KABUL, Afghanistan – Despite repeated threats from Taliban insurgents, millions of Afghans, many of them women, turned out to vote on Saturday in a landmark presidential election, only to have irregularities at the polls cast a shadow over the historic vote.

Hours after the polls opened at 7 a.m. local time, 15 candidates opposing U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai vowed to boycott the results and called for new elections because some of the ink used to prevent people from voting more than once could be washed or rubbed off.

“Any government as a result of these elections is not legitimate,” said Abdul Satar Serat, one of the candidates. “We will not accept the results of these elections.”

Officials of the joint U.N.-Afghan electoral commission said the problems with the ink weren’t widespread enough to halt the historic vote. The polls closed at 4 p.m. local time, but tabulating the results could take as long as three weeks. About 30,000 ballot boxes must be delivered to counting centers around the country.

President Bush, campaigning in Missouri, hailed the election. “A marvelous thing is happening in Afghanistan,” Bush said. “Freedom is powerful.

“Think about a society in which young girls couldn’t go to school and their mothers were whipped in the public square. And today, they’re holding a presidential election.

“The first person to vote in the presidential election, three years after the Taliban ruled that country with such barbarism, was a 19-year-old woman, an Afghan refugee, who fled her homeland during the civil war.

As word of the boycott spread, however, some Afghans voiced suspicions about the process.

“If this is because of cheating, I won’t vote again,” said Javid Ahmad, sitting on the steps of the Haji Yaqub Mosque where men waited to vote. “It would be silly.”

If such sentiments become widespread, they’d add to the difficulties an already weak central government has had trying to stabilize a vast country with deep ethnic divisions while confronting rebellious warlords, opium traffickers and militant insurgents.

A little more than 1 million voters had registered by the spring of this year. That number surged to 10.5 million over the summer, raising fears of multiple registrations. Officials relied on the ink following concerns that some people had registered multiple times. But some of the supposedly indelible ink could easily be washed or rubbed away, permitting a person to vote more than once. Officials said some polling stations had mistakenly used the regular ink meant for the ballots.

At a press conference late Saturday afternoon, Karzai dismissed his opponents as spoilers.

“Are 15 people more important or are all Afghan people more important?” he said.

Resolving the issue will be difficult. Almost none of the candidates had any chance of unseating Karzai, the acknowledged favorite. But the boycott may embolden them. Joined together in protest, they’ve drawn more attention to themselves than they had competing with one another for votes.

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said the problems with the ink weren’t widespread.

“We don’t have indications the problem is of any great extent,” Silva said. “We cannot forget Afghanistan is having elections for the first time. Let’s not lose perspective on the importance of things.”


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