KABUL — A Taliban suicide bomber attacked officials leaving a mosque east of the capital Wednesday, killing the country's deputy intelligence chief and 22 other people in a major blow to Afghanistan's security forces.
The brazen assault occurred as tensions are running high after last month's divisive presidential election and a sharp rise in U.S. casualties – events that have already raised alarm in Washington over the future of President Barack Obama's strategy to turn the tide of the war.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the bombing, which happened as Afghan dignitaries were leaving the main mosque in Mehterlam, 60 miles (100 kilometers) east of Kabul, after ceremonies marking the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
The bomber approached the crowd on foot and detonated an explosive belt, killing 23 people, including Abdullah Laghmani, deputy chief of Afghanistan's National Directorate for Security and the target of the attack, according to provincial spokesman Sayed Ahmad Safi.
The chairman of the local provincial council and the executive director of the local governor's office also died in the blast, Safi said.
Laghmani, a close ally of President Hamid Karzai, was a major figure in Afghanistan's security and intelligence apparatus and his death was a setback to Afghan efforts to curb Taliban and other extremist activity.
Laghmani formerly served as intelligence chief for Kandahar, the former Taliban spiritual capital in southern Afghanistan, and fought with a Tajik-dominated alliance that helped oust the Islamist movement from power during the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.
In his most recent post, Laghmani directed intelligence operations especially in eastern Afghanistan and appointed local security officials throughout the area.
The attack occurred in a relatively safe city, serving as a deadly reminder that the militants are capable of striking even in areas where their influence is not strong.
U.S. troops cordoned off the blast site, filled with blood-spattered hulks of burned-out vehicles set on fire by the explosion. The local hospital was jammed with more than 50 wounded.
"It is indefensible that such an attack was carried out at a mosque during the holy month of Ramadan," said Peter W. Galbraith, the deputy U.N. chief here. "The contrast between the vast majority of Afghans who yearn for peace during this holy month and those who conducted this attack could not be more stark."
Karzai said in a statement that the "enemy" tried to kill "brave and hardworking" officials, but others would take their place.
The assassination of such a senior figure was a shock to the Karzai administration, already under fire for alleged fraud during the Aug. 20 presidential election. With votes tallied from 60 percent of the polling stations, the country's election commission said Wednesday that Karzai is leading with 47.3 percent, followed by ex-Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah with 32.6 percent.
Karzai needs to win a majority of the votes to avoid a two-man runoff.
But the balloting was marred by fraud charges from Abdullah and others in the 36-candidate field as well as a low voter turnout, especially in southern Pashtun areas where Taliban influence is strong but where the incumbent was expected to draw most of his votes.
The Obama administration had hoped that the election would produce a government with broad public support to confront the Taliban, combat corruption and curb the flourishing drug trade.
Instead, Abdullah escalated his fraud allegations Wednesday, accusing the Afghan election commission of playing a role in "organized fraud" throughout the country.
"Proof and evidence show that with the cooperation of the election commission, a massive fraud has taken place," Abdullah told reporters.
Abdullah brought some Pashtun tribal chiefs to Kabul on Tuesday to repeat his allegations of ballot box-stuffing and other irregularities in their home districts.
A separate U.N.-backed commission is looking into more than 650 allegations of major fraud, and in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, an Abdullah campaign official warned that his followers would take to the streets if they believe those complaints have not been thoroughly investigated.
"We are not talking too much because people are very angry, and we don't want to add to that, but Dr. Abdullah is meeting with foreign embassies and regional partners to try to find a solution," said Zalmai Younosi, Abdullah's campaign chief in six northern provinces.
"After that, if there is no result, then it is protest and violence," he warned. "How can we accept a corrupt government funded by drugs and not respected by the world? We have to defend our own rights."
Faced with a potential political crisis in the middle of a war, envoys from the United States and other major countries conferred Wednesday in Paris on how to rescue their costly effort to rebuild Afghanistan. The fear is that an election not seen by Afghans as credible could strip the new government of its legitimacy and undermine efforts to shore up the Afghan state.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the Paris meeting would attempt to unify positions after the election and explore ways to transfer more responsibility for the country's security and development to the Afghans people.
U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke played down worries about Karzai at the meeting and said he would have "no problem" dealing with him if he is declared the winner.
Holbrooke says irregularities are normal in any democratic system, noting the Minnesota senatorial election that took months to settle.
In a sign of progress, the U.N. said Wednesday that Afghanistan's opium production fell 10 percent last year and prices are at their lowest in a decade.
A key finding of the 2009 Afghan Opium Survey was that cultivation in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold where U.S. and British troops have launched major operations this summer, dropped by about a third from 2007 to 2008. Helmand produces almost 70 percent of Afghanistan's opium.
The country as a whole is responsible for 90 percent of the world's supply of opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, and the multibillion-dollar crop has helped finance insurgents and criminal groups, fueled official corruption and weakened the country's central government.
Associated Press writers Douglas Birch and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Heidi Vogt in Mazar-i-Sharif, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
(This version CORRECTS SUBS lead to correct number of dead to 22 plus deputy intelligence chief)