Karzai opens Afghan parliament, taunts West

KABUL Wed Jan 26, 2011 2:57pm EST

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (C) shows respect to members of the new parliament after giving an oath in Kabul, January 26, 2011. Karzai opened parliament on Wednesday, ending a standoff with lawmakers, but setting the stage for a longer battle against an assembly he has long ignored. REUTERS/Musadeq Sadeq/Pool

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (C) shows respect to members of the new parliament after giving an oath in Kabul, January 26, 2011. Karzai opened parliament on Wednesday, ending a standoff with lawmakers, but setting the stage for a longer battle against an assembly he has long ignored.

Credit: Reuters/Musadeq Sadeq/Pool

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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai inaugurated parliament on Wednesday, ending weeks of political infighting, but took a dig at the West saying "foreign interference" had been a serious problem.

Western diplomats called the event a "big day" for Afghanistan, but the comments exposed the often frayed ties between Karzai and his backers and in private officials warned of a bigger battle ahead between the president and his new parliament.

Afghanistan's government was plunged into political crisis last week when Karzai decided to delay the opening of the assembly by a month so a special poll court he set up could have more time to investigate fraud in the September 18 election.

Washington is pressing Karzai to demonstrate good governance as it looks to withdraw U.S. forces from an unpopular war now in its tenth year, and the latest showdown has renewed concern about the president's credibility as an ally.

Under huge pressure from winning candidates, who threatened to take their seats in parliament this month with or without him, and in the face of criticism from the United Nations and countries supporting Afghanistan with troops and cash, Karzai backed down and agreed to a Wednesday inauguration.

Karzai, who has already accused Western powers of meddling in a fraud-ridden presidential poll that saw him re-elected in 2009, said foreign interference in last year's parliamentary vote was one of the things that sullied the results.

"During the election process we faced serious problems in protecting people's votes, preventing fraud and from the interference of foreigners," Karzai said in his opening speech to members of the assembly shortly before they were sworn in.

"We must 'Afghanise' government institutions and the elections. Undoubtedly, elections convened by the Afghans will be more transparent, less expensive," he said.

The president's relations with the West have often been rocky and tension came to a head last year over the presidential poll.

But the international community needs signs of progress in Afghanistan as it prepares to start handing over security. Karzai still has nearly four years still in office, and is granted wide-ranging powers by the constitution, so his role is key. The United Nations, which had expressed "deep concern" last week at Karzai's decision to delay the inauguration, offered a determinedly upbeat interpretation in his latest remarks.

"I think what he meant is that he wants in the future to have much more involvement of the Afghans in their own elections and we agree," said Staffan de Mistura, the top envoy in Kabul.

SPECIAL COURT

Karzai's comments appeared to be sparked by criticism over his creation of a special election tribunal, the legality of which has been questioned by diplomats, MPs and rights groups.

The president is thought to be unhappy with the new make-up of the assembly, which although not necessarily united, now faces a more vocal and coherent opposition bloc.

"The special court is key. I think we can expect to see the president using what he says are legal powers to try to remove some parliamentarians," said a senior Western diplomat.

"We are not over this. He will try to do something, if only to weaken legitimacy of parliament," the diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.

The United States also said on Tuesday it would "closely monitor" developments in the parliament, suggesting it would keep a close eye out for illegal maneuvers by either side.

While the West acknowledged there was fraud in the poll they had pushed for the assembly to convene quickly.

NATO, which leads a force of 150,000, also called this week for a "timely opening of parliament" if it were to start handing over security to Afghan forces from February or March.

Karzai wants his forces to take the lead in securing the whole country by the end of 2014, an ambitious plan, but one endorsed by the international community.

(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch, Emma Graham-Harrison and Matt Robinson: Writing by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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