Corruption rife in Afghanistan, president admits

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KABUL, Nov 13 (Reuters) Corruption among Afghan officials is rife and government must be reformed to help end 30 years of war, misery and oppression, President Hamid Karzai said today in an unusually frank assessment of his country's woes.

Large profits from Afghanistan's 3-billion dollars opium crop, funds skimmed from aid and reconstruction contracts and bribes for services fuel official corruption, weaken public faith in the government and increase support for hardline Taliban insurgents.

''We have seen a lot of misery in this country, but still we have not learned a lesson from our mistakes. The luxurious houses and buildings either belong to government staff or members of parliament,'' Karzai told a meeting of village elders in Kabul.

The capital Kabul and other cities are currently undergoing a building boom with gaudy villas springing up in wealthier neighbourhoods while the poor live in mud huts with no running water or electricity.

After Karzai spoke, an old man rose to his feet.

''There is something I can't tell you, but if I don't tell you I will feel guilty inside,'' he told the president who urged him to speak his mind.

''The government and cabinet members are sucking the blood of innocent people, we can't tolerate the corruption in every government office,'' he said.

''Yes, you are absolutely right,'' replied Karzai. ''I appeal to all Afghans, especially those in power, to work hand-in-hand to build, to serve this country without deceiving and exploiting it.'' ''ALLAH SAVE US'' Afghanistan is ranked 172 out of 180 countries on Transparency International's corruption perception index.

Official graft is one of the factors that has allowed opium production to rise to record-breaking levels, the United Nations says, it also weakens the grip of government on many regions -- both factors which boost the insurgency.

More than six years after US-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban for refusing to give up al Qaeda leaders in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Afghanistan is still suffering from daily violence and a spreading Taliban insurgency.

''The number of martyrs is increasing every day, and at least one person from every family has been martyred in the past 30 years,'' said Karzai.

Afghanistan has been in a more or less constant state of war since a 1978 communist coup.

''May Allah save us from this misery. We have no patience with the current situation in Afghanistan. We have no patience with further enmity and atrocities in this nation. May Allah may save us from this internal and external oppression.'' ''We haven't learned a lesson yet. There is deceit, misuse and playing with this land,'' he said. ''The system of this government must be reformed.'' Karzai has led Afghanistan since shortly after the 2001 fall of the Taliban and has tried to balance influence between competing factions and ethnic groups.

While Karzai is widely seen as honest, Western countries have long urged him to take tough action against officials and some of those close to him who are alleged to be corrupt.

REUTERS SKB HS1934

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