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Afghanistan: Loya Jirga Delayed Amid Reports Of Factional Disputes

The start of Afghanistan's Loya Jirga has been postponed for at least 24 hours amid reports of last-minute disputes between powerful factions over who will lead the Transitional Authority, which is to be approved by the convention. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Kabul, the disputes are calling into question how much power the Loya Jirga itself will have in shaping the country's next administration in what is intended to be a largely democratic process.

Kabul, 10 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In the run-up to Afghanistan's Loya Jirga, delegates have repeatedly stressed their hope that the assembly will democratically determine the country's next government.

Sultan Mohammad, an elected representative from eastern Afghanistan, told our correspondent over the weekend that people in his district sent him to Kabul to vote for a government that will represent the rights of all the country's communities. "In our place, Mezaki in Said Karam subprovince, the people have expressed their opinion. Their opinion is that the government should be [elected] according to the people's desires and wishes. That means a national government in which everybody's rights are represented," Mohammad said.

Mohammed, a former commander in the 1979-to-1989 war with the Soviet Union, also said that for decades the people in his district have longed for a Loya Jirga to create such a broad-based government.

But as the start of the Loya Jirga was postponed for at least 24 hours today, there are increasing signs that some of Afghanistan's most powerful figures are trying to strike deals that will determine the assembly's outcome even before the delegates have a chance to meet.

The reports come from sources close to former Afghan King Zahir Shah and within the interim administration itself, who have told Western journalists that the Loya Jirga is being delayed to give the two sides time to work out power-sharing questions. The various sources have remained anonymous, as is usual in Afghan politics. But the fact that many of them are saying the same thing suggests to observers that deal making may, indeed, be under way.

The key issue appears to be the role of Zahir Shah, whom many Pashtun leaders would like to see resume his throne as a constitutional monarch, or at least as a president with substantial powers, including the power to dismiss governments. But such a powerful role is opposed by many in the current ethnic-minority-based interim administration, who would limit any head-of-state position for the king to a purely ceremonial function.

The division flared into the open briefly over the weekend as several major players in both camps said clearly who they want to see in charge of the next administration, to be called the Temporary Authority. The Temporary Authority, which must be approved by the Loya Jirga, is to lead the country to national elections within two years.

At a press conference late last week, Marshal Fahim, the minister of defense, said he would like to see current interim-administration leader Hamid Karzai as the country's head of state. That would preserve a working relationship that for the past six months has seen Fahim and other members of an ethnic Tajik faction from the Panjshir Valley holding most of the power in Kabul as part of a United Nations-brokered government led by Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun.

But a well-known Pashtun commander warned that the country would descend into chaos if Zahir Shah does not become the country's leader. The commander, Padshah Khan Zadran, is a former provincial governor in eastern Afghanistan who has fought efforts by the interim administration to replace him. His forces rocketed the provincial capital of Gardez in late April in open defiance of Karzai's leadership.

Some Pashtun leaders like Khan have accused Karzai of overly accommodating the Panjshiris, who along with other factions of the minority-based former Northern Alliance unilaterally occupied Kabul as the Taliban collapsed last year.

As such powerful figures differ over whether the ex-king or Karzai should be head of state, the two men they are championing have said little publicly about the debate and themselves enjoy good relations. But Karzai raised some eyebrows when he recently said he would not refuse the head-of-state position if that is what the Afghan people wanted. Zahir Shah has also said he will accept whatever position the people give him, though he has said he personally does not want to resume the monarchy.

While Afghanistan's principal players -- the Panjshiris, the ex-king, Karzai, and various Pashtun leaders -- are reported to be trying to work out their future relations, the emergency Loya Jirga itself increasingly appears in danger of being reduced to approving what they decide.

That danger has grown in recent days as many of Afghanistan's top officials and power holders have rushed to include themselves in the assembly, though they were not originally elected from their districts or chosen to participate by the Loya Jirga organizers.

The assembly was organized by a UN-assisted Special Independent Commission of 21 prominent Afghans and, until very recently, the assembly was to be composed of some 1,000 elected delegates and around 500 selected ones. The selected delegates were chosen by the Independent Commission to represent special-interest groups, such as women and the country's business and religious communities.

But over the past days, the Independent Commission has approved the last-minute addition of scores of additional names, beginning with a group of 50 provincial governors, regional leaders, and religious figures on 7 June. Since then, Independent Commission members have privately told this correspondent that the additions have grown to at least 100, as top officials of the interim administration have insisted upon being included.

That could indicate an effort by all sides to load the Loya Jirga beforehand with powerful figures whose presence could discourage electors from their districts from voting freely. One figure recently added to the Loya Jirga is Ismail Khan, the absolute ruler of western Herat Province who commands a militia of tens of thousands of soldiers.

The last-minute additions have come as some people who thought they were delegates to the Loya Jirga say they have suddenly found themselves reclassified by the Independent Commission as voteless "observers" instead.

Ihsanullah Shafaq, the president of the Afghan Student Union, said he was originally asked to be a delegate by the Independent Commission four months ago. But in recent days he said he found that his status had been changed. "I was asked to be a delegate four months ago after having spoken with various members of the Independent [Commission]. And at this point, they are telling us that at most I can be an observer, which is unacceptable," Shafaq said.

Shafaq was part of a large and angry crowd of people waiting today at the Independent Commission headquarters, several of whom voiced the same complaint. A few said they believe they were subtracted from the list of delegates so that more-powerful figures could be added without greatly changing the total number. This morning, 60 people were named as observers. The Independent Commission rejects any charges that delegate lists have been altered and says that observer status is being conferred to give some people who otherwise could not be part of the Loya Jirga a chance to witness it.

The Independent Commission and the UN have said that the Loya Jirga process has been remarkably fair, given the fragmented political condition of Afghanistan today. They also have said the Loya Jirga will be the most democratic effort to approve a new government in the country's history, despite the efforts of some powerful figures to shape its decisions.