KABUL (AP) – President Hamid Karzai holds a strong lead in the Afghan presidential race but is still short of the majority he needs for a first-round victory, according to a poll released Friday with less than a week to go before the balloting.

The poll by a U.S. government-funded group suggests turnout will be crucial, especially in the Pashtun south – the president’s support base where Taliban fighters have been warning voters to stay away from the polls.

Ahead of next Thursday’s vote, there are fears that election tension could boil over into street violence if presidential losers allege massive fraud. Opposition candidates have been accusing Karzai and his team of using state resources to ensure re-election. Local and international monitors are convinced there will be voter irregularities.

According to the latest poll, Karzai remains the leading candidate in a crowded field of three dozen contenders with about 44 percent support, a rise of 13 percentage points from a poll conducted in May.

Karzai’s main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, trailed at 26 percent – a dramatic increase over the 7 percent he received in the May poll.

If no candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face a run-off in early October. That could lead to a coalition uniting around a single candidate to try to defeat Karzai.

The poll, based on face-to-face interviews with 2,400 people between July 16 and 26, was funded by the International Republican Institute, a non-governmental group that receives money from USAID, the U.S. government aid arm. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Karzai, meanwhile, took his campaign Friday to the western city of Herat, where he won the public endorsement of Energy Minister Ismail Khan, the political czar of the region.

Karzai told a crowd of several thousand that if re-elected, his first priority would be to initiate talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.

About 90 percent of the respondents in the latest poll said they planned to vote, despite Taliban threats to disrupt the balloting. Election authorities have said about 10 percent of nearly 7,000 polling centers will likely remain shut, most of them because of bad security.

The threat is the greatest in the south and east, where the country’s ethnic Pashtuns live. Karzai, himself a Pashtun, could see his totals lowered if insurgent violence keeps Afghans there from voting.

In an effort to encourage voting, village elders in the south are trying to broker election day cease-fire agreements with Taliban commanders, according to Karzai’s brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.

“Local elders in some of the far-flung villages are just meeting with some small group commanders to not bother people during elections and let them vote,” he told The Associated Press.

However, a Taliban spokesman denied any talks were under way.

“We are denying any deals with anyone,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yusuf Ahmedi told the AP by telephone. “Don’t listen to those liars. There is no truth to any talk of a cease-fire. People should not go to vote. The Taliban has no agreement with the government.”

In the southern province of Helmand, U.S. Marines have been trying to secure the strategic town of Dahaneh to cut Taliban supply lines and enable the government to open a polling station there.

After two days of fighting, Marines helped Afghan officers raise the Afghan flag over the town Friday after tribal elders assured the Americans there were no Taliban left there.

Soon after the flag-raising ceremony, the Marine base in the town came under small arms, machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade fire, sending Marines running for cover.

A patrol was sent out to find the gunmen and ended up locked in a lengthy gunfight which continued into the night.

Elsewhere, a suicide bomber attacked an Afghan army base in southern Afghanistan on Friday, killing a soldier and wounding four other people, an official said. The bomber rammed his vehicle into the base’s gate in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, said Daud Ahmadi, the provincial governor’s spokesman. Three civilians and a soldier were among the wounded, he said.

In the capital, meanwhile, two rockets were fired at Kabul’s airport Friday but caused no damage or casualties, said U.S. military spokesman Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo. It was the second rocket attack on the capital this month.

Taliban militants took responsibility for the previous attack.

Kabul is heavily guarded by Afghan security forces, and authorities say rockets fired from a distance are the only weapon insurgents can use against the capital.

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