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Afghan president again delays signing US deal

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's president said on Sunday he will not sign a security deal with the United States until next April's elections, ignoring a recommendation by an assembly of Afghan elders and leaders that he do so by the end of 2013.

Hamid Karzai's refusal to accept the Loya Jirga's overwhelming approval of the Bilateral Security Agreement and its request that he sign it in a timely manner puts in doubt the question of whether the U.S. will keep troops in the country after the withdrawal of foreign combat forces in 2014.

Karzai gave the 2,500-member national consultative council a series of conditions, some ill-defined, that he said needed to be met before he signed, including "peace," the cooperation of the United States on the implementation of the Bilateral Security Agreement and fair elections on April 5.

"We want security, peace and we want a proper election. You have asked me that I should sign it within a month. Do you think that peace will come within a month?" he asked the assembly. He did not elaborate on his conditions for signing but his spokesman Aimal Faizi said: "Not before elections! He was clear enough."

President Barak Obama's administration has said it wants a deal signed by the end of the year and warned that planning for a post-2014 military presence may be jeopardized if it is not approved by Karzai.

Karzai's stance could lead the United States to decide it no longer wants to pursue the long-delayed agreement allowing thousands of American soldiers to stay beyond a 2014 deadline. Those forces primarily will primarily train and mentor government security forces who are still struggling to face a resilient Taliban insurgency on their own.

It remains unclear what will happen next and if Karzai will eventually bow to domestic and international pressure to sign the deal by the end of 2013.

The Obama administration has said it will pull all its forces out of Afghanistan without a security deal, as it did when Iraq failed to sign a similar agreement. Most of America's allies have also said they will not keep troops in Afghanistan without the deal.

"We are studying President Karzai's speech. We continue to believe that concluding the BSA as quickly as possible is to the benefit of both nations," U.S. Embassy spokesman Robert Hilton said.

Karzai seems to be concerned about his long-term legacy, that he doesn't want to be seen as the Afghan leader who agreed to keep foreign troops in his country beyond 2014, when a NATO mandate ends and international military forces depart Afghanistan. His move also could be an attempt to avoid taking personal responsibility for an agreement that some Afghans might see as selling out to foreign interests.

"If I sign it and peace does not come who will be blamed for it by history? If I sign it today and tomorrow we don't have peace, who would be blamed by history. So that is why I am asking for guarantees," Karzai told the assembly.

The Loya Jirga has no legal weight and can only recommend to Karzai what he should do. He convened the council to solicit their advice on whether he should sign the agreement or not.

Karzai or his designee would have signed the document after the recommendation of the Loya Jirga and then parliament would have ratified it. After ratification, Karzai would have to again sign the agreement to make it law. Parliament is widely expected to rubber stamp the deal.

Afghanistan's president is often tempestuous and mercurial, and his relations with the United States have been testy for years.

"How long he will stay in that mood I don't know, but at the moment our understanding is that he will not go to sign it," said former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner-up to Karzai in the 2009 and is the current favorite for next year's poll. "He is a bit unpredictable."

Karzai argued Afghanistan needed more time to ensure that the United States was committed to peace in the country and stressed that the elections were a key date. He also hinted that if the agreement is signed now, he will lose the influence he needs to ensure that the elections are not the subject of manipulation.

He has in the past accused the United States of interfering in the 2009 elections, which he almost lost. That election was so soiled that U.N.-backed fraud investigators threw out more than a million votes — enough to force Karzai into a second-round vote. The rerun was later canceled when Abdullah dropped out. Karzai is not contesting the elections, but his brother is.

He said he told the Americans ahead of the assembly that "you waited 12 years and you can't wait another five months."

Karzai, often looking angry, argued repeatedly that Afghanistan needed more time.

"We need a period of implementation. We want a period of implementation for peace. Peace is our condition. If they bring peace we will sign it," he said. He did not say how peace could be quickly brought to the country.

His refusal to commit to signing by the end of the year angered the chairman of the Loya Jirga and Karzai's one-time mentor, former President Sibghatullah Mojaddedi.

"You should sign it, you should sign it for this issue to be over," Mojaddedi yelled at Karzai.

"This is our request. That this agreement should be signed very soon and if the president does not sign it, I will promise you that as I am a servant of this nation, who has served these people for 40 to 50 years, I will resign and I will leave this country," the 89-year-old Mojaddedi said.

Karzai stunned the U.S. when he urged delegates on Thursday's opening day to approve the security pact but said he will leave it to his successor to sign it.

Associated Press writer Amir Shah contributed to this report. Follow Patrick Quinn on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PatrickAQuinn