1.00pm - By NICK MEO in Kabul

Alleged war criminals are poised to take positions of power in Afghanistan's new government, threatening hopes of democracy taking shape after last week's historic election, a human rights watchdog has warned.

Men with bloody records from twenty years of conflict will take over as judges, government ministers, police chiefs, and senior officials unless their appointments are blocked by presidential decree, according to a report by Afghanistan Justice Project.

The US-based group has conducted detailed research into the darkest periods in recent Afghan history and accuses some of the most powerful men in the country of involvement in murders, mass rapes, summary executions and indiscriminate rocketing and bombing of civilians.

It also calls on the Western powers backing the Kabul government to apply pressure against warlords, and accuses the United States of helping discredited figures back into power and re-arming them as allies in its fight against al-Qaeda.

Researcher Patricia Gossman, author of the report said: "The new government's appointments must be scrutinised. There must be proper accountability for ministers, judges and provincial governors. At the moment there is no vetting process.

"We are particularly worried that the controversy over ink marks on voters' fingers in the election will mean deals have been done where candidates' complaints are dropped in exchange for appointments."

The new president - expected to be Hamid Karzai - has the power to block tainted figures but may find it politically difficult to do so without support from his Western backers, Ms Gossman said. She also said that the US may still be using warlords in its anti-terror war.

"There is a total lack of transparency about what they are doing," she said. "The ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, is meeting Karzai almost every day but nobody knows what message he is sending about warlords.

"There seems to be much more concern among European powers about putting these people back into power than there is among US officials.

"They have caused huge problems in the past, and they shouldn't be in positions of power now."

The report - Candidates and the Past; The Legacy of War Crimes and the Political Transition in Afghanistan - details new evidence about some of the bloodiest episodes from the Soviet occupation, the civil war in the 1990s and the Taleban era, accusing all sides of taking part in atrocities.

Little research has been done before on war crimes, partly because years of turmoil and repression within Afghanistan made work so difficult. For this report researchers interviewed witnesses to and survivors of atrocities.

The report warns that war crimes have barely been investigated and efforts have been made to bring any figures to justice since the start of conflict 27 years ago, enabling discredited figures to continue in power.

One of those singled out is former Defence Minister and Vice President Mohammed Fahim, one of the most powerful figures in the Northern Alliance.

Although he was dropped by Karzai as vice-presidential running mate shortly before the election, many still expect him to remain a significant figure in the new government.

The report highlights atrocities including summary executions and mass rapes carried out by troops allegedly under his command in Kabul in February 1993.

Another powerful behind-the-scenes figure is Abdul Sayyaff, a fundamentalist warlord who opposed the Taleban. He is believed to have played a key role in appointing ultra-conservative judges to Kabul's Supreme Court where their judgements have repeatedly gone against the few liberal figures brave enough to try to play a public role in Afghanistan.

His men, accused of atrocities in the civil war, are still serving in the 10th Division based in Kabul which the report calls to be disarmed.

Uzbek General Abudulrashid Dostum, a presidential candidate with ambitions to be Chief of the Defence Staff, is another who is singled out for his record in leading a militia during the civil war.

The report also claims that Taleban commanders accused of war crimes may not face justice because they have disappeared into US custody.

The report said: "The lack of transparency by US officials about detainees it has in custody has made it impossible to know whether any Taleban commanders responsible for war crimes will ever be brought to justice.

"Some may have been released without any attempt to hold them accountable."

Numerous low-level commanders are also named in the report.

The prospect of those accused ever standing trial for war crimes is believed to be years away, partly because the authority of the Kabul government is so fragile at the moment.

But Ms Gossman said international pressure could help to squeeze warlords out of power or bring them to justice.

She said: "So far the only real trial for anybody accused of abuses is happening now in London, where alleged commander Zardad Khan is being prosecuted."