By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Rebel fighters killed 20 civilians in southern Afghanistan and 17 security police and security guards, officials said on Saturday, as the country awaited results from last month's disputed election.
Violence in Afghanistan has reached its most intense of the eight-year-old war despite record levels of U.S. and NATO troops being sent to fight the Taliban.
The country remains mired in a drawn-out dispute over election fraud that could test the patience of U.S. President Barack Obama and other Western leaders contemplating whether more troops are needed to defend its government.
Election authorities released nearly-complete preliminary results showing incumbent Hamid Karzai still headed for a single round victory. That could yet be challenged by a U.N.-backed watchdog that says it has found proof of fraud and has begun voiding ballots from areas where Karzai won overwhelming support.
The latest results gave Karzai 54.3 percent to 28.1 percent for his main opponent, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, with 92.8 percent of polling stations tallied and another 2.15 percent of them set aside due to suspected irregularities. Karzai needs 50 percent of the vote to avoid a second round run-off.
In the worst incident reported on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said a roadside bomb in Uruzgan province in the south had struck two passenger cars, killing 14 civilians.
Provincial police chief Juma Gul Hemat put the death toll at 12. He said: "The Taliban obviously planted the roadside bomb to target Afghan and foreign troops, but unfortunately it struck civilians."
Another roadside bomb in Kandahar province killed six civilians, the Interior Ministry and provincial governor said.
In Kunduz province in the north, fighters attacked a police post, killing seven policemen including the commander at the checkpoint in a battle that ran from the middle of the night into morning, provincial governor Mohammad Omar said. He said two other policemen were missing and feared captured by the fighters.
Fighters killed four policemen in an attack on a patrol in Nangarhar province in the east of the country on Saturday, provincial government spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai said.
Six guards from a local security firm were killed when fighters attacked their office in eastern Kunar province, provincial governor Fazlullah Wahidi said.
INSURGENCY AT STRONGEST
The Taliban insurgency, at its strongest since the militants were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces after the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, has spread from its traditional heartland into once-safe northern areas like Kunduz.
NATO-led forces said they had raided compounds in the province overnight, where they "killed a number of militants." Omar said Western forces had killed at least 12 fighters there.
The province has been the scene of escalating fighting over recent months, including a NATO air strike called in by German forces that killed scores of Afghans, including civilians.
The NATO-led force now stands at a record strength of more than 100,000, including about 63,000 Americans, half of whom arrived this year as part of an escalation strategy pursued by President Barack Obama.
Obama is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to send still more troops, based on a classified assessment of the war by his new commander, General Stanley McChrystal.
Other Western leaders have shown clear signs of frustration with a war that is increasingly unpopular at home.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Chancellor Angela Merkel of France, Britain and Germany have jointly proposed a conference this year to set timelines for Afghanistan to take on a bigger role in its own security.
Afghanistan's disputed election could make it more difficult for Obama to seek more troops, by deepening differences between Karzai and the international community.
The day after the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission announced it had found fraud in the Afghan election, Karzai issued a statement praising it as honest and impartial.
(Additional reporting by Mohammad Hamed in KABUL, Ismali Sameem in KANDAHAR, Mohammad Rafiq in JALALABAD and Rohullah Anwari in ASADABAD; writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Sugita Katyal)