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Afghan Elders Want Role for King

March 16, 2002

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) _ Hundreds of turbaned tribal leaders from the deserts and mountains of southern Afghanistan converged on Kandahar in an emergency ``jirga″ Saturday to warn against attempts to separate their returning king from his loyal supporters.

They said the exiled Mohammad Zaher Shah should come to this old royal city if the reception is cold in Kabul, the Afghan capital. Here people ``will have total and free access to meet the father of the nation,″ the elders declared.

The joint declaration was to be sent to U.N. and U.S. officials, accused by some here of intending to restrict the ex-monarch’s activities in Afghanistan.

Zaher Shah, 87, driven from the throne 28 years ago, has long been expected to fly from Rome, his exile home, to Kabul around March 20-23. But public plans remain sketchy, even at this late date.

Supporters said they heard from people close to the former king that the interim government in Kabul told Zaher Shah he could not be involved in political activities. Royalists interpreted this to mean he could not receive visitors.

In addition, the number of family members accompanying him would be limited, according to this report, and the southerners complained that he would be housed in a small, ``unworthy″ home, rather than the Kabul royal palace.

Such preconditions are ``undemocratic and unacceptable,″ the declaration said.

``If these reported restrictions are confirmed, the designated sources shall definitely face extremely strong reaction and opposition of our nation,″ it said.

There was no immediate comment on the controversy from the Kabul government.

The 300 tribal leaders from seven provinces of the southwest, the royalist heartland, were convened on urgent notice for the jirga, or traditional assembly.

The return of the last monarch of the Durrani dynasty was part of the agreement negotiated in Koenigswinter, Germany, in December to set up an interim political structure to succeed the Taliban government, which was ousted by forces led by the United States in its war against the al-Qaida terror network.

The ex-monarch is to convene a ``loya jirga,″ or national assembly, in June that will select a transitional government to rule Afghanistan for 18 months, until elections. Beyond that, Zaher Shah’s role is unclear, although some say he should be transitional head of state.

``These reports say he won’t be allowed to take part in political activities. He is coming for a political activity!″ meeting participant Yusuf Pashtun told a reporter. If the reports are true, ``there will be trouble,″ said Pashtun, a top aide to Kandahar provincial Gov. Gul Agha.

The ex-king is very popular among the Durrani tribes of the ethnic Pashtun south, but less so among other Pashtuns farther east, and among other ethnic groups in central and northern Afghanistan. Although the interim government is headed by a relative of the king, Hamid Karzai, the most powerful posts are held by northerners.

Pashtun, the governor’s aide, would say only that ``certain responsible people″ apparently were trying to isolate the returned king. Asked whether they were Afghans or non-Afghans, he replied, ``Maybe both.″

Another royalist activist, Kandahar politician Izzatullah Wasafi, said Washington, the most influential power in Afghanistan today, bore responsibility for any restrictions on the king, even without evidence of a direct U.S. role. ``They should not allow it to happen,″ he told a reporter.

An interview with the ex-monarch Saturday on Cable News Network did not touch on preconditions set by Kabul, but Zaher Shah said of his return: ``It was always my desire to return to my country. Now the international climate has changed. ... In the past I was afraid if I went back it could have caused more bloodshed.″

Traditionalists are not the only supporters of the ex-king.

At a Kandahar women’s conference Saturday, participants noted that Zaher Shah’s reign was a time of modernization. Since then, women’s rights have been set back in Afghanistan. ``We think it’s important that he come and convert things to the way they were in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s,″ said Farishta Sakhi, a conference organizer.

Wasafi said the ``Declaration of Tribal Leaders″ would be sent to the interim government, U.N. officials, the U.S. Congress and the White House.

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