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First Phase of 'Loya Jirga' Approaches in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is about to enter the first phase of selecting a new transitional government through a traditional grand council meeting called the "Loya Jirga."

Tuesday will mark the second-to-the-last step in Afghanistan's efforts to become a democratic nation.

Several hundred tribal elders in Mardyan village - in Jowzjan Province in northern Afghanistan - will meet to pick the country's very first local district delegation for a larger regional meeting that begins in late May. A similar selection process will then take place in 380 other districts throughout Afghanistan - supervised by the United Nations and international monitors.

Each district then will send a delegation to one of nine, two-week regional meetings - designed to narrow down the list of people who will actually participate in the Loya Jirga. The Loya Jirga will determine who will lead Afghanistan until democratic national elections can be held.

Only 1,051 Afghans will be selected to attend the grand council meeting. According to the post-Taleban plans for Afghanistan created during meetings in Bonn, Germany, last December, representatives must include members from every ethnic group, as well as women. Four hundred-fifty other seats will be reserved for various Afghan institutions and government agencies.

The countdown to the Loya Jirga is also expected to sharpen the many splits in Afghan society. The current government - a six-month administration led by Hamid Karzai - expires on June 22. Mr. Karzai - an ethnic Pashtun - has the backing of the United States and other Western nations. But ethnic Tajiks - who fought with the U.S. military to oust the Taleban and now hold three key positions in the interim administration - supports the last-recognized president of Afghanistan, Burnahuddin Rabbani.

The head of the U.N. group monitoring the Loya Jirga process, Anders Fange, acknowledges that bribes, threats and outright violence may mar the entire process. He says the international community should refrain from having unrealistic expectations. "It's not a matter here of with one snap of your fingers creating a democratic paradise for Afghanistan," he says. "This Loya Jirga, if it comes out good, will be one step in the peace process."

The Loya Jirga is a centuries-old system of reaching important decisions in Afghanistan's tribal society. The last one was in 1987, when there was a Soviet-backed government.