Karzai ousts 2 Afghan officials linked to election fraud
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KABUL -- In an apparent capitulation to international pressure, the government of President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday announced the removal of two top election officials who were implicated in widespread fraud in last summer's presidential elections.
The legal framework for upcoming parliamentary elections has been a key point of contention between Mr. Karzai and Western governments. He has resisted demands for what diplomats called "root-and-branch" reform of Afghanistan's electoral system prior to the parliamentary vote, which is set for September.
Word of the electoral shake-up came from Mr. Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omar, who told reporters in Kabul that Azizullah Ludin, director of the Independent Electoral Commission, had stepped down, together with Daoud Ali Najafi, the commission's chief electoral adviser. Several foreign monitoring groups had accused both men of abetting massive vote-rigging during August's balloting.
After an initial vote count, a separate fraud-auditing body stripped Mr. Karzai of about one-third of the votes cast for him, throwing the race to a runoff. That second round was averted, however, when the Afghan leader's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out of the race, and Mr. Karzai was declared the winner.
Despite its name, the Independent Electoral Commission, the main vote-overseeing body, is appointed by the president. During and after last August's race, Mr. Karzai's opponents had accused Mr. Ludin of favoring Mr. Karzai, who had handpicked him.
Replacements for the two officials have not yet been named.
Arrangements for the parliamentary vote have been an inflammatory topic in recent days, driving a wedge between Mr. Karzai and his Western patrons, just as NATO is preparing for a massive military offensive in Afghanistan's south this summer.
Escalating discord between Mr. Karzai and the Obama administration began last Thursday, when the Afghan leader, addressing election officials, blamed vote fraud on foreign interference and called it part of a Western conspiracy to weaken his government.
Similarly bellicose comments by Mr. Karzai in subsequent days drew a White House warning Tuesday that despite being invited last month to visit Mr. Obama in Washington, Mr. Karzai could be disinvited if his outbursts continued.
Despite the seriousness with which Mr. Karzai's comments were viewed in Washington and among some Western diplomats in Kabul, Mr. Omar sought to minimize the significance of several days of tense exchanges with the White House.
Diplomats including the new U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, had worked to defuse the dispute.
The United Nations stepped in earlier with a compromise plan after Mr. Karzai issued a controversial decree giving himself sole authority to appoint members of the fraud-auditing panel, known as the Electoral Complaints Commission.
Afghan lawmakers tried to overrule that decree, and Mr. Karzai last week delivered an angry tirade to members of the parliament's lower house over that move, again casting blame on the West for meddling.
First Published April 8, 2010 12:00 am