Afghanistan's presidential candidates held rallies in Kabul on Sunday at the start of a campaign to elect Hamid Karzai's successor, as the killing of a frontrunner's aides highlighted the security threat to the poll.
Gunmen shot dead two members of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah's team in the western city of Herat on Saturday, dealing an early blow to hopes of a peaceful campaign as the country prepares for its first democratic transfer of power.
The April 5 election is seen as a key test of the effectiveness of the 350,000-strong Afghan security forces as foreign troops prepare to exit the country, while the future of US troops in the country beyond 2014 is set to dominate the agenda.
In the capital on Sunday thousands of people, mostly men, gathered in giant wedding halls where candidates delivered speeches and called on war-weary Afghans to vote for them.
Abdullah, who came second to Karzai in the chaotic and fraud-riddled 2009 election, conveyed his condolences to the families of his slain aides and outlined his priorities as "security in the far villages of Afghanistan, fighting corruption, (and) enforcing rule of law".
He said the signing of a bilateral security agreement (BSA), which would allow about 10,000 US troops to be deployed in the country after NATO withdraws by December, was essential to safeguarding the country's future.
"Afghanistan is in a place, in a position that needs the continuation of international cooperation and help," Abdullah said.
"Inshallah (God willing), with the signing of this agreement, the problems…will be solved."
Earlier, Abdullah's rival Ashraf Ghani, a 64-year-old academic, told one packed hall: "Reforms will begin with us: myself, Mr Dostum and Mr Danish."
He was referring to his running mates, the former Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and ethnic Hazara tribal chieftain Sarwar Danish.
Security was tight at the rallies, which were guarded by the Afghan national army.
But the killing of Abdullah's aides weighed heavily on some people's minds.
Arefa Alizada, an 18-year-old Abdullah supporter who attended one of the rallies, said: "I am concerned about security of the election, especially after I heard that two campaigners were killed yesterday. If it worsens, I and many other people won't be able to vote."
Afghanistan has been gripped by a deadly insurgency for the past 12 years. Most US and NATO troops are set to leave at the end of this year, leaving Afghans in charge of their own security.
Karzai had been expected to sign the bilateral security agreement late last year.
But he has stalled and said his successor might now complete negotiations — plunging relations with the US, Afghanistan's key donor, to a fresh low.
Karzai has ruled the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, surviving assassination attempts and the treacherous currents of Afghan political life as billions of dollars of military and development aid poured into the country.
He is barred from seeking a third term, leaving an open field to compete in the April 5 vote, which is likely to trigger a second-round run-off in late May between the two strongest candidates.
Waheed Wafa, a political analyst, described Abdullah and Ghani as the front-runners, with Karzai loyalist Zalmai Rassoul seen as a possible third force.
In comments likely to cause further friction with his NATO allies, Karzai criticised their conduct during the 12-year conflict in an interview with Britain's Sunday Times, in which he described the Taliban as "brothers" and the US as "rivals".
Karzai told the newspaper that "the US-led NATO mission in terms of bringing security has not been successful, particularly in Helmand", a southern stronghold of Taliban militants where British troops are based.
"We have immense respect for the life of NATO soldiers lost in Afghanistan and strong disagreement for the way US conducted itself in Afghanistan," he said.
Western and Afghan officials say all 11 candidates support the BSA. But, except for Abdullah, they have declined to say so publicly for fear of clashing with Karzai.
Taliban insurgents have threatened to target the campaign, and the Afghan police and army face a major challenge with little support from the dwindling number of NATO troops.
Disputes over millions of fraudulent ballots led to a major crisis after voting in 2009, before Abdullah pulled out of the run-off and left Karzai to take power.
Election organisers are again expected to be busy with complaints of fake votes, ballot-box stuffing and polling booths unable to open due to intimidation.
"Holding elections is not an easy job in the current situation in Afghanistan," Yousuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission, told candidates recently.
"We hope you carry out your election campaigns in accordance with the law and in a good environment."