KABUL - An Afghan grand assembly began delivering its verdict on a crucial security pact with the United States Sunday, following concern over conditions attached by President Hamid Karzai and warnings from Washington.
The 50 committees of the "loya jirga" gathering of about 2,500 chieftains, tribal elders and politicians gave their assessment of the deal one by one at the conclusion of four days of discussions under tight security in Kabul.
Almost all of the first 20 committees to declare endorsed the painstakingly negotiated Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) governing the presence of US troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
Some even suggested adding an extra US base in the province of Bamiyan, while more than half of them urged Karzai to get the BSA signed into effect before the presidential election next year.
In his opening statement on Thursday, Karzai told the meeting that the deal would not be signed until after April's poll - sparking a strong response from Washington, which wants it sealed by the end of this year.
Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi told AFP that the president would explain the reasons for his stance in his closing speech to the jirga.
Karzai's conditions also include an end to military operations on Afghan homes and cooperation in the peace and election processes, Faizi said Saturday.
The State Department warned that failure to sign the pact - which governs the conditions of any post-war American counter-terrorism and training mission in Afghanistan - could jeopardise billions in vital aid to the war-torn country.
The White House has said it needs a swift decision to start planning the movement of US troops, and warned that President Barack Obama had not yet decided whether to keep any American forces in Afghanistan at all beyond 2014.
"Karzai doesn't have the right to say this, he is making a mistake," Sebghatullah Mujadidi, the head of the jirga, said on Saturday.
"They (the Americans) have accepted all the conditions set out by him and us. It would hurt Afghanistan if he does not accept it," he added.
Amir Mohammad Akhnudzada, a delegate from the volatile southern province of Helmand, said: "I think President Karzai should respect the decision of the Afghan elders, and all the delegates want this Bilateral Security Agreement signed as soon as possible."
If the loya jirga approves the pact it must be approved by the Afghan parliament before it can go into effect.
Supporters say the deal is vital for post-2014, when the bulk of NATO's 75,000 troops will pull out. The Taliban insurgency this year has reached levels of violence not seen since 2010, according to the United Nations.
Karzai told delegates that the BSA would allow up to 15,000 foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan goes to the polls on April 5 to elect a successor to Karzai, who must step down after his two terms. A credible election is seen as crucial to the country's future stability.
On Saturday, delegates debated the legal oversight of US troops who remain in Afghanistan after 2014.
A draft text released by Kabul last week appeared to show Karzai had bowed to a US demand that American troops remain exempt from Afghan jurisdiction if they are accused of crimes.
A similar security deal between the United States and Iraq collapsed in 2011 over the issue of whether American troops would be answerable to local courts, leading Washington to pull its forces out.