President Hamid Karzai was Tuesday under intense pressure to end Afghanistan's electoral chaos as Washington called for an early resolution after more than a million fraudulent votes were thrown out.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she expected Karzai, whose administration is supported by the West in the face of a bloody Taliban insurgency, to reveal his intentions later Tuesday.
Voicing hope of a resolution "in the next several days", Clinton said: "He is going to announce his intentions. I am going to let him do that but I am encouraged at the direction that the situation is moving."
The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) confirmed massive fraud in Afghanistan's August 20 election, raising the prospect that Karzai will be forced into a second round run-off or have to forge a unity government. Related article: US troop move may come without Afghan 'legitimacy'
The ECC late Monday threw out ballots from 210 polling stations after finding "clear and convincing evidence" of fraud, including entire ballot boxes with papers filled in with the same pen or same mark. Related article: Clinton hopeful Afghan vote crisis resolved soon
Most of the ballot-stuffing allegations were made against Karzai, who led preliminary results with about 55 percent of the vote. Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah had around 28 percent.
The ECC refused to divulge corrected results. But one Western diplomat and respected election monitor Democracy International said Karzai's share of the vote had now fallen to about 48 percent -- not enough for outright victory. Related article: US Marines still leading Afghanistan's army
Karzai, while acknowledging small-scale irregularities, has rubbished claims of widespread fraud as "totally fabricated".
The president made no public comment after the ECC announcement. But he did pledge Monday to "fully respect the constitutional order" in talks with UN chief Ban Ki-moon, according to a UN spokeswoman.
Abdullah meanwhile told CNN he was prepared for a second round of voting, while "at the same time the door is open" to other options to resolve the political paralysis. He did not specify what the options were. Related article: Abdullah says 'door open' to resolve Aghan vote dispute
There are signs that the patience of Karzai's traditional backers in the United States is wearing thin, as President Barack Obama wrestles with a fateful decision on whether to deploy thousands more troops to Afghanistan.
After the ECC announcement, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said: "It is going to be incredibly important for the world to see that Afghan leaders are willing to make this process legitimate."
Gibbs did not say whether Washington wanted Karzai to agree to a re-run election or to embrace a national unity government joined by Abdullah -- two options now being raised by White House advisers.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and US Senator John Kerry both said at the weekend that it would be "irresponsible" to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight the resurgent Taliban before the election is resolved.
But Defence Secretary Robert Gates said Obama may not have time for Afghanistan's political process to play out before deciding about troop reinforcements.
"We are not just going to sit on our hands waiting for the outcome of this election and for the emergence of a government in Kabul," Gates told reporters aboard his plane en route to Tokyo Tuesday.
"We have operations under way and we will continue to conduct those operations," he said.
There were calls in Kabul too for quick action given fears that the IEC -- which Abdullah says is stacked with Karzai loyalists -- may not accept the ECC findings.
A Western official close to the voting process said that Karzai and his cabinet were "bending towards accepting a run-off".
"He can't take on the international community and expect continued support. It's just not going to happen," the official added.
But time is short for a run-off election to be organised with Afghanistan's harsh winter looming. And tribal leaders who hold sway over thousands of voters in their fiefdoms have warned of their disaffection with the political process.