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Afghanistan postpones tough parliament poll

By Sayed Salahuddin and Peter Graff

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan election authorities said on Sunday they had postponed a parliamentary election due this year, removing a source of friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers who wanted time for electoral reforms.

Western diplomats applauded the decision to push the election to September 18 from May 22, saying it would provide time to implement changes designed to prevent a repeat of fraud that marred Karzai's own re-election as president last year.

The date also means the election would fall after the traditional summer fighting season, giving an expanding NATO-led force more time to improve security in southern areas, where Taliban fighters kept voters from last year's polls.

Independent Election Commission member Zekriya Barakzai said the postponement was due to "problems and constraints to get the proper budget, and also security concerns, logistical obstacles and also to improve the electoral procedures."

Western countries are trying to avoid a repeat of last year's election fiasco, in which a U.N.-backed probe discarded nearly a third of votes cast for Karzai as fake.

They had been hoping a postponement would be announced before an international conference on Afghanistan's future in London later this week, where the early date was set to be an irritant.

The United Nations is holding tens of millions of dollars earmarked for Afghan elections in an account, but diplomats have said they will not release the money without reforms.

An international diplomat, speaking on condition he not be identified, called it "a pragmatic and sensible decision which will allow time for reform of the key electoral institutions to enable cleaner parliamentary elections."

The election commission did not comment on whether its membership would be changed.

The diplomat said the international community would not be pleased if Karzai reappoints the election commission's head, Azizullah Ludin, whose term expired on Saturday. Opponents accuse Ludin, a presidential appointee, of favoring Karzai.

FLAWED ELECTION

Last year's presidential election damaged Karzai's standing among the Western countries with 110,000 troops in Afghanistan, even as U.S. President Barack Obama re-evaluated his strategy and ultimately decided to commit 30,000 more American troops.

It led to months of political limbo, with the election commission declaring Karzai the winner but a separate U.N.-backed body rejecting enough ballots to lower Karzai's total below 50 percent and force a second round.

The run-off was canceled when Karzai's opponent withdrew.

Karzai has consistently maintained that the extent of fraud was exaggerated by Western media.

The parliamentary election could prove crucial this year, because the central government needs to demonstrate that its institutions are backed by the public. Parliamentarians, once seen as docile, caused Karzai headaches this month by twice vetoing most of his candidates for cabinet posts.

He still has to fill 11 posts, including some important portfolios like public health.

(Reporting by Sayed Salahuddin and Peter Graff; writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

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