By Jessica Donati and Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai has suggested delaying April elections to avoid heavy snow, organizers said, an idea that will rattle the United States and critics who fear he may be trying to drag out his second and final term.
Karzai is barred by the constitution from running for a third term and has so far refrained from backing any of the candidates, although he is widely expected to support his elder brother Qayum, seen as one of the front runners.
But Karzai has also refused to sign a pact that would keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after next year when most international troops pull out. He has said the agreement shouldn't be signed until after the election, which some say illustrates his reluctance to step out of the limelight.
"Regarding the weather, there have been concerns," the chairman of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), Yousof Nooristani, told the upper house of parliament on Sunday.
"Even the president has suggested we could make changes to this (the election date) because he received complaints from the people. I told him we couldn't because the date is set, based on the constitution and electoral law."
The proposal was raised after government officials said snow blocking roads in their provinces could prevent voters from reaching polling stations.
While electoral law states the date cannot be changed, one member of the commission, appointed by Karzai's administration to organize the vote, said it could be delayed if the weather threatened to exclude groups of voters.
"That is possible, but one thing is clear. We are trying not to say this... it is premature," the commissioner told Reuters, asking to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to give statements to the press.
Critics at home and diplomats however have long feared that Karzai could use bad weather or poor security as a tool for pushing back the vote set to mark the first democratic transfer of power since the Taliban fell in 2001.
But the commission's spokesman said that neither the organizers nor the president had authority to change the date.
"Some members of the upper house asked the chairman if the time could change because of the climate issue in the north of the country," IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said.
"No one can have the authority to change the date and time, because it is quite clear in the constitution."
Karzai's suggestion will nevertheless come as a disappointment to Washington, engaged in the standoff over the signing of the security agreement.
Organizers already say poor security, a shortage of monitors and funding holes are undermining their ability to safeguard the process from the widespread fraud that marred the last poll in 2009.
Another deeply flawed election would undermine the attempts of Washington and its allies to foster democracy ahead of the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Western nations, who have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a conflict that has failed to end the Taliban insurgency, have pledged about a third less cash to the United Nations fund that will cover most of the election's costs compared with 2009, official U.N. figures show.
Corruption among election staff is rife, according to both U.N. and Afghan sources, and even those that want to remain independent fear their lives may be in danger if they try to stop fraud. Many key roles in the IEC remain vacant just five months before the poll.
There is also a severe shortage of female staff, which threatens to exclude most women from voting and makes polling stations for women harder to monitor.
Karzai's refusal to sign the pact with the United States is seen as a high-risk gamble that Washington will give in to his demands.
If the pact is not signed, Western aid running to billions of dollars will be in jeopardy and confidence in the fragile economy could collapse amid fears the country will slip back into ethnic fighting or civil war.
The logic for setting the election date in early April was to minimize the risk of attacks by the Taliban insurgency. Because of heavy snow, fighting in Afghanistan tends to subside during the winter months.
(Writing by Jessica Donati; Editing by Nick Macfie)