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Afghanistan plays down Karzai's anti-West remarks

Afghanistan played down on Wednesday anti-Western remarks by President Hamid Karzai, saying they were not aimed at specific countries and would not affect ties between Kabul and the international community.

The United States also sought to ease tensions, with US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley saying a planned trip by Karzai to Washington next month would go ahead despite suggestions by the White House it could be postponed.

A war of words between Karzai and the White House escalated this week following accusations by the Afghan president that the West carried out election fraud in Afghanistan.

Karzai has not backed down from his remarks and appeared to sharpen the criticism further by singling out the United States for blame.

Washington voiced frustration over the comments and Canada added its criticism on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying Karzai's statements were “completely unacceptable”. Canada has 2,800 troops in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and 140 of its soldiers have been killed.

“We have men and women who are over there putting their lives on the line to help the population in its struggle against the Taliban,” Harper said.

Karzai's chief spokesman, Waheed Omer, sought to ease tensions with allies, saying the president's statements were aimed at individuals who had made fraud allegations and were “not necessarily” directed at any specific country.

“When it comes to fraud in elections, you know, there (were) lots of discussions over the past six or seven months ... one-sided views mainly made by certain figures that I will not name here,” Omer told a news conference in Kabul.

Those figures “do not necessarily represent the country or represent any international organization,” he said.

Karzai made his remarks, Omer said, to avoid a repeat of fraud allegations in the upcoming parliamentary election.

In his speech last week, Karzai said foreigners had bribed and threatened election workers to carry out fraud in last year's presidential election. He singled out the ex-deputy head of the UN mission in Kabul -- US diplomat Peter Galbraith -- and the French head of a European Union monitoring team.

Omer played down the impact Karzai's remarks could have on relations with the West.

“It did not have any effect on the strategic relations with the United States and the international community. Our stance and position are the same,” he said.

US President Barack Obama met Karzai in Kabul last month during a brief night-time visit to Afghanistan but that visit has largely been overshadowed by Karzai's remarks.

On Tuesday, the White House suggested it might cancel a meeting between the two leaders in Washington next month if Karzai persisted with his anti-Western tone and Omer said this needed to be clarified.

Asked whether the meeting would still go ahead, the State Department's Crowley said it was still on. “There's been no change,” he told reporters, adding the United States would work through any differences it had with Karzai “constructively.”

In a development that could help placate Western concerns over fraud ahead of the parliamentary poll in September, Omer said the head of the country's government-appointed election body and his deputy were to be replaced.

Last year's presidential election damaged Karzai's standing among Western countries with troops in Afghanistan after allegations of widespread fraud, including that carried out by officials in the Independent Election Commission (IEC).

It led to months of political limbo, with the IEC declaring Karzai the winner but a separate U.N.-backed body rejecting enough ballots to lower Karzai's total below 50% and force a second round.

“The working period of Mr. Azizullah Ludin, director of the Independent Election Commission, has finished and will not be extended,” Omer said.

“Daoud Ali Najafi has also resigned from his position which has been approved by the president,” he added, referring to the body's chief electoral officer.

There have been several calls for Ludin to step down since last year's August 20 vote, and Western diplomats have said the international community would not be pleased if Karzai reappointed him.

Opponents accuse Ludin, a presidential appointee, of favoring Karzai.

Omer said both IEC officials would be replaced soon, adding they would be offered high-ranking positions elsewhere.

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