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Afghan Assembly Drifts as Delegates All Stick In Oars

Government: Debate over how to form a legislature drags out decision-making. Meeting is extended for at least another day.


KABUL, Afghanistan — Delegates to the grand assembly charting Afghanistan's future bogged down in debate Sunday over what kind of legislature is needed, threatening to drag out their talks through most of this week even though the key remaining decisions are likely to be made by President-elect Hamid Karzai.

The haggling over how to compose a transitional parliament for the government Karzai will head for the next 18 months--and even over whether such a body is needed--frittered away another day of the loya jirga. It was originally scheduled to wind up Sunday after a week of sessions.

The delay and drawn-out deliberations prompted some delegates to complain that their time was being wasted. While speaker after speaker has grabbed the microphone to lament local problems or lambaste the residual power of warlords, Karzai's outgoing interim government has been working on the vital personnel decisions.

Earlier in the day, Afghanistan's fragile security was highlighted by two bomb explosions in the southern city of Kandahar that inflicted no casualties but prompted speculation that Al Qaeda agents or stragglers from the deposed Taliban regime were to blame. The bombs, hidden inside spare tires on two gas tanker trucks headed for the U.S. military base outside the city, detonated when the vehicles were still miles from the compound. It was at least the fourth attack aimed at U.S. sites in the region, the birthplace of the Taliban.

Karzai's authority during the six-month interim government term that expires Saturday hardly extended beyond Kabul, the capital. A power-sharing deal he reached with a clique of Tajik and Uzbek commanders kept a lid on most fighting, but unless those militia chiefs are included in the new government, Karzai's tenuous hold on the country could be disastrously weakened.

Beholden to the warlords who ousted the Taliban last year and who still control all police and security forces, Karzai has made clear that his next Cabinet will be his decision, not that of the loya jirga. Likewise, his reported preference for a smaller advisory body rather than a parliament was being conveyed to the assembly in behind-the-scenes talks overnight.

Despite hours of discussion about the merits of proportional representation versus an equal voice for each province, no vote was taken on whether to form a legislature from among the loya jirga delegates or create a smaller consultative shura that would simply advise Karzai. The session broke off two hours early Sunday--the third straight day during which none of the assembly's assigned tasks was decided.

The gathering originally was expected to choose a head of state, define the structure of government and decide key positions. But so far, it has accomplished only the first task, and that choice on Thursday was largely preordained by the withdrawal of Karzai's main competitors.

Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, and a previous president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, dropped out of the running. The former monarch was under U.S. pressure not to provoke the warlords, and Rabbani was suspected of having made a deal for a prestigious office.

According to a U.N.-brokered agreement reached last year, the loya jirga was supposed to decide the heads of the legislative and judicial branches as well. Foreign observers say the accord also suggested that the loya jirga should be involved in the Cabinet selection.

But Karzai told reporters the day after his election to the presidency that his list of appointments probably wouldn't be ready before the loya jirga adjourned.

After Sunday's debate halted, Karzai's chief advisor, Ashref Ghani, implied that the other decisions are also likely to be made by the new head of state. Ghani described the parliament issue as the last task for the gathering, saying the delegates would be asked for "endorsement of the proposals of the president-elect regarding the structure of the government."

That atmosphere of fait accompli has riled many delegates and left them feeling that the first loya jirga in a quarter-century will disperse with little more to its credit than applying a rubber stamp.

"All this is being done to legitimize a scenario already written by the powerful," said delegate Homayoom Asefi.

Foreign Minister Abdullah, one of the former Northern Alliance commanders likely to retain power in the new Cabinet, said that the loya jirga has been newly scheduled to wrap up today but that there would be no problem "extending for another day or two."

The only real deadline facing Karzai, said government spokesman Omar Samad, is Saturday's expiration of the interim government's term. But he suggested that even a prolonged grand assembly would have little role in Cabinet appointments, calling it "improbable and implausible" to seek the judgment of 1,600 people.

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