Supporters of Afghanistan's main presidential candidates came out in their thousands on Sunday in a last burst of campaign excitement with days to go before the ballot.
The few surveys that have been published show incumbent president Hamid Karzai in the lead, but not by enough to avoid a run-off against his surprisingly strong challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
By law, campaigning ends at midnight on Monday, three days before Thursday's vote.
Karzai disappointed thousands of people in the southern city of Kandahar who were hoping he would make an appearance at a rally addressed by one of his half-brothers, Ahmad Wali Karzai, Kandahar's provincial council chief.
Kandahar is Karzai's home town as well as the heartland of the Taliban, whose fighters have vowed to disrupt the poll with attacks.
In his own regional power base in the north, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main challenger, was mobbed by thousands of supporters who stormed a gate to surge into the compound where his helicopter touched down.
He was hoisted onto a pickup truck and driven through the town of Taloqan, surrounded by crowds of adoring supporters including children wearing T-shirts imprinted with his face.
"I told the crowd we have already won," Abdullah told Reuters after delivering a short, sharp speech that won ecstatic applause at a stadium that included a section set aside for women in burqas.
"Karzai has said when he wins he will offer me bread and tea and a job in his government, " Abdullah said. "I said 'thanks for the offer, but it won't help' ... I have already won."
Test for Western forces
For the Western countries who now have more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, the result of the vote may be less important than ensuring it takes place at all.
Taliban fighters, stronger than ever since they were driven from power eight years ago, have vowed to disrupt the poll. The United Nations says their threats and violence have already interfered with preparations and curbed campaigning, and may keep many Afghans from going to the polls on Thursday.
In a sharp reminder of the violence, a suicide car bomber struck outside the headquarters of U.S. and NATO troops on Saturday, killing seven Afghans and wounding scores.
There are also fears that fraud could jeopardize the legitimacy of the vote, making violence worse. Abdullah played down concerns that his followers could respond with unrest if they feel they have been denied a victory.
"In the unlikely event that Karzai wins, I will encourage sensibility ... but this is unlikely because I have already won," he told Reuters.
The latest survey by the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute, conducted in July and released last week, found Karzai leading with 44 percent of the vote to 26 percent for Abdullah.
Ramazan Bashardost, a member of the Hazara ethnic minority and former planning minister who runs his campaign from a tent opposite parliament in Kabul, would place third with 10 percent.
There were originally over 40 official challengers, most with no hope of election, now whittled down to 35.
The vote is a test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has declared Afghanistan his administration's main foreign focus. More than 30,000 extra U.S. troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, most sent by Obama as part of an escalation strategy.
The new U.S. reinforcements have launched the war's biggest offensives, alongside British troops who since last month have suffered their worst battlefield casualties in a generation.
Britain announced the deaths of two more soldiers, bringing their total losses in Afghanistan to 201 dead. The sudden surge of casualties has made the war a hot political issue for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who defended it in a televised statement.
"It is to make Britain safe and the rest of the world safe that we must make sure we honor our commitment to maintain a free and stable Afghanistan. Failure to do so would make the world more dangerous."
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