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Afghan Exiles Discuss Plans for Forming a Government - 2001-10-24

More than 1,000 Afghan exiles and elders are meeting in the Pakistani frontier city of Peshawar in hopes of putting together a new broad-based government for Afghanistan. Most of those gathered for the two-day conference are supporters of the former king, Zahir Shah. But other groups are noticeably absent from the proceedings.

A line of grizzled, bearded Afghan men with elegant silk headdresses waits patiently as Pakistani guards wave security wands, and finally let them pass one by one.

Organizers say these men represent most of Afghanistan, though a large percentage of them have been refugees here in neighboring Pakistan for years.

These men are looking ahead to the fall of the Taleban, which is currently under intense pressure from the U.S.-led bombing campaign, and from the forces of the opposition Northern Alliance.

The speakers Wednesday urged unity, saying it is the only way to bring peace after more than 20 years of conflict. And they got shouts of approval from the participants who packed into this hall.

But the question on many people's minds is: how do you unify these ethnically diverse people. Conference organizers say the answer lies in the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah.

Assaddullah Fallah is secretary of the Assembly for Peace and National Unity, which helped organize the conference and supports the king. "He intends to play his own role for the people of Afghanistan," he says. "And with the negotiations of the people of Afghanistan, he will bring an interim government in Afghanistan and step by step they will pave the way for a representative government for Afghanistan. He will not come as a king. He will come as a friend of the people of Afghanistan."

But a number of groups playing key roles in Afghanistan are not here. The Northern Alliance did not send representatives, and groups aligned with the current Taleban regime also stayed away.

And on the streets of Peshawar, many say they oppose the idea of bringing back the king from his exile in Rome. They see him as a puppet of the West

The conference wraps up Thursday, but many here concede it can only mark the start of what promises to be a long road to peace.