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Reporters Barred From Afghan Leader's Inauguration

Afghan President Hamid Karzai
KABUL (Reuters) -- Journalists will be barred from Afghanistan's presidential palace during the inauguration ceremony on November 19 for Hamid Karzai, whose credibility has come under question after a fraud-marred election, the palace said.

"Due to capacity and security reasons, we cannot invite the media into the palace," palace spokesman Siamak Herawi said today.

Foreign dignitaries are expected to include senior officials from Western countries with troops fighting in Afghanistan, although most have yet to announce publicly who will attend.

The ceremony will be attended by 800 guests, including 300 foreigners, Herawi said. Journalists will be confined to a media center at the headquarters of Afghan state television.

Security is always extremely tight for important events in Kabul. Last year, Karzai and other senior officials survived an assassination attempt when gunmen fired rockets at a military parade in the capital, killing three civilians.

The inauguration comes at a time when the Afghan leader's reputation in the West is at an all-time low after the August election, in which a UN-backed probe found nearly a third of his votes were fake.

There are almost 110,000 Western troops in Afghanistan, two-thirds of them American, and U.S. President Barack Obama is in the final stages of deciding whether to send tens of thousands more. Death tolls have never been higher.

Western officials, keen to persuade voters at home that the eight-year-old mission to defend Karzai's government is worth fighting, have piled pressure on Karzai to show that he will fight corruption and improve the performance of his government.

His inauguration speech will be closely watched for signs of measures that would improve his standing.

This week, Karzai's government announced a new major crimes police task force, an anticorruption prosecutors' unit and a special court for high-profile cases.

Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International today rated Afghanistan second worst in the world in its annual corruption perceptions index, behind Somalia.

The election fraud probe determined that Karzai led in the August 20 first round, but not by enough to avoid a run-off. He was declared the winner when opponent Abdullah Abdullah backed out of the second round.