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Karzai: Afghan Corruption 'Blown Out Of Proportion'

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (file photo)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (file photo)

KABUL (Reuters) -- A defiant Afghan President Hamid Karzai has defended his record on corruption in an interview broadcast, saying the issue that has damaged his reputation had been "blown out of proportion" by Western media.

In the interview, with Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television, the Afghan leader said he did not depend on the good opinion of Western leaders, who had sent their troops out of self interest.

Repeatedly emphasizing Afghanistan's sovereignty, he said he would not ask for more cash from donors at a conference later this month, but would demand foreign troops stop arresting Afghans, halt night raids and work harder to end civilian deaths.

"With the international community, I don't need to have their favor. They are here for a purpose: the fight on terror. And we are working with our purpose, which is the stability and safety of Afghanistan," he said.

"The international community, especially the West, they must respect Afghanistan and its government, and understand that we are a people, we are a country, we have a history, we have interests, we have pride, we have dignity," he said.

"Our poverty must not become a means of ridicule and insult to us."

The issue of corruption has driven a wedge between Karzai and many of the Western leaders who have nearly 110,000 troops in the country fighting a growing Taliban insurgency.

Karzai's standing abroad has slid especially since his reelection in August, when a UN-backed probe threw out nearly a third of his votes as fake. That forced a second round, which was cancelled when Karzai's opponent withdrew.

Karzai acknowledged that Afghanistan "like all countries" has problems with graft, but said: "The Western media has blown corruption totally out of all proportion in Afghanistan."

Much of the corruption in the country was "inflicted from abroad," he said. "My responsibility as the Afghan president is to work on the Afghan corruption and stop it. And that we are doing to the maximum of our abilities."

"With regard to democracy, we have become a good model. We did all that democracy required. We have a constitution. We respect it. We have elections. My first election was accused of corruption and fraud, mainly by the Western media, and we went to a second round. That's democracy," he said.

Defends Convicted Mayor

Western countries seeking to defend their own involvement in an increasingly deadly and unpopular eight-year-old war to protect Karzai's government have repeatedly sought to have him demonstrate a determination to fight corruption.

Karzai held an anticorruption conference in Kabul last month, promoted by Western diplomats as a chance to showcase strong measures to fight it. That week, Kabul's mayor became the first senior official in years to be convicted of graft.

But the conference was overshadowed when Karzai used his opening speech to insist the mayor was innocent, a move seen abroad and by critics at home as meddling in the judicial process.

In his interview, Karzai again stood behind the mayor: "I defended him, and I paid the price for that. I defended him because I know he is a clean man. I know it."

Afghanistan's parliament voted last week to reject more than two-thirds of Karzai's proposed cabinet ministers, many allies of powerful former guerrilla chiefs who supported Karzai's reelection. Karzai said he would work harder to win support for a new list, which he is due to present soon.

"We were all upset that they were not approved, but we have to accept parliament's right to reject or approve it. It's a democracy," he said.

Western leaders hope an international conference in London on January 27 will provide another chance to showcase Karzai's plans for reform. He said he would use the conference not to seek funds but to seek changes to Western military tactics that would show more respect for Afghanistan's status as a sovereign nation.

"We're not going to ask for more cash. We are going to ask the international community to end night-time raids on Afghan homes. We are going to ask them to stop arresting Afghans. We are going to ask them to reduce and eliminate civilian casualties."

He emphasized efforts to reconcile with militants, and suggested Western countries sometimes lacked a nuanced understanding of their enemy.

"We don't want to undermine the Taliban: we want the Taliban to come and live peaceful lives in our country. We want to undermine the terrorists. I see a difference between the mainstream of the Taliban and the terrorists," he said.

"That's what I want NATO countries to understand with us: that the war on terror is not in Afghan villages. It's not in the pursuit of every man that's wearing a turban and has a beard."