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Karzai Leads In Polls Going Into Afghan Presidential Election

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KABUL — A new poll released Friday shows President Hamid Karzai has a commanding lead over other candidates contesting next week's Afghan presidential election, but his main challenger has dramatically narrowed the gap.

Some 44 percent of those interviewed in July said they plan to vote for Karzai in Thursday's election, a rise of 13 percentage points compared to a poll conducted in May.

If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face off in a run-off. That could lead to a coalition uniting around a single, more powerful candidate to try to defeat Karzai.

Karzai's main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, has surged in popularity, the poll showed, with 26 percent of respondents saying they would vote for him. In the May poll only 7 percent supported him.

The poll, based on face-to-face interviews with 2,400 people, was conducted between July 16-26 and funded by the International Republican Institute, a non-governmental organization that receives funding from USAID, the U.S. government aid arm. The poll, which sought to strike a representative sample along ethnic and gender lines, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

Some 56 percent believe Karzai has done a good job in leading the nation as it faces growing Taliban insurgency and uncertainty about its future.

And despite Taliban threats, some 90 percent of those surveyed said they plan to vote.

The militants have said they will disrupt the election and called on the people to stay away from polling centers. Elections authorities have said that some 10 percent of nearly 7,000 polling centers will likely remain shut, most of them because of bad security.

Most of the country's most violent regions – the south and the east – are where the country's ethnic Pashtuns live. Karzai, himself a Pashtun, could see his returns lowered if insurgent violence keeps Afghans there from voting.

On Thursday, Karzai said he will offer government jobs to his chief rivals, an offer which was dismissed by Abdullah's camp.

Karzai also ordered Afghan security forces to observe a cease-fire on election day.

(This version CORRECTS the month of the poll from June to July.)

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