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Historic Election Tests Security, Progress in Afghanistan

Despite Taliban threats and scattered attacks throughout the country, Afghans headed to the polls Thursday in an election being viewed as a gauge of U.S. progress there. ITN correspondent Alex Thomson speaks with Ray Suarez from Kabul.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Our second report comes from ITN's Alex Thomson. Ray Suarez talked with him from Kabul earlier this evening.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Alex Thompson in Kabul, welcome. The polls have been closed for several hours; the ballot boxes are being opened in many places. Give us the latest news from around the country.

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    Well, the latest news is there will not be any definitive news for a long time. If I tell you that we will probably — probably not know who's going to be the next president of Afghanistan until October — yes, October the 15th — it gives you some idea of how long this process could well turn out to be.

    What I can say is — put it this way — around 300 polling stations were closed down because of intimidation, but over 6,000 did open up. The Taliban will claim some success for that from their side for the 300, but the U.N. and the incumbent President Karzai have already claimed it as a great success, in terms of the numbers who did turn up and vote.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Has word started to come in from those far-flung polling places about where turnout was high and where it was low and who that might favor?

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    Well, so far what we know is that turnout in the big northern cities is pretty much the pattern we'd expected. It is certainly a lot higher than in the southern cities, the main center down there, Lashkar Gah and, of course, Kandahar, the southern capital. Those five southern provinces, don't forget, the most violent, along with the eastern provinces of Afghanistan.

    So a lot of intimidation down there. One Western observer described Kandahar today as, quote, "like the wild West." But in Afghan terms, it hasn't been a particularly violent day, today of all days. That has to be said.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    President Hamid Karzai is both running the country and running to hold onto his job. What did he have to say about the balloting?

  • ALEX THOMSON:

    Well, Hamid Karzai, of course has claimed it as a great success, along with the United Nations, certainly. NATO, of course, keeping a very low profile. This is, in their view, very much an Afghan affair, certainly not a NATO affair. Their troops, of course, ordered to keep well away from all the polling stations.

    Mr. Karzai, yes, he's trumpeting it as a great success, but he knows very well that he has to get that 51 percent in order to be automatically re-elected. Won't know that for sure until September the 3rd, and the word is — the smart money, if you like — says he's not going to make that. So we are quite probably in for the long haul right through to October the 15th.