Lt. Col. Dan Hurlbut, left, and Haji Noor Mohammad Akhund, district leader of Maiwand district, walk from the district government center to inspect a voter registration site in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Dan Hurlbut, left, and Haji Noor Mohammad Akhund, district leader of Maiwand district, walk from the district government center to inspect a voter registration site in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. (Drew Brown/S&S)

MAIWAND DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Voter registration for the Afghan elections later this year has begun in Kandahar and other southern provinces, but fear of Taliban violence could persuade many potential voters to stay away from registration sites, according to a local official here.

More than 3.7 million people, including 1.2 million women, have already registered elsewhere in the country, according to figures published by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.

Voter registration started in Afghanistan in October, and is proceeding in stages. The Afghan presidential election is scheduled for the fall, although a specific date has not been set, with parliamentary elections to follow in 2010.

The last phase, which began Tuesday in Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces, will run for 30 days. Three dozen registration centers have been set up across Kandahar province, where the process could face its biggest challenges yet. Kandahar is where the fundamentalist Taliban emerged in the early 1990s, and fear and support for the militants can be found here in almost equal measures.

"As a matter of fact, I don’t think a lot of people will show up," said Hajji Noor Mohammad Akhund, the government-appointed leader of Maiwand district, about 40 miles west of the provincial capital of Kandahar. "They tell me they are afraid of the Taliban."

About 20 local residents registered to vote on Tuesday, the first day the site was open, according to the U.S. military, which has overall security responsibility for Maiwand.

The district leader, who also goes by the name Mullah Masoud, says he intends to visit every village within Maiwand to encourage people to register.

U.S. forces hired a local contractor to erect blast walls around the registration site in an effort to deter suicide bombers, one of whom killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded nine others in the market here two weeks ago.

Afghan police are providing front-line security. U.S. forces are posted nearby if their help is needed, but senior officers say they want U.S. troops to stay in the background as much as possible.

"This needs to be an Afghan political event," said Lt. Col. Dan Hurlbut, commander of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment, which operates in Maiwand. If the U.S. presence is too heavy, then Afghans might conclude that U.S. forces are "pulling the strings" on the election, whatever the outcome, Hurlbut added.

President Hamid Karzai was elected to a five-year term in 2004. He previously served as interim leader after the U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001. Karzai has indicated he will seek re-election, but allegations of widespread corruption, fueled by the country’s multibillion-dollar opium trade, have severely undermined his support both at home and among Western backers. However, no strong candidate has yet emerged to challenge him.

The Taliban have attacked several registration centers in other Afghan provinces. A suicide bomber on a bicycle Tuesday killed two policemen and another man in Kandahar, but it did not appear that the attack was intended to disrupt the process.

Last week, Karzai ordered the election commission to move all registration sites out of hospitals and other health-care facilities in an effort to discourage Taliban attacks on them.

According to recent reports, at least three clinics used to register voters in other provinces have been set on fire since November. In October, Taliban fighters attacked a health clinic in Ghazni province, south of Kabul, that was being used to register voters, killing one person and wounding several others.

The Afghan elections have drawn intense international scrutiny. The United Nations is playing an advisory role, but has no direct oversight. More than 1,600 observers have been accredited to help ensure transparency, according to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.

On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called upon member countries to contribute 10,000 extra troops for up to four months to help provide security during the elections.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force currently comprises more than 51,000 soldiers from nearly 40 countries. The United States is the biggest supplier of forces, with about 32,000 troops operating in the country. The Pentagon is planning to dispatch up to 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan over the coming year.

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