KABUL – KABUL (AP) — President Hamid Karzai lashed out at the U.N. and international community Thursday, accusing them of interfering in last year's fraud-tarnished presidential election and seeking to weaken his authority after parliament rejected his bid to expand his control over the country's electoral institutions.
Karzai did not specifically mention the United States, but his harsh words — and his practice of blaming foreigners for the nation's problems — reflect his increasingly difficult relations with Washington and its international allies.
President Barack Obama paid an unannounced visit here Sunday in hopes of setting a new tone in dealings with the Afghan leader, as the U.S.-led coalition prepares for a showdown with the Taliban this summer in its southern stronghold of Kandahar — Karzai's home province.
The Obama administration has maintained a reliable Afghan political partner is critical to turning back the Taliban, and State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley rejected any attempt to undermine Karzai.
"Karzai has to step forward, lead his government in terms of convincing the international community and the Afghan people that they are taking measurable steps to reduce corruption," Crowley said in Washington. "It's not in anyone's interest to see Afghanistan poorly led or weakly led in the future."
Karzai's international stature was battered last year after a U.N.-backed watchdog committee threw out nearly a third of his votes in the Aug. 20 presidential election, denying him a first-round victory and forcing him into a runoff, which was canceled after his remaining challenger dropped out.
Karzai's comments, delivered to employees of the state election commission, also sharpened the power struggle with an increasingly independent-minded parliament over whether foreigners will help oversee parliamentary balloting scheduled for September.
On Wednesday, the lower house of parliament canceled a decree Karzai issued in February revoking the authority of the United Nations to appoint most of the members of the election fraud commission that threw out his ballots last year.
During his speech Thursday, Karzai acknowledged there had been "vast fraud" in the August vote, which returned him to office for a second, five-year term. But he blamed the fraud on the U.N. and other foreign organizations, which he suggested were part of an international conspiracy to deny him re-election or tarnish his victory.
"No doubt, there was huge fraud. There was vast fraud. The fraud is not by the Afghans. This fraud has been done by the foreigners," Karzai said, including officials of the U.N., the European Union and "the embassies here in Kabul."
He accused unidentified foreign embassies of trying to bribe members of the Karzai-appointed Independent Election Commission with offers of bulletproof cars in hopes they would block his first-round victory.
"See, this election was occurring during a time where there were threats from the terrorists," Karzai said of the August vote. "It was not only the threat from the terrorists. But seriously, it took place under the threat of foreign interference."
Karzai singled out the former U.N. deputy chief in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, and the chief European Union observer, retired French Gen. Philippe Morillon, accusing them of pressuring election authorities. Galbraith, the senior American in the U.N. mission here, was fired last year after accusing his boss, Kai Eide, of downplaying election fraud.
"What this really suggests is that Karzai has a slim connection with reality," Galbraith told The Associated Press by telephone from Rome. "I think it underscores the importance that the upcoming parliamentary elections should be run by nonpartisan election bodies with no Karzai appointees."
Galbraith said any foreign government that helps fund the election without major reforms "is asking for its taxpayers to be defrauded."
"Frankly, I think Karzai is a bit unhinged," he added.
In New York, U.N. associate spokesman Farhan Haq said: "We have a record of what we have said and done in response to allegations of fraud in the Afghan elections. We stand by that record, and I think ... we've made clear the efforts by the United Nations to determine and deal with allegations of fraud and we stand by that."
Karzai also said foreigners were looking for excuses not to help fund the September election because they "want a parliament that is weak and for me to be an ineffective president."
Grant Kippen, the Canadian who ran the watchdog body last year, said if Karzai has evidence of impropriety in the August vote, "either Afghan or international," then he has a responsibility "to back this claim up with evidence."
"I would strongly suggest that efforts now concentrate on addressing the problems that were evident in last year's elections and that practical solutions be found that will strengthen the process going forward so that public trust and confidence can be restored," Kippen told the AP in an e-mail.
The Obama administration has long harbored doubts about Karzai, who had been a favorite of the Bush administration after he was installed as head of an Afghan transition administration following the collapse of Taliban rule in late 2001. But Obama was critical of Karzai from the start, stating last December when he announced his troop surge that "the days of providing a blank check are over."
Such criticism angered Karzai, encouraging fears the Americans were trying to undermine him ahead of the August election. Although U.S. officials have acknowledged Karzai's legitimacy, his recent visits to China and Iran, as well as hosting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appeared aimed at showing he has options for support from countries other than the United States.
During his visit last Sunday, Obama urged Afghans to do more to fight corruption, which fuels the Taliban insurgency. But Obama also gave assurances of long-term American support and invited Karzai to visit Washington in May.
"In the Bush years, Karzai never talked of interference," Afghan lawmaker Kabir Rangebar said. "Now the U.S. is looking very closely at Karzai."
Associated Press Writers Edith Lederer at the United Nations, Matthew Lee in Washington and Deb Riechmann and Slobodan Lekic in Kabul contributed to this report.