Karzai opens Afghan parliament with accusations, call for unity

Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 26, 2011; 2:20 PM

KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened the new session of parliament Wednesday with a speech that claimed unnamed foreigners - apparently Western diplomats - interfered with the September elections.

Those parliamentary races have become a point of contention between lawmakers and the president, who tried to postpone the legislature's opening session for a month to investigate an election officially settled in November. A move by lawmakers to start parliament as originally scheduled last Sunday, without Karzai, led to a compromise that allowed the session to begin Wednesday.

As part of the compromise, a special court established by Karzai will continue to investigate alleged wrongdoing in the elections. Karzai set up the court after low voter turnout in southern Afghanistan caused his preferred candidates to lose.

In his speech, Karzai alleged that September's voting was marred by "foreign interference"-- a veiled reference to the international diplomatic community in Afghanistan, which pressured Karzai over the past week to seat the parliament - and by provincial governors who he says abused their positions by favoring certain campaigns.

Karzai has repeatedly accused the U.S. of meddling in Afghan politics, telling The Washington Post in a November interview that "an effort was made by our allies, by people in the United States of America, by people in your government, to rig" the 2009 presidential election.

But in the speech, he did not dwell on the subject or go into specifics. Karzai used the accusation to emphasize the importance of having an Afghanistan capable of defending itself by 2014 without the international presence that exists today. He then lauded the sacrifices of Afghan and coalition forces and touted the economic potential of the country's mineral resources and farming.

Despite the relative calm inside the ceremonial hall, the relationship between Karzai and Afghan lawmakers is still strained.

"In the short term, it's under great pressure," said Abdullah Abdullah, who ran against Karzai in the 2009 presidential election and greeted him after the speech. "But in the long-term, it depends on how the executive respects the decisions of the parliament."

Some lawmakers said they appreciated Karzai's attempt to relieve the tensions of the past week by stressing the need for unity. "That was like a new start," said Shukria Barakzai, a parliament member from Kabul. "Government needs to be of service to the people. I always raise that, and luckily that was the message of the president."

While Karzai thanked the U.S.-led coalition for troops and aid, he stipulated that he had the right to voice dissatisfaction.

"They should not mind when we complain about the killing of our civilians or cutting of our trees, because it is our legal right," Karzai said.

He did seem to defend, without directly referring to it, a U.S. operation last fall in Kandahar province that led to the destruction of an entire village, saying the Taliban was to blame for such desperate measures.

The event did involve a few hitches. Members of the House of Elders, a second Afghan legislative body that has more of an advisory role than the parliament, initially left the session because they were unhappy with the seating arrangement, said Bismillah Afghan Mal, a member of that body from Kandahar province.

Karzai's speech was interrupted as lawmakers passed around copies of the Koran in order to take the oath of office. "Stop distributing the holy Koran among you," the president said. "It will disturb my speech."

A Taliban spokesman issued a statement saying the new parliament was "part of a puppet regime" sponsored by the U.S.

"This is a continued drama that beguiles people's minds," the statement said.

Javed Hamdard contributed to this report. boakj@washpost.com

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