KABUL, Afghanistan — In a rebuff to the United Nations, an Afghan commission named by President Hamid Karzai disclosed Thursday that centers rife with fraudulent votes during the summer's presidential election will remain open for the Nov. 7 runoff against challenger Abdullah Abdullah.
U.N. officials had hoped to shut down polling centers where the worst fraud was documented in a recent audit, but the Independent Election Commission said it will open 6,322 polling centers -- about 500 more than U.N. officials had proposed and 17 more than were open in the first round.
Commissioner Zekria Barakzai said that polling centers would be closed only if because of security concerns or weather, not because of past problems with fraud.
"The election commission is prepared for the second round of elections," he said.
A Western official Thursday described the Afghan action as "maddening, and completely against our advice." The official couldn't be named because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan, reeling from a deadly insurgent attack on its personnel Wednesday, is scrambling to salvage the election after a disastrous Aug. 20 first round, in which rampant fraud -- largely to the benefit of Karzai -- undermined the results and fed doubts in the U.S. and Europe about continued military commitments. To bolster confidence in the new vote, U.N. officials sought to shut down polling stations when auditors had found extensive stuffing of ballot boxes and other misconduct.
"We will not give people the opportunity to use these stations," Aleem Siddique, a U.N. spokesman, told McClatchy last Friday.
The U.N. plays a key role in the elections, providing staff for the Afghan election commission, and distributing some $300 million in U.S. and other nations' funds, and as of Wednesday, Taliban insurgents now view U.N. staff as prime targets. Seventeen election workers were housed in the Bakhtar guesthouse; five were killed and nine others wounded in the attack involving firearms, grenades and suicide bombs.
U.N. officials Thursday focused on evacuating the survivors of the attack and repatriating the remains of the five workers, including one American.
"There are so many crises at the moment, that this isn't normal operations, or anything like it," said Adrian Edwards, a U.N. spokesman.
Many details of the attack remain unclear. Insurgents touched off an intense fire that trapped some people in top floor bedrooms, and one of the dead was so badly burned that a day later, the body hasn't been positively identified.
Afghan security officials said that none of the insurgents was able to detonate the suicide vests they were wearing. However, photos of two of the dead insurgents reviewed by McClatchy showed mangled midsections, indicating at least a partial detonation of the vests.
U.N. officials said the attack will trigger a review of security procedures, but it won't halt the U.N. preparations for the election, which are nearly complete.
Much of the vote rigging occurred at polling centers in southern and eastern Afghanistan, many of which were in areas of strong support for the incumbent, and not surprisingly, Karzai aides had objected to closing these sites.
Barakzai said Thursday that fraud could be averted at those sites by extensive monitoring on Nov. 7 and said that all sites had been approved by security forces as not being under insurgents' control. Responding to a demand by Abdullah, Barakzai said that some 20,000 additional Abdullah observers would be accredited to monitor the voting.
The U.N. plans to have its employees both in both Kabul and provinces to assist Afghan election officials.
"'Most of the preparation work is done," Edward said.
The Afghan election commission also faces pressure to clean up its finances. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news service, said draft audits concluded that the U.N. mission couldn't properly account for tens of millions of dollars provided to the Afghan election commission. The draft audits indicated that as many as one third of the commission's payroll requests to the U.N. had the wrong names, amounts or other discrepancies.
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)
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