Interim Afghan leader vows foreign aid won't be wasted

Karzai, on visit to U.S., says he'll guard money and prevent corruption


WASHINGTON -- Hamid Karzai, giving his first speech in the United States since becoming Afghanistan's interim leader, promised yesterday that he would prevent corruption so that billions of dollars in international assistance to his country would not be squandered.

Karzai said he would take personal responsibility for ensuring that the $4.5 billion in aid promised from countries around the world would be properly spent on rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of war, Taliban rule and the bomb damage resulting from the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism.

"We have to promise that we will not cheat our own people. If there is cheating, corruption, I will stop it," Karzai said in a speech at Georgetown University.

Karzai's three-day visit, which began yesterday, was a powerful symbol of how much has changed since Sept. 11. An Afghan leader had not visited Washington in 39 years.

Karzai also appealed to Afghan-Americans, who made up most of his audience last night, to return to help rebuild their native land.

"From difficult times, we are walking toward positive times, hopeful times, good times," he said. "We are going toward development, toward better times. The people want that now."

Assuring Afghan-Americans that they and their investments would be safe, he urged them: "Whatever passport you have, come back. Come back to Afghanistan."

Karzai began his visit with prayers at a mosque in Annandale, Va. He was scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House today and will be Bush's guest tomorrow when the president delivers his first State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress.

When Bush last spoke to Congress, on Sept. 20, it was to rally the nation for war against the terrorists who attacked the United States on Sept. 11 and the ruling Taliban regime that harbored Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group in Afghanistan. After the Taliban were routed, an international conference selected Karzai, 44, as interim leader to begin rebuilding a nation long torn by war.

In another important symbolic move, Karzai also plans to preside today over a flag-raising at the former Afghan Embassy in Washington. Abandoned during the Taliban's iron-fisted rule, the embassy will be reopened after extensive renovations.

Karzai also plans to visit the Pentagon and the site in lower Manhattan where the World Trade Center towers stood before the Sept. 11 attacks.

While thankful for the toppling of the Taliban as well as a U.S. pledge of $296 million in aid, Karzai was expected to press for expansion of the 2,500-member British-led peacekeeping force, including the addition of American forces.

"This is the determination of the Afghan people," Karzai said in an interview with Afghan television before leaving for the United States. U.S officials have declined to commit troops to the peacekeeping effort, noting that they are waging an expensive war against terrorism in Afghanistan and around the world.

Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, urged Bush to increase U.S. assistance. The rights group warned that fighting among Afghans, including reported violence against ethnic Pashtuns in the northern provinces where they are the minority, threatens efforts to rebuild the country.

"Without adequate security, there is no chance for reconstruction to take place, for refugees or displaced persons to return, or for humanitarian aid workers to give the kind of assistance that is now urgently needed. Women feel particularly vulnerable," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

Karzai also was likely to use the visit to warn Bush that the Taliban might be regrouping in Pakistan.

"They are there. Their intentions are known," Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said in an interview Saturday. "Pakistan should do something to get on them."

In other developments, Karzai might go to Italy to accompany the country's former king when he returns to his homeland in March, an aide to the king said yesterday.

The former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who hasn't been to Afghanistan since his ouster in 1973, wants to be back home by March 21, in time for a spring holiday that was banned under the hard-line Taliban regime, aide Zalmai Rassoul said.

Karzai became a leader of the Popolzai tribe of Afghan Pashtuns in 1999 after his father, a former speaker of one of the country's houses of parliament, was assassinated in Pakistan by the Taliban. Risking arrest or worse, Karzai led a procession returning his father's body to Afghanistan for burial.

He has said that he has not decided whether he will seek office after his administration's six-month term is up. He has appointed a 21-member commission that will convene a loya jirga, a traditional Afghan council, to form a temporary government for the next two years.

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