Afghan factions agree UN plan for new government

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A framework for a post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan was agreed at the Petersberg residence near Bonn after the US pressured the Northern Alliance to help overcome the obstacles blocking progress.

A White House official, Zalmay Khalilzad, telephoned the Northern Alliance leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, in Kabul, and won a promise to release a long-delayed list of candidates for the interim administration, said the US envoy James Dobbins.

With the list finally on the table, delegations representing the Alliance, exiles loyal to the former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, and two smaller exile groups quickly finalised the text of an agreement establishing a 29-member interim governing council. The delegations will begin haggling over who is to sit on the council today in discussions that are expected to take at least another 48 hours.

Previously, progress at the talks had been painfully slow and the sole public event of the day was the ominous replacement of the backdrop used for news conferences so that the date read "November-December 2001", rather than just "November".

Up at the mist-shrouded Petersberg, one group of delegates had picked apart the seven-page document presented by the UN on Sunday night as a draft agreement.

In the corridors and lounges, the talk was of who might take the leadership posts in the executive. Two names vied for the most frequently mentioned: that of Abdul Sattar Sirat, an Uzbek who leads the Rome-based royalist delegation, and that of Hamid Karzai, also a royal supporter, but a Pashtun from Afghanistan's majority ethnic group.

He had made a secret trip into southern Afghanistan in November to garner support for the former king shortly before the US bombing started, and narrowly escaped capture by Taliban forces. Mr Karzai did not come to Bonn, but made a dramatic intervention on the first day when he telephoned the plenary sessionto pledge his support.

The former king himself appeared to be out of contention for any executive position. Now 87, he had stated his readiness to return to Kabul and help govern the country.

But it appeared yesterday that the former king would accept a symbolic role in which he would use his widespread popularity to invest the new administration with some of his perceived legitimacy.

The UN's draft document recorded that he had been offered the chairmanship of the executive, but had declined it in favour of whoever was chosen by the delegates at Bonn.

It also said that he would preside over the convening of the emergency loya jirga ­ a formal function that could mark the end of his involvement in Afghan politics.

No names were discussed formally, largely ­ it appeared ­ because of disarray in the Northern Alliance. The Alliance comprises the only delegation at Bonn that has little to lose if no agreement is reached, as it already controls Kabul and haswhat is termed a "caretaker" government in place.

The nominal leader of the Alliance and the former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, had reportedly instructed that his delegation was on no account to agree on any names at Bonn, hoping that they could instead be finalised at a follow-up meeting in Kabul.

Yesterday, though, Mr Rabbani conceded some ground, saying that he would support a list of four candidates to chair the executive.

As well as Mr Sirat and Mr Karzai, his list comprised Pir Sayed Gailani, an Islamic cleric from the Pakistan emigration, and a former president, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi.

Three of the four are Pashtuns, which could leave the way clear for the mainly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance to claim the bulk of other posts. And Mr Rabbani appended a condition: that all the other posts should be agreed in Kabul.

The UN and the other delegations at the Bonn talks want a full administration to be named here, lest the Northern Alliance exploit its position in Kabulto squeeze out other groups. They also want agreement on the immediate deployment of some UN-mandated force to guarantee the security of other participants in an interim government.

Yesterday, Mr Rabbani repeated his position that as few as 200 UN troops would be sufficient to provide security for any summit meeting in Kabul. The other participants of the Bonn talks support a much more solid contingent of peace-keepers before they will countenance going to Kabul.