KABUL (AP) – Threats of Taliban violence and rumors of fraud cast a shadow over Afghanistan’s election, in which millions of voters will choose a new president Thursday to lead a nation plagued by armed insurgency, drugs, corruption and a feeble government.

International officials predict an imperfect outcome for a vote that they hope Afghans will accept as credible – a key component of President Barack Obama’s war strategy.

On the eve of the balloting, the U.S. military announced the deaths of six more Americans – putting August on track to become the deadliest month for American forces since the war began in 2001. Rising death tolls underscore the urgency of establishing a strong, effective government to stem the growing Taliban insurgency.

President Hamid Karzai, who has held power since the Taliban was ousted eight years ago, is favored to finish first among 36 official candidates, although a late surge by former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah could force a runoff if no one wins more than 50 percent.

Preliminary results are expected to be announced Saturday Kabul time.

Karzai, a favorite of the Bush administration, won in 2004 with 55.4 percent of the vote, riding into office on a wave of public optimism after decades of war and ruinous Taliban rule. As the U.S. shifted resources to the war in Iraq, Afghanistan fell into steep decline, marked by record opium poppy harvests, deepening government corruption and skyrocketing violence.

Faced with growing public discontent, Karzai has sought to ensure his re-election by striking alliances with regional power brokers, naming as a running-mate a Tajik strongman whom he once fired as defense minister and welcoming home notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, allegedly responsible in the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war.

Those figures are believed capable of delivering millions of votes among their followers, but their presence in the Karzai inner circle has raised fears in Western capitals that the president will be unable to fulfill promises to fight corruption in a second term.

Voter turnout – especially in the insurgency-plagued Pashtun south – is likely to be crucial not only to Karzai’s chances but also to public acceptance of the results. Karzai is widely expected to run strong among his fellow Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group which also forms the overwhelming majority of the Taliban.

Abdullah, son of a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother, is expected to win much of his votes in the Tajik north, where security is better and turnout likely to be bigger. Abdullah, an ophthalmologist who has railed against government corruption, was a member of the U.S.-backed alliance that overthrew the Taliban in 2001 and would be expected to maintain close ties with the West.

One fear is that Abdullah’s followers may charge fraud and take to the streets if Karzai claims a first-round victory without a strong southern turnout.

The country has been rife with rumors of ballot stuffing, bogus registrations and trafficking in registration cards on behalf of the incumbent, allegations his campaign has denied.

Mindful of the dangers, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Afghans this week to hold “credible, secure and inclusive elections” and called on candidates and their supporters “to behave responsibly before and after the elections” – a clear warning against street demonstrations by disappointed politicians.

“It’s very difficult in Afghanistan to see perfect elections,” Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy, said during a news conference in Pakistan. “Nowhere in the world (is there) a perfect election. Don’t expect perfect elections in Afghanistan.”

In the south, turnout may be affected by the Taliban campaign of intimidation – whispered threats, posted warnings and a run of headline-grabbing attacks in Kabul – aimed at frightening Afghans from going to the polls.

“The Taliban control our area and they have already warned us that they will cut off our fingers or kill us if we vote,” said Abdul Majid, 25, a shop owner in Ghazni city. “I don’t want to vote.”

In Afghanistan’s two most important and dangerous southern provinces – where thousands of U.S. troops deployed this summer – more than 130 polling stations will not open, officials said. These included 107 out of 242 polling stations in Helmand province, the focus of the most recent fighting, and 17 out of 271 in Kandahar, where the Taliban Islamist movement was born.

Underscoring the threat, four election workers were killed Tuesday delivering materials to a polling station in northeastern Badakhshan, a province generally considered safe. Two elections workers died in a separate incident the same day when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, officials said Wednesday.

And on the eve of the voting, three gunmen described by police as Taliban militants took over a bank in Kabul. Police stormed the building and killed the three.

Fearing that violence may dampen turnout, the Foreign Ministry asked news organizations to avoid “broadcasting any incidence of violence” during voting hours “to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people.” Afghan journalists said they would not comply, but the government said offending foreign journalists could be expelled.

Still, some southern Pashtuns said they would defy the Taliban.

“I’m only afraid of God, not the Taliban,” said Haji Mohammad Rasool, 40, in Kandahar City. “Last night during dinner, I told my son and daughters to go and vote. This is our country. We should not live in fear.”

In Helmand, about 70 people registered to vote in Dahaneh, a village overrun by U.S. Marines this month after years of Taliban control.

“I know it’s dangerous and I’m afraid, but I’m still going to vote,” said Ahmed Shah, a 37-year-old farmer. Shah said he planned to vote for Karzai “so that we finally get a hospital and a school and maybe a road.”

Adding to problems in the south, election officials could not recruit enough women to help female voters, raising questions about turnout among women. Election observers also fear that men in conservative Pashtun areas would try to cast multiple votes on behalf of women in their families – including some who may not exist.

Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon analyst from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the election “is not functional democracy by Western standards” but the important thing would be for Afghans to “feel the election was legitimate by their standards.”

If not, he wrote in a commentary, Afghans will “see the government as distant, corrupt, and ineffective,” and empower the Taliban.

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