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Afghans vote in historic election

Election set amid heavy security
Afghan refugee Moqadasa Sidiqi is the first person to cast her vote. She is at a polling station in Islamabad, Pakistan.
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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Afghans have begun heading to the polls in the country's first direct democratic election, almost three years after the hard-line Taliban regime was ousted by a U.S.-led military campaign.

Tens of thousands of national and international security forces have been deployed across the country to try to prevent any possible attacks on voters.

In a sign of the potential danger, Mullah Omar, the former Taliban supreme leader, warned Afghans to boycott the election or face attacks at polling stations, a senior Taliban official told CNN Friday.

"We are sending warning to people to refrain from voting as we have planned to organize attacks with full strength on polling stations," said the message, which was read on the radio by the Taliban's former defense minister.

"Voters will be responsible themselves if they come under Taliban attack."

Polling will take place at 5,000 polling centers throughout Afghanistan, as well as in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran, according to a fact sheet on the White House Web site.

There are 600,000 eligible voters in Iran and about 750,000 in Pakistan.

Among 16 candidates, President Hamid Karzai is favored to win in the voting, which will take place under the watchful eyes of hundreds of election observers.

The winning candidate must claim 50 percent of the total, plus one vote.

Only two other candidates are considered big names nationwide: the Uzbek general, Abdul Rashid Dostum, and the former education minister, Yunus Qanuni.

There is one female candidate in the race, Massouda Jalal, a doctor who has attracted much media attention but little following.

In June 2002, Karzai was elected to a two-year term by the loya jirga, or grand council, a traditional gathering of Afghanistan's tribal leaders to resolve issues of national importance.

He is from the majority Pashtuns, the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, but also the source of the Taliban's support.

The vote is seen as a key step in the post-September 11 U.S. effort to bring democracy to Afghanistan, where the Taliban was harboring leaders of the al Qaeda terror network.

"We expect to have a successful election on Saturday. We have taken all the measures necessary," Jerome Leyraud, U.N. Afghan election manager, told CNN.

Leyraud said final results probably won't be available for two or three weeks. Karzai said he hopes the turnout will be at least 60 percent.

Ten million Afghans have registered, including Afghan citizens abroad and more than 40 percent of eligible women.

There were fears, however, that violence in the run-up to the election and threats from remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda could derail its success.

Officials hope the Taliban and its allies will be thwarted by a security effort involving a national army of more than 17,000, about 25,000 police, 18,000 U.S.-led coalition troops and a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force of more than 8,000.

In addition, Ashraf Haidari, spokesman for the Afghanistan Embassy in Washington, said there will be 250 international observers at the eight regional counting centers.

Haidari also said there will be an unknown number of trained observers from the 125,000-member electoral staff and hundreds of overseers personally representing the candidates.

Soldiers foiled an attempt Friday to blow up a fuel truck near Kandahar, according to CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour.

They also seized rockets and RPGs in Kabul, and picked up two suspected suicide bombers in Jalalabad.

Karzai survived an attack last month, and on Wednesday a convoy carrying his running mate was hit.

Ahmad Zia Masood escaped unhurt from the roadside explosion that hit his convoy in Badakhshan province, a government official said. A dozen election workers have been killed.

Both the presidential and parliamentary polls were to be held last June but were delayed due to security and logistical concerns. Parliamentary elections were put off until next April because resources are overstretched.

"The Afghan people see this as their chance to build a better future, to take this country forward," Karzai told CNN in an interview.

"I hope those [security] preparations will be somehow be enough to prevent whatever threats or attacks that may come," he added.

"After the elections, there will be a drastic change in the Afghan environment, the Afghan people will psychologically feel much stronger, much more empowered."

CNN's Christiane Amanpour and Syed Mohsin Naqvi contributed to this report.

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