By Andrew Quinn
NAIROBI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Kenya on Saturday to hold free and fair elections and be a role model for Africa, underlining the need to avoid the bloodshed suffered during the last vote five years ago.
The general election next March will be the first since a disputed poll in 2007 that set off a politically based ethnic slaughter in which more than 1,200 people were killed.
Clinton met President Mwai Kibaki, who is barred by law from seeking a third term, and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who leads in opinion polls in the race to replace him.
The two were the main rivals in the disputed presidential poll, when then opposition leader Odinga accused Kibaki of stealing the vote.
Gangs faced off with machetes and clubs, and security forces opened fire on the streets, until mediator Kofi Annan brokered a power-sharing pact between Kibaki and Odinga that ended the violence and made Odinga prime minister.
"The United States has pledged to assist the government of Kenya in ensuring that the upcoming elections are free, fair and transparent," Clinton told reporters in Nairobi.
"We urge that the nation come together and prepare for elections which will be a real model for the entire world."
Clinton made the remarks after meeting Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a former law school lecturer with a track record of pushing for legal reform.
Clinton, launching a seven-nation Africa tour in Senegal on Wednesday, urged Africa to recommit to democracy, declaring the "old ways of governing" can no longer work on a continent with strong economic growth and an increasingly empowered citizenry.
She was also due to meet Somali President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and other Somali leaders in Nairobi before travelling to Malawi and South Africa.
Clinton's trip to Africa is intended in part to strengthen U.S. security ties with allies such as Kenya, the economic powerhouse of eastern Africa, in the face of growing threats from Islamist militants.
A statement from the Kenyan presidency said Clinton had "appreciated the frontline role" Kenya continued to play to stabilize Somalia and the Horn of Africa, and had promised her government's support for such initiatives.
Nairobi has blamed a series of bomb and other attacks in Kenya on Somalia's al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab, which has threatened to retaliate since Kenyan troops pursued the Islamists into Somalia in October.
Clinton said she was encouraged by progress since Kenya adopted a new constitution in August 2010, which granted the judiciary "significant responsibilities".
Analysts say the crisis over the 2007 election was made considerably worse by the parties' refusal to take disputes to the courts, which were widely seen as inefficient and corrupt.
"However I am well aware that there are many issues yet to be decided and many laws to be passed," Clinton said, referring to groundwork being undertaken in preparation for the polls.
Mutunga has won praise for restructuring the courts since taking over in June last year, including firing corrupt judges and setting up a special team of judges to handle election disputes well ahead of next year's presidential election.
Clinton was also due to meet the elections commission, currently mired in a crisis over its decision to abandon plans to introduce an electronic register of voters after the tendering process descended into acrimony.
(Writing by James Macharia, editing by Tim Pearce)
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