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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan began registering voters on Monday for elections due next year that will test support for President Hamid Karzai and democracy itself which is threatened by a virulent Taliban insurgency in which thousands have died.
The lack of security could well derail the election process depending on how much the Taliban decide or are able to intimidate the people against participating, but early signs were the militants have already begun campaigning against the polls.
"Just now we have received some information that in some areas anti-government elements were trying to stop people from registering themselves as voters already," Zekria Barakzai, deputy head of the Independent Election Commission, told Reuters.
"They are preaching at the mosques asking people not to vote or register themselves," he said.
One truck carrying registration forms has already been torched in the northeast, but that may have been due to criminal activity, a security expert said.
Some 3,800 people, a third of them civilians, were killed in Afghanistan by the end of July this year, according to the United Nations, which says 40 to 50 percent of the country is now inaccessible to its aid activities.
For security reasons, registration is taking place in four phases, starting with 14 provinces in central and northeastern Afghanistan, then a month later in the north, then the more troublesome east and finally in the southern hotbed of the insurgency in January.
The recognition of old voter registration cards could also somewhat ease security problems as only new voters or those who have lost their old cards have to register themselves.
The Afghan army and police, at times hard pressed to defend themselves, backed by the more than 70,000 international troops in Afghanistan are to provide security for the process.
But there have already been problems taking registration materials from the capital of at least one of the first 14 provinces, in Ghazni, southwest of Kabul, to the outlying district centers where voters are to be recorded.
Foreign troops have been called to help transport the voter registration cards by helicopter. Ghazni, just two hours' drive from the capital was regarded as being largely secure two years ago, but is now plagued by kidnappings and insurgent violence.
The Taliban are now active in a semi-circle of provinces just south of Kabul and extending their influence and attacks into northern regions hitherto almost untouched by violence.
Elections for the presidency in 2004 and for parliament in 2005 passed off largely peacefully as the Taliban mostly chose not to oppose a process that had wide popular support.
But after three years of steadily increasing violence since the austere Islamist movement relaunched its insurgency and widespread disappointment with the slow pace of development, faith in Karzai's ability to govern and the power of democracy to bring change is running low.
Still, election officials say they are not sure the Taliban will target voter registration and say they are attempting to reach out to the militants to prevent pre-election violence.
"We didn't contact them directly but there is a group of tribal leaders, in the coming weeks we will have meetings with them and they promise they will convey our messages to anti-government groups, insurgents, Taliban and so on, to see if it is possible to find a common solution to the problem," said Barakzai.
The election commission's message echoes a call from Karzai last week for the Taliban to give up violence and turn to peaceful politics.
"The message is that the best way to solve the problem is elections," Barakzai said. "If you don't agree with certain policies of the government, the best way to stop the government doing something wrong is participating in elections and electing a president who you want to be in place."
The Taliban have repeatedly denied they are either already in peace talks or will enter negotiations with the government until all foreign troops leave Afghan soil.
Editing by Valerie Lee