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Trickle of Afghan villagers register to vote in former Taliban town retaken by U.S. Marines

DAHANEH, Afghanistan - A week after Dahaneh was pried from Taliban control by U.S. Marines, and little more than 36 hours before Afghans select a president, election workers finally reached this Helmand province town and began to register voters.

DAHANEH, Afghanistan - A week after Dahaneh was pried from Taliban control by U.S. Marines, and little more than 36 hours before Afghans select a president, election workers finally reached this Helmand province town and began to register voters.

Their outfit was spare: a white sheet pinned to a mud wall as a backdrop for photos, a digital camera and a tiny printer powered by a car battery atop a box of ammunition.

"I know it's dangerous and I'm afraid, but I'm still going to vote," said Ahmed Shah, a 37-year old farmer with a long beard and wrinkled face, who was among the few dozen residents who trickled in to register. "I think there's enough (Afghan) army and Americans to protect us."

After four years in the hands of Taliban militants, Dahaneh was stormed in a helicopter-borne assault by a Marine company last week, part of President Barack Obama's strategy to regain the initiative in the eight-year Afghanistan conflict. As citizens registered Tuesday afternoon, ahead of Thursday's election, gunfire could still be heard in the distance.

The town lies in a swath of the country's south, the heart of the Taliban insurgency, where the fear of militant violence and retribution against citizens who vote could severely dent the turnout in the election and so threaten its legitimacy.

Afghan authorities say that having any villagers from Dahaneh vote, however modest the numbers, will be a huge accomplishment.

"I am the first official based here in four years," said Sayad Murad Mamad, the district chief who arrived this week to start a government presence.

A mobile team from the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission opened shop in the corner of a dusty police compound courtyard.

Searched by Afghan police and scrutinized from above by U.S. Marines guarding the walls, some 20 civilians, most of them older men, applied for voter registration cards Tuesday, grinning broadly in turn as they stood against the wall for a photo ID. By late Wednesday about 70 people, including some army and police, had registered.

Not a single woman showed up in this deeply conservative rural district of Now Zad, and Afghan soldiers recently arrived in the Marines' wake soon took over the unused camera to capture photos of themselves posing with their machine-guns.

Though the Taliban have vowed to disrupt the election, and posters plastered on walls by insurgents warned residents not to vote, Murad Mamad said he thinks authorities and their NATO backers have the means to guarantee a safe vote.

"Threats of cutting off fingers and things like that are nonsense. It's propaganda," he said, referring to reported militant threats to sever the fingers of Afghans marked with the indelible ink that election staff will use to prevent voters casting more than one ballot.

Getting people in Now Zad to join the voting process and adhere to the government in faraway Kabul is crucial. The ethnic Pashtun villagers in Helmand live outside any central authority and produce 60 per cent of the world's opium, which is channeled into the drug trade funding the insurgency.

As well being the Taliban's heartland, Helmand and other heavily Pashtun provinces in the south have huge importance for the election result. Incumbent president and front-runner Hamid Karzai, himself a Pashtun, needs a strong turnout in the region to boost his chance of re-election. About 40 per cent of the Afghan population is Pashtun.

The Marines here are among the 21,000 U.S. forces Obama sent to Afghanistan this year - in part to help secure Thursday's vote - and they are racing to reclaim territory from militants. In Dahaneh, the Taliban fighters resisted fiercely in days of intense gunbattles and bombings before retreating. About 10 militants and one Marine were killed in the fighting.

The rest of Now Zad valley remains a front line. Marines control roughly the western part of the district, though thousands of hidden IEDs - improvised explosive devices - make movement perilous. In the north and on the eastern side of a dried-up river bed, the Taliban have entrenched themselves in a maize of minefields and dugouts from which they fire gunshots and mortars almost daily.

The district's main town, Now Zad, has been entirely abandoned by its 30,000 inhabitants because of heavy fighting between insurgents and NATO troops. It is so infested with IEDs that the Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines stationed there barely moves beyond a line of combat outposts.

With Now Zad an empty minefield and Dahaneh still too volatile, officials will open only one voting station in the valley. It is to be in the nearby village of Khawja Jamal, where people from Dahaneh and elsewhere will have to trek if they want to vote. Nobody knows what the turnout might be, because officials have no idea how many people still live in the district.

Not one person has dared to register in Khawja Jamal, although it is considered somewhat safer than Dahaneh. The village still lies barely 1 mile (1.6 kilometres) from Taliban positions and villagers worry they're being observed.

"We went there two times in a row to register voters, but nobody came," said Jumma Gull, of the Afghan electoral commission. "They're too frightened of being punished by the Taliban."

Murad Mamad, the new district chief, says this won't impede the vote because villagers told him they still have their voter IDs from the previous presidential election in 2004.

In Dahaneh, a town of about 2,000 where many have fled the recent fighting, residents lining to get a voter ID card said it would be their first. But most of the town stayed out of sight.

"I went to the mosque this morning and told them to come," said the new district police chief, Abdul Majid. "I think they'd be happy to vote, but unfortunately they're afraid of the bad guys."

In the afternoon, an Afghan army unit pushed into town to broadcast a new appeal. The Afghan soldiers requested a Marine escort because the area remains so dangerous.

An officer went into a mosque. "Come to our base between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. and you can talk about problems and damage, and you can register to vote," he said on a loudspeaker, as several of the worshippers in the mosque walked away, some of them spitting on the ground.

Still, that an embryonic Afghan administration can operate again in the area along with the army and police is an accomplishment, Marines said.

"It's really amazing the amount of progress that's been achieved in a week," says Capt. Zachary Martin, who led the Marines' offensive into Dahaneh.

Martin vows his troops and their Afghan allies will be able to secure the 5 miles (8 kilometres) of dirt track that link Dahaneh to the polling station in Khawja Jamal. But Ahmed Shah, one of the town's few registered voters, isn't so confident about driving his mo-ped by Taliban outposts along the way.

Shah planned to cover his face with his turban so insurgents won't recognize him. He suspects the Taliban might even man a checkpoint along the road to search for voters.

"I don't care, I'll hide my voting card in my shoe," he said, slapping the dust off one of his dirty, worn-down loafers, where he didn't expect the Taliban to search.

 
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