KABUL, Afghanistan _The Afghan parliament delivered another rebuke to President Hamid Karzai on Saturday when it rejected 10 of the 17 ministers he proposed on his second try at forming a government - the latest sign that his fraud-tainted election victory has weakened his leadership.
Karzai secured parliamentary approval for his longtime national security aide, Zalmay Roussel, as foreign minister. He also won approval for two other key posts - justice and counter-narcotics. But he went down to defeat in a host of areas that affect the daily lives of Afghans - from health to telecommunications.
For a country in a U.S.-backed war of survival against a fast-spreading Taliban Islamist insurgency, the vote will slow the establishment of an effective government, but it also signaled the first democratic stirrings in a body that previously had achieved little of note.
Members of parliament said they voted down candidates who were closely affiliated with former warlords or were unknown here. But some of those defeated had been viewed with high esteem by leading figures.
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"I was in tears," said Sima Samar, director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, referring to the defeat of two women candidates. "I'm really distressed that two good ones lost." She told McClatchy that Karzai hadn't thrown sufficient support behind Soraya Dalil, a Harvard graduate nominated as health minister, and Palwasha Hassan, nominated for the ministry of women's affairs.
Samar was critical of Karzai's successful pick for the Justice Ministry, Habibullah Ghalib, as a "a backwards step," and European officials are strongly concerned that Zarar Ahmad Moqbel is now minister of counter-narcotics. British officials in particular have been critical of Moqbel, and a European diplomat, who couldn't be identified by name because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press, called him "a very corrupt man." But the selection was apparently an IOU by Karzai to Moqbel, who'd campaigned for him in provinces north of Kabul.
Possibly to spite the British, legislators gave Moqbel 162 votes out of 223, the highest number for any candidate.
The voting by secret ballot took about five hours to complete, and the laborious hand count was broadcast live on radio and television. The parliament's secretary intoned each ballot for each post, and "Taied, Taied, Rad, Rad, Rad" (yes, yes, no, no, no) was a familiar sequence.
Kabul was gripped by the spectacle. Tradesmen in the main bazaar listened in their stalls or stores, and many weren't happy with the outcome. "The parliament is acting independently. But the game will continue," said watchmaker Mohammad Sharif Niazi. "Whatever parliament does, Karzai is our leader. We don't have an alternative."
The vote came two weeks to the day after parliament dealt its first rebuke to Karzai, approving only seven of 24 cabinet positions. It raised doubts whether Karzai will be able to present a full government when he travels to London on Jan. 28 for a major international conference on the future of Afghanistan.
His first reaction was to express regret that "he couldn't obtain the desired result." Karzai's main rival in the presidential ballot, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, told
McClatchy last week that the second list appeared to be "even weaker than the previous list." He said that Karzai didn't even personally know several appointees, and his nominee for the telecommunications ministry, an Afghan dual passport holder who lives in Canada, decided not to return here to face the parliament.
"Most of the ministers who failed were affiliated with former warlords," said Mohammad Anwar, a lawmaker from Helmand province in the south. "These were people not known internationally."
Fauzea Kofi, a female lawmaker from Badakhshan in the north, said the widespread fraud, which resulted in Karzai's election victory "created distrust between the people and the government."
The government has lost strength, she said. "The problems Karzai is facing now are mainly about the legitimacy of his presidency."
One legislator saw a silver lining for Karzai in his latest defeat.
"Now Karzai can tell those who campaigned for him or stole votes for him that 'I presented your guys to the parliament, but their decision is beyond my control'," said Roshanak Wardak. She added: "I hope that Afghanistan now will have a good and a proper cabinet."
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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