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Key U.S. senator questions insistence on timing of Afghan deal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An influential Democratic senator questioned on Thursday the Obama administration's insistence that Afghan President Hamid Karzai sign a security deal by the end of 2013, suggesting that Washington wait for a "more reliable" leader to take office.

In a letter to President Barack Obama, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said demands that Karzai sign the Bilateral Security Agreement by December 31 add to what he termed "the mistaken belief" that Washington needs the deal more than Kabul.

The United States should tell Karzai that if he will not sign, Washington will wait for whoever is elected Afghanistan's new president in April, Levin said.

"The next Afghan president, whoever he is, is also likely to be more reliable than President Karzai, and there would be greater confidence in his sticking with an agreement he has signed," the Michigan Democrat wrote.

Obama administration officials say the security pact, which would allow American troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014, needs to be signed this year, and that a delay would risk holding up vital military planning and eroding international support.

An assembly of Afghan elders, called a Loya Jirga, endorsed the pact last month.

But Karzai suggested he might not sign it until after the national elections and made additional demands, including that foreign forces immediately stop raids on Afghan homes and Washington repatriate all Afghan detainees at its military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)