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Afghan poll body backs Karzai on electoral row

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s election commission said on Tuesday it backed a decree by President Hamid Karzai that limits foreigners’ role in elections, scoring him another point in a dispute that has put him at odds with Washington.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks to locals during a shura, or meeting, in Kandahar city April 4, 2010. REUTERS/ Golnar Motevalli

The procedure of how to run the parliamentary election, set for September, has emerged as a major bone of contention in Afghanistan, prompting an anti-Western tirade by Karzai last week that drew a sharp rebuke from the United States.

Holding a free and fair parliamentary election is seen as a crucial test for Afghanistan which is facing a resurgent Taliban, despite the presence of tens of thousands of Western troops, more than eight years since the militants’ removal from power.

Karzai gave a speech on Thursday accusing the West of perpetrating election fraud in Afghanistan, and he appeared to go one step further on Monday by singling out the United States as specifically to blame, drawing anger from the White House.

U.S. officials worry that Karzai’s anti-Western rhetoric could erode public support for the war back home.

Karzai is wrangling with parliament and the United Nations over how the election should be run and wants to limit the influence of foreigners on a fraud watchdog that overturned his first-round victory in a presidential election last year.

In February, Karzai issued a decree stripping the United Nations of the authority to appoint the majority of members of the watchdog, allowing him to choose the panel himself. He then partly backed down, saying the world body could name two members of a panel of five.

Parliament’s lower house unanimously rejected Karzai’s decree in a vote last week, but the upper house refused to vote on it, apparently ensuring the decree still stood.

On Tuesday, Afghanistan’s government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversees the running of elections, said it now believed Karzai’s decree had the force of law and would act on it.

“We will carry out our work and programs on the basis of the new law that the Justice Ministry has sent to us,” IEC chief electoral officer Daoud Ali Najafi said.

Najafi said he believed the March compromise, under which Karzai would name two foreigners suggested by the United Nations to the five-member watchdog panel, still stood.

“It is the authority of the president to name two foreigners and three Afghans,” he said. “We have asked the president to present the five people to us as soon as possible.”

The fraud watchdog became the center of attention during last year’s disputed presidential election, when its foreign members overturned Karzai’s victory in the first round, throwing out a third of his votes.

Karzai was declared the victor anyway in November when his opponent backed out of a second-round run-off, but the three-month stand-off battered his reputation in the West.

Editing by Nick Macfie