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Karzai sworn in as Afghan leader

Veteran Afghan leader Hamid Karzai was sworn in as president today, pledging to fight graft and take control of his country's security before his five-year term ends, after a fraud-marred election left his image in ruins.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari were among dignitaries attending the ceremony in an ornate hall in Karzai's sprawling Kabul palace.

Outside, the capital was all but a ghost town, with police shutting down all streets and ordering citizens to stay home.

Karzai, 51, called for reconciliation with enemies and proposed a "loya jirga", a traditional grand assembly, which under Afghanistan's constitution can take precedence over all government institutions, including the presidency itself.

"We welcome those who are not affiliated with any terrorist organisations and whose hands are not red with Afghans' blood," he said. He described corruption as a menace to the state, and promised measures to fight it.

His inauguration for his second five-year term comes against the backdrop of an ever more-deadly Taliban insurgency, doubts over his legitimacy after the tainted election, and demands from Western donors he address rampant corruption and mismanagement.

In an apparent nod to the demands of his Western backers, Karzai pledged to appoint "competent and professional" ministers.

The speech received positive reviews from the West.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said it showed Karzai understood the demands being made on him.

"When you've been re-elected, it's delivery time and I think that's what came through in President Karzai's speech," Miliband said. "It's a very challenging country to govern but you've got a very strong, substantial statement today."

European Union special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Ettore Sequi called the speech "a very good statement which reflected the right priorities the right way".

"Let's encourage and support the president and we shall have opportunities to see how that programme will be translated into reality," he told Reuters. The first test would be Karzai's choice of cabinet ministers, expected soon, he said.

Not all were so impressed. In his speech, Karzai offered a job to his election foe Abdullah Abdullah, calling him his "brother". Abdullah told Reuters he had no plans to accept.

"It's more of the same," Abdullah said. "He has spoken in these terms - in terms of bringing changes and reform, and fighting corruption, and bringing security and reconciliation - for the last eight years, and the situation has worsened."

Karzai said he hoped Afghanistan's own security forces can take responsibility for the entire country within five years, and take the lead in unstable areas within three.

It is a goal he will share with his Western backers, who are desperately seeking an exit strategy from the 8-year-old war. US President Barack Obama said on Wednesday he hopes to bring the war to an end before leaving office.

There are now nearly 110,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 68,000 Americans - more than half of whom arrived since Obama took office. Obama is now deciding whether to fulfill his commander's request for tens of thousands more.

Western officials have said they hoped to hear concrete steps in Karzai's speech that would restore his tattered reputation.

Karzai's government announced this week that it was setting up a new anti-corruption unit, but Clinton, whose visit was her first as secretary of state, said more effort was needed.

"They've done some work on that, but in our view, not nearly enough to demonstrate a seriousness of purpose to tackle corruption," she told reporters en route to Kabul on Wednesday.

A UN-backed probe found that nearly a third of votes for Karzai in the Aug. 20 election were fake. While Karzai had been expected to win anyway, the extent of the fraud in his favour severely damaged his credibility at home and among Western nations with troops fighting to support his government.

He has since faced tough pressure from Western leaders to clamp down on widespread corruption and replace former guerrilla leaders and cronies with able technocrats in his new government.

For many Kabulis, the inauguration just brought still more disruption after months of electoral uncertainty.

"What's happened in the last five years? It will just be the same again," said Mohammed Shah, referring to Karzai's last term, as he tried to make his way past roadblocks. "They should all go to hell. With these roadblocks, we can't even walk home."