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Afghan upper house backs Karzai election decree

KABUL (Reuters) - The upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament backed a decree by President Hamid Karzai on Saturday that limits foreigners’ role in elections, giving him a victory in a dispute that has led to a quarrel with the White House.

A complicated procedural row over how to run a September parliamentary election has emerged as a major bone of contention in the country, prompting an anti-Western tirade by Karzai on Thursday that drew a sharp rebuke from Washington.

Karzai issued his decree in February stripping the United Nations of the authority to appoint the majority of members of an election fraud watchdog, claiming that power for himself.

The elected lower house of parliament voted unanimously on Wednesday to overrule Karzai’s decree. But the upper house’s leadership excluded the lower house’s proposal from its own agenda on Saturday, meaning the veto will not come up for a vote there, and apparently ensuring that Karzai’s decree still stands.

Fazl Hadi Muslimyar, first deputy head of the upper house, told Reuters the body’s leaders had concluded that parliament lacked the power to rule on electoral laws within a year of an election, and therefore could not place the veto on the agenda.

Ahmed Behzad, a member of the lower house and a critic of Karzai, accused the president of pressuring the upper house to back his decree. Karzai appoints a third of upper house members.

“I think there was pressure from the palace, from Mr Karzai, on the senate on this,” Behzad told Reuters.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Kabul April 1, 2010. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood


The dispute over foreigners’ role in elections led this week to a war of words between Karzai and Washington, exposing the troubled relationship between the veteran Afghan leader and the Western countries with 120,000 troops protecting him.

The morning after the lower house rejected his decree this week, Karzai delivered a strongly-worded speech accusing Western officials of bribing and threatening election staff, perpetrating vote fraud and trying to weaken him and parliament.

In an unprecedented display of indignation, the U.S. State Department called Karzai’s accusations “preposterous” and the White House demanded an explanation. Karzai phoned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday to defuse the dispute.

Before Karzai’s decree, the United Nations had appointed foreigners to serve as the three-member majority of the five-seat election fraud watchdog.

The body became the center of attention during last year’s disputed presidential election, when its foreign members overturned Karzai’s victory in the first round, throwing out a third of his votes because of fraud.

Karzai was declared the victor anyway in November when his opponent backed out of a second-round run-off, but the three-month stand-off battered his reputation in the West.

After claiming the power to appoint the entire five-member watchdog in February’s decree, Karzai partially relented last month, offering to let the United Nations appoint two members -- a minority -- rather than the three-member majority as before. Diplomats say they are not sure if that compromise now stands.

Concern remains that procedural wrangling could delay September’s vote. The United Nations mission in Kabul said it was important to settle the rules soon.

“We must avoid a vacuum where Afghan election management authorities do not have clarity as to the law they are supposed to implement,” said Dan McNorton, spokesman for the United Nations mission in Kabul.

Additional reporting by Peter Graff; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Hemming