Karzai warns heavy-handed US troops as riots spread

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The Independent Online

President Hamid Karzai insisted the Kabul government will veto US military operations after a week of hugely destructive anti-American rioting left Afghan cities and towns in flames and hospitals overflowing with casualties.

The Afghan leader, installed with Washington's support in 2001 and often derided as an American puppet, seemed to be bowing to a growing mood of popular anger with American military tactics and uneasiness over how long bases will remain on Afghan soil. He promised to correct "mistakes" made by US forces, especially intrusive searches of village homes by American troops in areas where the Taliban insurgency continues.

Searching homes for weapons is a highly contentious issue in the southern and eastern Pushtun tribal areas, especially when soldiers barge into womens' quarters, a deeply insulting act in tribal culture. The military has tried to soothe anger, training female soldiers to search.

Afghans also complain that innocent villagers are frequently arrested and taken to Guantanamo Bay or the interrogation centre north of Kabul at Bagram if they are unlucky enough to be in the vicinity of attacks on US soldiers or if they are the victim of faulty intelligence. Last year, Mr Karzai appealed to the US military to rethink their tactics. But he is now demanding control of military activities. He said: "We will allow or not allow operations to be conducted."

The President also called for the return of hundreds of Afghan prisoners held at Guantanamo, another major friction point, and promised to raise the issue with President George Bush when the two leaders meet in Washington this month. But he stressed the importance of the relationship with America which has underpinned his government.

"We know that without the strategic partnership with America, Afghanistan would not make it as a sovereign, independent nation," Mr Karzai said.

The last week has seen the worst street violence in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Disturbances began in the eastern city of Jalalabad and then spread to smaller cities in the east and north and the capital Kabul. Sixteen died, more than 100 were injured, and millions of dollars worth of damage was done to offices and equipment of Western aid agencies which were targeted by rioters.

The riots were set off by claims in a US magazine that a Koran was desecrated by being left on a toilet at Guantanamo. Mr Karzai said the flames were fanned by "outside elements", usuall taken to refer to Pakistani intelligence.