Afghan president inaugurates new parliament

President Hamid Karzai criticized the international community Wednesday for meddling in Afghanistan's elections as he reluctantly swore in a new parliament.

Having barely averted a standoff with lawmakers that threatened to turn into a constitutional crisis, Karzai reminded them that ongoing vote fraud investigations mean many of their seats are still uncertain.

Karzai's stance threatens to keep the credibility of parliament in question even as the assembly starts working to pass laws and budgets.

Strengthening the Afghan government is seen as key to the fight against a stubborn insurgency. The idea is that a strong government will better be able to take over responsibility for security and Afghans will be less likely to turn to the Taliban if they have faith in their government.

Karzai has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the parliament since results were certified in November. Most notably, he backed a disputed tribunal that has renewed investigations into electoral misconduct long after an official anti-fraud panel backed by international advisers completed its own probe.

When Karzai ordered that the opening session be delayed a month to allow investigations to finish, the 249 elected legislators threatened to open the session without his approval this past Sunday — the originally scheduled opening date. Karzai later capitulated but said investigations would continue.

The top U.N. official in Afghanistan welcomed the inauguration as a crisis averted.

"The danger was the lack of unity in this country," said Staffan De Mistura. He said that the inauguration was crucial.

"If that had not taken place, we would have had a lot of tension and confusion," De Mistura said.

In New York, a spokesman for Ban Ki-moon said the U.N. secretary-general also welcomed the opening of parliament.

The step marks "the beginning of a period in which Afghan governing institutions must work together to solve the pressing problems that the country faces, putting aside the differences as any robust and vibrant democracy demands," said the spokesman, Martin Nesirky.

Karzai also called for unity in his speech to the parliamentarians, but at the same time accused international advisers of trying to force their ideas and methods on the Afghan people.

"If the election had been wholly Afghan, without any doubt it would have been transparent and less expensive, reflecting the will of the people," he said.

"There are a lot of questions that we need to respond to about the parliamentary election," he added.

Karzai has also accused Western powers of trying to force a runoff between him and his runner-up in last year's presidential election in order to undermine his administration. He still maintains that the U.N.-backed electoral fraud panel threw out votes that weren't fraudulent in order to undercut his lead.

The current tribunal backed by Karzai argues that it will be able to change the results of the parliamentary vote. Afghan election officials and international advisers say the tribunal has the authority to rule only on criminal cases.

Meanwhile, losing candidates continue to press their case that they have been wronged. More than 100 of the losers met with Karzai at the presidential palace on Tuesday and accused him of acting illegally and caving to pressure from the West at the expense of the Afghan people.

Karzai told them that he had wanted to wait for the court to finish its investigations but his foreign supporters had pressured him into agreeing to open the legislative session without further delay.

"There was some foreign interference and they questioned our decision," a statement from Karzai's office said. "Because of that, because of the crisis, Karzai decided to open the parliament."

A large part of the group stayed overnight at the palace, refusing to leave until their concerns were addressed. Karzai met with them again before heading to the inauguration and told them, once again, that the tribunal would address their grievances.

"He told us the opening of the session was totally because of the pressure of the foreigners," said Abdul Kabir Ranjbar, a former parliamentarian from Kabul who was not re-elected. "Mr. Karzai promised us that the court will convene."

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the inaugural session of parliament was unimportant to the insurgents and that the political drama surrounding the opening was meant to confuse the Afghan people. "This is part of this puppet government under the Americans," he said.

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Associated Press writer Anita Snow contributed to this report from the United Nations in New York.