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By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Two Afghan cabinet ministers are being investigated under suspicion of embezzlement, a deputy attorney general said on Monday, at a time when President Hamid Karzai faces tough Western pressure to clean up his government.
With U.S. President Barack Obama poised to decide whether to send tens of thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan, the U.S. embassy said Washington would be watching Karzai's steps against corruption very closely.
Deputy Attorney General Fazel Ahmad Faqiryar declined to name the two ministers that were targets of the probe. He said other officials were also being investigated.
"If the ministers insist and don't show up for the interrogation, we have other legal means with which to proceed," said Faqiryar," adding that they could be suspended from their posts or arrested.
Faqiryar later told Reuters 15 former and current cabinet ministers who served under Karzai since 2001 were suspected of corruption, adding that some of them had fled Afghanistan.
"Whenever they are ready for interrogation and we prove the accusations against them, then we will send their documents to the court," Faqiryar said.
Karzai, sworn in last week for a second five-year term after an election marred by fraud, has been under pressure by his Western backers to tackle widespread corruption.
He is due to name his slate of cabinet ministers in coming weeks, and there has been widespread speculation as to whether ministers would be dropped or prosecuted for corruption.
Media reports have emerged in recent days of ministers accused of bribery or graft. Faqiryar's remarks were the first official confirmation of a probe involving cabinet members.
He said officials at the Religious Affairs ministry were among those being investigated, but would not say if they included the minister, Sadiq Chakari. Chakari confirmed on Sunday that two officials from his ministry were under investigation but denied that he was among those accused.
"ENCOURAGING" MOVE
Karzai's government announced two weeks ago it was setting up a new anti-corruption unit, although U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the measures still fell short.
In his inauguration speech Karzai pledged to end a "culture of impunity" and name competent and honest ministers, drawing praise from Clinton and other Western officials.
U.S. embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden would not comment on the specific allegations, but said: "We think President Karzai's inaugural address was particularly strong on the steps he intends to take on corruption.
"We need to ensure that these steps are implemented and that we see results. We're going to be watching this very closely."
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst levels since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. Four U.S. service members were killed during the past 24 hours in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the U.S. military said.
Obama is expected to announce a decision soon on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, and U.S. officials say he wants to see evidence that Karzai is a reliable, trustworthy partner.
Aleem Siddique, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Kabul, said: "The Afghan people and the international community expect the authorities to root out corruption.... recent action that we have seen is encouraging and must be continued robustly."
Afghans will also need convincing.
"In the past we had experiences where the trials were not just and lawful and the criminals managed to be released soon after," Kabul resident Khalid Ahmad said.
"These ministers should be tried as soon as possible and the government must try them in a serious and fair manner."
(Additional reporting by Peter Graff; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by David Fox)

Reuters