In Afghanistan, a long awaited elective grand council meeting - known as a Loya Jirga - has held its first session. The council, which met for about two hours on Tuesday, is to choose a new interim government that will rule the country till elections are held. Hopes are high among Afghans that the Loya Jirga will chart a path away from the chaos and unrest that has plagued Afghanistan for 30 years. In a cavernous tent in the sweltering June sun, 1551 delegates began meeting in the first session of the Loya Jirga. The delegates are to choose an interim leader and government that will govern Afghanistan for 18 months and prepare for elections.
The stakes are extraordinarily high. Ordinary Afghans see the council as the best hope they have had in many years to achieve peace and security in their homeland.
Ismail Qassimyar, chairman of the Loya Jirga commission, said the grand council sends a clear message of unity, peace, and reconstruction of the country. The former king, Zahir Shah, urged delegates to keep the national interest foremost in their deliberations. He also reiterated his disavowal of any political ambition and endorsed the current interim government's chairman, Hamid Karzai, to head the next administration.
In a speech, Mr. Karzai outlined the achievements of his interim administration. He said he has brought a measure of stability to Afghanistan, and that schools have been reopened. But he said that powerful warlords still hold sway in many areas.
Mr. Karzai asked the Loya Jirga to grant the ex-king the position of father of the nation. He said Zahir Shah would return to live in the presidential palace, where he resided for 60 years, and outlined several ceremonial jobs for him.
Mr. Karzai was poised to win election after two potentially serious political challenges evaporated.
On Monday, a sudden surge in support for Zahir Shah to become national leader sparked a flurry of meetings and caused the starting of the Loya Jirga to be postponed 24 hours until Tuesday. The aged ex-monarch distanced himself from the efforts, saying he has no political ambitions.
Then, only hours before the Loya Jirga convened its first session, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani withdrew his bid to become interim leader. Mr. Rabbani claimed to have significant support within the Loya Jirga, but said he decided not to challenge Mr. Karzai.
Mr. Rabbani's administration in the early to mid 1990s was marked by ferocious civil war, which was followed by the Taleban takeover of most of the country.
The surprise announcement removed the last serious challenge to Hamid Karzai's bid to preside over the next administration. The council is expected to resume its deliberations on Wednesday.