KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan presidential campaign narrowed to a field of eight men Wednesday after the grandson of the country's last king pulled out and endorsed a front-runner less than two weeks before the vote.
Mohammad Nadir Naim said he was withdrawing for the sake of national unity and throwing his support behind former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul.
Naim, grandson of Afghanistan's King Zahir Shah who died in 2007, spent most of his life in exile and was never considered a strong candidate in the race.
He was the third candidate to drop out, leaving eight contenders to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who is not running for the first time since the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban. Karzai is constitutionally banned from seeking a third term.
Rassoul; Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai's main rival in the disputed 2009 election; and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a well-known academic and former World Bank employee, are considered the front-runners but nobody is expected to win a majority, meaning a runoff will likely have to be held.
Afghan authorities are under pressure to prevent fraud from discrediting the credibility of the upcoming vote for a new president and provincial councils. There were widespread allegations of ballot stuffing and vote rigging five years ago.
The new leader will guide the country after international combat troops withdraw by the end of this year, leaving the country's security to the Afghan government. Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement with the United States that would allow thousands of foreign forces to stay in the country in a largely training and advisory role.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said he did not expect Karzai to change his mind, but all the major candidates have assured him they will quickly sign the deal without demanding changes. The agreement was reached after months of negotiations and approved in December by a council of tribal elders and dignitaries.
"I'm confident that ... each of them, should he become president, will sign the agreement as a first order of business," Ambassador James Cunningham told reporters at a briefing at the embassy in Kabul. "No one has hinted and nor would we agree to renegotiate the agreement."
"We've accepted the likelihood that President Karzai is not going to sign the agreement," Cunningham said.
He also said he was hopeful a recent spike in violence, including deadly attacks on an Afghan election office and a luxury hotel frequented by Westerners, would not derail the vote. The Taliban have threatened to disrupt the vote.
In violence Wednesday, a suicide car bomber targeted a police checkpoint in Khost, the capital of an eastern province with the same name, killing one civilian and wounding eight other people, including four policemen, officials said.
Provincial government spokesman Mubariz Mohammed Zadran said the bomber became nervous when police stopped him and detonated his explosives.
Rassoul is a longtime loyalist of the former king, whose 40-year rule has been described as the last time Afghanistan enjoyed a protracted period of peace and relative stability. The king was toppled in a 1973 coup. In later years, the Soviet Union would invade the country, sparking a bloody insurgency. Warlords then took over parts of the country until the rise of the Taliban in 1996.
Naim told about 300 supporters that Rassoul is the only candidate who can bring the country's many groups together and shepherd Afghanistan out of more than three decades of relentless war.
Karzai's elder brother Qayyum also dropped out of the race and threw his support behind Rassoul saying he could mobilize Afghanistan's moderate majority. Former defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak quit the race without backing anyone.
Rassoul, who resigned as foreign minister to run, appealed Wednesday for elections that are free of fraud.
His bold choice of a female running mate brought scores of women to Wednesday's meeting, during which Naim announced his withdrawal.
Each presidential candidate has two vice presidential running mates. Rassoul's choice of Habiba Sarabi has drawn widespread support from women's rights groups and women parliamentarians.
"We are all here to show our support for Sarabi and for the rights of Afghan women," said Zahra Mousawi, a women's rights activist.
Associated Press writer Kim Gamel contributed to this report. Kathy Gannon is Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon