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Afghan President Could Call Loya Jirga To Solve Poll Row

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai

KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said he would call a national council of elders to resolve a row over whether he can stay in office after May 21 if leaders cannot agree with a chief justice opinion now due.

The fledgling Afghan democracy has been thrown into turmoil by the constitutional dispute that has undermined faith in the system as it struggles to combat a growing Taliban insurgency.

The constitution states the presidential term ends on May 21, after elections are held, but Karzai, his Western backers and opposition leaders now all agree the polls cannot be held till the date set by the election commission on August 20.

But the question remains of whether Karzai can remain in office after May 21, and if he does not, who should replace him and on what legal basis.

"I have already written a letter to the chief justice's office asking for his...opinion. I hope the opinion will be officially delivered to us today or tomorrow, and then I will publicly announce it," Karzai told a news conference.

"I hope parliament and other judicial institutions will pass on their views and I hope we shouldn't need to call for a loya jirga," said Karzai, referring to a grand national assembly of elders, the traditional Afghan way of resolving disputes.

"But if we see there are problems and there is no general agreement, then we have to call the loya jirga to decide, it is not the job of the president and his cabinet," he said.

'Important' Election

U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan on March 27, focusing efforts on stabilizing both countries so that Al-Qaeda cannot use them as a launch pad for attacks on the United States.

Obama ordered the deployment of 4,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan as well as 17,000 already on their way which will bring the number of American troops to close to 60,000 around the time of the elections.

"This push will also help provide security in advance of the important presidential election in August," Obama said on March 27.

The presidential election is the key test of progress in Afghanistan this year, diplomats say; if polls are carried out successfully they will eclipse any other failure, but if they fail, they will eclipse any other success.

Karzai's rivals are worried that if the president stays in office beyond May 21, he will use the advantages of office such as access to state media and aircraft to give him an unfair advantage in the campaign.

Karzai has repeatedly said that above all he wants to respect the constitution and ensure the legitimacy of his office.