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Rice expresses confidence in efforts after Afghan elections delayed

KABUL, Afghanistan—Afghanistan must postpone elections for a new legislature until September, President Hamid Karzai announced Thursday during a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The delay, which raised questions about democracy in Afghanistan on a day when Rice was in the country to promote it, was the latest speed bump in the country's efforts to move from the brutal and repressive Taliban regime of four years ago to popular rule. National and local legislative elections originally were scheduled for last June, then rescheduled for May.

"This is a large and complicated country. It takes a while to do these things. But I'm quite confident that these elections will be yet another example of the Afghan people's commitment to democracy," Rice said at a briefing with Karzai, as agents with semi-automatic rifles in their hands kept a sharp eye on Afghan and foreign reporters in the room.

Rice later said in an interview with ABC News that she told the Afghan officials she met with that it was important to hold the elections on time and not delay them again.

Karzai said Afghanistan was "very eagerly waiting" to have a Parliament because then the country's democratic system would be complete. He said the delay until September was necessary to allow time to register refugees and take care of other logistical problems.

Rice, an architect of the post-Sept. 11 war in Afghanistan, had never visited the country before. Most of her one-day agenda was focused on meeting with political leaders, election officials, politicians and professional women to discuss Afghanistan's new democracy. But along the way she also got glimpses of life for ordinary people.

Her caravan's entry into the capital took her down a dust-clouded avenue to Kabul's southwest outskirts. The bumpy, two-lane street was lined with small shops of brick and corrugated metal offering such things as Toyota repairs, firewood, bridal dresses and slabs of meat hung in the open air on a mild day.

Rice's entourage made its first stop near the blasted shell of an early 20th-century palace with arched windows that once looked out on snow-covered mountains nearby.

Across the road from the ruins, Rice met with a group of Afghan women at the old Kabul Museum, where nearly all of a collection of 1,800 archaeological artifacts was looted or destroyed during the civil war and Taliban rule.

Rice said it was "really thrilling" to be in Afghanistan and promised that the United States would "stand by the Afghan people as they go through the next phase of democratic development."

While Rice was in the capital, a bomb killed five people and wounded at least 40 others in Kandahar, about 300 miles south, the U.S. military reported. The report said a landmine in Herat on Wednesday killed one American soldier and wounded four others.

Rice also stopped at Combined Forces Command, where she told about 100 American and allied soldiers how she and other top Bush officials went to Camp David five days after the Sept. 11 attacks to plan the U.S. response.

They rolled out a map of Afghanistan, she said, "and I'm going to tell you, the color drained from everybody's face because we looked and saw Afghanistan and we thought, `Afghanistan, sitting there next to Iran and Pakistan—not the easiest of places in and of themselves,' and I think we wondered how all of this was going to turn out."

Rice thanked the soldiers and said democracy would spread from Afghanistan to Lebanon, Iraq and throughout the Middle East, eliminating the "ideologies of hatred" that led to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

There are 16,700 Americans and 1,600 allied soldiers on duty in Afghanistan.

Karzai said the current violence was "much, much less" than Afghanistan had once known and promised it would continue to decline as the country develops.

He also said the country's opium poppy crop would be less than last year's because the fight against narcotics had been stepped up. A State Department report earlier this month said Afghanistan risked becoming a narcotics state and that 510,000 acres were planted in poppies, three times the acreage in 2003.

Rice flew to Kabul from Islamabad, Pakistan, on Thursday morning in a C-130 U.S. military transport plane and returned to the Pakistani capital before dark. She met Thursday evening with Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Mahmood Kasuri.

Rice said during a news conference that she discussed the "need for a democratic path ahead" for Pakistan with the foreign minister and earlier with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf, who took power in a coup in 1999, announced in December that he wouldn't meet a 2004 deadline to give up his position as army chief, and the military continues to hold widespread power in the country.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Condoleezza Rice

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