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By Golnar Motevalli and Ahmed Masood
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan president Hamid Karzai rejected a demand from his rival in a presidential run-off to dismiss the country's top election official, setting the stage for a new confrontation.
Tension between Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah escalated when the former foreign minister demanded that the head of the Independent Election Commission be fired because he was biased towards Karzai. Abdullah also wanted three cabinet ministers suspended until the election was completed.
"Our ministers and officials, which Abdullah wants sacked or replaced, they have not done anything illegal or against the law that is why we cannot sack or replace them," Karzai was quoted as saying in a statement released by his office on Monday.
"In this short period of time, we cannot makes these changes, this will not be for the benefit of the country and will also harm the country," he said.
The run-off vote, pitting Karzai who derives much support from Pashtuns -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group -- against
Abdullah, who is backed mainly by Tajiks in the north, comes as the insurgency is at its strongest since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.
Abdullah gave the authorities until Saturday to dismiss election chief Azizullah Ludin, but refused to say what he would do if this demand was not met.
"We will wait for the commission's reply until October 31 and until then we suspend all of our relations with the commission," he told reporters at his house in Kabul.
Abdullah's ultimatum fuelled speculation that he may pull out of the election, the first round of which was mired by allegations of widespread fraud, most levelled at Karzai.
But in Washington, Senator John Kerry challenged the image among some in the United States of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as a corrupt, weak leader, saying he was a patriot who understood there must be changes among his ministers.
"The fact is that this man, I believe, is a patriot ... He has a commitment to this," said Kerry, who returned last week from Afghanistan where he helped convince Karzai to participate in the run-off election.
Kerry's defence of Karzai contrasted with recent comments by U.S. officials, who have expressed frustration at what they see as the Afghan leader's refusal to tackle corruption.
A Western diplomat in Kabul said Abdullah's demands for the removal of Ludin, who has been accused of being partial to Karzai, were "completely reasonable."
But Ludin told Reuters he would not stand down.
"No, why should I resign?" Ludin said when asked to respond to Abdullah's demands. "I don't know if the constitution gives (Abdullah) authority to ask of such a thing."
Concerns about a repeat of the fraud have cast a shadow over preparations for the run-off. More than 200 election officials are being fired or replaced to prevent that.
Karzai and Abdullah have denied suggestions that they could be in talks on a possible power-sharing deal and said holding the second round was key to strengthening the democratic process.
"Throughout the process we've seen a process of brinkmanship by both candidates," said the Western diplomat said, adding that an abrupt withdrawal by Abdullah was "unlikely."
In one of the deadliest days for U.S. troops in years, the NATO-led force said at least seven U.S. soldiers and three U.S. civilians died in a helicopter crash in western Afghanistan and four U.S. troops were killed in a separate mid-air helicopter collision in the south.
Although NATO said neither crash was caused by hostile fire, the incidents highlighted the risks foreign troops in Afghanistan face, as U.S. President Barack Obama deliberates whether to send additional troops there.
Obama said he will not be rushed on his decision on sending more troops into the war zone.
"I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harms way," he told U.S. sailors in a speech to Navy personnel in Jacksonville, Florida.
"Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals as well as the equipment and support you need to get the job done," Obama said.
ABC News cited unnamed sources as saying Obama's decision likely will come between Afghanistan's run-off election on November 7 and his departure for Japan on November 11.
Opinion polls show flagging support among Americans for the war and members of Obama's own Democratic Party are divided over whether to send in thousands more troops.
Underscoring many Afghans' unease with the presence of foreign forces, hundreds of people gathered in central Kabul on Monday chanting "Down with America," throwing stones and clashing with police while protesting against what they said was the desecration of a copy of the Koran by foreign troops.
For the second consecutive day, police fired into the air to break up the crowd as protesters prepared to set fire to a crudely made effigy of Obama outside the parliament building.
Protesters say NATO forces burnt a copy of Islam's holiest book during a raid in eastern Afghanistan last week. The NATO-led force in Afghanistan has denied any involvement and blamed the Taliban for spreading false rumours.
(Writing by Maria Golovnina and Golnar Motevalli; additional reporting by Ahmad Masood, Maria Golovnina and Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by Chris Wilson and Sanjeev Miglani)