Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday vowed his new Cabinet would be held to account, dismissing critics who say entrenched corruption will continue. He also promised a bigger role in government for women in the generally patriarchal society.
Karzai has been under strong international pressure to clean up corruption in his government. Anger over graft has helped fuel the Taliban insurgency and dismayed the United States and other countries he counts on for troops and aid.
But when his nominees for the Cabinet were presented Saturday, many legislators complained that he was keeping ministers who had performed badly and that he was appointing new faces who may be in the pocket of warlords and regional power brokers.
"Confidently, I say if there is any question about corruption, they will be accountable and I will be accountable as well to the Afghan nation," he said of the Cabinet, about half of them incumbents. Karzai was speaking at a news conference with Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme, whose country contributes about 500 troops to the international forces in Afghanistan.
Leterme reaffirmed Belgium's military and aid commitments.
Some legislators have also criticized the Cabinet nominations because there was only one woman _ the minister of women's affairs. Karzai on Sunday said he plans to form a new ministry for literacy that would be headed by a woman, and said he also plans to appoint women to a number of deputy minister positions.
"There will be more women in the Cabinet, I assure you. You will see it very soon," he said.
Karzai, meanwhile, defended the mayor of Kabul, who this month was sentenced to four years in prison for corruption. Karzai previously said the mayor was a scapegoat and on Sunday he said he felt responsibility to defend someone who is "clean and honest."
The attorney general's office recently confirmed that it was investigating a few current ministers and a dozen former ministers for corruption. Members of parliament recently pushed Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar to disclose the names of ministers under investigation.
Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta on Sunday sharply criticized Faqiryar for allegedly saying that his ministry was being investigated in connection with the transfer of $500,000 to a foreign travel agency that was supposed to take Afghans to the 2007 pilgrimage to Mecca but didn't.
In a letter to Karzai, Spanta said his ministry was involved only in seeking the return of the funds. Moreover, he wrote that his ministry also was working to find $10 million that remains unaccounted for following the 2008 pilgrimage.
"Although I know that my complaints of the misuse of authority by the attorney general's office will bear no fruit, I register my profound complaint on the unethical and illegal conduct of this office and refuse to accept any apologies of the deputy attorney general for his baseless allegations and wrongdoing," Spanta wrote.
Faqiryar said in a telephone interview that Spanta himself was never a target in the investigations.
Spanta was not among those nominated for Karzai's new Cabinet, although he has been asked to stay on as foreign minister through the international conference on Afghanistan that is to take place in London on Jan. 28.
"I am pressing him to stay" through the conference so it doesn't hamper preparations for the meeting, Karzai said Sunday. "Once that's done, you'll see that the Afghan government will look rather different."
As with his previous Cabinet, the new slate of proposed ministers is a collection of Western-educated Afghans and former mujahedeen or their nominees. The nominations must be approved by parliament.
Among the changes, Karzai wants to replace Muhammad Ibrahim Adel, the current minister of mines. Earlier this month, two U.S. officials in Washington alleged that Adel took a $20 million bribe to steer a $3 billion copper mining project to a Chinese company. The minister denied taking any bribes, saying the agreement was approved by the Cabinet and that Karzai was also aware of it.
The president also wants to replace Sediq Chakari, who heads the Ministry of Hajj and Mosque. Allegations surfaced recently that money was pocketed at the ministry. Chakari, who has denied involvement, said two of his employees were being investigated in connection with missing money.
However, Karzai retains as water and power minister Ismail Khan, a powerful warlord from the Herat region in western Afghanistan whom human rights groups have accused of complicity in war crimes.
Associated Press Writers Amir Shah, Deb Riechmann and Jim Heintz in Kabul contributed.