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Thursday March 20, 2014 MYT 11:06:06 PM
Thursday March 20, 2014 MYT 11:07:23 PM
by katharine houreld AND hamid shalizi
CHARIKAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Grizzled Afghan mujahideen commanders erupted into yells as their presidential candidate, a dapper man in a scarf and neatly trimmed beard, stepped towards the microphone.
"Victory awaits us!" Abdullah Abdullah, a senior aide to an anti-Taliban militia leader during the civil war, told a campaign rally on Thursday.
"In the coming days, you will see our posters and will hear our voice from four corners of the country."
Abdullah, a frontrunner in Afghanistan's April 5 election, promised to create jobs and stability, seeking to give a sense of stability to Afghans worried about NATO withdrawing most of its troops after 13 years of fighting a stubborn insurgency.
The election he is contesting should mark the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history, since incumbent President Hamid Karzai is barred from running again.
But, burned by the widespread fraud that marred the previous presidential election in 2009, some in Afghanistan are already raising questions over the vote's legitimacy.
"There must be a fair decision. We are tired of fighting," said a 47-year-old voter, Omid Khan. Old men in traditional flat caps nodded vigorously as the young waved Abdullah flags.
Abdullah was a runner-up in the 2009 election, when more than a million votes were thrown out as fraudulent. Karzai kept his post after Abdullah refused to contest a second round, citing concerns over rigging.
This time, Abdullah has promised to deploy an election monitoring team to watch over every ballot box they can safely get to. Election authorities have registered 5,000 Abdullah observers, around three times as many as any other candidate.
"What we are really concerned about is massive industrial scale fraud," Abdullah said in an interview in his elegant Kabul home. "The people will not accept such an outcome."
His team has identified more than 800 polling stations due to open in highly insecure areas. They fear those ballot boxes will be stuffed if monitors are too afraid to step in.
The Taliban have threatened to kill anyone associated with the election. On Thursday, they attacked a police station in the southern city of Jalalabad. Eleven people were killed.
Abdullah's team say their campaign offices have been repeatedly attacked and several staff members have been killed since campaigning began on February 2.
Thursday's rally was Abdullah's first in his heartland - valleys dominated by the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains and home to many Tajiks, Afghanistan's second largest ethnic group.
Many have fond memories of Abdullah's role in their fight against the Taliban during the civil war and were buoyed by promises at the rally to help the families of former fighters.
"Abdullah was here when this road was full of Taliban bodies," said 48-year-old Abdul Latif, a former mujahideen commander with a row of gold teeth. "He is our candidate. We know him and we do not know the other people."
Abdullah has two main challengers. Zalmay Rassoul is a mild-mannered former foreign minister, whose weak power base was buoyed by an endorsement from the president's brothers earlier this month. Ashraf Ghani is a fiery intellectual development expert who has teamed up with a notorious former warlord.
All nine presidential candidates except Abdullah are Pashtun, the country's largest ethnic group. Abdullah has a Pashtun father but a Tajik mother and is most famed for his closeness to Tajik militia leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Known as "the Lion of Panjshir," Massoud was assassinated by the Taliban on the eve of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. His bearded face smiles down from Abdullah's campaign posters and numerous paintings in his home.
"He was a great human being," Abdullah said of his hero. "A selfless person that has dedicated his life to his own people without asking anything for himself."
(Writing by Katharine Houreld, Editing by Maria Golovnina and Angus MacSwan)
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