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Kerry: U.S. and Afghanistan agree on security pact

WASHINGTON -  Secretary of State John Kerry says the U.S. and Afghanistan have reached an agreement on the final language of a bilateral security agreement.

The agreement will govern the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends next year.

Kerry said Wednesday that he had spoken with Afghan President Hamid Karzai earlier in the day. The proposed agreement will be placed before a gathering of Afghan elders on Thursday.

Approval by the Loya Jirga, the traditional council of 3,000 prominent Afghans is not guaranteed. The group can revise or reject any clause of the draft agreement, and a flat-out rejection would most likely prevent the Afghan government from signing it.

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Kerry also says Karzai did not ask the U.S. to apologize for civilian casualties.

Divisions run deep in Afghanistan over conceding the right to prosecute U.S. soldiers for crimes committed in the country.

In eastern Afghanistan, scores of university students wearing headbands bearing an inscription from the Quran burned an effigy Tuesday of Mr. Obama to protest the pact and its provision relinquishing prosecution of American soldiers in an Afghan court. A protest meeting also was held Monday in the Afghan capital of Kabul.

Afghans are still angry over several incidents involving international troops, including the 2012 accidental burning of hundreds of copies of the Quran; a shooting spree that year by a U.S. soldier in southern Afghanistan that killed 16 people, mostly women and children; and the unintentional deaths of civilians by wayward bombs.

Hakimullah Mujahed, one of the Loya Jirga's organizers, said "the security agreement with the U.S. has to be in the framework of the Afghan constitution."

"The trial of foreign soldiers accused of killing innocent Afghans or committing crimes against Afghanistan should be tried in an Afghan court. That's very important," he added.

Lawmaker Khaled Pashtun from southern Kandahar, where a Taliban insurgency flourishes, disagreed. He said Washington is right to demand jurisdiction over its troops.

"Our justice system is still under construction. ... Even Afghans don't trust it yet," he said in a telephone interview.

The Bilateral Security Agreement is a sweeping document that incorporates the usual Status of Forces Protection Agreement, which the U.S. signs with every country where its troops are stationed. The document covers everything from taxation and customs duties to a promise to protect Afghanistan from hostile action.

While Afghans may be divided over the agreement, they are also pragmatic and know they need international forces in the country, said Kabul University professor Hamidullah Faruqi.

"They will guarantee our stability. They will show to our neighbors that Afghans are not alone, and the financial aid that will come along with this agreement will benefit Afghans, and Afghans know this," he said.

Faruqi said the outcome of the Jirga will depend on who is chosen to attend the session by Karzai's selection committee.

Karzai's relationship with Washington has deteriorated steadily since the 2009 presidential election, when he was accused by several Western countries, including the U.S., of engaging in widespread fraud.

Since throwing out the Taliban in December 2001, the government has turned to the traditional Loya Jirga to decide key milestones in Afghanistan's transition to democracy, including the framing of a constitution.

Security that was already tight ahead of the convening of the Loya Jirga was stepped up considerably after a weekend suicide bomber struck near the site, killing 12 people, including three national security personnel.