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Afghanistan: Security Concerns Remain As Vote For Loya Jirga Begins

Afghanistan is moving to the next step in the Bonn peace process today as the first of more than 300 administrative districts in the country launches indirect elections for membership in the Loya Jirga. Meanwhile, plans appear to be on track for former Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah to return to Kabul this week despite continuing security concerns. The Bonn accords call for the former king to inaugurate the Loya Jirga. But the security situation ahead of his return is deteriorating, with Defense Ministry troops from the Panjshir Valley fighting over the weekend with a local commander in Wardak Province who has claimed allegiance to the former king. Prague, 15 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghans from the northern province of Jowzjan are gathering today as the first of more than 300 administrative districts in the country prepares to choose its representatives to the Loya Jirga.

The meeting in the Meridian district of Jowzjan Province marks a key step in the process of political transition mapped out under the Bonn agreement in December. Those gathering in the Meridian district today are expected to spend hours, possibly even days, in debates before voting for their representatives on the 1,500-member Loya Jirga.

Similar indirect elections, drawing on specially chosen electors, are to continue in administrative districts throughout the country until June, when Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, is due to inaugurate the first session of the Loya Jirga.

The Bonn accords call for the Loya Jirga to appoint Afghanistan's next government -- an 18-month transitional authority -- to assume power from Hamid Karzai's current interim administration on 22 June. The transitional authority would govern while a new constitution is created for Afghanistan and steps are taken to prepare for democratic elections.

Under the Bonn accords, only Zahir Shah is authorized to inaugurate the Loya Jirga. That makes his return an integral part of the internationally backed peace process for Afghanistan.

Latest reports suggest his return is set to take place later this week despite an outburst of fighting in Wardak Province between a royalist warlord and Defense Ministry troops.

In fact, the Bonn accords empower both the interim Defense and Interior ministries to provide security for the former king after he returns. Both of those ministries are dominated by Jamiat-i-Islami, a political party of mostly ethnic Tajiks from Afghanistan's northern Panjshir Valley.

Jamiat-i-Islami has been engaged for months in a political power struggle with another key faction of the interim administration -- interim leader Karzai's so-called Rome Group of supporters for Zahir Shah.

Jamiat-i-Islami enjoys powers within the interim administration that are disproportionate to its popular support in the country. Its monopoly of the interim Foreign, Interior, and Defense ministries is largely the result of the de facto control that the party's troops have held over Kabul since the Taliban fled in November.

Faced with complaints from Zahir Shah's supporters about the kind of security that the Defense and Interior ministries might provide, the international community has agreed to allow the former king's security force to also include Italian soldiers and members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

A series of violent incidents since February has led the former king to postpone plans to return to Kabul three times. Those events included an alleged assassination plot against Zahir Shah himself, as well as the assassination of an interim minister who was among the former king's supporters in the interim administration.

Karzai says the Afghan defense and interior ministers have admitted it was their own officers who attacked Civil Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman's airplane and threw his body to the ground during his murder on 15 February.

The former king's envoys in Afghanistan -- who have been studying the security situation closely -- told RFE/RL that Rahman's assassination was just one of many incidents that raised their concerns about the interim Defense and Interior ministries.

The latest violence in Afghanistan shows that distrust between the ex-king's supporters and the Defense Ministry continues as the Loya Jirga process gets under way and Zahir Shah's planned return approaches.

At least nine Afghans have been killed in Wardak Province to the west of Kabul since 12 April, when a battle broke out between the forces of Defense Ministry commander Muzaffaruddin and troops of the royalist warlord Ghulam Rohani Nangiali.

Nangiali today reiterated his support for Zahir Shah. He also accused Muzaffaruddin of trying to "sabotage" the Loya Jirga process. He said Muzaffaruddin and Jamiat-i-Islami are doing whatever they can to delay Afghanistan's political transition so that they can extend their hold on power as the dominant faction within the interim administration.

UN officials, in an attempt to thwart such delays, have said that they will not extend the 22 June deadline for the interim administration to hand over power to the transitional authority.

To be sure, the weekend battle in Wardak Province could well be related to issues other than the Zahir Shah's return and the formation of the Loya Jirga. Karzai has not appointed a governor for Wardak Province -- and tensions in the province have been high for months due to rival claims for the post.

Taj Mohammad Wardak, governor of Paktia Province and part of a six-member delegation sent by Karzai to negotiate a cease-fire in Wardak Province, says the fighting may be an "internal problem" related to a struggle for land. He played down suggestions that either side in the fight is trying to challenge the authority of the interim government or the Bonn peace process.

In Kabul, a spokesman for Karzai said the interim leader will travel to Rome tomorrow to meet the 87-year-old Zahir Shah. Karzai plans to return to Kabul on either 17 or 18 April with the former king.

In Paris, Zahir Shah's son and personal spokesman confirmed his father plans to return to Kabul later this week. If the former king does make the long-awaited trip, it will be his first visit to the country in nearly three decades.