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Despite vows by Taliban remnants to retaliate against anyone connected to Saturday's historic national election in Afghanistan, the UN declared preparations complete and the interim government said terrorist attacks can only "damage but not stop" the process. Voting places will be guarded both by US and NATO troops. President Hamid Karzai is widely expected to win, although his campaign has been limited by security concerns, lack of resources, and a demanding workload. Two of his 17 opponents dropped out of the running Wednesday and offered their support to him.

In another election with strong overtones of the impending presidential vote in the US, Australians will choose Saturday between the ruling Liberal/National coalition of Prime Minister John Howard and the opposition Labor Party. Late opinion polls give Howard's coalition a narrow edge, but 40 percent of respondents said they could change their minds at the last minute. Howard has refused to apologize for committing Australian troops to the war in Iraq. Labor leader Mark Latham accuses Howard of making the nation less safe because of his support for the US counterterrorism efforts and has pledged to bring the troops home by Christmas if he wins.

A deal that would result in the handover of weapons by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's loyalists in Baghdad was proposed by his top aide. In return, the interim government must promise to stop pursuing the militiamen and release those already in jail, Ali Smeisem said. The government had yet to respond as the Monitor went to press, although the US military freed another Sadr aide who'd been held for almost a year.

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A ban on all religious gatherings except for Friday prayers in mosques was announced by Pakistan's Interior Ministry after bomb blasts in the city of Multan killed 39 people and wounded more than 100 others. The explosions targeted a gathering of Sunni Muslim extremists and appeared to be in retaliation for a similar attack less than a week ago that killed 31 people inside a Shiite mosque in Sialkot. Sunnis outnumber Shiites in Pakistan by 80 percent to 20 percent.

Citing poor health and old age, the monarch of Cambodia asked parliament to "please allow me to retire." The request by Noro-dom Sihanouk came in a letter from Beijing, where he regularly seeks treatment for various illnesses. It also asked the legislators to appoint a council to choose his successor. Sihanouk has often threatened to quit because of the political turmoil that has wracked Cambodia for decades, although the Constitution does not permit abdication.

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