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Karzai won't dissolve panel probing election

Afghanistan's president resisted demands from winning parliamentary candidates Sunday to dissolve a tribunal investigating alleged election fraud, potentially undercutting a deal in which he agreed to inaugurate the legislature this week.

President Hamid Karzai's repeated refusals to accept the results of September's parliamentary elections could undermine the new legislature's authority and the electoral process even as Western allies design their military exit strategy around the idea of a stronger government.

Though the balloting was mired in fraud, the standoff has grown far beyond a question of ballot stuffing into a power struggle between the president and the elected parliamentarians. Both sides say the constitution and laws are on their side.

Sunday was the day parliament was originally scheduled to start work, but Karzai scuppered this deadline last week by announcing a one-month delay so the special tribunal could continue investigations. Lawmakers threatened to convene without Karzai's approval and appeared to win a victory Saturday with a deal to inaugurate the assembly Wednesday -- only three days late -- as long as investigations could continue.

However, the compromise appeared at risk of unraveling Sunday over the question of the tribunal -- which Afghan election officials and international advisers say is unconstitutional. The parliamentarians sent a letter to the president's office saying they would not accept rulings from the special tribunal, only from the regular courts, according to Mirwais Yasini, a lawmaker from Nangarhar province who was re-elected.

Karzai refused and another day of intense talks ensued. Parliamentarians were still in meetings late Sunday night, and Yasini said they were very close to a deal that would allow the tribunal with some sort of extra oversight. The president's office could not be reached for comment.

There are 59 winning candidates among the cases the court is investigating, according to Sadiqullah Haqiq, the head of the five-judge tribunal. That means the judges' decisions could significantly alter the makeup of parliament.

Even if the sticking point is resolved, investigations could still wreak havoc on the parliament as it begins work this week. Whichever court takes on the investigations, a conviction of any candidate for fraud could still provide a basis for revoking his seat. The Afghan constitution says no one who has been convicted of a crime can run for seat in the legislature.

While Karzai has regularly steamrolled over the parliament by issuing orders by decree, the body is still the main check on the president's power and an important dissenting voice. The Supreme Court is nominated by Karzai and generally seen as beholden to him.

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