- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 29, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan Afghans of all ethnic backgrounds are beginning to grumble that next month's loya jirga the grand assembly intended to chart the country's political future will be nothing more than a sham process designed to approve the current regime.

A meeting of nearly 400 men called to select delegates last week was so poorly organized that participants learned of it only by word of mouth. When it came time to vote, the candidates were chosen by popular acclaim without so much as a counting of hands.

"I was hopeful before," said Fahim Dashty, editor in chief of the newspaper Kabul Weekly. "Now it seems that the whole thing has been prearranged."

The United Nations yesterday expressed fear that the process is being further undermined by eight slayings and two arrests during the selection process.

"We are disturbed and profoundly regret that several people have been killed in recent weeks in Afghanistan," U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva said in Kabul.

"While there is no certainty that the motivation of these murders was political, in the mind of the people these events are related to the current political process," he said.

Reuters news agency said four slayings have occurred in the southern city of Kandahar, the ousted Taliban's former stronghold, one in Kabul and three in the western province of Ghor.

The United Nations also protested intimidation that was reported in the western province of Herat, controlled by warlord Ismail Khan, where two persons elected to pick delegates to the loya jirga have been detained by police.

The tradition of choosing Afghanistan's political leadership through a loya jirga dates back 300 years.

The last such meeting was convened after the collapse of the Soviet-backed government of Mohammed Najibullah but led ultimately to a civil war that ravaged the country and set the stage for the rise of the Taliban regime.

This loya jirga scheduled June 10-16 is to choose a president, an organizational structure, key ministers and a 111-member parliament to hold power until a permanent government is elected 18 months later.

But no one in Afghanistan from restaurant employees to top government officials or even loya jirga officials seems to know just how the process is supposed to work. In the absence of solid information, many Afghans are expressing deep skepticism.

"This is nothing but a way for the Americans to keep the Karzai government [of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai] in power," said a Kabul resident who identified himself only as Hamed.

In the provinces, people have even less information about the loya jirga. The mayor in the central city of Bamiyan did not know who the local candidates were. And the governor of the province was at a loss to explain how his people will participate in or learn about the loya jirga.

"I just returned from abroad," said Mohammad Rahim Aliyar, who spent the Taliban years in Pakistan, Tajikistan and Iran. "I'm not sure what's going on."

Preparations for the assembly are complicated by rivalries among the nation's various ethnic groups. Northern Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks are pitted against southern-based Pashtuns, the nation's largest ethnic group.

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