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Interim Afghan Leader Given a Boost

Politics: Defense minister backs Karzai as the next head of state, signaling his break from ex-president's ranks.


KABUL, Afghanistan — Easing fears that wartime commanders might revolt if interim leader Hamid Karzai is chosen as Afghanistan's next head of state this week, the country's defense minister threw his heavily armed support Saturday behind the respected prime minister.

Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim was a key fighter in the Northern Alliance, which ousted the hard-line Islamic Taliban regime last year, and his loyalty to the Karzai government had been in doubt. The December appointment of the ethnic Tajik commander to head the ragtag Tajik-dominated armed forces was seen at the time as a strategic appeasement.

"If Hamid Karzai is again selected to head the government, the people will have chosen a moderate who will surely serve Afghanistan better than anyone else to bring national unity, security, peace and stability in the country," Fahim told a news conference ahead of Monday's start of the weeklong loya jirga, or grand council, to choose the country's new leaders.

He described Karzai and the current Cabinet as "young, energetic and moderate."

Fahim's lavish praise of Karzai, an ethnic Pushtun, confirmed his clear break from the ranks of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was thought to still hold sway over Fahim and other Northern Alliance fighters in the Karzai Cabinet.

Suave and multilingual, Karzai has won much national respect and foreign aid for maintaining relative peace for the last six months after 23 years of war. But several regional chieftains and even some of his own Cabinet officials have appeared to be merely tolerating Karzai until the loya jirga, to be held in a giant tent here in the capital, opens up new opportunities to redistribute power.

Fahim, Foreign Minister Abdullah and Interior Minister Younis Qanooni were all aligned with Rabbani during his chaotic 1992-96 rule, between the fall of Soviet-installed leaders and the rise to power of the Taliban. United Nations officials and others monitoring the political transformation have accused Rabbani of waging a back-channel campaign of bribery and intimidation of delegates to the loya jirga in an attempt to regain power.

Some had feared that Rabbani might persuade Fahim to use the armed forces, which are almost exclusively made up of former Northern Alliance fighters, to prevent any other leader from assuming the role of head of state. Fahim controls not only the armed forces but also the presidential guard ostensibly protecting Karzai as well.

Selecting a head of state to rule until elections in 2004 is the first order of business on the loya jirga agenda and is expected to be decided Tuesday.

Fahim's show of support for Karzai probably represents a consensus among the younger Northern Alliance figures, who were more cooperative than Rabbani was during U.N.-brokered talks near Bonn late last year that brought Karzai to power. Rabbani, a 62-year-old Cairo-educated cleric, had occupied the presidential palace and sought to block his delegates from agreeing to a peaceful transfer of power after U.S. bombing helped drive out the Taliban.

Pushtuns, who make up at least 40% of Afghanistan's roughly

27 million people, have complained bitterly of being underrepresented in the interim government.

They see the dominance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and others from the country's northern regions--especially from the Panjshir Valley, which was the home and power base of slain Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masoud--as de facto punishment of all Pushtuns, the ethnic group in which the Taliban originated.

Although Fahim's political shift heartened the Karzai camp, another regional warlord offered a stark reminder Saturday of the rivalries that could still rile the loya jirga.

Bacha Khan, who was fired as the governor of the eastern province of Paktia this year for refusing to recognize central authority, is a loya jirga delegate and has warned of a return to bloodshed unless former monarch Mohammad Zaher Shah is chosen as leader.

Although he is a Pushtun, like Karzai and the deposed king, the Paktia warlord has rejected the legitimacy of the interim government as a creation of the international community. If anyone other than Zaher Shah is chosen as head of state, that will be proof that the loya jirga was manipulated by meddling foreign powers, he insisted at a news conference in the lobby of an unused Kabul hotel.

"Because the people support the king and love him and it was agreed in Germany that he should be brought back as ruler of the nation, we support Zaher Shah," Khan said, claiming that he spoke on behalf of three southeastern provinces where he retains clout.

He insisted that the Bonn agreement on the transitional government calls for the king to resume his reign. It doesn't, specifying only that Zaher Shah preside over the opening of the loya jirga.

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