AFGHANISTAN Excitement blends with worries as country prepares for election

Female candidates -- there are 582 -- have seemed especially vulnerable.
KABUL, Afghanistan -- With three weeks left before Afghanistan's first parliamentary elections since the 1980s, the country is gearing up enthusiastically for a massive exercise in postwar democracy.
Nearly 6,000 candidates have nominated themselves for the Sept. 18 balloting, including warlords who fought the Soviets as well as ex-communists, former officials of the Islamic Taliban militia, human rights activists and an unprecedented 582 women.
The candidates' photographs are plastered across the country, obliterating urban street signs and covering the mud walls of remote mountain villages. About 12.4 million people have registered to vote -- 2 million more than did for the historic first presidential election last October.
Yet amid the exuberance, there is widespread unease over a variety of potential obstacles to a safe and successful election.
Voters are to choose 249 representatives to the lower house of parliament as well as members of 34 provincial councils that will help select the upper house.
Security situation
Insurgents loyal to the Taliban militia have reasserted themselves with deadly vigor after failing in their threats to derail the presidential voting. In the past several months, hundreds of Afghan and U.S. soldiers, and a number of civilians, have been killed in bombings and ambushes apparently aimed at disrupting the elections.
To bolster security, the 9,000-member international force patrolling Afghanistan's northern and western provinces has brought in an additional 2,000 troops.
The U.S. military, which represents the bulk of a coalition of about 20,000 operating in the south and east, is adding 700 service members.
Abdul Latif Hakimi, a purported Taliban spokesman, recently told news services that the militia would not target polling stations on voting day. To date, however, the violence has continued unabated. Four election workers and three candidates have been killed. On Tuesday, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, decried the "deteriorating" security situation in a report to the U.N. Security Council.
Female candidates -- for whom nearly 30 percent of seats are reserved -- appear particularly vulnerable to attack. Several dozen have reported receiving death threats. Mahbouba Sadat Ismaili, 32, the headmistress of a high school and a candidate in the eastern province of Khost, said she has barely campaigned outside the provincial capital.
"The elders of villages keep telling me they don't want any female candidates to come because they worry that the Taliban or Al-Qaida will cause problems for them," she said. "So I have sent out male representatives to meet with them in my place."
Volatile mix of candidates
Faisal Rahman Muslim, 39, a landowner and religious scholar running as an independent candidate in Khost, said he was more worried about powerful rivals. About a month ago, someone detonated a remote-controlled mine as his car drove past, badly injuring his legs.
Muslim, who now walks with a cane, said he suspected the culprits "were candidates involved in the jihad" against the Soviets.
The roster of candidates is filled with former militia bosses who were permitted to run despite questionable human rights records and possible links to illegal armed groups. Many retain access to weapons and money despite the recent completion of an internationally run program to disarm them and their men, analysts said.

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