar, residents exhibited little fear about going to vote.

"I cast my vote and now I'm back to doing my business," said shopkeeper Mohammad Shoaib. "I don't know about the other people, but I was personally satisfied with the voting in our district."

The ballot, however, was far from perfect.

Matiullah, a Kandahar man who uses only one name, said hundreds of people in his village of about 600 gave their voting cards to the village elder who was supposed to vote for them.

"My father asked me to give the card," he said. "This is what we did the last time. Everyone submitted their card to the elder."

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Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann in Kabul contributed to this report.