KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Afghanistan's first direct presidential election was thrust into turmoil hours after it started Saturday when all 15 candidates challenging interim leader Hamid Karzai said they would boycott the outcome because of potential fraud in the system designed to keep voters from casting more than one ballot.
The opponents of the U.S.-backed Karzai _ who was heavily favored to win _ demanded that the election be abandoned, arguing that problems with the ink used to mark voters' thumbs opened the way for widespread multiple voting.
Electoral officials rejected the demand, saying it would rob millions of their chance to vote in the country's first experiment with democracy. They said the joint U.N.-Afghan panel overseeing the election would rule later on its legitimacy.
But even if the vote is ultimately validated, Karzai's ability to unite this ethnically diverse nation, fight warlordism and crush a Taliban insurgency might be compromised if his opponents refuse to accept the results and insist his rule is illegitimate.
Karzai said the fate of the vote was in the hands of the electoral body, but added that in his view ``the election was free and fair ... it is very legitimate.''
``Who is more important, these 15 candidates, or the millions of people who turned out today to vote?'' Karzai said at a news conference. ``Both myself and all these 15 candidates should respect our people _ because in the dust and snow and rain, they waited for hours and hours to vote.''
In St. Louis, President Bush said the election was ``a marvelous thing.''
``Freedom is powerful,'' Bush told a Republican breakfast fund-raiser. ``Think about a society in which young girls couldn't go to school, and their mothers were whipped in the public square, and today they're holding a presidential election.''
Bush said the first person to vote was a 19-year-old woman, Moqadasa Sidiqi, in Islamabad, Pakistan, who fled her country during Afghanistan's 1990s civil war and expressed joyous disbelief she was voting.
Sidiqi was ``voting in this election because the United States of America believes that freedom is the almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world,'' Bush said.
Election officials said workers at some voting stations mistakenly swapped the permanent ink meant to mark thumbs with normal ink meant for ballots, but insisted the problem was caught quickly.
The boycott threat cast a pall over what had been a joyous day in Afghanistan, where millions of Afghans braved threats of Taliban violence to crowd polling stations for an election aimed at bringing peace and prosperity to a country nearly ruined by more than two decades of war. The Taliban was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in late 2001.
Voters lined up for hours outside polling stations in bombed-out schools, blue-domed mosques and bullet-pocked hospitals to cast ballots, while more than 100,000 soldiers, police, U.S. troops and other security forces deployed to thwart attacks.
In fighting Saturday, U.S. troops supported by an AC-130 gunship and a fighter-bomber clashed with suspected Taliban rebels in southern Uruzgan province. A spokesman, Maj. Mark McCann, said there were no U.S. casualties and it was not clear how many rebels were killed. But provincial Gov. Jan Mohammed Khan said 25 militants died.
The international community spent nearly $200 million staging the vote. At least 12 election workers, and dozens of Afghan security forces, died in the past few months as the nation geared up for the vote.
Karzai went into the election a heavy favorite, but needed to win a majority to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher. Initial results were not expected until late Sunday, and full returns could take a week or more because of the inaccessibility of many Afghan towns and villages.
The opposition candidates, meeting at the house of Uzbek candidate Abdul Satar Sirat, signed a petition saying they would not recognize the results because the glitches with ink opened the way for widespread fraud.
``Today's election is not a legitimate election. It should be stopped and we don't recognize the results,'' said Sirat, a former aide to Afghanistan's last king and a minor candidate given little chance of winning.
U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said the ink problem was not as pervasive as the candidates claimed.
``I don't think we can lose sight of the perspective. There are 23,000 polling stations in the country. We do not have indications it (the ink mix-up) was to a great extent,'' he said.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad arrived at Sirat's house after Karzai's challengers reiterated their charges in a second meeting. He made no comment other than to say he was there ``only to help.''
Khalilzad, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan, has been widely criticized for perceived favoritism for Karzai, and he is seen by many Afghans as a puppet-master. After his arrival, several Afghans gathered outside the house joked that a resolution to the crisis was near because ``the big man has arrived.''
The issue of the ink was crucial because officials said before the vote that many people had received more than one registration card for the election by mistake. Vote organizers argued that the indelible ink would prevent people from voting twice, even if they had more than one card.
About 10.5 million registration cards were handed out ahead of the election, a staggering number that U.N. and Afghan officials say was inflated by widespread double registration. Human rights groups said some people obtained four or five voter cards, thinking they would be able to use them to receive humanitarian aid.
Afghanistan has an estimated population of 25 million.
Massooda Jalal, the only woman in the field and one of the candidates to sign the petition, said she decided to protest after getting calls of complaint from her constituents.
``The ink that is being used can be rubbed off in a minute. Voters can vote 10 times!'' she said.
Another candidate, ethnic Tajik newspaper editor Hafiz Mansoor, also complained.
``Very easily they can erase the ink,'' he said. ``This is a trick that is designed to clear the way for cheating.''
All roads leading to Kabul and other major cities were heavily guarded and closed to most traffic. Heightened security measures appeared to work, despite plenty of signs Taliban rebels were trying to disrupt the polls.
On Friday, a bomb-sniffing dog discovered a fuel truck rigged with anti-tank mines and laden with 10,000 gallons of gasoline that three Pakistanis planned to detonate in the southern city of Kandahar, said Col. Ishaq Paiman, the Defense Ministry deputy spokesman. The blast would have killed hundreds and ``derailed'' balloting in the south, he said.
The election offered a stark contrast in a nation that has endured many forms of imposed rule in the past 30 years _ among them monarchy, Soviet occupation, warlord fiefdoms and the repressive Taliban theocracy ousted by the U.S.-led invasion following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
``I came here to vote so we can have democracy and stability and peace in Afghanistan,'' said Aziz Ullah, a 19-year-old Kabul shopkeeper. ``There used to only be a transfer of power by force or killing.''