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Originally published Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 4:32 AM

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Karzai: US troop immunity up to Afghan elders

The Afghan president said Monday that a meeting of the nation's elders should convene to decide whether U.S. troops staying in the country after 2014 would be immune from prosecution under Afghan law.

Associated Press

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KABUL, Afghanistan —

The Afghan president said Monday that a meeting of the nation's elders should convene to decide whether U.S. troops staying in the country after 2014 would be immune from prosecution under Afghan law.

President Hamid Karzai's remarks were his first since returning from Washington, where he met last week with President Barack Obama about the future of the alliance between the two countries.

This was also the first time Karzai has floated the idea that Afghans should hold a "loya jirga" - a national assembly of elders - to make the decision on U.S. troop immunity.

The United States has said that it needs to maintain sole legal jurisdiction over its forces in Afghanistan as part of the agreement for forces that will stay after 2014. In Iraq, it was the Iraqi government's refusal to grant such jurisdiction that caused U.S. troops to completely quit that country.

"We want our national sovereignty and the Americans want the safety of their soldiers," Karzai said in Kabul. "They don't want their soldiers to be under the laws of another country."

Karzai appeared to be trying to strike a conciliatory note, in sharp contrast to the harsh rhetoric and demands ahead of his U.S. trip.

However, he stressed that the issue of U.S. troop immunity was not up to his administration to decide.

"The Afghan government cannot make that decision. It is the decision of the people of Afghanistan. So a loya jirga of the people of Afghanistan should decide," he said.

Loya jirgas have traditionally been used in the country to make major decisions. The last such meeting occurred in November 2011, when Karzai called elders together to discuss whether they should enter into negotiations with the U.S. about a long-term partnership agreement.

Karzai's tone throughout his speech was solicitous of the United States.

He said his talks with Obama were "very calm" and that the two leaders did not argue. He also said that his delegation received a warm welcome in Washington and told the Afghan people that they should be thankful for the help provided by the United States.

It was a departure from the rhetoric that characterized many of his speeches to the Afghan nation over the last year - in which he regularly demanded new rules for his U.S. allies and accused them of trying to occupy his country.

It may have been a sign that statements from the U.S. administration about the possibility of pulling all troops out of Afghanistan in 2014 had caused Karzai to soften his tone. However, it may also indicate that Karzai came out of the meetings in Washington with a sense that his concerns were finally being addressed.

He stressed Monday that the U.S. agreed to his key demands that Afghan sovereignty will be respected and that U.S. troops will stay out of Afghan villages. He did not provide details on how the U.S. and Afghan forces would navigate this pact, but said that U.S. troops that stay after 2014 should be advising and training the Afghans.

Karzai also said Monday that he expected the U.S. to restart the process of transferring Afghan detainees to Afghan custody - another key issue for Karzai - within two weeks.

But he also stressed that the agreement on U.S. security forces going forward will be something that will still take much discussion.

"The United States wants to sign it soon, but the Afghans want to go more carefully," Karzai explained.

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