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Karzai Gives More Power To Afghan Anti-Graft Body

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has given more authority to an anti-graft body as part of a campaign against corruption that has been closely watched by Western countries with troops fighting in Afghanistan.

Karzai won plaudits from the West in November when he announced plans for a crackdown on graft, but some diplomats have since said they had yet to see the sort of decisive measures they were expecting.

Western countries say corruption in Karzai's government is endemic, and a fundamental threat to their efforts to stabilize the country that ranks alongside the resurgent Taliban insurgency and the illegal drugs trade.

Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Aloko said Karzai's decree would give the High Office of Oversight and Anticorruption the power to suspend and detain government officials. Commission chief Mohammad Yasin Usmani said it would also give the body the authority to refer cases to court and act as prosecutor.

Before, the anticorruption body could only scrutinize ministries, while the power to detain officials lay with the police and the power to refer cases to court lay with prosecutors.

Palace officials said the full text of the decree would be published later today or at a later date.

Karzai told reporters in brief remarks after signing the decree that it would give "more and stricter" authority to the body as part of a move to improve governance.

Aloko said some 17 ministers who either served in the previous or current cabinet of Karzai were being questioned by his office over accusations of administrative corruption, but declined to identify them until a court ruling.

"Some ministers are being investigated and some have their cases completed and will be referred to the court and have their affidavit prepared," Aloko told same briefing.

The accused ministers will have their files studied by a newly formed court set up more than two months ago, called the Special Tribunal of Anti-administrative Corruption, he said.

Karzai concedes corruption is rife in his government, but says the problem has been exaggerated in Western media. He has repeatedly said that the biggest cause of corruption is poor oversight among Western donors of their own billions in aid contracts, which dwarf Afghanistan's budget.

Western officials concede that poor oversight of their aid efforts contributes to the problem. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this month that the United States must do more to clean up its own contracting procedures.