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Ending standoff, Karzai agrees to inaugurate Afghan parliament

By Josh Boak and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 4:05 PM

KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai walked out of a volatile meeting Saturday about when the country's new parliament should convene, only to return with a promise that the legislature would meet Wednesday, just three days later than scheduled, Afghan lawmakers said.

The agreement appears to sidestep a dispute that had sparked concerns about the viability of a government already hard-pressed by its war with Taliban extremists and its dependence on international aid.

"Members of parliament were happy," said Nader Khan Katawazai, a lawmaker from the southeastern province of Paktika. "And Karzai was happy, too."

Tensions mounted last Wednesday when Karzai delayed the opening of parliament by a month. A special court he had appointed had not finished investigating claims that fraud and violence stifled voter turnout in his political base of southern Afghanistan during parliamentary elections in September.

Under the Afghan constitution, the president is responsible for inaugurating the parliament.

Lawmakers, who argued that the president was exceeding his legal authority in ordering the delay, responded that the new parliament would convene as scheduled on Sunday, even if the president did not attend.

Karzai invited all 249 elected members to discuss the standoff over lunch Saturday at the presidential palace.

Lawmakers gathered beforehand at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, where the parliament's incumbent speaker urged his colleagues to at least hear Karzai out.

"Let's see what the message is from the president," said Yunus Qanuni, who is from northern Panjshir province. "He did not invite us for the meal but to find a solution to the problem."

Some lawmakers had earlier voiced doubt that a settlement could be reached, pointing out that their objections were about more than just timing. Karzai had undermined the government's legitimacy and emboldened the Taliban, they said, by not seating a parliament chosen by voters almost five months earlier.

According to the constitution, the Independent Election Commission validates election returns. The tribunal set up by Karzai could not overrule the commission, members said.

"If we are open to a compromise, that means we are open to breaking the law," said Amanullah Paiman, who was reelected from the northeastern province of Badakhshan.

At the lunch meeting, Karzai asked lawmakers to sign a document saying that they would not challenge charges brought by the special court, said Ahmed Behzad, a lawmaker from western Herat province.

"Luckily, all of us parliament members rejected that proposal," Behzad said.

Another lawmaker stood up and said that the court investigation could continue, but that the president should also inaugurate the parliament, a prominent Afghan politician said, adding that Karzai responded, "Put that on a piece of paper, and I will do it." The president then angrily left the meeting, several lawmakers said.

A member of Karzai's administration denied that the president had become irritated and described his departure as "cordial."

With Karzai gone, the lawmakers chose to have 34 of their colleagues - one from each province - wait. The meeting resumed about 5:30 pm and lasted about 90 minutes, concluding with Karzai's pledge to inaugurate the parliament Wednesday.

In exchange, lawmakers agreed to permit the criminal investigations to continue, as long as they were constitutional, Katawazai said.

boakj@washpost.com partlowj@washpost.com

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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