Kabul - Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, has inaugurated a Kabul gathering of thousands of Afghans that will decide the role of US forces beyond the 2014 international troop withdrawal.
The loya jirga, or grand council, which convened on Thursday, includes more than 2,500 Afghan men and women from around the country, who came together to discuss a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the US.
The convening of the jirga, a traditional Afghan institution in place for centuries, followed an announcement by the US that it had reached a deal with the Kabul government on the security pact.
The text of the BSA must be ratified by the loya jirga delegates and the Afghan parliament before it can be signed by Karzai.
Karzai opened his address on Thursday by stating "there is no other agenda" other than the discussion of the BSA.
The statement came after criticisms of the latest jirga and previous ones, suggesting that Karzai tends too use the gatherings as a means to thwart the Afghan constitution.
"I have no representative, my representative is the people's consciousness," he said in front of a crowd that included all 11 of the candidates for the April 2014 presidential election.
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Regarding the BSA itself, Karzai said the international community, including the US, had "asked for" the strategic partnership agreements.
Noting the discrepancies in the power balance between the two nations, Karzai said.
"The US, the stronger side, wanted urgency in negotiating the security agreement. We, the weaker side, wanted accuracy and diligence" in negotiations that have dragged on for more than a year, he said.
Though Karzai said he personally followed the agreement "word-by-word, article-by-article" and brought specific changes, several aspects of the draft text that will be presented to the jirga representatives has proven controversial among the Afghan people.
According to the full text of a draft agreement published late on Wednesday night by the Afghan Foreign Ministry, the US will have "the exclusive right" to try its soldiers accused of crimes in Afghanistan, and will maintain several bases in the country.
US forces will not conduct military operations in Afghanistan "unless mutually agreed", the text says.
An annexe in the agreement also states that nine facilities will continue to be provided by Afghanistan to the US. Among those facilities is the Kandahar Air Force Base, capable of housing more than 200 military aircraft.
Greeted by applause
Karzai was greeted by applause when he read a clause that states US forces cannot enter the homes of Afghans, run prisons in Afghanistan or hold any Afghans prisoner.
"What are you doing raiding our homes every night when the source of terrorism is clear," he asked, alluding to constant allegations of interference in the Afghan conflict by neighbouring Pakistan.
In a bid to allay Afghan fears, Karzai read from a letter received prior to his speech by Barack Obama, his US counterpart.
He quoted Obama as saying US forces would not enter Afghan homes except in extraordinary circumstances when a soldier’s life is in danger.
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However, Belqis Roshan, a female senator from Farah province, interrupted Karzai's speech asking why he would sign an agreement with the US who have killed "thousands" of Afghans over the years.
The legislator from the western province was greeted by accusations of being a spy for Iran and Pakistan, before being escorted out of the loya jirga hall.
Karzai acknowledged that "blood has [indeed] been spilled" but said that the purpose of a loya jirga is to provide a voice to all sides.The BSA text must be ratified by the loya jirga delegates and the Afghan parliament before it can be signed by Karzai.
The issue of jurisdiction has been a sticking point in BSA negotiations, with the US refusing to allow Afghanistan to charge and try US troops for alleged crimes committed on Afghan soil.
The subject was also a major issue in Iraq, with the Baghdad government's refusal to allow US troops immunity to local prosecution ultimately paving the way for the withdrawal of all American troops from the country in December 2011.
The jurisdiction issue came to the fore after a US judge gave Robert Bales, the US staff sergeant who admitted to the worst case of civilian killings by an American soldier since the Vietnam War, a life sentence for the murder of 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children.
The trial of the Kandahar Massacre, as the March 2012 murders of Panjwai district villagers came to be known, earned the ire of Afghans when it was decided the trial would be held in the US.