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Afghan president leaves country to accept award less than a week before nation's vote

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Afghan President Hamid Karzai left for Germany Sunday to receive an award, his office said, just six days before his war-plagued nation will hold its first-ever direct presidential election.

The one-day trip had been previously announced, but the timing couldn't help but raise eyebrows as thousands of Afghan and international workers feverishly struggle to prepare for the Oct. 9 vote amid threats by the Taliban and al-Qaida that they will try to block it.

The president's opponents have charged his frequent trips out of the country _ and virtual shunning of the campaign trail _ show he is fearful of his own nation, and out of step with ordinary people.

This is Karzai's third foreign trip since campaigning began on Sept. 7, with visits to Tajikistan and the U.N. General Assembly in New York before this. He was heading to Berlin to receive a ``United We Care'' award at Sunday's German Unity Day celebrations. The awards are for outstanding accomplishment in politics, economics, society and culture.

Karzai, the overwhelming favorite among 18 presidential hopefuls, has rarely emerged from his palace during the campaign to visit his own country, largely due to security concerns.

In Berlin, Karzai said Sunday he hopes elections will bring a winner in a first round of voting without the need for a runoff. ``I hope for all the good reasons that the elections will not go to the second round because it would be very expensive for us,'' he told reporters after meeting German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

He insisted that suggestions that he has little influence beyond Kabul are ``not true any more.''

``In terms of the power as a legitimate government, it has now and it will have more after the elections,'' he said. ``Legitimacy will increase tremendously after the elections ... but in terms of the provision of services and the capability of the Afghan administration, it will take some time for the country to do better.''

Karzai survived a Sept. 16 assassination attempt on his first campaign trip out of the capital, when insurgents fired a rocket at his helicopter in the southeastern city of Gardez.

He spent one day inaugurating a road in the northern city of Sheberghan last month, his only successful foray out of the capital.

But Afghan politics comes down largely to tribal influence, and Karzai appears to have sown up the support of most of the major leaders of Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun ethnic group, of which he is a member.

On Saturday, Karzai picked up the support of influential former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic-Tajik who led Afghanistan during its ruinous 1992-96 civil war.

Rabbani's spokesman, Mohammed Sidiq Chakari, said the former leader could bring thousands ethnic Tajik followers with him, a blow to Qanooni, a fellow Tajik.

Other candidates have been campaigning more actively.

Former Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, considered Karzai's main challenger, has held rallies in recent days in the western city of Herat and in southern Kandahar.

Still Karzai's challengers have all but conceded they cannot defeat him on Oct. 9, though they say they hope to force a runoff by denying him the majority he needs for outright victory. Several challengers have suggested they will then band together to support whomever comes in second.

Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration said it was extending a three-day drive to register Afghan refugees in Pakistan for another day, until Monday.

The IOM said 320,000 people had signed up in the first two days of registration _ 20,000 lower than a provisional estimate given on Saturday. It said just 25 percent of the registered voters were women. Inside Afghanistan, by comparison, more than 40 percent of those who registered were women.

There is no official record of how many Afghan refugees are living inside Pakistan, but IOM has forecast that between 600,000 and 800,000 Afghans living in camps and cities could sign up to vote.
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