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Runner-up for Afghanistan's top post to form opposition party

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The runner-up to Hamid Karzai in historic presidential elections congratulated the Afghan leader yesterday on the formation of his Cabinet and said he is forming an opposition party.

Yunus Qanooni said he had deep respect for the Cabinet ministers and for Karzai himself, but felt he could best serve the nation by becoming a leading opposition figure.

He said he would call the party New Afghanistan, and it would be created in the coming weeks.

"We will support any positive steps taken by the government, but if they do something wrong, we will raise our voices and we will struggle against that," Qanooni said. "What is important is to resolve our differences through politics. We are no longer living in a time of war."

The sentiments echoed those expressed by Karzai himself Friday after he swore in his new Cabinet. The president described Qanooni as "a friend" and said he left him out of the Cabinet so he could start an opposition party ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for April.

"We need political parties, because in the absence of political parties, politics will become ethnic or linguistic," Karzai said.

Qanooni, an ethnic Tajik who was a senior figure in the Northern Alliance and later served as Karzai's interior and education minister, received 16 percent of the vote in October elections. That was far behind Karzai, but well ahead of the other 15 candidates.

There had been speculation that Qanooni might be offered the powerful Defense Ministry post, but Karzai gave it to Abdul Rahim Wardak, an ethnic Pashtun. Qanooni said he was offered the post, but turned it down because he wasn't qualified and because he felt that being in the Cabinet would limit his political role.

Meanwhile yesterday, suspected Taliban rebels attacked a government office in southern Afghanistan, prompting a firefight that killed a soldier and two militants, the governor said. In other violence, an army truck driver was killed when rebels ambushed his convoy.

About 40 Taliban ambushed a government office in the Ata Ghar District of southern Zabul Province on Thursday, said Governor Khial Mohammed. He said outgunned security forces held the rebels off, killing two of them. One soldier was killed.

The rebels left the bodies of their fallen comrades and stole several vehicles, Mohammed said.

Rebels also attacked an Afghan military convoy as it made its way from western Herat Province to neighboring Farah. A driver was killed and two other people were injured, Farah's deputy police chief, Hajib Mohammed Rassoul, said yesterday. The fighters set three trucks on fire, then fled.

The Taliban have kept up a steady drumbeat of attacks since they were ousted in 2001, but the level of fighting has dropped in recent weeks, partly due to the onset of winter.

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