KABUL Afghan lawmakers on Monday demanded legal restrictions on foreign forces fighting in their country, to prevent further civilian deaths, then closed for half a day to protest the latest casualties from U.S. air strikes.
The attacks on homes packed with civilians, during a protracted battle last week, have damaged ties with Washington and stoked popular anger about the presence of western troops, over rising non-combatant deaths.
Debate about innocent casualties dominated the morning's session and the delegates said they had given the government one week to come up with a way of regulating foreign fighters.
"To prevent the bombardment and killing of our people, the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) has decided the government must come up with a plan, within one week, to regulate the foreign forces," said Wolesi Jirga secretary Abdul Sattar Khawaasi.
President Hamid Karzai has already called for an end to all air strikes. His request was rebuffed by the U.S. which said commanders could not fight "with one hand tied behind our back."
But the lawmakers' demands go beyond those raised by Karzai.
"This is no longer bearable...the activities of foreign forces, their presence must be legalized. When a foreign soldier acts contrary to the law of Afghanistan, he should be prosecuted according to Afghanistan's law," Khawaasi told Reuters.
Karzai said the civilian toll from the strikes could be as high as 130, but the head of the lower house of parliament, Mohammad Younus Qanuni put it even higher, at 140.
A deputy from Farah, Mohammad Nayeem Farahi said 95 of the victims were children under 18 years old.
If Karzai's toll is confirmed, it would make the Farah strikes the single bloodiest incident for civilians since the Taliban's ouster in 2001.
The U.S. military has conceded that civilians were killed in its attack aimed at the Taliban, but has not given any figure.
"THERE WILL BE UPRISINGS"
Civilian casualties have been the main source of friction between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the foreign forces led by NATO and the U.S. military.
They have been responsible for rapidly sapping public support for the presence of western troops, at the same time that the Taliban insurgency gathered strength in the south and east.
Washington is sending an extra 17,000 soldiers in the coming months to secure Afghanistan's election and to prevent the spread of militant attacks, but have conceded that more fighting is likely to bring more bloodshed.
Lawmakers said civilian deaths caused by foreign forces are now also undermining the legitimacy of Karzai's already fragile government, risked discouraging ordinary Afghans from voting in the key presidential election in August.
Karzai won the 2004 poll, the first direct vote in Afghan history for a president, and is standing for reelection.
"If the president can not stop the killings of the innocents, how can the people trust their government or the president, and take part in the election," lawmaker Mohammad Moin Marastyal, who represents Kunduz province in Northern Afghanistan, told Reuters.
"There would be uprisings against foreign forces ... It will be the biggest problem for the presence of the international community if they do not avoid the killing of innocent people." More than 70,000 foreign troops are stationed in Afghanistan from where U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban government after it refused to hand over al Qaeda leaders wanted by Washington for the September 11 attacks on the United States.
(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison)