Bomb Hits Afghan Capital before Talks on US Deal

KABUL, Afghanistan - A police official says a bomb has exploded on the western edge of Afghanistan's capital near the site of next week's meeting of elders to discuss a controversial security agreement with the United States.

Hashmat Stanikzai, a spokesman for Kabul's police chief, said Saturday it wasn't immediately clear whether it was a remotely detonated bomb or a suicide bombing. There was no immediate report of casualties. No group claimed responsibility.

About 3,000 elders are to meet next week for the Loya Jirga to debate a agreement which would allow U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the final withdrawal of international combat troops at the end of 2014.

The explosion came just hours after President Hamid Karzai announced the final draft of the agreement had been completed.

Afghan and U.S. negotiators have finished a draft of a contentious security pact to be presented to a traditional council next week, President Hamid Karzai said Saturday, but added that there remain disagreements between the two countries over the final content of the accord.

Without approval of the Loya Jirga, a gathering of several thousand prominent figures from across the country, Afghanistan will likely refuse to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement, Karzai said. And if the Loya Jirga does approve it, the agreement still will require a final nod from parliament.

U.S. officials refused to comment on what they described as an ongoing diplomatic process. Karzai provided few details regarding how and when the draft was finalized.

Negotiations have been protracted and often acrimonious. In the end it took a surprise visit to Afghanistan in October by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to produce the outlines of a deal. After a lengthy meeting with Karzai, the two announced that an agreement had been reached in principle on the major elements of the pact.

The sweeping document incorporates the usual Status of Forces Protection Agreement, which the United States signs with every country where its troops are stationed, along with a wide range of other clauses. It covers everything from customs duties on goods the U.S. imports for its troops and development projects to the question of whether a U.S. service member can be prosecuted for criminal offences in Afghanistan.

"Because this is an ongoing diplomatic discussion, we're declining to comment on the state of the text or the process that got us to this point," said Robert Hilton, U.S. Embassy spokesman in Kabul.

"The draft is completed," said Karzai, adding however that "there are still a few special points still being discussed ... There are still some differences."

He refused to elaborate on the differences or whether they could be deal breakers with Washington.

But earlier, two senior U.S. officials told the AP that Afghanistan had sought specific security guarantees, particularly against cross-border incursions by insurgents from neighboring Pakistan. Washington is cautious about any commitments that could lead to a conflict with Pakistan. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Karzai described a laborious negotiation process that sometimes came down to fine details of phrasing.

"There was one word that we didn't want in the agreement but they (U.S.) wanted and in the end they agreed to not use that word," he said, without identifying the offending word.

Karzai did not say what the draft said regarding U.S. service members' immunity from prosecution. This key American demand has been a sore point in Afghanistan, where many are still angry over incidents including the February 2012 accidental burning of hundreds of copies of the Islamic holy book, the Quran, a March 2012 shooting spree by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan that killed 16 people, and unintended civilian deaths from U.S. bombs.

The Loya Jirga, which is to begin on Thursday, will involve about 3,000 elders, clerics, parliamentarians and influential figures. The debate is expected to last several days and attendees are expected to be deeply divided over signing the pact.

"The Loya Jirga will bring together all the people, who agree and disagree about the Bilateral Security Agreement. We want them to talk about the agreement in a free and fair environment without any pressure on them," Karzai said urging only that the attendants read the agreement carefully and in detail. He asked that they study each clause before coming to the Jirga.

"They should think about the prosperity and stability of today and tomorrow in Afghanistan. And whatever decision they are making they should think about the future of Afghanistan," he said.

A majority negative vote from the Jirga will likely scuttle the agreement and leave Afghanistan without any U.S. forces after the end of 2014. With the agreement, the residual force of about 10,000 that is expected to remain behind would mostly train and mentor Afghanistan's National Security Force. A small group of U.S. Special Forces are also expected to stay in Afghanistan to hunt down al-Qaida and carry out counter-terrorism activities.

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