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Obama welcomes Karzai's decision on vote

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seen during a news conference, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009.  (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq) Afghan President Hamid Karzai is seen during a news conference, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama said he called Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Tuesday to applaud his agreement to a second round vote and thank him for having the interests of the "Afghan people at heart."

Karzai's announced his agreement earlier Tuesday after a U.N. commission, looking into fraud, threw out nearly a third of the ballots cast for him in Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election. The new vote will take place Nov. 7.

Karzai came under heavy U.S. pressure to accept the U.N. findings, and Obama said he wanted to express his congratulations personally. Obama spoke to reporters about the Afghanistan situation after meeting in the Oval Office with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"President Karzai and the other candidates have shown that they have the interests of the Afghan people at heart," he said. "This is a reflection of a commitment to the rule of law and the insistence that the Afghan people's will should be done."

Obama said the Afghan leader had show a commitment to the rule of law during a difficult time in Afghanistan to conduct a national election. Now, Obama said, "There is a path forward to complete this election prospect."

The president was lavish in his praise for the work of U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, who was joined in talks in Kabul over the weekend by Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obama also tipped his hat to American troops fighting in Afghanistan.

"President Karzai's constructive actions established an important precedent for Afghanistan's new democracy," Obama said in a statement issued earlier Tuesday. "The Afghan constitution and laws are strengthened by President Karzai's decision, which is in the best interests of the Afghan people."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed Karzai's announcement as a boost for Afghan democracy. She made no direct mention of the fraudulent Karzai votes that were thrown out, although she referred to "a rough and contentious" election and weeks of "debate over the flaws in the vote."

"We remain committed to partnering with the Afghan people and their government on our shared objectives of strengthening good governance, tackling corruption, increasing economic opportunities and improving security for all Afghans," she said in a written statement.

A senior administration official also credited the work of Eikenberry and Kerry who had been deeply engaged with Karzai and other Afghan government officials over the past several days in "talking through" the need for solution to the election stalemate. Kerry, who had met with Karzai at least four times before the announcement, was at the Afghan president's side when the announcement was made in Kabul.

The official denied reports that the administration would have preferred - instead of a run-off - that Karzai and his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, had reached a power sharing agreement. That outcome is not foreseen in the Afghanistan constitution and would only have delayed a final settling of the question of who was actually president, the official said.

In interviews over the weekend from Kabul, Kerry said the election process had to be settled before the Obama administration could make a reasoned decision about whether to send additional troops and to commit other resources to stabilizing Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, meanwhile, said the Obama administration needs to decide on a war strategy and not "sit on our hands" waiting for election results and a government to emerge in Kabul. In remarks to reporters traveling with him to Asia, the Pentagon chief said Obama will have to make his decisions in the context of "evolving" issues.

At the White House Tuesday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said it has not been determined whether Obama will wait to announce an Afghan strategy until after the results of the runoff. Gibbs told reporters he still expects that announcement to be made in "the coming weeks."

Regardless of the election's outcome, Gibbs said, "We've got to make sure we're making progress with a partner in that government." He also said the next U.S. strategy meeting on Afghanistan may be pushed back until early next week because Gates is traveling.

Obama was widely expected to decide on the next steps in Afghanistan before he begins an extended trip to Asia next month.

On Monday, Clinton had said a new vote was logistically feasible within weeks.

Clinton, who spoke with Karzai a number of times in recent days, had announced that Karzai would declare his intentions on Tuesday and said she was "encouraged at the direction the situation is moving."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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