Afghan leaders sign deal on interim government

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The Independent Online

Four Afghan factions signed a pact Wednesday to create a new administration headed by an anti­Taliban battlefield commander, concluding a historic agreement aimed at restoring peace and stability to the war­ravaged nation.

Hamid Karzai, a moderate Muslim whose fighters are part of the push to oust the Taliban from their last stronghold in Kandahar, was chosen to head the interim administration to replace Taliban rule after the northern alliance won control of most of the country.

Envoys of the northern alliance, former King Mohammad Zaher Shah and two smaller exile groups signed the UN­mediated accord after nine days of talks at the luxury Petersberg hotel overlooking Bonn, Germany.

It establishes a 30­member interim Cabinet headed by Karzai, meant as the first step toward a broad­based government representing the range of Afghanistan's ethnic groups and regions.

Applause rang out as delegates signed the accord in a brief ceremony attended by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. The German leaders shook hands with the Afghan envoys and UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi embraced them after they all signed.

"It's miraculous, it really is, from what we had 10 days ago," a Western diplomat observing the talks said. "It gets the process going, which really is the point. We have a long way to go, but you have to start somewhere."

After intense haggling over posts, the northern alliance retained the powerful defense, foreign and interior ministries under the accord.

Two women were named to posts, Sima Samar as a deputy premier and minister of women's affairs and Suhaila Seddiqi as health minister.

Brahimi won the accord after a final 10 hours of marathon negotiations over the composition of the interim authority, which will govern Afghanistan for six months until the former king convenes a traditional tribal council, or loya jirga.

With ethnic balance as the primary criterion, Brahimi shuttled among the four factions through the night to cull 30 names from 150 candidates.

The final Cabinet list was not being released, however, until 10 or 11 candidates can be contacted to formally accept the posts, UN spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said. The replies were expected later Wednesday.

Pool footage from the Petersberg hotel, where the delegations have been meeting under tight security, showed Brahimi and the four delegation leaders emerging from a conference room, weary but smiling.

"We had no sleep at all," Fawzi told The Associated Press from the hotel.

The consensus on the Cabinet triggers a speedy transfer of power in Kabul, scheduled for December 22, and secures billions in promised aid to reconstruct the country.

Agreement on who will run Afghanistan was at least as contentious as the framework deal achieved early on Tuesday under international pressure on northern alliance leaders in Kabul to remove obstacles that threatened to derail the talks.

The four factions negotiating Afghanistan's political future sought to achieve a balance representing Afghanistan's main Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara ethnic groups ­ and also women, who have been virtually excluded from public life under the Taliban.

A moderate Muslim, Karzai was headquartered in neighboring Pakistan during the Soviet occupation, and later served under then­President Burhanuddin Rabbani as deputy foreign minister, but quit disillusioned by relentless bickering.

One of the most prominent commanders in the current fighting to push the Taliban from its last stronghold in Kandahar, he is leading a force of some 4,000 men. He speaks fluent English.

Distinguished not only by his battlefield valor, Karzai also belongs to Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and is head of the influential Popalzoi clan, which has been linked to the Afghan royal dynasty that existed from the mid­18th century until King Mohammad Zaher Shah was deposed in 1973.

The delegations preferred a Pashtun premier to reflect the ethnic group's predominance in Afghan society.

Karzai came under attack from Taliban forces when he returned from exile in mid­October to help persuade Afghans to support a new government under the chairmanship of the deposed king. The United States claims to have extracted Karzai from Afghanistan after he asked for help, but Karzai has denied this. U.S. envoy James F. Dobbins has spoken directly to Karzai at least twice in the last month.

Signaling Karzai's importance, the United Nations piped a phone call by Karzai from Afghanistan into the opening session of the talks last week. Karzai called for national unity, and spoke of his nation's suffering over the last 23 years of conflict. "This meeting is the path towards salvation," he said.

Brahimi was prepared to travel to Afghanistan this weekend to begin preparations for the transfer of power from Rabbani, the northern alliance leader, Fawzi said.

Rabbani is still recognized as Afghan president by the United Nations and portrayed by Western diplomats as reluctant to step aside for a younger generation of leaders.

Under the UN plan, the interim administration would govern for six months until a national assembly of tribal leaders, or loya jirga, convenes to ratify a transitional government, paving the way for elections within two years. Taking a symbolic role, the ex­king is to convene the loya jirga.

Also envisioned are the deployment of an international security force to Kabul and other parts of the country, steps to integrate Afghan fighters into a future national army, and the creation of a supreme court.

The final text, obtained by The Associated Press, includes language saying the Afghan people have the right "to determine their own political future in accordance with the principles of Islam, democracy, pluralism and social justice."

The final text also expresses appreciation to Afghan fighters for defending the nation's independence and to Rabbani for "his readiness to transfer power."