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KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday struck a deal with lawmakers to allow the inauguration of parliament next week, ending a standoff that had thrown the country into political turmoil.
Lawmakers, furious with a presidential decree postponing the Jan. 23 inauguration, had threatened to meet at parliament on Sunday, with or without Karzai. After marathon talks the president offered to convene the assembly on Wednesday.
"We have agreed on Karzai's request to open parliament on Wednesday and refrain from going to parliament tomorrow," said Sediq Ahmad Usmani, a representative from Parwan province.
Karzai rowed back from an announcement he made last week in which he said the inauguration would be delayed until Feb. 22 to allow a special election court he established to continue fraud probes into an election in September.
That announcement sparked political chaos. Lawmakers denounced the decision and the court as illegal and made plans to open parliament without Karzai, while losing candidates who support the delay pledged to bar the winners access to the building.
The United Nations, United States, European Union and Canada had criticised Karzai's decision and expressed "deep concern".
Karzai's proposals to end the stand-off, made to a small delegation, were put to a larger group of lawmakers for a final approval, and their closed-door debate in a Kabul hotel was at times heated with shouting that could be heard from outside.
Some were sceptical the president would stick to his word.
"The majority of us may agree on what has been proposed by the president, but there is no guarantee he won't back away," said Sharifullah Kamawal, a member of parliament for Kabul.
Along with offering to proceed with the inauguration, Karzai hinted he might be willing to set aside the election court that sparked the crisis, lawmakers and officials following the negotiations said.
"Karzai has agreed that criminal cases should be decided according to the laws and constitution. If the special court is illegal then it will automatically be abolished," said Mirwais Yasini, a representative for eastern Nangarhar province.
Karzai set up the special tribunal by presidential decree after protests by losing candidates angry at corruption and winners frustrated that they still had not taken their seats.
But critics say it is designed to serve his political agenda rather than the interests of justice, and raises wider questions about his respect for rule of law.
Karzai is believed to be unhappy about the poll results, which have left the assembly with a larger, more vocal and coherent opposition bloc.
"This court is in direct violation of the constitution of Afghanistan," said Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main rival in presidential elections and now head of an opposition coalition.
"Establishing a special court gives the president a free hand in coming years to establish a special court on any issue, and that court can act in accordance with his wishes and demands."
Even before the latest delay, Karzai chose an inauguration day almost two months after the final results were released on Dec. 1, and then scheduled a trip to Russia over the planned day -- forcing it to be pushed back slightly to Jan. 23.
The fraud-riddled poll and months of political infighting over the results have raised questions about the credibility of Karzai and his government among his foreign backers.
There were fears that further delays would fuel unrest and instability at a time when violence is at its worst since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban government by U.S-backed forces.