KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan’s oft-delayed presidential election will take place Oct. 9, its top electoral official said Friday, but a parliamentary vote originally scheduled to be held simultaneously was put off until the spring.

The vote is seen as a referendum on the rebuilding of this war-ravaged nation and a test of the ability of Afghan and international forces to keep the peace. It will be the first direct election for president in the country’s history.

Zakim Shah, head of the joint Afghan-U.N. electoral commission, announced on state television that the body “decided to hold the presidential election on Mizan 18” – a date in Afghanistan’s calendar that corresponds to Oct. 9.

He said the parliamentary vote would likely be in April or May, and appealed to Afghan authorities and the international community to do more to improve security “to create a more secure atmosphere for the candidates and the voters.”

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed the decision. “We think that the elections will mark another major step in Afghanistan’s transition to a constitutional and representative government and constitute another milestone,” he said.

“We join the Afghan government in fully supporting the electoral body’s decision, and we’ll do our part to assist these historic elections,” he added.

Specifically, he said the United States was providing funds, training and expertise as well as security.

U.S.-backed interim President Hamid Karzai is expected to win the vote for the top job, but he faces at least a half-dozen rivals in this ethnically and regionally fractured country. It is not clear whether he will garner the 50 percent majority needed for outright victory, meaning a run-off two weeks later may be necessary.

The elections are meant to crown a faltering U.N.-sponsored drive to stabilize Afghanistan, begun at a conference in Bonn, Germany after the Taliban’s ouster in late 2001.

International peacekeepers have brought relative calm to the capital, which like many Afghan cities is enjoying a boom. Millions of Afghan refugees have returned home and a debilitating drought has eased.

But persistent violence still starves much of the south of desperately needed reconstruction and the elections remain threatened by the warlords who hold de facto power beyond Kabul.

Six election workers – four Afghan women and two British contractors – have been killed in a series of shootings and bombings blamed on Taliban rebels and fighters of Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

As many as 17 Afghan men were reportedly slaughtered in the south last month just because they were carrying voter ID cards.

But Afghans appear genuinely enthusiastic about the chance to vote for their leaders, and more than 6 million of the estimated 10 million eligible have signed up so far, nearly 40 percent of them women.

If victorious, Karzai has pledged to raise living standards and put an end to the lawlessness of the factions. He has offered amnesty to former Taliban and reached out to ethnic minorities.

Still, many Afghans are upset that Karzai continues to accept the support of the faction leaders who helped the United States oust the Taliban – and who have refused to give up their power and arms.

Factional fighting has flared in virtually every province in the north and west of the country this year – violence often linked to the country’s rampant drug trade.

The United Nations has insisted that “meaningful” disarmament must take place before the elections to make sure some 2,000 candidates can campaign freely and voters are not intimidated.

But only about 10,000 of the 60,000 militiamen to be disarmed before the vote have given up their guns so far.

AP-ES-07-09-04 1344EDT

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