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Karzai Uses Speech On Corruption To Defend Convicted Mayor

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at an anticorruption conference in Kabul.
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai used a keynote anticorruption speech today to defend the most senior of his officials to be convicted of graft in years, a move that could anger Western backers who demand more accountability.

The president opened a three-day anticorruption conference, which had been billed by diplomats as a sign that Karzai took seriously the West's concern over an issue seen as key to winning popular support against a resurgent Taliban.

Shortly before Karzai spoke, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the capital's Wazir Akbar Khan diplomatic residential district, killing eight people and wounding 44. The blast, underscoring the country's deteriorating security, took place outside the home of a former vice president, who was unhurt.

Karzai spoke at length about the bribes ordinary Afghans are forced to pay, and rebuked officials who "after one or two years work for the government, get rich and buy houses in Dubai."

However, he also cast doubt on the biggest anticorruption conviction his prosecutors have achieved in years.

'Clean Person'

Kabul Mayor Abdul Ahad Sayebi, a Karzai appointee who was sentenced to four years prison last week for corruption and is now free on bail pending an appeal, attended the conference seated toward the front. Karzai pointed him out.

"One very serious caution I want to say. The mayor of Kabul has been sentenced to four years jail. I know the mayor. He is a clean person. I know him," Karzai said.

He said Sayebi had been targeted by enemies for refusing to grant them government land, and gestured to his chief justice and attorney general demanding they look into the case, although he also said Sayebi should still go to jail if guilty.

Karzai's standing among the countries which have deployed nearly 110,000 troops to defend his government has plunged since he was reelected in an August 20 vote, in which a UN-backed probe found nearly a third of his votes were fake.

His actions against corruption are being closely watched in the West, where leaders of NATO countries are defending an increasingly unpopular war against domestic public opinion that questions whether Karzai's government is worth protecting.

'Main Form Of Corruption'

U.S. President Barack Obama announced this month he was sending an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, the first of whom will start arriving within days. London said the first of 500 British reinforcements arrived today.

In his speech, Karzai cautioned against an unrestrained effort to root out graft, which itself could be corrupt.

"As we fight corruption, we must be very careful, extremely careful, that the fight against corruption does not become corrupt itself," Karzai said.

"Every one of our police, every one of our soldiers, every one of our mayors, every one of our judges, every one of our governors can go to someone's house knock on the door and drag a man out of that house and terrorize him. In my opinion, this is the main form of corruption," Karzai said.

Diplomats have pointed to the conference as a chance to show how Karzai will clean up his government. A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman declined to comment immediately on Karzai's speech or his remarks about the mayor.

Karzai's top anticorruption adviser, Mohammad Yasin Usmani, said corruption was rife throughout the country, but was worst in contracts from foreign governments, a point Karzai has made in the past in suggesting the West bore a share of the blame.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged last week that poor Western oversight of contracts was part of the problem.