KABUL, (AFP) -Afghans streamed into polling stations for the country”s first parliamentary elections in more than 30 years being held under tight security after Taliban militants vowed to disrupt the vote.
Despite security concerns officials expected a high turnout among the nearly 12.5 million Afghans eligible to vote in the next phase of a difficult path to democracy launched after the hardline Islamic regime fell in late 2001.
On the ballot papers voters will find a cross section of Afghanistan”s strife-torn society, including warlords, drug kingpins, mullahs and — marking a step forward for the conservative country — women.
"I will vote for anyone who will help my country," said Abdul Rahim, 42, queuing to vote beneath the blue domes of the grand mosque in the western city of Herat.
President Hamid Karzai, who won Afghanistan”s first presidential election in October 2004, said the vote showed the country was leaving behind decades of ruinous conflict.
"After 30 years of war, intervention and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward," Karzai said as he cast his ballot at a special polling centre for senior officials in Kabul.
"It is making an economy, making political institutions and today we are completing the whole process, completing the laying down of the foundation of the Afghan state … That is why we are making history."
The 26,000 polling stations, scattered from the parched southern deserts to the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush mountains, opened at 6:00 am (0130 GMT) and were due to close at 4:00 pm.
Officials said voting hours may be extended to allow for queues as Afghans struggle with the newspaper-sized ballots required to fit in the 5,800 candidates taking part.
Full results are not expected until late October.
The UN, helping to organise election, has said voters should not be intimidated by Taliban warnings that they could be hurt if they go to the polls. A spike in violence linked to Taliban militants has left more than 1,000 people dead this year including a seventh candidate killed on Thursday.
Two policemen and four suspected Taliban rebels were killed in attacks hours before the polls opened but they did not affect voting, officials said.
Insurgents attacked a security post in the eastern province of Khost, killing two policemen and wounding two US soldiers and an Afghan soldier, Khost police chief Mohammed Ayob told AFP.
Three suspected Taliban were also killed. Another was killed when he attacked a polling station in the southern province of Helmand late Saturday, provincial officials said.
On the eve of the election security forces arrested 20 rebels who were laying bombs to blow up a dam in southern Afghanistan, while three policemen were killed in the capital late Friday, government officials said.
Around 100,000 Afghan troops and police were deployed to secure the election, supported by 20,000 US-led coalition troops and 10,500 NATO-led peacekeepers.
Election organisers said first reports indicated that security problems had affected only a handful of polling centres.
"Four or five polling centres in Gizab district of Daikundi province may not be able to open because of problems of delivering material due to security concerns," one official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
"There might also be a problem with a polling centre in Uruzgan."
Up for grabs are 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the national assembly, and 420 seats on the 34 provincial councils.
Sixty-eight seats have been reserved for women on the national assembly, a dramatic turnaround in the conservative country where women were barred from public life and forced to wear all-covering burqas under the Taliban.