Bush's former Iraq ambassador to seek Afghan presidency

With Hamid Karzai seen as ineffective, many people are looking to someone with serious influence in Washington

In his time, he has been President George Bush's point man in Baghdad, Kabul and the UN, as well as a lobbyist for both the Taliban and international oil companies. Now Zalmay Khalilzad is preparing to run for the presidency of his native Afghanistan.

Representatives of Mr Khalilzad, currently US ambassador to the UN, have discreetly sounded out various factions to ascertain his chances in the election scheduled for 2009. Although the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is expected to run again, he is increasingly unpopular at home while his Western backers see him as ineffectual against the Taliban.

Three meetings have been held with opposition groups in recent months to promote Mr Khalilzad, pictured, as a "unifying" candidate in a country where deep divisions have begun to emerge between the Pashtun communities of the south and the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the north.

Mr Khalilzad, a Pashtun, was born in Laghman province in the south-east of the country, but raised in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. He is on good terms with some former leaders of the Northern Alliance who have split from the Karzai government.

Speculation about the 56-year-old Mr Khalilzad's political ambitions sparked into life when he gave a TV interview, saying he was placing himself "at the service of the Afghan people". He was also said to be considering resigning from his post at the UN. The highest-ranking Muslim in the US administration, he was made the effective viceroy of Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion by President Bush before being moved on to Iraq to sort out the mess left by Paul Bremer.

The candidacy of Mr Khalilzad, a Rhodes scholar who has spent most of his adult life in the US and has an American wife, may come as a surprise, but many Afghan commentators say he would enjoy a high degree of support.

"A lot of people in this country feel that things were getting done while he was in charge and have deteriorated since he left," said Waheed Muzhda, a leading political analyst. "He kept the warlords much more in check, the Taliban had not come back and corruption was nothing like as bad as it is now. His close connection with the US government is actually in his favour. Many see Karzai as a US puppet anyway, so the feeling is, why not have someone who has got some actual influence in Washington, and can do some good for Afghanistan?"

Diplomatic sources agree that Mr Khalilzad seems to be using his UN post to pave the way for a run at the Afghan presidency. He was accused of undermining the prospect of Paddy Ashdown becoming the UN representative in Afghanistan because he didn't want a heavyweight international figure, controlling a huge budget, as a potential rival.