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By Golnar Motevalli
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai's election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, will announce on Sunday whether he will take part in next week's run-off vote, as Western diplomats said he was leaning towards pulling out.
Abdullah cancelled a planned trip to India on Saturday, just before a deadline he had given Karzai to sack Afghanistan's top election official was to expire.
Afghanistan has been racked by weeks of political uncertainty after widespread fraud marred the first round, with security a major concern after a resurgent Taliban vowed to disrupt the November 7 run-off.
With Afghanistan's political future hanging in the balance, U.S. President Barack Obama is also weighing whether to send up to 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Obama met U.S. military leaders in Washington on Friday as part of a strategy review.
A senior U.S. administration official told Reuters on Saturday that Obama was unlikely to make a decision on his Afghan strategy before he embarked on his trip to Asia in November, although it had not been completely ruled out.
It is unclear whether Obama would then wait until he returned from the November 11-20 trip to unveil his decision or make an announcement while he was travelling in the region.
A Western diplomatic source said Abdullah was leaning towards pulling out of the election but may be using the threat as a "negotiating ploy" with Karzai.
"We have heard that talks with Karzai have broken down and he (Abdullah) is leaning towards not taking part in the election but this could also be a negotiating ploy," said the diplomatic source, who spoke on condition of anonymity as the issue is sensitive. "It is not a done deal."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Saturday any decision by Abdullah not to contest the run-off would not affect the vote's legitimacy.
Asked at a news conference in Jerusalem about reports that aides to Abdullah said he would not run, Clinton did not make clear if she was confirming he would not take part in the run-off, but said, "I think that it is his decision to make.
She added: "I do not think it affects the legitimacy. There have been other situations in our own country as well as around the world where in a run-off election one of the parties decides for whatever reason that they are not going to go on."
Abdullah's campaign team issued a statement on Saturday saying the former foreign minister had called a loya jirga, or grand assembly of elders, for 9.30 a.m. on Sunday (5 a.m. British time).
Abdullah's aides said earlier he had cancelled the trip to India because of uncertainty over the election.
Diplomats said there were questions over whether Abdullah would use his news conference as a concession speech to incumbent Karzai or declare a boycott of the run-off.
Western officials have noted that Abdullah has not opened any campaign offices in Afghanistan since the run-off was called last week. Neither candidate has campaigned openly.
"The signs are there. (Abdullah's) not doing any campaigning. Everyone is looking at the two camps and willing them to do some form of accommodation that will avoid a run-off," one Western diplomat told Reuters.
Diplomats and analysts have said that under the constitution it was possible for the run-off to go ahead with Karzai as the only candidate. But they fear that would have a serious impact on the government's legitimacy.
POWER-SHARING?
Talk of a power-sharing deal between Karzai and Abdullah has also grown as a possible solution to the deadlock.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it was a matter for Karzai and Abdullah to decide if they could come up with a constitutionally sound solution acceptable to Afghans.
Western diplomats have said privately Abdullah may have overplayed his hand with last week's ultimatum to Karzai, which included a demand to dismiss three ministers in a bid to avoid a repeat of the first-round fraud.
Karzai has already indicated he would not give in to Abdullah's demand. Abdullah has not said what he would do if the officials were not removed.
The run-off was triggered when a U.N.-led investigation found widespread fraud, mainly in favour of Karzai, had been committed during the August 20 first round.
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, said Afghanistan faced a return to a "brutal tyranny" if the Taliban, al Qaeda and their militant Islamist allies were allowed to return to power. Bush was speaking at the leadership summit in New Delhi Abdullah had been due to attend.
Many commentators and Western diplomats believe Karzai will likely win the run-off, adding pressure on Abdullah to withdraw for the sake of stability.
The Taliban have called on Afghans to boycott the run-off and have vowed to disrupt it, their threat underlined on Wednesday by a suicide attack on a Kabul guest-house in which five foreign United Nations staff were killed.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Abu Dhabi, Matthias Williams in New Delhi and Sue Pleming and Ross Colvin in Washington; Editing by Paul Tait and Peter Cooney)

Reuters