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Afghanistan: Former King Opens Loya Jirga Amid Power-Sharing Questions

Afghanistan's Loya Jirga began today in an atmosphere of high drama following former Afghan King Zahir Shah's announcement that he is not a candidate for head of state. The former king has said that, instead, he endorses current interim-administration head Hamid Karzai as the leader for the Transitional Authority. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Kabul, it remains to be seen whether royalist delegates will give their approval to Karzai in the Loya Jirga process, and if so, at what price.

Kabul, 11 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Loya Jirga started on a solemn note today as 87-year-old deposed King Mohammad Zahir Shah opened the traditional assembly a day later than expected.

The former king called on the more than 1,500 delegates to help build a broad-based government after decades of warfare. He said today's assembly shows the national unity of all Afghans.

Speaking after the former king, interim-administration head Hamid Karzai also stressed the need for national unity, and praised what he called the cooperation he has received from regional leaders in rebuilding the country. "When I went to Bamiyan, I met [ethnic Hazara leader Karim Khalili], and he welcomed us very much, and he kindly presented me with an ancient, 600-year-old holy Koran. And now it is in our national archives."

The calls for unity came as the Loya Jirga begins weeklong deliberations due to end in the approval of the structure and key personnel for Afghanistan's next government, called the Transitional Authority. The Transitional Authority, which will take power for an 18-month term beginning 22 June, is to lead the country to national elections within two years.

The Loya Jirga's first order of business is to elect an assembly chairman and deputies to direct the proceedings. The convention is then due to approve a head of state. But it is unclear whether there will be time enough to vote on the head of state today, given the late-afternoon start of the inaugural session.

Once a head of state is selected, the assembly is to vote in the days ahead on whether to approve his proposals for the heads of the three government branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. Under the Bonn-accord provisions for the Loya Jirga, the delegates also must decide whether to extend their power of approval to other top officials, such as ministers. The delegates also must approve proposals defining the working structure of the Transitional Authority's main institutions, such as the legislature.

But if the assembly's agenda appears straightforward, there have been ample signs in recent days that the convention may be highly volatile and extend beyond its planned end date of 16 June. Organizers have called that date flexible and say the only final cutoff is 22 June, the day set by the Bonn accord for the Transitional Authority to take office.

One measure of the tensions accompanying the Loya Jirga process came yesterday as furious jockeying between rival factions forced the postponement of the assembly's start. The rivalry pitted supporters of the current interim administration -- who want Karzai to lead the follow-on Temporary Authority -- against supporters of Zahir Shah. The royalists are demanding that the former king be head of state, with the power to dismiss governments.

The dispute reflects splits between Afghanistan's many ethnic groups. The royalists are mostly tribal leaders and commanders from the majority Pashtun community who resent the fact that most of the power in Kabul is presently held by ethnic minorities, and particularly by a single ethnic Tajik faction from the Panjshir Valley. The royalists have accused Karzai -- himself a Pashtun -- of overly accommodating the Panjshiris, who want far greater power in the next government.

By last night, the dispute appeared to have transformed into deal making as Karzai and Zahir Shah appeared jointly at a hastily called press conference. There, the king sat silently as an aide read a statement for him, saying, "I have no intention of restoring the monarchy, and I am not a candidate for any position in the Loya Jirga." The statement added, "I fully support the candidacy of Mr. Karzai."

Karzai responded by calling the king "the father of the nation," but gave no hint of any substantive role for him.

But today, in an apparent partial reversal, Karzai told the assembled Loya Jirga that the king will play an important ceremonial role in the country's affairs, including approving a future constitution. Karzai also said Zahir Shah will resume residence in a royal palace he lived in before being deposed in a bloodless coup in 1973.

The withdrawal of the king's candidacy angered his supporters, some of whom today demanded to hear the king's message in person. Ghulab Mangel, a delegate from the Pashtun province of Paktia in eastern Afghanistan, told our correspondent, "I think that if Zahir Shah himself tells the people that he does not want to present himself as a candidate for the presidency, and that he supports Karzai, then it will have a positive effect on the people and will make them agree."

Zahir Shah appeared to respond to that expectation during his brief remarks inaugurating the assembly late this afternoon. He said he has no desire to restore the country's monarchy and that he supports Karzai.

The former king's withdrawal is surprising because it follows many reports that some Pashtun leaders have formed strong voting blocks for the Loya Jirga to demand that Zahir Shah, not Karzai, be the Temporary Authority's top leader. The leaders of several of these blocks, including Haji Zaman, a commander from southern Paktia Province, who has mustered 150 delegates, were reported to have spent much of last night deciding whether to walk out of the Loya Jirga in protest at the king's withdrawal.

Today, there is much speculation in Kabul that the king was pressed hard by Washington to withdraw in order to assure that Karzai is the next government's leader. The rumors are partly fueled by remarks made by the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad. Khalilzad said shortly before the king's announcement yesterday that he had told the feuding factions that, "they need to get their act together." He added, however, that, "we are here to help, but ultimately it is [the Afghans'] responsibility" to resolve any power-sharing issues.

Delegate Mangel expressed some of the royalist Pashtuns' suspicions of meddling by saying, "Some representatives are of the belief that [Zahir Shah's] withdrawal may be because of some internal or external pressures.... Agriculture Minister Azizullah Wasifi said that the king should not [withdraw] because if he did not want to be the president of Afghanistan, why did he come back to Afghanistan?"

Speculation about outside pressure offers little explanation, however, of why Washington or any other outside party would want to sideline the king just two months after he returned from Rome as a highly regarded unifying figure.

As the ex-king has stepped aside, so has Karzai's other announced rival, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. He confirmed in a press conference today that he supports Karzai.

The rapid clearing of the field for Karzai, and particularly the withdrawal of the king, suggests to many observers in Kabul that deals are being struck that may provide the majority Pashtuns at least part of the larger share of power they seek. Khalilzad suggested that publicly yesterday, saying "significant" changes must occur for the next government to be accepted by most Afghans.

What price the disappointed royalist delegates will demand of Karzai for their approval of any new government he proposes is unknown. So far, their rivals, the Panjshiris, have publicly hinted that they are ready to give up one of the three key ministries they control, either that of defense, interior, or foreign affairs. But they have not said which ministry they would yield or whether they will relinquish more than one.

The details of wresting enough power from the hands of the current power holders in Kabul to satisfy Pashtun demands could dominate the Loya Jirga proceedings in the coming days. It remains to be seen whether that work -- perhaps already speeded up by secret deals over the withdrawal of Zahir Shah -- can be completed in a way that will satisfy all sides ahead of the country's next transfer of power, just a little more than 10 days from today.