Washington: US officials voiced support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai`s move to take control of an election watchdog in an apparent break with key allies fighting in the war-torn country.
The US support came after Karzai changed a law to give himself control of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), just seven months ahead of Legislative Elections due in September.
Britain and Canada on Wednesday led diplomatic concern that there was now even less chance that future polls will be free and fair.
But Washington, which heads the NATO and US-led coalition fighting a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, appeared to break ranks with its allies.
"We are supportive of the Afghan government stepping up and assuming its responsibilities for its own (election) process," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said on Wednesday.
The amendment lets Karzai appoint all five members of the ECC, an organisation that threw out as fraudulent more than half a million votes cast for him in the August 2009 presidential vote.
Under a previous law, three of the watchdog`s members were appointed by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in an attempt to guarantee the neutrality of the panel in a country riven by graft and tribal allegiances.
"The credibility of future Afghan elections is vitally important to giving the Afghan government legitimacy in the eyes of its people," Crowley said.
He cautioned that it was important that Afghan leaders "name appropriate officials to these posts that will give the Afghan people confidence that the future elections will be free, fair and legitimate."
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, however, said he had grave doubts about the upcoming September vote in Afghanistan, which have already been delayed from May.
"I don`t think you will find anyone who will say that they expect the next elections in Afghanistan to be free and fair," Miliband told British lawmakers.
"What we need is to ensure that the elections provide a credible representation of the views of the people."
Canada was also "troubled" that Karzai`s decree could diminish the level of the election commission`s independence, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said.
"A strong and independent ECC is vital for the future of a democratic Afghanistan, and any efforts to weaken this body are disturbing," he said.
Afghanistan`s second-ever Presidential Election in August 2009 descended into farce and held the country in the grip of political stasis for months.
Peter Galbraith, a former senior UN official in Afghanistan who resigned over the fraudulent vote, urged the West to withhold funds for future elections until the ECC is reinstated to its original make-up.
The international community "should insist there should be a truly independent election commission, not one appointed by him," Galbraith told the BBC.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC), which is appointed by the Afghan President, eventually declared Karzai the winner and returned him to office in November.
The election cost the United Nations USD 300 million and the ECC threw out around one third of the ballots cast for Karzai.
Karzai`s spokesman Siamak Herawi justified the latest move as a step towards ridding the election commission of foreign influence.
"With foreigners in the commission it was not a national body, nor was it an Afghan body. So to Afghanise the process, the President changed some articles of the law," Herawi said on Tuesday.
Asked who would appoint the panel under the new law, he said: "The President."