KABUL - Half of the most senior Afghan district election officials will be fired, U.N. officials said on Wednesday, to prevent more fraud in a run-off presidential poll crucial to the country's credibility and foreign support.
The announcement of a November 7 run-off removed one stumbling block for U.S. President Barack Obama as he weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.
President Hamid Karzai's decision to accept the run-off against his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, came after days of diplomatic wrangling and helped ease tensions with the West.
Concerns about a repeat of the widespread fraud that tainted the first round in August cast a long shadow as hasty preparations for the second round kicked off on Wednesday.
Karzai agreed to face a second round after a U.N.-led fraud inquiry tossed out enough of his first-round votes to push him below 50 percent and trigger a run-off.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan, which provides assistance with election-related operations, said preparations were under way to block any risk of mass fraud.
Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. mission, said 200 of 380 district election chiefs from the government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC) were being replaced after the watchdog found evidence of widespread fraud and vote-fixing.
More than half of the district field coordinators are being replaced to prevent any attempted fraud or because there have been complaints made against them by candidates and observers, said Siddique.
Afghanistan now faces a logistical nightmare, having just over two weeks to prepare for a second round of voting as the harsh and fast-approaching Afghan winter, which makes much of the mountainous country inaccessible, closes in.
Security is also a big worry, with the Taliban at their strongest in the eight-year war. While not able to disrupt the August 20 vote completely, Taliban attacks around the country kept many voters away from polling stations.
The election is a key element in Western plans to stabilize Afghanistan and deny sanctuary to militants believed to have used it as a base for the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
Many within Obama's Democratic Party have spoken out against sending more troops, while Republican opponents say his lengthy deliberations on a new strategy are undermining U.S. troops and emboldening the Taliban.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates however dismissed reports of rifts between Obama's military and civilian advisers on the Afghan war strategy.
The prospect of another ballot has disillusioned voters after many of them stayed at home during the first round, intimidated by insurgent violence and threats.
I voted last time with great risk and fear, but I am not going to do that again, said Ghamai, an Afghan from the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
The IEC, Afghanistan's main election authority, vowed to prosecute anyone suspected of having committed fraud during the first round to make sure voting runs smoothly this time.
If the IEC staff were involved in fraud ... we will replace them or hand them over to justice in order to hold a more transparent election, including government officials, IEC chief Azizullah Ludin told reporters.
Abdullah met campaign managers on Wednesday to discuss plans. He said his team was mapping out specific conditions and recommendations to avoid any risk of fraud.
We have certain suggestions, recommendations and conditions in order to avoid widespread massive fraud in the upcoming elections based on the experiences of the last round of elections, said Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister.
Echoing these concerns, Amnesty International urged Afghanistan to set out a clear plan for the second round.
The Afghan government and its international partners now have a very short window to show that they have learned from the mistakes of the last elections, it said in a statement.
In Kabul, Siddique said NATO and the IEC would meet to discuss preparations for the second round, adding that the distribution of ballot materials would start on Thursday.
As part of efforts to prevent fraud, he said polling stations in areas where first-round turnout was low due to bad security and where a lot of fraud took place would not open. Voters would be encouraged to cast ballots in nearby locations, he said.
He said he hoped about 16,000 polling stations would open this time. About 25,000 stations were open in the August 20 vote.
In the first round the process was being tested. This should send a strong message to those who carried out fraud, he said.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in TOKYO and Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL; Writing by Jonathon Burch and Maria Golovnina; Editing by Paul Tait)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)