KABUL, Afghanistan, Nov 23, 2009— -- In what appears to be his first step toward combating corruption since he was inaugurated as Afghan president for the second time, Hamid Karzai has asked two senior officials to be investigated for embezzlement and kickbacks, government officials tell ABC News.
The first minister -- Sidiq Chakari, who leads the Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs -- was widely considered corrupt, although he was not toward the top of a recent list of ministers the United States said it wanted replaced, according to one official.
The second person has not yet been publicly identified.
Karzai's press office is denying that Chakari is under investigation, but government and Western officials tell ABC News that he has been targeted for a probe.
It's not clear whether corruption or politics was the reason why Karzai has singled him out.
Chakari, who was only appointed about six months ago and was still technically an acting minister, had been the spokesperson for the main party that opposed Karzai in the elections.
The president is under enormous pressure to crack down on corrupt ministers. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have said the United States could withhold aid to specific ministries whose heads were unacceptably corrupt.
Whether he has taken a step toward responding to international demands to replace corrupt ministers is not totally clear.
One official here with a Western organization connected to the U.S. government suggested today that Chakari was an "acceptable loss" to Karzai, meaning that he was senior enough for people to take notice, but not high enough to really be a true sacrifice.
A full cabinet is expected to be announced before Dec. 9, when the parliament goes on its winter vacation.
Karzai's Mixed Message on Fighting Corruption
Karzai won reelection this fall in an election that was tainted by widespread charges of corruption in the vote tally. Shortly after being declared the winner, Karzai gave a speech in which he said he would tackle corruption, but his message was undermined by the fact that his running mate a former warlord Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, who is accused of trafficking drugs, was at his side.
Earlier this month, Clinton publicly warned Karzai on ABC's "This Week" that an anti-corruption push would be linked to America's willingness to commit U.S. money and manpower to support the Afghan regime.
"We're going to be doing what we can to create an atmosphere in which the blood and treasure that the United States has committed to Afghanistan can be justified and can produce the kind of results that we're looking for," Clinton said on "This Week."