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Abdullah trying to prove he is no Afghan also-ran

By David Fox

MAZAR-I-SHARIF, Afghanistan, Aug 13 (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai's main challenger drew tens of thousands of supporters to an election rally on Thursday, the biggest so far, and warned next week's race would go down to the wire. The huge crowd greeted Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and regarded as Karzai's strongest rival in the Aug. 20 poll, during a visit to Mazar-i-Sharif, an Abdullah stronghold about 300 kms (190 miles) north of the capital, Kabul.

Karzai needs to win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off against the second-placed challenger. A poll earlier this week gave Karzai 45 percent to Abdullah's 25.

"Don't think that this is finished. Don't listen to what others might tell you, this election is very close," Abdullah told supporters at the Shrine of Hazrat Ali, a blue-tiled monument to Islam's fourth caliph, one of the Prophet Mohammad's sons, who is reputedly buried there.

Although half Pashtun, Abdullah draws his support from the country's Tajiks and he was clearly on home turf on Thursday.

The route from the airport to the centre of the city was lined by supporters wearing blue caps and T-shirts bearing Abdullah's lightly bearded image. As the convoy reached the shrine, the crowd swelled to around 50,000, and youngsters and the elderly were trampled in the crush.

Later at the governor's mansion, where Karzai's portrait gazed down on dozens of elders and other notables that gathered for a banquet, Abdullah was still clearly the man of the moment.

Security was tight but relaxed, in keeping with a city that has largely escaped the growing Taliban insurgency.

The Taliban, who draw their strength mostly from the Pashtuns of the south and east, have vowed to disrupt the elections and violence is now at the worst levels since the Islamist hardliners were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001.
Read more...
 
'Afghanistani Obama' aspires to be his country's saviour


By Ben Farmer in Samangan province, and Nick Meo in Kabul
As Afghanistan's elections loom, President Hamid Karzai's strongest challenge comes from a candidate who crosses the country's ethnic divide
Its ancient engine emitting an unsettling rattle, the Russian-made MI-17 helicopter touched down in a choking cloud of dust in the mud brick Afghan town of Samangan. The haze had barely cleared around the disembarking figure of its VIP passenger, though, as the waiting crowd surged forward shouting his name – "Abdullah!".
A month ago, none of the 40 candidates running for president against Hamid Karzai seemed to have a chance, and the farmers of Samangan would not have bothered leaving their wheat fields for an election rally.

But suddenly, a lacklustre election campaign has sparked into a ferocious battle.
The hopes of millions who prayed for a better life after the fall of the Taliban government, and were frustrated, have been pinned on the challenger who promises to unseat Mr Karzai – the urbane former foreign minister, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
With just 11 days to go before a vote that will help decide Afghanistan's future, many believe he has enough momentum to win – thanks not just to his own popularity, but to widespread disillusionment with the incumbent.
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