By Mirwais Harooni and Adrian Croft
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggested on Thursday that foreign members be removed from the country's election watchdog, in a step that could be aimed at bolstering his grip on power.
Two members of the five-member Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) are non-Afghan, a panel backed by the U.N. which threw out more than half a million votes cast for Karzai as fraudulent in the 2009 presidential poll.
"The presence of foreigners in the Electoral Complaints Commission is against the sovereignty of Afghanistan," Karzai told a news conference alongside NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the capital, Kabul.
"Foreign observers can still come to monitor the transparency or non-transparency of the election, but their interference in the election process is against Afghanistan's sovereignty."
This is not the first time Karzai has intervened in the operations of the ECC.
In 2010, a year after he won a second five-year term as president, he changed a law to take control of the watchdog, allowing himself to appoint the panel members. But he left two foreigners in place on the body.
Before that, three foreign members were chosen by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
"One of the reasons Karzai wants foreigners out of the ECC is because in the past it was the foreigners who spoke out about fraud," Mohiuddin Mahdi, a member of parliament from northern Baghlan province, told Reuters by telephone.
Karzai's chief spokesman Aimal Faizi said "the meddling by some foreign countries and embassies in the 2009 presidential election was a good lesson for Afghanistan".
"We will not allow the foreigners to be part of the election process," Faizi told Reuters.
Opponents of Karzai, who is barred from seeking a third term by the Afghan constitution, say they are worried the president is trying to install an ally or relative as his successor to maintain an influence on power.
Karzai's older brother, businessman Abdul Qayum, has said he is interested in running for president. There is also widespread speculation in the Afghan elite that Abdullah Abdullah, who opposed Karzai in the 2009 poll, will make another bid.
Fresh opposition to Karzai is raising the stakes.
PRESSURE FOR ELECTORAL REFORM
Last month around 20 political parties formed the "Cooperation Council", which could exert pressure on Karzai to commit to electoral reform and for a legitimate transfer of power when his term ends.
Karzai this month stressed that the 2014 elections would be held on time and he would step aside as mandated, denying speculation that the exit of foreign troops and security problems would delay the poll.
His increasingly unpopular government had for months considered a change in election timing to avoid overlapping with the drawdown of U.S.-led NATO forces due to be completed by the end of 2014, when security is fully turned over to Afghan forces.
Further stressing his country's sovereignty, Karzai said "Afghans are ready to expedite the process of (security) transition if necessary".
But Rasmussen, who jetted into Afghanistan late on Wednesday with 28 NATO ambassadors, said the timeline for NATO's full handover of security was unchanged.
"Our strategy is working and our timeline remains unchanged. We are all committed to seeing our combat mission through by the end of 2014," the NATO chief told reporters.
Under plans endorsed at NATO's Chicago summit in May, NATO-led troops will give Afghan forces the lead role in combat operations across Afghanistan by mid-2013 before most foreign combat troops are withdrawn by the end of 2014.
Rasmussen and the 28 ambassadors, who sit on the North Atlantic Council, NATO's main political decision-making body, went ahead with their trip even though a planned visit by the 15-member U.N. Security Council was postponed this month for security reasons.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Ron Popeski)