As preliminary results from Afghanistan's presidential election trickle in, President Hamid Karzai's chief rival escalated his accusations of widespread fraud in the elections, showing reporters videos and materials that he said proved Karzai intended to "steal the verdict of the nation."
The accusations came as early results showed a close race between Karzai and his main challenger, former Karzai minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Karzai had 212,927 votes to Abdulla's 202,889 votes. Both men had about 40 percent of the votes tallied so far with other candidates trailing far behind. It was not clear how much of the vote had been counted when those figures were released, but were based on only 10 percent of the country's polling centers.
The accusations -- combined with low turnout -- threaten the legitimacy of a vote the U.S. hoped would help stabilize a shaky state and give credibility to the next government.
The controversy over the legitimacy of the vote came as four more U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, making it the deadliest year for American soldiers since the Taliban fell in 2001. The number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan this year stands at 295, according to icasualties.org, a website which compiles official figures. Last year, 294 died.
Abdullah held a news conference today to release what he claimed was evidence of widespread vote rigging by Karzai.
One video showed a man stuffing a ballot box. Abdullah said he was a local elections official in Ghazni. Another video showed a child sitting at a table with a book of ballots, marking each one for the same candidate. Abdullah said a third video showed a polling station open two days after election day. "Give a few votes to Dr. Abdullah," a man in the video says as someone on the ground casts multiple ballots.
"I'm talking about systematic fraud which was engineered by the state under the supervision of Hamid Karzai," Abdullah said later in an interview. "I think this was meant to kill the process."
Other candidates have also alleged widespread fraud, though not to the same extent as Abdullah.
Afghanistan will likely face political instability for the next few weeks, threatening to delay new policy initiatives U.S. officials urgently want to implement.
But Abdullah served a warning to the international community, telling it to be patient and warning that it must not "turn a blind eye to state mockery."
"If the widespread rigging is ignored," he said, "this is the type of regime that will be imposed on Afghanistan for the next five years. With that sort of system – with a system which has destroyed every institution, broken every law -- Afghanistan cannot succeed."
Earlier today Karzai's campaign manager tried to appear above the political fray, declining to say how many examples or how extensive the fraud it believed Abdullah had committed.
"If you are in second place, you say anything," Haji Dean Muhammad, Karzai's campaign manager, said in an interview.
The Electoral Complaints Commission, responsible for judging fraud, said today it had received more than 650 allegations, about a tenth of which could affect the results.
Commission members said the allegations mirror those from Abdullah and the other candidates, including corrupt election officials, ballot box stuffing, and even campaign workers forcing votes by gunpoint.
"We need to save this process,"Abdullah said, "in order to save Afghanistan."
Afghan Election Watched Closely
Further results will be released over the next several days, but final, certified results won't be made public until mid to late September.
The Associated Press contributed to the reporting of this story.