- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 12, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan An extraordinary gathering of 1,500 Afghans convened yesterday after a former president joined the former king in bowing out of the leadership race, paving the way for the election of interim leader Hamid Karzai.

Mohammed Zahir Shah, the former monarch who formally convened the grand council, or loya jirga, urged the 1,550 delegates to work "for the unity and independence of Afghanistan" after 23 devastating years of war.

However, the political maneuvering surrounding the loya jirga left some delegates disillusioned and angry that foreigners and special interests had usurped their role in guiding the nation's future.

"This is not a democracy; it is a rubber stamp," complained Sima Samar, the women's affairs minister. "Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones."

Nevertheless, the gathering of delegates from all sectors of Afghan society women, turbaned clerics and sophisticated, foreign-educated, one-time exiles in Western business suits marked a major step in the transformation of Afghanistan, which began after the United States and its Northern Alliance allies drove the Taliban from power last year.

Delegates, meeting in a giant, air-conditioned and carpeted tent, must select a head of state, and appoint a government that will oversee drafting a constitution and run the country until elections in 18 months.

The session yesterday adjourned after about two hours, and the election of a head of state is expected today.

"Afghans want an end to a nation of armed people," Mr. Karzai told delegates in his opening speech. "My greatest hope is that Afghans will have their country back."

However, the ethnic and political divisions that ravaged this nation for a generation threatened the hopeful new beginning sought by the interim government and the United Nations.

The opening session was delayed for a day because ethnic Tajiks who dominate the interim administration objected to any formal role in the new government for Mr. Zahir Shah.

To resolve the crisis, Mr. Zahir Shah said Monday that he would not accept any political office, and yesterday, the titular head of the former Northern Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, bowed out of the race, too. Both endorsed Mr. Karzai.

Mr. Rabbani's decision left Mr. Karzai with one opponent Masooda Jalal, a U.N. World Food Program employee. She was not expected to mount a serious challenge, but her candidacy reflected the demands of Afghan women for a voice in public affairs after years of repression by the Taliban.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell denied that the United States was manipulating the loya jirga.

"It seems to be representative of all the people of Afghanistan," Mr. Powell said in Washington.

The United States, he added, helped create the conditions under which the delegates "could come together and find their way into the future in accordance with their traditions."

Mr. Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan in April, after 29 years in exile. At the meeting yesterday, he moved slowly to center stage and took his seat in a high-backed chair flanked by an Afghan flag. He pleaded for unity and peace.

"I'm here to do a service after long years of being away," Mr. Zahir Shah said in a soft voice.

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