Asia Crisis

Karzai defends controversial running mate choice

WASHINGTON, May 5 (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai defended on Tuesday choosing a former guerrilla chief accused of rights abuses as his senior running mate in August polls, saying the man brought "stability and unity" to the country.

Karzai on Monday named former Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim as his senior vice president, ignoring the repeated pleas of the head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, to pick someone else.

Human rights groups condemned the choice.

Karzai said in Washington, however, that critics had ignored Fahim's contributions fighting the Soviets in the 1980s and in ousting the Islamist Taliban earlier this decade.

"The country needs to be united and Fahim will be a factor of stability and unity for the Afghan people," he said in remarks in Washington a day before a summit with U.S. President Barack Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari.

"We need a man on whom we can rely in hard times," said Karzai, who is seen as all but unassailable in the Aug. 20 presidential election. His opponents are scrambling to unite behind a single leader ahead of the vote.

"He will be a vice president that will be able to go to any part of the country and deliver," he added.

Karzai said he also embraced Fahim because he was a former guerrilla, a group that has not been well represented in Afghanistan's new government and parliament despite their sacrifices against the Soviets.

Fahim also "contributed immensely in the war against terrorism shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan," and would be good for both countries, he said.

Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, called Fahim "one of the most notorious warlords in the country, with the blood of many Afghans on his hands from the civil war."

Reporting by Paul Eckert; Editing by Paul Simao