KABUL, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai defended the integrity of Afghanistan's presidential ballot Thursday against charges of widespread fraud, but stopped short of declaring victory despite a substantial lead in the preliminary count.

Karzai's top challenger in the contest, however, warned that the Taliban would be "the champions" if the government ratifies a fraudulent vote, because that would prove their claims that democracy can't work in Afghanistan.

The final, but uncertified, vote count released Wednesday gives Karzai more than 54 per cent of the ballots, well ahead of former Foriegn Minister Abdullah Abdullah. But ongoing recounts and fraud investigations could drive Karzai's total below 50 per cent, forcing him into a runoff.

Allegations of large-scale ballot stuffing, phantom polling stations and turnouts in some areas above 100 per cent threaten to undermine public support for Afghanistan's central government at home.

The charges have fed growing disillusionment with the Afghan government abroad and questions about what can be accomplished in the country, as members of the NATO coalition consider their commitment to a widening war.

Still, Karzai told reporters at the Presidential Palace: "I believe firmly in the integrity of the election, in the integrity of the Afghan people and in the integrity of the government in that process."

He did concede that "there were some government officials who were partial toward me," marking the first public acknowledgment of fraud by him or his supporters.

But he also charged other officials had manipulated results to favour Abdullah.

The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, the final judge of the tally, has ordered a recount of votes at about 10 per cent of polling stations countrywide because of suspect results. The complaints panel has also thrown out results from 83 polling stations because of "clear and compelling" evidence of fraud.

On Wednesday, European election monitors said more than a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast should have been set aside pending an investigation.

Karzai, however, said he had so far only seen concrete evidence that 1,200 ballots were faked. Meanwhile he urged the U.N.-backed panel to thoroughly investigate allegations of cheating and said he would wait for those decisions.

While the incumbent stopped short of declaring victory, he described the steps he will take "if I am declared president."

Abdullah on Thursday said the preliminary count was the product of "state-engineered fraud." He called on Afghan and foreign officials to oppose the "corruption and malpractice" that he said marked the balloting.

"This is the wrong way forward for the future of this country," he told reporters in the rose garden of his Kabul home. "This will only help the insurgents. ... The champions out of this will be the Taliban."

Reporters pressed Abdullah on whether he would cut some kind of deal with Karzai and avoid weeks or months of legal challenges that could weaken the government, already in a life-and-death struggle with the militants.

Abdullah ruled out joining any coalition government but said if the investigations of the election drag on for months, some kind of "interim solution" would be needed, perhaps a caretaker government.

Karzai, too, has ruled out a coalition but said Thursday he would welcome Abdullah into his administration, an offer Abdullah has said he would refuse.

The preliminary results show Abdullah with 27.7 per cent, against Karzai's 54.6 per cent. While Karzai's lead seems large, observers have said there are enough questionable votes that he could still be forced into a runoff.

All the areas where ballots were recently thrown out were in Pashtun communities in the south and east, which make up Karzai's electoral base. Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun. The investigations and recounts must be finished before results are finalized, a process likely to take weeks.

Many are concerned that the delays created by investigations and recounts could push any runoff into the spring, and that such a long delay could create a power vacuum. Because snows that start in November make many roads impassable for months in the mountainous country, it would be impossible to stage a runoff election in winter.

The allegations of vote fraud, added to accusations of corruption in Karzai's government, could deepen doubts among the 42 countries that contribute to the NATO-led force about what they have accomplished since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, amid rising foreign troop casualties.

Six Italian soldiers and 10 Afghan civilians died Thursday in a suicide bombing in Kabul claimed by the Taliban. It was the fourth major attack in the capital in five weeks.

A runoff could bring more bloodshed. The Aug. 20 election day was marred by Taliban threats and deadly attacks that kept the turnout low.


Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.

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