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Selection of Loya Jirga Delegates Turns Controversial - 2002-06-07

Afghanistan is to hold a grand council known as a Loya Jirga next week to choose a new interim government. The final delegates to the council were chosen Friday in Kabul. The process of picking council members has not been free of controversy.

A group of 75 electors in Kabul choose six delegates to the Loya Jirga Friday. When the ballots were in, the top vote-getter turned out to be a controversial figure from Afghanistan's violent past.

Abdul Rasul Sayaaf was elected to the Loya Jirga, along with two of his allies. Mr. Sayaaf's Ittehad-i-Islami party rained rockets down on the capital in inter-factional fighting with a Shi'ite Muslim party during the early 1990s, killing thousands of residents and putting much of south Kabul in ruins. Human rights organizations have blamed his party for much of the pillaging and looting in Kabul during that turbulent period.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from international bodies, Mr. Sayaaf insists he is blameless for any of the violence that swept through Kabul after the mujahedin victory over the communist government in 1992.

"That is only a claim, and you have also been under the influence of those rumors and propaganda," he said. "Otherwise, there is no any evidence about that. You can't prove that it has been destroyed by me."

The Loya Jirga voting has been done at several levels. Local citizens across Afghanistan chose electors, who in turn picked delegates to attend the grand council. The Loya Jirga is to choose Afghanistan's next government.

In accordance with the rules laid down by the Loya Jirga commission, candidates are required to swear they do not belong to terrorist organizations, that they have not been involved in looting, committed war crimes, violated human rights, or killed anybody either directly or indirectly.

Mr. Sayaaf made such a declaration before Friday's balloting.

"His election sparked bitter remarks from electoral monitors in attendance," he said. "One, who asked not to be named, pronounced it a 'sham.'"

Lucy Morgan Edwards, a U.N. election monitor, accused the United Nations, which is overseeing the process through the Loya Jirga commission, of allowing a notorious human rights violator to participate.

"The U.N. basically has caved in," she said.

Ms. Edwards says a decision has apparently been made to allow such warlords into the Loya Jirga for fear of the trouble they might cause if they are kept out.

Questions have been raised about the Loya Jirga electoral process. Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring body, reports intimidation by local warlords to get their people chosen in at least five southern provinces.

Mohammad Kazem Ahang, a member of the Loya Jirga commission, admits there have been some irregularities, but insists the process has been "the best Afghanistan has ever had."

"There are regularities, and there are irregularities," he said. "Two weeks back you saw practically in Holland, the most progressive country in the world, a person was killed. It's a really big irregularity. But since Afghanistan has been stuck with all these dilemma, problems, and difficulties, even a small irregularity is counted as big."

The 1,501 delegates of the Loya Jirga begin meeting Monday.