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Karzai won't halt meeting of lawmakers

Under heavy pressure from Afghan lawmakers and Western diplomats, President Hamid Karzai agreed on Saturday to convene the newly elected parliament, ending a political standoff that threatened to spark a constitutional crisis.

After hours of tense discussions at the presidential palace, Karzai backed off his earlier order to delay the session for a month to allow more time for a special tribunal to investigate allegations of fraud in September's parliamentary election, according to two of the lawmakers involved in the talks, Shukria Barakzai of Kabul and Gul Pacha Majidi of Ghazni province.

In return, Karzai asked the lawmakers to agree that any criminal case against a member of parliament could go forward, said Mirwais Yasini, a representative from Nangarhar province who was deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament in the last session. The legislators agreed to this condition Saturday evening and drafted a letter to send to the president today, Yasini said.

While he has not said so publicly, it is generally believed that Karzai is unhappy with the election results and thinks fraud reduced voter turnout among his fellow ethnic Pashtuns. Some of the hundreds of losing candidates said Karzai told them that he believed they were wronged and that he would do everything to support further investigations into election fraud.

The order to delay the parliament, however, sparked an outcry among lawmakers and drew heavy pressure from the United States, the U.N. and other world powers for Karzai to resolve the dispute and allow the 249-seat legislature to get to work.

Legislators had threatened to defy the president's ordered delay and start the session on their own today, as originally scheduled, even if they had to meet in a hotel or on the street. Under Afghan law, the president inaugurates the legislature at its opening session.

In an effort to avert a public showdown today, Karzai invited all the lawmakers to the palace for lunch Saturday and after much debate, a compromise was reached. "He is coming, and Wednesday will be the opening," Barakzai said.

Some politicians, however, were not happy with the outcome, signaling that the political tension could drag on.

Daoud Sultanzoy, a former parliamentarian who lost his seat in a chaotic election in Ghazni province, said Karzai bowed to pressure from the international community to support the appearance of a fair vote rather than waiting for the courts to make a decision.

Sultanzoy and other losing parliamentarians planned to stage a demonstration today in Kabul. He said he expected more demonstrations to follow nationwide.

An earlier investigation by an anti-fraud watchdog into the charges of election irregularities discarded 1.3 million ballots -- nearly a quarter of the total -- and disqualified 19 winning candidates before final results were issued on Nov. 24.

But Afghanistan's attorney general concluded that investigation had not been thorough enough. The attorney general launched a new round of inquiries, which led the Supreme Court to create the special tribunal in late December.

It was unclear, however, if the tribunal -- deemed unconstitutional by both the international community and the electoral bodies that organized and oversaw the election -- has the power to alter the result of any races.