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Afghanistan: Loya Jirga Preparations Continue - 2002-06-09

In Afghanistan, a grand council known as a Loya Jirga is scheduled to convene in Kabul Monday to choose a new interim government. Afghans, as well as the international community, place high hopes on this council.

Under extremely tight security, 1,551 delegates are to gather under a large tent in Kabul to chart Afghanistan's future. The hope is that it will finally steer Afghanistan off the path of war, civil unrest and destruction that has plagued the country for some 30 years. Under the terms of the Bonn Agreement, the Loya Jirga will choose the head of an 18-month interim government and the cabinet.

U.N. spokesman Manuel de Almeida e Silva says expectations are high. "There are very high expectations for this Loya Jirga," he said. "It is legitimate, it is natural. Of course, the Loya Jirga will not solve all the problems of this country in just five or six days. However, I think it's fair to assume, it's fair to expect, that the basis for longer term solutions will start to be defined during this Loya Jirga."

But the Loya Jirga's prospects are uncertain. Much of the country remains in the grip of powerful local warlords with private armies to enforce their writ. Many of these warlords were able to use force and intimidation to get themselves or their allies chosen as delegates to the Loya Jirga.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. Secretary General's Special Envoy on Afghanistan, admits the selection process was marred by violence and intimidation, and that some unsavory characters were able to get into the council. But he says the process was as good as could be expected, and that some accommodations had to be made for the greater good. "This is, as I think we said earlier, not perfect; it cannot be perfect," he said. "And I think that the people of Afghanistan are interested in peace more than in anything else. And anything that helps maintain the peace at this stage is what the people of Afghanistan want. The position of being holier than thou is really easy to take when you are a spectator."

The delegates are to deliberate for six days, although that could be extended. The first order of business will be to choose the nation's leader.

The odds-on favorite for that job will be Hamid Karzai, who has headed the interim administration, set up under the Bonn Accords last December. Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun - the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan - but the military and security apparatus has been dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks. However, defense minister Qasim Fahim, a powerful Tajik leader, has announced he will support Mr. Karzai for the job.

There is sentiment for some role for the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah. Delegate Karim Boz says he think there is widespread support for making the king head of state. "In my opinion, the majority of the people - we already discuss, and we discuss with them, they want the former king to be the leader in the future," said Karim Boz. "And we also hope that he will make a good setup in the interim government to lead the country and also to bring some peace and also the foreign help for the Afghanistan, but please to start development in Afghanistan."

Others, however, see the role of the king as purely symbolic.

In a series of interviews with delegates, every one said what they want more than anything else is a government that will being peace and stability to Afghanistan.

160 seats at the Loya Jirga have been reserved for women - a first in Afghanistan's highly patriarchal society. Female delegates say they want equal rights. Suraya, a delegate from Jowzjan province, says she wants a broad-based government, and also wants to see the warlords disarmed. "And also I would like to see that the guns collected from people. And we are tired of warlordism, and we would like such a government to come into being," she said.

The hopes of many Afghans ride on this Loya Jirga - the hopes that their country will again be "my beautiful Afghanistan."