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Afghanistan: Former King Pushes Peace Initiative

Afghanistan has been plagued by war for more than two decades. Afghans united to fight the Soviet military in the 1980s, but for the last decade they have battled against one another. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports that a new impetus for peace is being undertaken by an Afghan leader from an earlier time -- the former king.

Rome, 23 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- For most of the 1980s, Afghanistan was a center of the Cold War. The world watched as the small nation, populated by people as tough as the country's rugged terrain, defended itself against the Soviet Union.

But with the departure of Soviet forces a decade ago, the country slid out of the headlines and into a relentless civil war. Most of the country is now controlled by a fundamentalist Islamic militia, the Taliban, which has been criticized for enforcing harsh Islamic Sharia law and severely restricting the rights of women.

Battling against the Taliban is a coalition called the United Front, led by ousted President Burhanuddin Rabbani. It is still recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

In a bid to break the cycle of war, Afghanistan's former king, Zahir Shah, has organized a conference in Rome, where he has lived since he was ousted in a 1973 coup.

The meetings this week, hosted by the Italian Foreign Ministry, have drawn around 70 people. Among them are Afghan political and military leaders, and intellectuals and religious figures from inside and outside Afghanistan -- as well as observers from the UN, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Britain, France, and Germany.

Neither the Taliban nor Rabbani has sent official delegates. But an RFE/RL correspondent at the meeting, Hashem Mohmand, reports that several of Rabbani's supporters are attending. He also reports that Taliban representatives are expected to meet informally with Zahir Shah during an official visit to Italy next week.

Zahir Shah hopes that by Friday (Nov. 26), when the conference ends, the delegates will have agreed to call a Loya Jirga -- an assembly of Afghan political, tribal, and religious leaders -- within Afghanistan itself. A Loya Jirga is a traditional form of Afghan decision-making that still commands immense respect among ordinary Afghans.

The emergency Loya Jirga would be tasked with electing a provisional government and leader who would be responsible for organizing elections.

The former king, now 85 years old but reported in good health, has said that he is not a candidate for leader. Shah says he hopes a Loya Jirga can end the strife that has crippled the country's economy and forced hundreds of thousands of Afghans to live as refugees in neighboring countries. In an address to the Rome conference, he said peace in Afghanistan is an international concern.

"Afghanistan is situated in a very sensitive part of the world and the continuation of the war will be a threat to the whole region. And so bringing peace to this country will be in everyone's interest, especially neighboring countries. I proposed an initiative some years ago to reach a peaceful settlement, respecting the sovereignty of the Afghan nation, through a Loya Jirga. Now I hope that with the participation of the Afghan nation, the cooperation of friendly countries, and especially the cooperation of the UN, this peace initiative will be a success." The Italian deputy foreign minister, Valentino Portelli, says Italy believes that a successful peace initiative depends on a dialogue among Afghans that would include more groups than just the warring factions.

One of the prominent leaders of the Afghan mujaheddin resistance to the Soviet invasion, Sabratullah Mojaddedi, says the Loya Jirga will only be successful if all Afghan groups are represented in it.

"The plan for convening the Loya Jirga was initially proposed some years ago by me. I proposed it to the UN, countries that have an interest in the area, and our Afghan brothers. And I see the Loya Jirga as the only way to solve Afghanistan's problems. It will give the nation the right to choose its future. Zahir Shah alone cannot do this unless all Afghan notables, including tribal leaders, scholars, religious leaders, jihad (holy war) commanders, and even the two warring factions take part and cooperate. Otherwise this meeting will be fruitless."

The UN representative at the meeting, Kiyotaka Kawabata, says the world body supports the king's initiative. He says the UN believes that representatives of Afghan civil society must be involved in any peace process, alongside the warring factions.

But Kawabata says that those attending the Rome conference would have to eventually make contact with the warring factions. For a peace process to be credible, he says, the Taliban and the United Front must also be involved.

The success of a Loya Jirga depends on its authority being recognized by all sectors of society. The key to whether the initiative succeeds or fails likely rests with the Taliban and its willingness to embrace this latest push for peace.

(Hashem Mohmand of the Tajik service contributed to this report.)