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By Jonathon Burch and Maria Golovnina
KABUL (Reuters) - More than half the top Afghan district election officials are being replaced to try to prevent more fraud and produce a credible result in next month's presidential run-off vote, U.N. officials said on Wednesday.
The move followed an announcement by President Hamid Karzai that he would accept a November 7 run-off, clearing one obstacle for U.S. President Barack Obama as he considers whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.
In Washington, Obama said he could reach a decision on his new Afghanistan strategy before the run-off, although he said it might not immediately be announced.
Amid flagging U.S. public support for the war, the Obama administration has stressed that a credible government must be in place in Kabul for any U.S. strategy to succeed.
Several U.S. officials said a power-sharing deal between Karzai and his opponent, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, remained an option that could preclude the need for a run-off, or possibly follow one.
Washington would not "stand in the way" of such an agreement if it could be reached as a way of shoring up public support for an Afghan government, one of the officials said.
Obama, whom critics accuse of dragging his feet on the troop decision, made clear he would not be rushed. "We are going to take the time to get this right," he told MSNBC.
But he added, "We're not going to drag it out because there is a sense that the sooner we get a sound approach in place and personnel in place, the better off we're going to be."
Republican Senator John McCain said in an interview with Reuters he was guardedly optimistic that Obama would send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but that it was time for his long Afghan review to end.
McCain, who lost last year's presidential election to Obama, said it would be "a mistake of historic proportions" for Obama not to accept the recommendations of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army General Stanley McChrystal, who has requested tens of thousands more troops and beefed-up training of Afghan forces.
"But I do have confidence that the president will make the right decision," McCain said.
Karzai agreed on Tuesday to accept the run-off against Abdullah after days of diplomatic wrangling and a U.N.-led fraud inquiry that tossed out enough Karzai votes to trigger a second round.
Concerns about a repeat of the widespread fraud that tainted the first round on August 20 cast a long shadow as hasty preparations for the new poll began.
Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said 200 of 380 district election chiefs from the government-appointed Independent Election Commission were being replaced in places where fraud or vote-fixing was determined.
"More than half of the district field coordinators are being replaced to prevent any attempted fraud or because there have been complaints made against them by candidates and observers," said Siddique.
LOGISTICAL NIGHTMARE
Afghanistan now faces a logistical nightmare, with just over two weeks to prepare for a second round of voting as the harsh winter, which makes much of the mountainous country inaccessible, closes in.
Security is also a big worry, with the Taliban at its strongest in the eight-year war. While not able to disrupt the first vote completely, Taliban attacks kept many voters away.
The election is a key element in Western plans to stabilise Afghanistan and deny sanctuary to al Qaeda militants who used it as a base for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
Many within Obama's Democratic Party oppose sending more troops, while Republican critics say his deliberations on a new strategy undermine U.S. troops and embolden the Taliban.
U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates dismissed reports of rifts between Obama's military and civilian advisers on the Afghan war strategy.
The prospect of another ballot has disillusioned voters after many stayed at home during the first round, intimidated by insurgent violence and threats.
"I voted last time with great risk and fear, but I am not going to do that again," said Ghamai, an Afghan from the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
The Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan's main election authority, vowed to prosecute anyone suspected of having committed fraud during the first round.
"If the IEC staff were involved in fraud ... we will replace them or hand them over to justice in order to hold a more transparent election, including government officials," said commission chief Azizullah Ludin.
Abdullah said his campaign team was mapping out specific conditions and recommendations to avoid fraud.
Siddique said NATO and the IEC would discuss preparations for the second round, adding the distribution of ballot materials would start on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Tokyo and Sayed Salahuddin in KABUL; Writing by Jonathon Burch, Maria Golovnina and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Paul Tait and Chris Wilson)

Reuters