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Karzai rival Abdullah to quit Afghan run-off

Deadlock continues amid talk of power-sharing deal

President Hamid Karzai's election rival Abdullah Abdullah was poised Saturday to boycott Afghanistan's run-off presidential election unless Karzai has a last minute change of heart and bows to a series of demands from his rival.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's election rival Abdullah Abdullah will announce on Sunday whether he will take part in next week's disputed run-off vote, as western media reported he would pull out.

Abdullah cancelled a planned trip to India on Saturday, just before a deadline he had given Karzai to sack Afghanistan's top election official was to expire.

Afghanistan has been racked by weeks of political uncertainty after widespread fraud marred the first round, with security another major concern after a resurgent Taliban vowed to disrupt the Nov. 7 run-off vote.

The New York Times, quoting Western diplomats and people close to Abdullah, said Abdullah would announce his withdrawal from the election on Sunday. But the newspaper also said the former foreign minister was keeping his options open until the last minute.

"If our conditions are not met today, Dr. Abdullah will announce his decision in a conference tomorrow (Sunday)," a senior official in his campaign team told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"We will not participate in an election which is not transparent and fraud-free."

With Afghanistan's political future hanging in the balance, U.S. President Barack Obama is also weighing whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan. Obama met U.S. military leaders in Washington on Friday.

Abdullah had been due to leave for India on Saturday for a leadership conference but his aides said he cancelled the trip and would likely hold a media conference in Kabul on Sunday.

Western officials have pointed out that Abdullah has not opened any campaign offices in Afghanistan since the run-off was called last week. Neither candidate has campaigned openly.

Diplomats and analysts have said that, according to the constitution, it was possible the run-off might go ahead with Karzai as the only candidate if Abdullah pulls out. They fear that would have a serious impact on the government's legitimacy.

Talk of a possible power-sharing deal between Karzai and Abdullah has also grown as a possible solution to the deadlock.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul said in a statement it would continue to work with Afghans "to conclude the election process".

"If the two candidates agree a solution that is acceptable to both of them, in the interests of Afghanistan and is constitutionally sound, then that is a matter for them," it said.

Western diplomats have said privately Abdullah may have overplayed his hand when he gave Karzai an ultimatum last week to sack Afghanistan's top election official and three ministers in a bid to avoid a repeat of the first-round fraud.

That deadlines expires later on Sunday but Karzai has already indicated he would not give in to Abdullah's demand. Abdullah has not said what he would do if the officials were not sacked.

Citing an unidentified Western source it said was close to the Afghan leadership, CNN reported on Friday that talks between Karzai and Abdullah had broken down and that Abdullah, whose support comes mainly from the Tajik north, would likely pull out.

We will not participate in an election which is not transparent and fraud-free

A senior official

Diplomatic efforts

Neither Karzai nor Abdullah would comment on those meetings but behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to convince them to work together to break the deadlock increased this week.

The run-off was triggered when a U.N.-led fraud investigation found widespread fraud, mainly in favour of Karzai, had been committed during the Aug. 20 first round.

The United States already has about 70,000 troops in Afghanistan and the decision to send more hinges on whether the Afghan government is seen by U.S. lawmakers and the public as a legitimate and viable partner.

Many commentators and Western diplomats believe Karzai will likely win the run-off, adding pressure on Abdullah to withdraw for the sake of stability.

It would also avoid the mobilization of thousands of foreign troops that would be needed to help secure polling stations after poor security and Taliban threats cut voter turnout in August.

Karzai's support mainly comes from Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and the country's traditional rulers, in the south and east where the Taliban-led insurgency is strongest.

The Taliban have called on Afghans to boycott the run-off and have vowed to disrupt the poll, their threat underlined on Wednesday by a suicide attack on a Kabul guest-house used by the United Nations in which five foreign U.N. staff were killed.

The Islamist militants said the guest-house was targeted because of the United Nations' role in helping organize the vote.

The fast-approaching onset of Afghanistan's harsh winter and lingering concerns about fraud have further complicated efforts to organize the run-off.