Karzai Named as First Elected Afghan Leader

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Incumbent Hamid Karzai was declared the winner of last month's Afghan presidential election Wednesday and now faces the task of forming a government minus the warlords and drug runners who tainted his last Cabinet.

For the past three years, Karzai has led an interim government installed after U.S. and Afghan resistance forces overthrew the Taliban militia in late 2001 for refusing to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

But Karzai's second Cabinet will look very different from his first if he sticks to his word that he will not be forming coalitions with main rivals, characterized as regional strongmen who rely on ethnic loyalties and private militias.

The advent of democracy in this Islamic Central Asian country after a quarter century of war, was hailed by U.S. President George W. Bush as a foreign policy success as he campaigned for re-election himself.

"Karzai is the winner," Sultan Baheen, spokesman for the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body told journalists after an independent panel of election experts investigating vote fraud told a news conference that undoubted irregularities, including ballot stuffing, had not altered the outcome.

But Karzai's triumph has been soured by the kidnapping last week of three UN election officials.

On Wednesday, an Islamist militant group that has threatened to kill the Filipino diplomat and women from Northern Ireland and Kosovo extended a deadline for its demands to be met as negotiations continued with Karzai's government.

The group had demanded authorities release all Taliban prisoners in U.S. custody in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay by 10:30 a.m. Moscow time on Wednesday, but extended the deadline indefinitely.

Armed with a mandate from the people, Karzai can now form a Cabinet of his own choosing, though his choices will have to be ratified once the National Assembly is established after parliamentary elections due in April.

"The coming government should not be formed according to the vote. We should have a new formula to achieve national reconciliation in Afghanistan, security and political stability," said former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who supported Karzai and remains an influential figure.

Rabbani's own government disintegrated in a civil war that paved the way for the Taliban militia to take over the country in the mid-1990s. He is now a strong advocate of Karzai's disarmament policies so long as former mujahedin fighters are retrained or given pensions to reward their sacrifices.

Karzai's victory had never been in doubt, but counting the votes from the Oct. 9 poll took several weeks and the election commission had also to assess a report given by a three-man panel investigating allegations of vote fraud.