Dispute over role of king delays loya jirga

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The Independent Online

Afghanistan's first tribal assembly, or loya jirga, since 1973 has been delayed until today amid controversy over the role of the former king.

Afghanistan's first tribal assembly, or loya jirga, since 1973 has been delayed until today amid controversy over the role of the former king.

Afghan officials blamed the delay on "logistical and preparatory problems" after more than 2,000 delegates arrived at the huge tent on the outskirts of Kabul serving as the venue for the loya jirga, 500 more than the number expected. The week-long meeting is intended to choose a transitional government and head of state to run Afghanistan until elections in 2004.

But disputes over the role of the 87-year-old former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, and disagreement over the share-out of the main ministries were jeopardising the meeting, diplomatic sources said. Amid signs of growing support among majority Pashtuns for the former king, Zahir Shah issued a statement yesterday declaring he would not be a candidate for any position in the government.

The ex-king, who is strongly opposed by the Tajik- dominated Northern Alliance that runs the interim government, gave his full backing to the interim Prime Minister, Hamid Karzai. He also made clear he would not accept a post of "father of the nation" if that was granted to him by the tribal elders. "I have no intention of restoring the monarchy," he said. "I am not a candidate for any position in the loya jirga."

Pashtun delegates spoke of their shock. "This is the first we've heard of it," one said. "We want the king as a candidate. How can this be one step towards democracy? What kind of a democracy is this?"

Only Mr Karzai and the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani have put their names forward for head of state.

Compromise deals are also under threat from the reluctance of factions that make up the interim administration to give up the main ministries.

The European Union's envoy to Afghanistan, Klaus-Peter Klaiber, told a German radio station that a strong government was the key to the future. "If [the new government] fails to exert control over the whole country, it will be very difficult to keep development aid flowing sensibly," he said.

Reports of secret deals, threats and bribes have caused concern about the integrity of the meeting. The addition of 50 new delegates to accommodate the demands of warlords who had been excluded illustrates the problem.

The US envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said of the Afghans: "They need to get their act together. We are here to be helpful but it is their responsibility. They have a historic chance and they shouldn't miss it."

There have also been fears that simmering ethnic tensions will be carried into the new government. On Sunday, the country's intelligence chief and key Northern Alliance leader, Mohammed Arif, sent armed men into the compound where the loya jirga is to meet in what appeared to be a show of strength.