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Afghan leader to take oath, reputation in tatters
* Pakistan's Zardari among 300 dignitaries to attend
* Karzai's reputation in tatters, Wests looks for signs
* Security clampdown across Kabul on eve of ceremony
By Peter Graff
KABUL, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Foreign dignitaries were to begin descending on Kabul on Wednesday, the eve of the inauguration of President Hamid Karzai, who is struggling to rehabilitate his tattered reputation in the West after a fraud-marred election.
Afghanistan's foreign ministry says 300 international dignitaries will attend Thursday's oath-taking ceremony at the sprawling presidential palace in Kabul, including 30 presidents, vice presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers.
Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner have confirmed they will attend Karzai's swearing-in.
Other countries, including the United States, have not announced in advance who will attend for security reasons.
U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is in the final stages of deciding whether to send tens of thousands of extra troops, a decision that could come soon after the inauguration brings the tumultuous three-month election process to a close.
The Taliban insurgency has never been deadlier during Karzai's 8-year rule, the Western force protecting him has never been larger, and his own reputation has never been weaker, wrecked by election fraud, corruption and weak government.
Security for the ceremony in Kabul will be extreme, with reporters barred from attending the inauguration itself.
The centrepiece of the ceremony will be Karzai's inauguration speech, with Western officials hoping that the veteran leader can lay out a specific programme to combat corruption, improve performance and limit the influence of former warlords.
"We would like some sort of roadmap. We want some clear direction given here," a European diplomat said.
The election, intended to bolster the legitimacy of the Afghan leader, had the opposite effect, driving a wedge between Karzai and the Western countries whose troops defend him.
A U.N.-backed probe concluded nearly a third of votes for Karzai in the Aug. 20 poll were fake, meaning he failed to win the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round. He was declared the winner anyway when his opponent quit before the run-off.
Public support for the war has plummeted in Western countries as the insurgency spreads and death tolls soar.
Obama has already presided over a massive escalation of the war. There are now nearly 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans, more than half arriving this year.
Obama's commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has requested tens of thousands of additional troops, warning that without them, the war will probably be lost.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Tuesday found that 52 percent of Americans now believe the war is not worth fighting, although 55 percent still believe Obama will choose a strategy that will work.
Western leaders need to persuade their people that Karzai's government can be improved and is worth fighting for.
"Now that the election is finally over, we're looking to see tangible evidence that the government, led by the president but going all the way down to the local level, will be more responsive to the needs of the people," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told ABC television on Sunday.
Karzai's government announced anti-graft measures this week, including a new major crimes police task force, prosecutors' unit and tribunal -- steps welcomed in the West, although it remains to be seen if they will be more effective than previous efforts.
Karzai was installed by the United States and its Afghan allies after they helped drive the Taliban from power in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. He won a full term in the country's first democratic presidential election in 2004.
(Editing by Paul Tait)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)
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