By Hamid Shalizi and Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - An assembly of Afghan elders endorsed a crucial security deal on Sunday to enable U.S. troops to operate in the country beyond next year, but President Hamid Karzai left the matter up in the air by refusing to say whether he would sign it into law.
The gathering, known as the Loya Jirga, had been convened by the president to debate the pact outlines the legal terms of continued U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. It voted in favour and advised Karzai sign it promptly.
But Karzai, in his final remarks to the four-day meeting, said he would not sign it until after a presidential election due next April.
"If there is no peace, then this agreement will bring misfortune to Afghanistan," he said. "Peace is our precondition. America should bring us peace and then we will sign it."
The president did not elaborate, but has previously said a free and fair vote is needed to guarantee peace in the country and his spokesman later said Karzai had not changed his mind.
As the meeting ended, assembly chairman Sibghatullah Mojeddedi told Karzai: "If you don't sign it, we will be disappointed." Karzai responded "Fine!" and left the stage.
Failure to clinch the deal could mean a full U.S. pullout, leaving Afghanistan to fight the Taliban insurgency on its own. U.S. troops have been in Afghanistan since leading a drive to remove the Taliban in late 2001.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, said the deal must be signed by year-end to begin preparations for a post-2014 presence.
Kerry said in a statement that the Loya Jirga's endorsement was a "compelling affirmation" and urged a signing of the agreement in "short order."
In his remarks, Karzai acknowledged there was little trust between him and U.S. leaders while saying signing the pact was broadly in Afghanistan's interests. Backing from the Jirga, handpicked by his administration, had been widely expected.
Most speakers were muted in their criticism of the thorniest issues in the document, including a U.S. request for immunity for its troops from Afghan law.
Critics say Karzai's recalcitrance on the date might reflect his desire to distance himself from any deal with the United States and avoid speculation that he has sold out to the West.
A former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, said Karzai is known to use 11th hour demands to press for concessions from the United States during negotiations.
"He has to be the one ... to sign off on this loss of Afghan sovereignty. He knows intellectually that this is in Afghanistan's interest, but at the same time it's distasteful to him," Neumann said.
HE'S DONE IT AGAIN
The deal took a year to bash out and Karzai's about-face threw the entire process into doubt just hours after both sides announced they had agreed on its terms.
Even in Afghanistan, where some view the security agreement with the United States with contempt, many officials were unsettled.
Some believe Karzai is simply concerned that the United States and other Western countries may attempt to interfere in next year's presidential election. Having served two terms, he is ineligible to run again.
By withholding his signature until after the vote, Karzai could also use ratification as leverage to ensure the United States does not try to back a candidate not to his liking.
Opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, who dropped out of a run-off against Karzai in the 2009 elections, citing concerns about fraud, was among those who shared this suspicion.
"What he is asking for is a guarantee about the elections and most probably his favourite candidate," Abdullah told Reuters.
Karzai accused the international community of meddling during the 2009 election that he won, saying they had tried to encourage Afghans to vote for an opposition candidate.
Others were concerned that Karzai's reluctance to sign the agreement could jeopardise Afghanistan's relations with its international allies and its economic future.
"If we keep talking about signing the agreement after the election, we will lose our biggest ally," said Freshta Amini, an MP from southwestern Nimroz province. But some Loya Jirga members supported Karzai's comment about delaying ratification.
"If the Americans want to sign this pact with Afghanistan, then they should also respect our demands for a transparent election, and peace and security in the country," said Farid Alokozai, provincial council chief in Wardak, outside Kabul.
One cabinet minister close to Karzai said many members of the president's team were unhappy with his decision.
"There are people who want this pact to be signed immediately after the Loya Jirga. But there are spoilers too, who have a lot of influence over the president."
(Additional reporting by Katherine Houreld, Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi, Dylan Welch and Caren Bohan; Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Maria Golovnina, Ron Popeski and Jackie Frank)