KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Campaigning for Afghanistan's first direct presidential election began Tuesday, a crucial step in the nation's troubled transition to democracy after the fall of the Taliban nearly three years ago.
Interim leader Hamid Karzai and his 17 challengers have 30 days to woo some 10.6 million Afghans registered for the vote. Key issues are the snail's pace of reconstruction, enduring poverty and fragile security.
No big rallies marked the low-key start of the campaign. Yet the outcome could be pivotal for a country still awash with guns, riven by ethnic animosities and mired in poverty.
In the hours before campaigning began, clashes pitting Taliban militiamen against Afghan and U.S. forces erupted in southern Afghanistan, killing six Taliban and one Afghan soldier.
Massooda Jalal, the only woman in the field, opened her campaign with a fiery appeal to widows at a U.N.-subsidized bakery in a war-scarred district near the capital's zoo.
About 50 women, almost all completely veiled, clapped wildly and prayed for their "sister" under a tree in the yard as she took to task the country's warlords, some of whom are also candidates.
"Those people who betrayed you and destroyed your homes and who killed your loved-ones, they have no place in my government," said Jalal, who wore a headscarf.
"Like a doctor, I want to treat Afghanistan's wounds ... like a mother, I will improve the life of the Afghan family."
Karzai, strongly backed by the United States, is considered the favorite to become the first popularly elected head of state.
But the bewildering field of candidates and the tribal reflex that fueled more than 20 years of conflict could split the vote so widely that the incumbent is forced into a runoff.
Officials say a second round could delay the result until November, stretching the nerves of security forces bracing for violence from Taliban-led militants who have threatened to sabotage the election.
The latest clashes involving the Taliban broke out Monday in the southern province of Zabul, a rugged region where Taliban holdouts often attack Afghan security forces, foreign aid workers and U.S. troops.
In the bloodiest incident, about 60 Taliban fighters came down from the mountains and stormed the chief administrator's office in Naubahar district on Monday night, Jilani Khan, deputy chief of police in Zabul, said. Security forces battled the fighters for two hours before the Taliban fled.
One government soldier was killed and one was injured. The Taliban left behind four dead, he said.
In a separate clash Monday, American and Afghan forces battled with Taliban fighters, killing two and capturing two others.
A dozen election workers have been killed in shootings and bombings so far, and the capital is on edge after a car bomb on Aug. 29 killed at least seven people at a U.S. security firm.
U.S. and NATO troops are patrolling the capital and countryside, leaving it to thousands of newly trained Afghan national police and army troops to guard candidates and polling stations.
The contenders also include an angry poet and a genteel former royal aide.
Posters for candidates such as Hazara strongman Mohammed Mohaqeq have been plastered around Kabul. Abdul Hadi Dabir, a rabble-rousing outsider, says he has sent tapes to radio stations plugging his campaign.
Karzai's aides have given no details on his plans to stump for votes, though he was to inaugurate a cooking-oil factory later Tuesday.
The president unveiled his ticket six weeks ago, dropping his powerful defense minister and deputy, Mohammed Fahim, after a failed bid to disarm feuding militias.
The United Nations fears warlords could use their guns to intimidate both voters and candidates to secure a favorable result.
"Disarmament continues to be key" to keeping the election fair, it said in a joint report on Sunday with the Afghan human rights commission.
The report also complained of a "lack of information and understanding" about how the elections work, especially in rural areas, where many are illiterate.
Karzai has said that raising living standards for a population swelled by millions of returning refugees would be his top priority in a second term. Most Afghans remain dirt-poor, cut off from basic services and at the mercy of local warlords.
But his rivals say he carries part of the blame, alleging that billions in foreign aid have been misspent, calling for relief agencies as well as ministers to be brought to account.