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New Afghan elections chief sworn in

KABUL, Apr 22 – The new head of Afghanistan\’s main electoral body was sworn in Thursday, a high-profile reform that the United Nations has endorsed as a move towards free and fair elections later this year.

Fazel Ahmad Manavi becomes the new chairman of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which was tainted by claims of bias in last year\’s fraud-hit presidential vote.

In a ceremony presided over by President Hamid Karzai, Manavi placed a hand on the Koran and swore an "oath of loyalty, honesty, independence and impartiality and abiding by the Constitution and all applicable laws in Afghanistan".

The presidential office said Abdul Khaliq Husaini was also sworn in as an IEC commissioner.

The appointments follow the resignations earlier this month of the IEC\’s top two officials under pressure from the international community.

Azizullah Ludin and Daoud Ali Najafi were chairman and chief electoral officer of the IEC, which was accused of meddling in the presidential vote and being stuffed with Karzai cronies.

Karzai went on to win re-election in the vote.

Reform at the top of the IEC was seen as vital to secure foreign funding for the parliamentary vote scheduled for September and to avoid the controversy that marred the presidential poll.

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Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations\’ special representative in Kabul, welcomed Manavi\’s appointment when it was announced by Karzai last week, describing him as "a very solid person who we can all feel comfortable with".

Manavi, an Islamic Sharia law professor, was a commissioner at the IEC before his appointment and has held a number of government posts since the hardline Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001 in a US-led invasion.

Karzai also endorsed the appointment of two foreign nationals to the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), after his attempt to ban non-Afghans from the watchdog was blocked by the upper house of parliament.

The reforms opened the way for the international community, led by the UN, to give its backing to parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on September 18.

Judge Johann Kriegler, a former chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa, and Safwat Sidqi, who used to sit on a similar body in Iraq, are among five new members of the ECC.

The new Afghan members are a former judge, Sayed Murad Sharifi; a university teacher, Ahmad Zia Rafaat; and a former government official, Shah Sultan Akifi.

The ECC last year threw out more than half a million votes cast for Karzai because of voting irregularities.

De Mistura has described Kriegler and Sidqi as respected figures "of international standing" and said they would take a proactive role in decision-making.

Karzai recently levelled a series of outbursts against the international community, claiming that foreign powers orchestrated the widespread fraud in the elections that returned him to power.

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The United States notably called the comments "troubling" but all sides have since sought a show of unity, seen as vital with a series of major military and civilian efforts to bring an end to the nearly nine-year Taliban insurgency.

The acting head of the IEC, deputy chief electoral officer Zekria Barakzai, told AFP in an interview last week that the parliamentary elections — the second since the fall of the Taliban — would not be totally free and fair.

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