KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai's pledge to root out political corruption in his second term faces a quick test from government attorneys, who've asked for new powers to pursue some of the country's top leaders.
Officials in the attorney general's office said Monday that they wanted Karzai to take decisive steps so that they could pursue corruption cases against as many as 15 current and former government officials, including at least two in the president's Cabinet.
It wasn't clear whether Karzai, whose government is internationally rated as one of the most corrupt in the world, would approve of an investigation into political allies, some of whom may have helped him win re-election through massive vote rigging.
The Obama administration and America's European allies have put heavy pressure on Karzai to attack corruption, and have warned that public, political and international support for his government could evaporate if he doesn't do so.
A reminder of what's at stake came Monday when government officials said four U.S. troops, three Afghan soldiers and five Afghan civilians, including three children, had been killed in the last 24 hours.
So far this month, 15 American fighters have been killed in Afghanistan. Nearly 60 Americans were killed in October, making it the most deadly month of the war.
The series of attacks came as Obama was finalizing plans to send more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
Two days after he was sworn in for his new five-year term, Karzai met Attorney General Eshaq Aloko on Saturday to discuss ongoing corruption cases. In that meeting, Aloko said, he asked Karzai to set up a special court to handle top political corruption cases, including at least two being pursued against Cabinet ministers.
"If the president sets up this court, we can present our evidence," Aloko told McClatchy.
Aloko's deputy, Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar, said prosecutors were looking into corruption cases involving as many as 15 current and former Karzai Cabinet ministers, including some who lived outside Afghanistan.
Faqiryar said investigators wanted Karzai to seek help from Interpol to bring suspects back to Afghanistan for trial.
Aloko declined to identify any of the suspects, but he did confirm that his prosecutors are pursuing corruption charges against two members of the Religious Affairs Ministry who are suspected of taking more than $350,000 in kickbacks during a recent pilgrimage to Mecca.
On Monday, Religious Affairs Minister Sadiq Chakari held a defiant news conference to defend himself against allegations that he took part in the alleged scheme.
"If they have any proof against me, I am ready to accept it," Chakari said.
Chakari said the two ministry officials had been arrested when they returned from Mecca with about $350,000 stashed in cookie boxes. Investigators suspect that the cash was a kickback from property owners who provided housing for Afghans who were making the spiritual pilgrimage to one of Islam's holiest cities.
Chakari, however, suggested that the cash was probably just surplus government money left over from organizing the pilgrimage.
The Obama administration has been putting pressure on Karzai to establish a new Cabinet free of discredited ministers. Corruption allegations have swirled around several powerful Karzai ministers.
The Washington Post reported last week that the country's minister of mines is being investigated for allegedly accepting a $30 million bribe to steer a lucrative development project to a Chinese company.
Several ministers and Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, have been accused of profiting from the country's illegal drug trade, awarding contracts to friends and relatives, and using their government posts to enrich themselves.
In his inaugural address last Thursday, Karzai pledged to end a "culture of impunity" in his government, but he suggested that the news media had blown the problems out of proportion.
After meeting Karzai in Kabul last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was heartened by his pledge to tackle corruption and that the Obama administration would watch very carefully to see whether the promises were kept.
Relations between Karzai and the U.S. administration also have been strained by the fraud-tainted presidential election Aug. 20 that eventually returned the Afghan leader to power.
Clinton called Karzai's inaugural address a "real window of opportunity for a new compact between the Afghan government and its people, and for a new chapter in the partnership between Afghanistan and the international community."
Karzai's office had no comment Monday on the attorney general's request.
Some Karzai critics doubt that the Afghan president is willing or able to seriously meet demands that he tackle corruption.
"I think the United States and the rest of the world have wishful hearing syndrome," said Daoud Sultanzoy, an Afghan lawmaker who's used his position in parliament to investigate government corruption.
"I like the saying: If you walk like a duck and talk like a duck, you must be a duck," Sultanzoy said of Karzai. "He is involved with corrupt people, he allows them, he nurtures them, he protects them. ... So what does that make him?"
(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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