Afghan lawmakers in showdown

KABUL — In another pointed challenge to President Hamid Karzai, Afghan lawmakers Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected his attempts to take control of the independent election panel that uncovered widespread fraud in last year's presidential vote.

Six weeks after Karzai issued a controversial decree giving himself complete power to choose all five members of the nation's Electoral Complaints Commission, Afghanistan's lower house sought to strip the president of his new powers.

Palace officials said Karzai was infuriated by the legislative rebuff and viewed the vote as illegal.

"He's definitely going to fight for it," said one Karzai adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the president's reaction more candidly. "He is very firm on this."

The political showdown is the latest clash between an increasingly combative Afghan legislature and Karzai.

"The Parliament had to stand up for itself on this question: The presidential decree would have been fatal for the credibility of the election," said Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat in Kabul who's now a research fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

"Afghans should oversee their own elections, but the parliament is right to decide that one person cannot appoint the entirety of both electoral bodies," Russell said.

In southern Afghanistan, assailants set off a bomb Wednesday in a village bazaar in troubled Helmand province, killing 13 people and wounding four dozen others, provincial officials said.

The bomb, which police said was hidden on a bicycle, targeted farmers who had gathered to receive Western-provided agricultural seeds, a program meant to encourage them to grow crops other than opium poppies. Taliban militants were suspected in the attack.

The explosion took place in the district of Nahr-e-Sarraj, not far from the scene of a major offensive in February by thousands of U.S. Marines in the town of Marjah.