|Public support in the US for the Afghan war continues to decline as more troops are killed or injured in combat [Reuters]
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned an air strike by Nato-led forces which he said killed 10 election campaign workers, although US officials maintained it was aimed at an Islamist leader.
Nato said its airstrike on a car in northern Takhar province's normally quiet Rustaq district killed or wounded as many as 12 insurgents on Thursday, including a Taliban commander and a local head of an allied insurgent group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, responsible for attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.
However Karzai said the airstrike had killed 10 campaigners working for a candidate in Afghanistan's September 18 parliamentary elections.
"The rationale for the airstrike still needs to be fully investigated," the president said at a joint news conference in Kabul with Robert Gates, the US defense secretary.
Gates said he had not heard about civilian casualties, but said the attack had hit its intended target and promised an investigation.
"I am able to confirm that a very senior official of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan was the target and was killed," Gates said.
"This is the first that I had heard that civilians may have been killed and we will certainly look into that," he said.
Increased violence and fears of corruption are threatening the parliamentary poll, with four candidates and up to 13 campaign workers and supporters killed in recent weeks.
Gates said that while the fight against corruption must be led by Afghans, the US is working on new ways to prevent millions of US dollars flowing into the nation from bribery and graft.
Gates was responding to Karzai's complains on Thursday about the tactics of two Western-backed anti-corruption units that recently arrested one of his top aides on suspicion of bribery, likening them to heavy-handed Soviet tactics.
Gates said two units - the Major Crimes Task Force and the Sensitive Investigative Unit, should operate under Afghan law, but added that the US will keep backing investigations into cronyism and illicit activities.
He also said US ambassador Karl Eikenberry and General David Petraeus, the top commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, were developing new guidelines for how US funds are handed out for development and other projects.
Karzai pledged to work against corruption, which is undermining trust in his government and making it difficult to maintain international support for the war.
Gates is the most senior US official to meet with Karzai since the president's decision to intervene in the Salehi case and review the anti-corruption units.
Those actions were widely interpreted in the US as undermining efforts to clean up his government and as a slap in the face to his US backers.
Karzai said his motives have been mischaracterized and he is trying to build credibility of the Afghan government to police itself.