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Afghan Delegates Question Assembly's Independence

Asia: Selection of Karzai as leader appears certain after another candidate drops out. Some in the loya jirga claim process was fixed.


KABUL, Afghanistan — The last serious presidential challenger to interim leader Hamid Karzai withdrew his candidacy Tuesday, enhancing the impression among many delegates to this nation's grand assembly that the selection had been fixed by foreign advisors and those already in power.

Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani's announcement that he was bowing out led to speculation among observers and delegates that he had been promised a prestigious post.

Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik who was president during the four-year period of bloody terror that preceded the Taliban's rise to power in 1996, probably had little chance of being elected president because the nation's largest ethnic group, the Pushtuns, appears to dominate the council.

Many delegates to the chaotic assembly, or loya jirga, that is Afghanistan's traditional forum for choosing its leaders were still smarting from the news a day earlier that Mohammad Zaher Shah, the nation's former king, would not run for an executive position or seek restoration of the monarchy.

The loya jirga's planned Monday opening was delayed by more than a day while President Bush's special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, lobbied Zaher Shah to "clarify" that the former king was not a rival to Karzai.

In a speech of less than five minutes that opened the loya jirga in late afternoon, Zaher Shah urged Afghans to choose Karzai, the nation's interim prime minister, as head of the transitional government that will serve until elections planned for 2004.

"I'm here to be of service after long years of being away," the 87-year-old former monarch told about 2,000 citizens assembled in an air-conditioned tent erected on a soccer field. "By the will of God, after 29 years of exile, I am back in my country with my nation."

Saying his only wish was to help bring peace, reconciliation and prosperity to his shattered country, Zaher Shah--seated and speaking barely above a whisper--urged the delegates to cast their votes for Karzai.

With his decision to step aside, only Dr. Massooda Jalal of the World Food Program was expected to challenge Karzai for the post. She was given little chance of success.

The former king's decision apparently was made at the urging of Western diplomats, who acknowledge that they warned Zaher Shah behind closed doors that his election as head of state--even in a reduced ceremonial role--would anger Tajik warlords. Karzai has maintained a fragile power-sharing agreement with the Tajiks, giving them control of the army, police and intelligence service.

Some Western officials feared that Defense Minister Mohammed Qassim Fahim might deploy tanks to the site to disrupt the loya jirga. Intelligence chief Mohammed Arif had already dispatched plainclothes gunmen to the tent in what delegates saw as an attempt at intimidation.

In addition to Rabbani's withdrawal as a presidential candidate, Interior Minister Younis Qanooni announced to the delegates that he was offering to resign to allow the loya jirga a freer hand "to determine our destination."

"We don't want this to be about posts and positions," the Tajik warrior said on behalf of the Northern Alliance, the coalition of regional armies that helped drive the Taliban from power last fall. "As interior minister of the interim government, I am ready to leave my position for the sake of peace and unity and so that the delegates may choose whomever they see fit."

Like the rest of the current ministers', Qanooni's position expires this month with the conclusion of the weeklong loya jirga, and it wasn't clear that his offer was accepted. But his voluntary retreat signaled a willingness of the powerful Tajiks to compromise, an apparent quid pro quo for the decision of the former king, who is a Pushtun.

"This is not a democracy. This is a rubber stamp," said a fuming Sima Samar, Karzai's deputy and minister for women's affairs. "Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones."

Confusion and logistical glitches as well as the mounting signs of orchestration have plagued the gathering. The chairman of the organizing committee, Ismail Qasimyar, suggested that Karzai had already been chosen as president by the round of applause that greeted his nomination by Zaher Shah. Karzai added to the impression that his new term as leader is a done deal.

"It is finished. The assembly has voted for me," Karzai told Reuters news agency, one of the few media outlets allowed inside the tent, which is cordoned off by police and international peacekeepers.

But Karzai's advisors and Western diplomats monitoring the loya jirga said his election was pending a formal vote.

"His majesty the former king has nominated Mr. Karzai to head the transitional government. The nomination was received with wide acclaim, but that doesn't constitute an election," said Ashref Ghani, one of Karzai's closest advisors and a delegate at the gathering.

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