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Afghan Loya Jirga Draws to Close

June 19, 2002

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ They talked about it in the villages for weeks _ who would be selected, what ethnicity would dominate, what tribal loyalties would be at play. Then came the trip to Kabul, to an air-conditioned tent where, it was said, the future of Afghanistan would be decided.

For nine days, 1,650 delegates from across this war-shattered nation gathered in a traditional grand council, or loya jirga, to pick a new government. It began late and, by Wednesday, was running three days over schedule with only two accomplishments: electing a president and giving dozens of Afghans a national forum to vent their frustrations.

Call it politics for the new Afghanistan _ no guns for the moment, lots of talking and, ultimately, very little accomplished.

``We are repeating the same discussion, over and over again,″ said Abdul Qadir Khan, a delegate from the southern city of Kandahar. ``They are wasting our time. We came here for democracy.″

Though the meeting was chaotic, lobbying was intense and money changed hands, the Loya Jirga Commission said it was satisfied it had brought a cross-section of Afghan society into the big tent.

``This is a big opportunity for us,″ said Sayed Malik a delegate from Uruzgan, the southern province where newly elected President Hamid Karzai launched his anti-Taliban drive. ``We want to see that our government is balanced and fair.″

The pristine tent sits on the Polytechnical Institute campus in Kabul. Less than a block away, entire neighborhoods lie in ruins with gaping holes from rockets, bullet pockmarks, twisted girders _ all results of bitter factional fighting between 1992 and 1996 when former president Burhanuddin Rabbani ruled.

Rabbani _ and most of the other men who led the battles then _ sat in the front row of the loya jirga. Also present were Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan and Gul Agha _ all warlords who fought bitterly.

Their presence brought heated criticism from delegates.

``Is this a loya jirga or a commanders’ meeting?″ wondered Safdar Mohammed, one delegate. Another, Omar Zakhilwal, complained that Karzai repeatedly denounced warlords, then embraced them publicly.

Women delegates who occupied dozens of rows of chairs in the tent were among the most vocal. For six years, the Taliban militia had silenced them, and before that Kabul’s gunmen had cowed them with fear.

Those men were back, and the women weren’t keeping quiet. The loya jirga gave them a voice.

They wagged fingers and shouted at warlords, including some who are Cabinet ministers in the interim regime, blaming them for destroying Kabul and killing civilians. They elbowed their way to the microphones in the center of the tent.

At times, microphones were shut off as they spoke. They persisted.

One railed against Rabbani, another against interim Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, who is expected to retain his post; the United States is believed to want his help in fighting al-Qaida holdouts.

Their outspokenness, however, has not come cheap.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported widespread intimidation, as did the non-governmental International Crisis Group. Some delegates reported receiving death threats. One woman who denounced Fahim publicly was threatened with arrest by the minister himself.

Another delegate who advocated equal rights for women was threatened with death by a warlord for being un-Islamic. He is being guarded by the International Security Assistance Forces. And one of Rabbani’s bodyguards tried to shake a woman shouting at Rabbani. A nearby U.N. official stepped in.

Karzai addressed the charges of intimidation, urging delegates with intimidation accusations to speak to him privately. He promised to address their concerns.

Others have downplayed the unease, including U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. He questioned the use of the word ``fear,″ saying people were lining up to shout opinions and give views.

Delegates called the loya jirga’s initial days productive. They chose a council chairman first _ a secret ballot that was, for many, an exciting moment. Then they elected Karzai in an overwhelming show of support, again by secret ballot.

That was last week.

Since then, the meeting has slouched into a stream of gripes. Time was spent discussing the quality of the food and problems in villages. One man rose and, before a national audience on a live TV feed, launched into a complaint about his camels.

Progress is expected Wednesday afternoon when Karzai presents his Cabinet. Initially, he said he would announce the posts _ and that the final decision was his, not the loya jirga’s.

Not so, said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S special envoy. He contends the loya jirga has to give its approval in keeping with an agreement signed in December at a U.N.-sponsored meeting of Afghans in Germany.

``We will,″ Khalilzad said, ``insist on it.″

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