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By Hanan Habibzai
SHIBERGHAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, frontrunner in next month's landmark election, traveled north on Sunday to inaugurate a road project, his first domestic trip since he survived a rocket attack 10 days ago.
The visit was not officially a part of his election campaign, with Karzai constrained because of security concerns amid militant violence and political sensitivity over using U.S. military helicopters and guards to boost his election chances.
But the visit to Shiberghan, 250 miles northwest of the capital, Kabul, is widely seen as a campaign trip in all but name, with Karzai keen to open reconstruction projects and counter criticism he has done little to improve infrastructure in outlying areas.
"I am really happy to be launching another reconstruction project," he said on the outskirts of Shiberghan, where a road leading to the neighboring Sar-i-Pul province is being resurfaced with U.S. government aid.
"The Afghan government is in discussions with the Uzbek authorities to strike a deal over other road projects in northern Afghanistan," he added, referring to the former Soviet Central Asian state that borders Afghanistan to the north.
Karzai, installed to power after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban in late 2001, survived a rocket attack on his U.S. military helicopter as he was landing in the southeastern town of Gardez on Sept. 16.
He was forced to abort the visit, during which he was to have opened a road project and a university.
Afghans complain that security concerns and a lack of funding have curtailed a lackluster election campaign ahead of the country's first ever direct presidential vote.
The United States funds Karzai's around-the-clock security, and on Sunday his U.S.-led Afghan guards outnumbered local dignitaries who came to welcome him on arrival in Shiberghan.
Flanked by presidential candidate and regional commander General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Karzai displayed his personable style by hinting jokingly that his rival should drop out of the election race.
Karzai's visit will be portrayed as a sign of his government's efforts to improve war-shattered infrastructure in the north amid frustration among minority ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks in the area that Kabul has done little to help them.
Karzai, like many of the Taliban militia he succeeded, is from the majority Pashtun ethnic group, which is concentrated in the south and east of the country.
He said he would travel next week to the Panjsher Valley north of Kabul to open another road project, taking him to the stronghold of another of his main rivals for the presidency, Yunus Qanuni.
Qanuni resigned as Karzai's education minister and decided to run for office after Karzai unexpectedly dropped Mohammad Qasim Fahim, his first vice president and defense minister, as one of his running mates.
Qanuni and Fahim are both members of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which helped the U.S. military topple the Taliban and which dominated Karzai's government until recently.
Most of the 18 presidential candidates want the Oct. 9 poll to be delayed to allow security to improve, as Taliban rebels and their militant allies wage an insurgency against the government. More than 1,000 people have been killed over the past year.
But analysts believe President Bush, who bids for re-election in November, is keen to hold the Afghan poll on time and portray Afghanistan as a foreign policy "success" while U.S. troops face daily turmoil in Iraq.
U.S. air power and Afghan resistance fighters combined to topple the Taliban after the hardline militia refused to hand over al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.