MUSEHI DISTRICT, Afghanistan – The police chief worried constantly about security. Nasehullah Lodin unveiled the community’s six voting centers only on Thursday, to reduce the chance of any attack.

He called a meeting of tribal elders to talk about election safety. And about 1 a.m. Saturday, Lodin and four other police officers drove from voting center to voting center, checking for danger.

They found it next to a new bridge. Insurgents tossed grenades into the police truck and riddled it with bullets. Three men, including Lodin, died immediately. The two others died Saturday.

“It was a disaster, unfortunately,” said Mohammad Azim, the head of Musehi district.

A steady drumbeat of violence has rolled across Afghanistan in the weeks leading up to historic parliamentary elections Sunday.

There has been no single spectacular attack but a series of small, targeted ones. Seven candidates have been killed in separate incidents; the most recent was slain Friday night. Four election workers also have been killed.

Other attacks have been prevented. On Saturday, security forces arrested 20 militants as they planted explosives to blow up a giant dam in southern Afghanistan. U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan soldiers also recently destroyed seven bombs and two weapons caches in four troubled provinces in the southeast.

The attack that killed five police in Musehi district on Saturday was the most brazen so far. This district is just 45 minutes south of the country’s capital, at the southern tip of Kabul province. It borders a Taliban-friendly district in Logar province and other areas friendly to rebel warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. But there had been few attacks recently, only a rocket fired near district headquarters in July.

Three people have been arrested in connection with the ambush that killed Lodin, Azim said. They were being questioned in Kabul.

“With this election, we were ready for sacrifice,” Azim said. “But we were not prepared for this sacrifice and loss.”

This election represents a turning point for Afghanistan, wracked by 23 years of war. It is the last step in the international peace process agreed to after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Many hope it will mean an end to ethnic violence and the beginning of a stable Afghanistan.

In many respects, this election also is seen as the last big opportunity for insurgents to make a statement against the growing power of the government.

Remnants of the Taliban have repeatedly threatened to disrupt the polls. On Friday, the Taliban called for an election boycott, the Associated Press reported. A Taliban spokesman said insurgents would not attack civilians but would target areas where U.S.-led forces were set up.

About 100,000 Afghan troops and 31,000 international soldiers have been dispatched to protect voting sites.

On Saturday, officials from the United Nations and the Afghan election board said this election represents a chance for Afghans to put the past behind them and vote for a new future. Chief election organizer Bismillah Bismil called the elections “a unique opportunity to heal the wounds” in Afghanistan.

The officials condemned the recent violence and did not rule out the possibility for more. But top U.N. envoy Jean Arnault emphasized that extremists failed to disrupt voter and candidate registration and campaigning.

“We are very confident that those extremists will also fail to disrupt and derail polling day,” Arnault said.

In Musehi, a district of mud-wall villages and fields of wheat and corn, the past is everywhere. Some buildings are still bombed out, evidence of recent wars. Even the district’s head office is set up in one of Hekmatyar’s former houses.

On Saturday, police grieved. Five of the district’s 44 police had just been killed, and some were not certain that additional forces from Kabul would be enough to prevent more violence. Officers walked around Lodin’s truck, past the 10 bullet holes in the windshield, the five blue police hats on the floor and the three shoes in the back of the pickup. Everything was smeared with blood.

Najibullah Jawed, the driver for Azim, picked up one of the hats and shook his head. “We will miss the police chief, because he was a gentleman,” Jawed said.

But he, like others, said he would still vote Sunday. About 9,800 people are registered to vote in Musehi district.

Haji Mohammadullah, the head of the district’s council of tribal elders, said he has told other elders to spread the message about Sunday’s election – that both women and men should vote.

“I still have the shrapnel from an old rocket attack in my face,” he said. “We are not the kind of people who will be stopped by such attacks. We want to stand on our feet and build our country.”

(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

AP-NY-09-17-05 1739EDT

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