No break for Afghan MPs until they agree new cabinet

Karzai forced to act after Afghan parliament rejects two thirds of his nominations

The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, has ordered parliament to suspend a winter break so that it can vet and vote on new cabinet nominees after MPs rejected more than two thirds of his original candidates.

But there may be a confrontation ahead as the President plans to return some of the failed choices as candidates for different ministries, a senior official said. Parliament dealt President Karzai a blow on Saturday when it rejected 17 of his 24 nominees, casting Afghanistan into further political disarray just as the turmoil caused by last year's fraud-marred presidential election is subsiding.

If Mr Karzai fails to have his cabinet approved in the next few weeks, he will have to head to a London conference this month seeking extra funds from Western donors without being able to say who will control a significant chunk of them.

Parliament was due to start a six-week winter break later this week, which would have made it almost impossible for Mr Karzai to assemble a full government in less than two months.

"Hamid Karzai has issued a decree to parliament to refrain from going on winter leave to complete the process of voting for new cabinet members," his palace said yesterday. The President ordered the decree based on article 107 of the Afghan constitution, which allows him to convene "extraordinary sessions of parliament during recess", the palace said.

Mohammad Karim Baaz, Deputy Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, said the new list would most likely be presented to the lower house on Sunday, and that some of the rejected candidates would be included with new portfolios.

The decree could lead to a showdown between Mr Karzai and MPs who flexed their muscles over the weekend, making full use of a rare opportunity to hold the President to account by rejecting a large swathe of his cabinet nominees.

Many MPs were already fed up with the President's often autocratic leadership style and tendency to ignore parliament, and by calling on the constitution to delay the winter break, Mr Karzai is likely to arouse further anger.

While parliament will presumably have to abide by the decree, members could give the President a double blow by simply vetoing any new list – especially if Mr Karzai does resubmit some of the old faces.

The rejected nominees included several of his key allies as well as the only woman on the list and the powerful former energy minister, Ismail Khan, a veteran anti-Soviet commander and outspoken critic of the United States.

Like the regional commanders who threw their backing behind Mr Karzai in the election, apparently in return for cabinet and provincial positions, the West had certain ministers it was keen to see retain their portfolios. Several of these, in key ministries including defence, interior and finance, were endorsed by parliament. The President also wants parliament to approve two new ministries, one for literacy and another for martyrs and the disabled.

Violence has reached the highest level since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001. The number of US service personnel to die in Afghanistan last year was more than twice that in 2008. On Sunday, four US troops and a British soldier were killed in two improvised bomb explosions in the south.

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