Half of Afghan candidates disqualified

Election panel

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KABUL, Afghanistan -- More than half of Afghanistan's presidential candidates were disqualified by the country's electoral body Tuesday, although major power players and regional strongmen, including a brother of incumbent President Hamid Karzai, remain on the list for the April vote.

Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, head of the Independent Election Commission, or IEC, said dual citizenship and failure to provide enough voters' signatures were among the reasons the panel removed 16 candidates from the list. Each candidate had been required to collect 100,000 signatures from would-be voters representing all of the country's 34 provinces.

A successful election is viewed as a key test of Afghanistan's progress since the Taliban's ouster in late 2001 by U.S.-backed Afghan forces. It will be held as U.S. and NATO forces ramp up their withdrawal from the country, which is grappling with a resurgence by the militant organization.

Western donors, which have provided most of the funding for development and other aid needs for more than a decade, have linked continuation of their largess to the formation of a credible government based on the outcome of the April vote.

Mr. Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the Taliban's ouster, cannot run for a third term, and an uneventful transition between him and a duly elected successor would mark the first peaceful handover of power through a democratic process in Afghanistan's history.

Among those removed from the list Tuesday was the sole female candidate, a woman from an area with a heavy Taliban presence. The disqualified candidates, as well as one removed earlier, can appeal the IEC decision to the Election Complaints Commission within 20 days, Mr. Nuristani said. A final list will be issued in several weeks.

Most of the 10 approved by the IEC are seen as pro-Karzai figures, with former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul and the president's elder brother, Qayum Karzai, among those said to be his favorites. Others approved include Abdullah Abdullah, who also served as a foreign minister under Mr. Karzai and ran against him in a 2009 election; Karzai adviser and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani; and Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, a conservative Islamist who has been accused of human rights abuses.

Some other factional leaders, many of whom played key roles in the Taliban's removal from power but are also widely seen as perpetrators of grave abuses, are among the qualifying candidates' runningmates.

Meanwhile, U.S and Afghanistan officials said Tuesday they are confident that tribal elders and the Afghan population will agree to keep U.S. and coalition troops in the country after 2014, even as a senior U.S. military official warned of high-profile attacks and assassinations leading up to the Afghan presidential elections.

The comments come amid persistent uncertainty about the security agreement, including provisions allowing the U.S. military to continue to conduct counterterrorism operations and insuring that U.S. military courts, not the Afghans, would maintain legal jurisdiction over U.S. forces that stay.

A senior U.S. official said Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi told U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that he has strong confidence that the agreement would be endorsed soon, and that the vast majority of Afghans support it. The two spoke during a NATO meeting in Brussels, where leaders were getting updates on the war and progress of the Afghan forces.

In a separate discussion, a senior U.S. military official said he is pretty confident that the agreement will be signed, adding that he has spoken to Afghans at every level, and none have said the bilateral security agreement was a bad idea. The military official also said Afghans recognize that keeping U.S. and coalition troops in the country after 2014 to train and assist the Afghan forces is key to getting the more than $4 billion in financial support that allied nations have pledged to provide. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issues publicly due to NATO rules.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr. Karzai reached an agreement about a week ago on the key elements of a deal that would allow U.S. troops to stay after 2014, when combat troops are scheduled to leave. One key unresolved issue -- a deal breaker for the United States -- is whether U.S. military courts maintain legal jurisdiction over the troops. The U.S. official said Mr. Hagel made clear to Mr. Mohammadi that jurisdiction is a must for the security pact.

Mr. Karzai said that issue must be discussed by the consultative assembly of tribal elders, or Loya Jirga, before he makes a decision. The national meeting is expected to start between Nov. 19 and 21 and could last as long as a week, with as many as 3,000 people attending. The Loya Jirga is not binding, but Mr. Karzai is likely to follow it. The accord then would have to be ratified by the Afghan Parliament.

There have been repeated worries that the complex agreement could fall apart in much the same way that U.S. negotiations with Iraqi leaders collapsed over the issue of troop immunity. The United States then pulled all of its troops out of Iraq. Officials Tuesday sought to present a more optimistic view of the Afghan situation, while still acknowledging that there are challenges ahead.


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