World and Nation

Italy Ponders Afghan Pullout After Deadly Blast

A powerful suicide bomb that killed six Italian soldiers here on Thursday prompted Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy to declare that his nation had begun planning to “bring our young men home as soon as possible.”

In Brussels, Berlusconi, a close American ally but in some political trouble at home, was careful to say that Italy would not unilaterally withdraw its 3,100 troops from Afghanistan, though he said he wanted the withdrawal to happen “as quickly as possible.” But it seemed the strongest expression yet from a European leader of the rising doubts about the Afghanistan mission among America’s allies.

“We are all convinced that it would be best for everyone, whoever they are, to remove our conspicuous presence from Afghanistan quickly,” Berlusconi said.

Senior elected officials in Germany and Britain have also expressed weariness with the mission as violence has increased and casualties mounted.

Meantime, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan dismissed complaints that the Aug. 20 presidential ballot had been marred by widespread fraud and ballot-stuffing, saying he was “surprised and rather shocked” that European Union election monitors had warned that 1.1 million of his 3.1 million votes were suspicious. Western governments, he said, should “respect the people’s vote.”

Karzai conceded that some government officials had been “partial” to him and some to other candidates, in what appeared to be his first acknowledgment that some fraud had occurred. He said, however, there was little evidence of widespread irregularities. “I believe firmly, firmly in the integrity of the election,” Karzai said.

The election monitors said 300,000 of the 1.6 million votes for Karzai’s closest competitor, the former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, also needed to be reviewed.

Preliminary tallies have Karzai winning 54.6 percent of the vote. But at least 15 percent of the ballots are now being audited for fraud under orders from a U.N.-backed commission.

A number of Western diplomats have said there were convinced that if all fraudulent ballots were discarded, Karzai would be left with less than 50 percent of the vote, forcing him into a runoff with Abdullah. If a runoff were ordered, the harsh winter weather here could prevent it from taking place until April, deepening the leadership vacuum for months.

On Thursday, Abdullah said that he would not join in any coalition government with Karzai, and that no one from his camp had held any discussions with Karzai officials about forming a coalition. “Illegitimate rule in itself is a recipe for instability,” he said, urging that fraud investigations be pursued to the end.

The disputed election risks leaving the country with a government widely seen as illegitimate and undermining efforts to bolster commitments for troops and other resources from Western countries.