Last-minute drama as Afghan presidential front-runners sign up


(Corrects description of Sayyaf in final paragraph)

By Hamid Shalizi

KABUL, Oct 6 (Reuters) - Three men considered front runnersin Afghanistan's presidential election staged dramaticlast-minute nominations on Sunday, the start of what is expectedto be a chaotic but critical race for the palace in the firstdemocratic transfer of power.

The April election is considered the most crucial since theU.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, with more thana decade of Western-led reforms resting on its outcome amidincreasing Taliban violence.

It comes during the same year as the end of the NATO-ledcombat mission and will be modern Afghanistan's first democratichandover to a new leader, with President Hamid Karzai barred bythe constitution from running for a third term.

Karzai's older brother, Qayum, former foreign ministerZalmay Rassoul and Western-leaning intellectual Ashraf Ghani allfiled their papers in the last few hours of the three-week-longnomination period.

"With the help of Almighty God and the people, we are readyto form a government," said Qayum, who has studiously avoidedpublic appearances until Sunday.

There were chaotic scenes outside the Independent ElectionCommission's media hall as Qayum, 56, and his entourage walkedinto the building, with police barring some of his supportersdue to overcrowding.

Qayum had arrived in a convoy of dozens of armouredfour-wheel drive vehicles plastered with posters. Some of thevehicles had government licence plates, despite Qayum holding nogovernment post.

He was the last the of major candidates to register,arriving hours after Rassoul and Ghani had filed their papers.

"Afghanistan needs a change, and we will be the ones to winthis election," said Ghani, who came third in the 2009 election.

The former finance minister was accompanied by his unlikelyrunning mate, ethnic Uzbek warlord turned politician, AbdulRashid Dostum.

Dostum, who exerts tight control over more than a millionvotes in the Uzbek north, had initially been part of a broadanti-Karzai alliance called Etihad ("Unity").

He split from the group late last month and engaged in aseries of flirtations with pro-government candidates beforesettling on Ghani.

Patrician Rassoul, flanked by at least a dozen bodyguards,was welcomed to the hall by a line of Afghan boys and girls intraditional clothes clutching bouquets.

All three have been separately mentioned by diplomaticsources and the media as Karzai's favoured candidate, though hehas said repeatedly that he will not support any one person.

The leading opposition candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, and aformer Islamist warlord turned parliamentarian, Abdul RassoulSayyaf, registered earlier in the week. (Additional reporting by Dylan Welch; Writing by Dylan Welch;Editing by Nick Macfie)

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