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Court Said To Leave Karzai In Place Till Afghan Election

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been the country's only government leader since the UN-backed Bonn agreement in late-2001.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been the country's only government leader since the UN-backed Bonn agreement in late-2001.

KABUL (Reuters) -- President Hamid Karzai has announced he will stay in office after his term officially ends on May 21 until elections are held in August, after receiving a green light from the Afghan Supreme Court.

The constitutional dispute over the legitimacy of the presidency after May 21 has thrown the young Afghan democracy into turmoil and undermined faith in the system as it struggles to combat a growing insurgency by the Taliban.

Karzai said on March 28 that he had written to the court to ask for a decision.

The court replied that "in the interest of the Afghan people and state", Karzai and his government should remain in power after May 21, the date when the constitution says his term ends.

"We have received the legal opinion of the Supreme Court which calls for the continuation of the presidency...until the next election," Karzai's spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said. "We respect and will follow the decision."

Karzai, his Western backers and opposition leaders now all agree that security problems mean the polls cannot take place before August 20, the date set by the Independent Election Commission.

But 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 said on March 28 that after the court ruled he would consult with leading political figures. If they could not agree on whether he should stay in office, he said he would call a national council of elders to resolve the matter.

But Hamidzada said the Supreme Court decision was final.

"The Supreme Court is the highest institution of justice in the land and its decision is binding," he said. "We will obey the law and invite others to do the same."

That decision now throws the ball into the opposition court.

Karzai will attend a United Nations conference in the Hague on March 31 in which the United States will seek backing for a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that calls for a greater emphasis on diplomacy and economic assistance.

U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered the deployment of 4,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan, on top of the 17,000 who are already on their way. That will bring the number of American troops close to 60,000 around the time of the Afghan elections.

Diplomats say the presidential election is the defining test of progress in Afghanistan this year. If it takes place successfully it will eclipse any failure, but if it fails it will eclipse any success.