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Envoy to Kabul faces dustup

His leaked cable brought a vehement denial of remarks by a high Afghan minister.

KABUL, Afghanistan - A leaked diplomatic cable has jeopardized the U.S. ambassador's relationships with key Afghan ministers at a time when ties between the two nations are strained over corruption at the highest levels of the government and stepped-up military operations, a top Afghan official said Saturday.

Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, who is well-respected by the international community, vehemently denied that he called President Hamid Karzai "an extremely weak man," as reported in a Feb. 26 cable written by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.

The cable went on to quote Zakhilwal as saying that Karzai "did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to him to report even the most bizarre stories of plots against him."

Zakhilwal delivered his blistering remarks against the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul just hours after President Obama's surprise trip to Afghanistan to bolster troop morale.

The report is "absolutely, categorically wrong and false," Zakhilwal said at a news conference at the finance ministry.

Zakhilwal said that he offered to resign but that Karzai asked him to stay, saying he didn't believe he could have said such a thing.

He said the cable, part of a vast assortment of files released by the WikiLeaks website, has hurt not only Eikenberry's relationship with him, but with other key ministers in the government.

The rift sparked by the WikiLeaks release comes less than two weeks before Obama is to address Americans about a new review of U.S. strategy to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government so that U.S. troops can begin leaving next year.

Eikenberry, a longtime critic of Karzai who once commanded troops in Afghanistan, operates quietly behind the scenes in Afghanistan, yet he is the frontline diplomat dealing with Karzai, and the dispute could make it harder for him to push his agenda with Afghan officials.

Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said the Americans were working in private to overcome any issues.

"We are determined not to allow the reckless actions of WikiLeaks to harm the strong and strategic relationships we have built over many years with many members of the government of Afghanistan," she said in a statement.

She did not address Zakhilwal's allegation that Eikenberry misquoted him in the cable to further the ambassador's own opinion that Karzai is not a reliable partner.

In a different cable leaked in November 2009, Eikenberry warned against sending substantial numbers of additional troops because Karzai was "not an adequate strategic partner." That cable raised speculation that Eikenberry could be replaced because the cable might have damaged his relations with Karzai, but Obama stuck with the ambassador.

"The views of Eikenberry are well-known," Zakhilwal said. "The ambassador has used my name to support his views of the president."

In a raised voice, Zakhilwal said: "I find this extremely unprofessional. . . . I find this extremely undiplomatic, and to be honest with you, I am extremely saddened. And this leaves no trust between me and the ambassador - extremely little trust."