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Afghanistan: Timetable On Loya Jirga Leaves Little Room For Dithering

An Afghan committee tasked with creating the rules on forming the country's emergency Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, has announced details of its plans. The some 1,500 Afghans -- including 160 women -- to form the Loya Jirga are to meet for seven days in June to appoint the country's next government. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports the plan leaves little time for dithering because the Loya Jirga must complete the task before the current interim administration's mandate expires on 22 June.

Prague, 1 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The plans unveiled in Kabul yesterday for Afghanistan's 1,500-member Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, allow for little delay during either the creation of the council or its work.

A mere seven days have been set aside -- from 10-16 June -- for the Loya Jirga to be inaugurated, conduct all of its debates, and appoint an 18-month transitional authority that takes over power from Hamid Karzai's interim administration.

If it concludes its work in that timeframe, it would be one of the hastiest Loya Jirgas in Afghan history. And never before has an Afghan Loya Jirga faced a crisis of such magnitude and complexity as the present situation in the war-torn country.

By comparison, a 455-member Loya Jirga in September of 1964 spent 10 days debating and approving a draft constitution that a legal committee had already spent nearly a year creating.

During a Loya Jirga in August of 1928, Afghan ruler Amanullah Khan spent five days describing a recent trip that he had made abroad.

Under the timetable for the current Loya Jirga, the debates on the transitional authority would have to continue nonstop for 24 hours each day in order for each member to be able to speak for about six minutes.

Some Afghan officials suggest privately that the work of the Loya Jirga could be extended a few days beyond 16 June. But under the terms of December's UN-backed Bonn agreement, 22 June is the absolute deadline for Afghanistan's current interim administration to hand over power to a transitional authority.

Thomas Ruttig, a political affairs officer for the United Nations Special Mission to Afghanistan, told RFE/RL there are no circumstances under which the 22 June deadline on the handover of power will be extended.

Ruttig said the UN will ensure that Afghan authorities stick to the timetable created at Bonn so that no political faction within the interim administration can extend its hold on power by delaying the process of political transition.

That means that there can be no more than a week of delays during the entire process of electing the Loya Jirga, inaugurating its sessions, conducting all of its debates and completing its vote on a transitional authority.

Ismail Qasimyar, the chairman of the commission that is setting up the rules for the Loya Jirga, says he is confident the deadlines will be reached without delay.

"We are sure that everything will go according to the timeframe that has been mentioned in the Bonn agreement."

Under the procedures announced by Qasimyar yesterday, 1,051 seats will be determined through indirect elections.

These Loya Jirga members are to be voted upon by electors who are chosen through traditional consensus-style village meetings at mosques and schools across the country.

Once the electors are determined, they will gather at 300 different district meetings to cast secret ballots for the Loya Jirga candidates that are nominated from among the electors themselves.

The plan is designed to guarantee that different ethnic and religious groups are represented proportionally according to Afghanistan's population.

Qasimyar said the plan also reserves 464 seats for members of special groups. Women will be guaranteed at least 160 seats. Afghan refugees will have 100 representatives. Universities will receive 39 seats while the rival factions within the interim administration will get a total of 30 seats.

All 21 members of Qasimyar's commission have already appointed themselves to the Loya Jirga.

Only six seats are guaranteed for Islamic clerics. That is a much smaller voice than the clerics have had in previous Loya Jirgas. But more clerics may take part if they are chosen through the indirect elections.

Ayatollah Sadiqi Parwani, a prominent Muslim clergyman in Kabul, is among those complaining about the allocation of only six seats for Islamic scholars. Parwani, who is a leader of Afghanistan's Shiite Muslim minority, called the decision "a humiliation."

There also are widespread fears across Afghanistan that rival warlords and political factions may resort to armed intimidation and violence in the coming weeks in an effort to influence or delay the selection process for the Loya Jirga.

Another possible source of delay could be the postponed arrival of the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who has been tasked with the responsibility of inaugurating the Loya Jirga.

Qasimyar says, "It was agreed in Bonn that the opening session, the first session of the Loya Jirga, shall be chaired by his majesty the former king of Afghanistan Mohammad Zahir."

But Qasimyar noted yesterday that there are no provisions in the Bonn agreement for a substitute for Zahir Shah if something happens to prevent him from returning to Kabul by 10 June.

Qasimyar says the former king is now committed to returning to Afghanistan on 16 April.

But Zahir Shah has announced three earlier dates for his intended return since the Taliban fled Kabul last November. All three of those scheduled returns have been postponed by the former king due to security concerns.