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By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - The Taliban called on Afghans on Saturday to boycott next month's presidential election run-off and vowed to disrupt voting in a repeat of their threat to derail the disputed first round.
Election officials are hastily trying to prepare for the November 7 run-off, which removed one stumbling block for U.S. President Barack Obama as he weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight a resurgent Taliban.
"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan once again urges their respected countrymen not to participate," the Taliban said in a statement, emailed to Reuters, saying the election process was being orchestrated by Washington.
"In order to make this process fail, all the mujahideens will carry out operations on the enemy's centres," it said of the thousands of polling stations to be set up for the vote between President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah.
Karzai agreed to the vote after coming under heavy international pressure.
A United Nations-backed fraud investigation invalidated thousands of his votes from the August 20 first round, pushing him below the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a run-off against Abdullah, his former foreign minister.
The Taliban had also threatened to disrupt the first round but, despite sporadic attacks against candidates, election officials and polling stations, the Islamists failed to disrupt the process entirely.
Security fears nevertheless contributed to a low voter turnout and election officials have said they expect turnout to be even lower for the run-off.
The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001, have strengthened their insurgency, with 2009 the deadliest year of the eight-year war.
Election officials have warned that NATO and Afghan security forces are not allowing themselves enough time to secure polling centres for the run-off.
The approach of Afghanistan's harsh winter, when much of the mountainous country becomes inaccessible, makes organising and conducting the new poll even more difficult.
"ROADS WILL BE BLOCKED"
Karzai started his campaign on Saturday but his spokesman said he would not plan large rallies similar to those in the first round, many of which drew thousands of supporters.
The poor weather conditions and insecurity have led some commentators to question whether the poll can realistically go ahead and Karzai's spokesman urged the NATO force (ISAF) and the U.N. to ensure the run-off will be secure.
"We call on all institutions including ISAF, the Afghan government, U.N. and the election commission to do whatever they can to make sure the election takes place," Wahid Omar, a spokesman for Karzai's campaign, told reporters.
The latest Taliban statement told Afghans not to leave their homes on polling day.
"The people must not take part in the elections ... all the main roads will be blocked or closed to the government and private vehicles on the day before (the poll)," the statement said in a reiteration of the Taliban's first-round threat.
Karzai is widely expected to win the second round largely due to his strong support base among fellow Pashtuns -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. He remains popular with many Afghans who see him as an experienced leader.
TENSION WITH WASHINGTON
Tension between Karzai and his U.S. backers has mounted over the past year with Washington signalling frustration at his failure to tackle corruption, while the president has criticised U.S. troops for causing too many civilian casualties.
On Saturday four civilians were killed, including two women and one child, when U.S. forces fired on their vehicle, in the southern city of Kandahar, where Karzai has strong support.
A spokesman for NATO forces said three civilians had been killed and two wounded when NATO troops opened fire because their car failed to stop after being repeatedly signalled to do so.
Washington is watching the election closely because it forms a key element of Western efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, where it has about 70,000 troops struggling to turn the tide of the growing insurgency.
Obama is considering a call by U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, for tens of thousands more soldiers. Obama said this week he could reach a decision on extra troops before the November 7 vote.
Karzai has promised that he will have an "inclusive" government if he wins the second round, although he did not give details on how he might.
"If (Abdullah) wants to come and work in my government, he is most welcome," he told CNN in an interview to be broadcast on Sunday.
Abdullah said he had "absolutely no interest in such a scenario." If Karzai wins the vote "as a result of a transparent and credible process," Abdullah told CNN: "I will be in the opposition pursuing the agenda for change."
He said he would push for "changing the highly centralised presidential system into a parliamentary system ... having a truly independent election commission, independent judiciary."
When asked by Sky News about the NATO mission, he said: "I think more troops are needed. Based on any sort of analysis, if you look at the security situation in Afghanistan, that is what is needed."
(Additional reporting by Ismael Sameem in Kandahar, Golnar Motevalli in Kabul, Mohammad Zargham in Washington and Avril Ormsby in London; writing by Golnar Motevalli; editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Reuters