By Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai struck a compromise with NATO forces on Wednesday, agreeing to a far more limited and gradual pullout from a key province than he had initially demanded, according to accounts from the NATO-led force.
The deal emerged 10 days after Karzai's March 10 deadline for all U.S. special operations forces to leave Wardak province, and NATO said the deal limited the initial pullout of NATO troops to Wardak's small, relatively restive district of Nerkh.
"The remainder of the province will transition in time," according to a statement of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
The Wardak issue, along a series of inflammatory remarks by Karzai deriding the United States and other foreign forces, has strained already fraught ties between the president and Western allies as they move to wind down the unpopular, costly war.
Karzai had called for U.S. special operations forces to leave the province after villagers accused them of torturing and killing civilians, an allegation U.S. forces strongly deny.
ISAF's deputy commander, British Lieutenant General Nick Carter, clarified to Pentagon reporters that ISAF special forces and other troops would still operate in Wardak, at least for the time being.
"It's absolutely the case that they will still ... operate there," Carter said.
"I think that Nerkh will be treated slightly differently, as I've described. But, of course, what we're seeking to do in the coming months is to transition much of Afghanistan, and Wardak will be part of that plan."
Carter, said Nerkh would be transitioned to "an Afghan solution" within the next few days. But he also cautioned that the details of that transition in Nerkh were subject to agreements that would be discussed at the Afghan national security council meeting on Sunday.
Nerkh is a known hiding place for Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami militants. The district comprises about 10 percent of Wardak and borders Kabul and Logar provinces.
Afghan officials have expressed fears that insurgents might use Wardak, just a 40-minute drive from Kabul, as a launch pad for attacks on the capital.
Opposition politicians say Karzai's order to expel the U.S. special forces was a political move intended to bolster his party's support base ahead of a presidential election next year. Karzai is not allowed to stand again.
Some in Wardak however are furious U.S. special forces are still operating in the province, and about 1,000 residents converged on the capital on Saturday demanding they leave.
U.S. special forces are expected to play a major role in Afghanistan after most NATO combat troops withdraw by the end of next year, and Karzai's decision to expel them was seen as complicating talks between the United States and Afghanistan over the scope of U.S. operations after the pull-out.
(Writing by Jeremy Laurence and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Nick Macfie and Cynthia Osterman)