Karzai calls for head-to-head race in Afghan election

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday called for next year's crucial election to be a US-style head-to-head contest between two candidates, and named three possible runners in the wide-open race.

The April 5 election to succeed Karzai, who has ruled since the Taliban hardliners were ousted in 2001, is seen as the key test whether 12 years of massive international military and aid intervention has been worthwhile.

"My desire is that we should have a limited number of candidates as this is good for the country," Karzai told a press conference in his palace gardens. "In the United States there were only two candidates.

"If we have two presidential candidates, it would be better, but if we had four that is also not a problem."

After serving two terms, Karzai must stand down next year for an election that will be the first ever democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan. But there is widespread uncertainty over who and how many people will run.

More than 40 candidates stood in the chaotic 2009 election, which was marred by massive fraud and delays until Karzai emerged triumphant.

Karzai named controversial former warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, 2009 runner-up Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani as possible candidates.

"There are others as well, I don't want to leave any names unmentioned but it is not possible for me to mention them all," he said.

Other potential runners include Qayum Karzai, the president's brother, Omar Daudzai, the ambassador to Pakistan, and former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali.

Karzai appealed to all Afghans to register to vote and repeated his call for the insurgent fighters who wage a guerilla war against international and Afghan soldiers to participate in the election.

"Even the Taliban can join this process," he said. "If they use voting cards, they would be able to prove their power more effectively than they do today."

The Taliban have vowed to step up attacks ahead of the withdrawal of NATO-led coalition forces by the end of next year, and their leader Mullah Omar last month dismissed the elections as "a waste of time".

Karzai rejected Omar's claim said that Afghan elections were decided in Washington, saying "that's not right, the White House tried in 2009 but it failed" -- a reference to alleged US interference in the vote.

Karzai has pledged to work to ensure the election is credible, but international donors have expressed concern about whether the vote will produce a transparent result accepted by defeated candidates.

"If we have good elections that would be good for my legacy," Karzai said.

"I will definitely help the process and not interfere. I will try to provide grounds for free and democratic elections and will allow no one to interfere or use governmental power in favour of any presidential candidates."

The president also said that Afghanistan would not be rushed over negotiations for a security agreement on the United States' military presence in the country after 2014.

"We are not in a hurry, if it happens in my government it will be good, if not, the new president can discuss it and either accept or reject it," he said.

Washington is pushing hard for the pact to be signed by October, but Karzai suspended talks in June in fury at the Taliban opening a liaison office in Qatar that was presented as an embassy for a government in waiting.

On Saturday he said that only "technical level" negotiations had ever been suspended, but that other talks had continued and a new draft document was now being examined.

Karzai plans to put the proposed Bilateral Security Agreement before a Loya Jirga (grand assembly) for public approval before signing it.

In previous elections, the Taliban called on Afghans to boycott voting, sent fighters to block roads to polling stations and targeted candidates and activists.