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Afghan Parliament To Recess Without Confirming Cabinet


Afghan parliament members attend a voting session on the cabinet in Kabul on January 16.
KABUL (Reuters) -- The Afghan parliament prolonged months of political uncertainty today by shutting for its winter recess without waiting for President Hamid Karzai to fill nearly half of his cabinet.

The announcement means Karzai will appear at an international conference on his country's future on January 28 with 11 of 25 cabinet seats vacant.

Confirming his cabinet is the first big test for Karzai since his reelection in a vote last August marred by fraud.

He has promised to name competent ministers but also owes favors to regional bosses who helped get him elected. But parliament has twice rejected his pick.

Western countries with troops serving in Afghanistan are anxious for Karzai to put his new government in place and to build the institutions needed to withstand a Taliban insurgency fiercer than at any time in the 8-year-old war.

Before breaking, lawmakers also demanded reforms for parliamentary elections due this year, setting the country back on a path toward political confrontation after the botched presidential poll last year.

Parliament spokesman Haseeb Noori said lawmakers would now leave for a recess until February 20. They had postponed their leave earlier this month to allow Karzai to pick new names after rejecting more than two thirds of his initial picks, and vetoed more than half of his proposed replacements on January 16.

Karzai's spokesman, Waheed Omer, said the president would nominate new candidates for the vacant seats when lawmakers return. Until then, Karzai would direct deputy ministers or other caretaker figures to run their ministries, Omer said.

Karzai's reelection, in a fraud-marred vote that took months to resolve, has damaged his standing at home and abroad, and led to months of drift. He and his allies are hoping to turn the page on that uncertainty in 2010, but a fresh political crisis looms with another election, this time for parliament, due in May.

The United Nations has millions of dollars in an account earmarked to hold that vote, but Western officials say they want to see election reforms enacted before the funds are released, to prevent a repeat of last year's fraud.

Omer said Karzai had told visiting U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke on January 16 that the parliamentary election must be held on time on May 22 this year, a date many Western officials fear is too soon to enact needed reforms in time.

Reforms Sought

Parliamentarians discussed the election in their final debate today, backing the May 22 date but calling for reforms to the election commission, which Karzai's opponents blame for fraud.

"They said the poll must be fair and transparent and for that there should be changes in the election commission, for it is under question," said Mir Ahmad Joyenda. "Delegates said the heads of the lower and upper house of the parliament along with the chief justice should consult on this with the president."

Diplomats say they hope to avoid a clash over the date by persuading Afghans to allow the vote to be pushed back.

Holbrooke told Reuters that Washington and its allies supported holding the election some time this year.

"The exact date is far less important than the fact that international community has come together and coalesced together around a date in this calendar year. We've crossed that bridge," Holbrooke said.

"They're going to have to do some electoral reforms in order to prevent a repetition of what happened last year," he said.