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Afghan council postponed, king steps aside

By PAMELA HESS, UPI Pentagon Correspondent

KABUL, Afghanistan, June 10 (UPI) -- After nearly 25 years of war, democracy nearly broke out in Afghanistan on Monday, but was blocked by backroom dealing to prevent former King Mohammed Zahir Shah from emerging as a challenger to Hamid Karzai, head of the current interim government.

Though the details are far from clear, the deal, apparently brokered by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and first announced by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, means the 87-year-old ex-king will not seek a role in the interim government to be chosen by the loya jirga, or grand council, but will instead support Karzai.

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Some delegates and observers reacted angrily to what they saw as U.S. interference.

Last minute confusion over whether Zahir Shah intended to be a candidate for a top position in the new Afghanistan at first led to a two-hour delay of Monday's opening of the loya jirga and then to its postponement until Tuesday.

The traditional assembly of 1,501 delegates from Afghanistan's ethnic groups is supposed to choose a transitional government for 18 months to two years that will draft a new constitution, and hold democratic elections.

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Afghan sources at the loya jirga, which is to be held in a huge tent in the Afghan capital, said many delegates felt the highly popular ex-king would probably have had the votes to be chosen for a role in the transitional government, but had been prevented from declaring his candidacy.

These delegates were angered by what they perceived to be a U.S. effort to frontload the loya jirga to ensure that Karzai was reappointed, the sources said. Many delegates from the Pashtun -- Afghanistan's majority ethnic group to which Zahir Shah also belongs -- were threatening to quit the assembly.

Zahir Shah, who was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1973, and until last April lived in exile in Rome, has repeatedly said that he has no intention of trying to restore the monarchy in Afghanistan. But there had been widespread speculation that Shah might take some kind of titular or formal position -- perhaps as head of state.

Then, discussing his future role in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview on the eve of the loya jirga he said, "What the majority decides about the future of Afghanistan and my role, I will accept."

The interview was broadcast in English and Persian -- which is spoken by many in Afghanistan -- and sources said Monday's opening was delayed so that delegates could seek clarification of the king's intentions.

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At 8 a.m. instead of the ceremonial opening ceremony including an inaugural speech by Zahir Shah, there was an announcement that the loya jirga had been postponed for two hours, until 10 a.m.

At 3 p.m. the opening was postponed until the following day. At 4 p.m. Zahary Khalilzad at the U.S. embassy in Kabul issued a statement saying in part, "The former king is not a candidate for a position in the transitional authority. He endorses Chairman Karzai."

Two hours later, reporters were summoned to the former royal palace and taken to the well-kept interior garden. The former king was seated on a raised platform with Karzai next to him on one side, and Khalilzad on the other. The king's chief political adviser, Nisser Zia, read his statement.

The king's statement repeated his assurance that he did not intend to restore the monarchy. Then it went on: "I am not a candidate for any position in the loya jirga. My sole aim is to serve the suffering people of Afghanistan." It concluded by endorsing Karzai's candidacy.

Karzai thanked the former king "very humbly" for his support and said, "I will be as faithful and loyal to (the former king) as I have been in the past," calling him "the king who was the father of this nation, is the father of this nation and will continue to be the father of this nation."

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Zahir Shah and Karzai then shook hands. The ex-king himself did not speak and no questions were allowed, but as he departed Karzai told reporters, "It's over now, there was no confusion."

Alex Their, senior analyst on Afghanistan of the International Crisis Group, who is in Kabul, was critical of the way the matter was handled, particularly by the United States. "It was an enormous error," he said.

"What happened today, with the U.S. envoy announcing that the king would not be a candidate...makes it look like the United States is calling the shots -- pulling the strings," he said.

Since U.S. forces ousted the Taliban regime last December, Afghanistan has held to an uneasy peace with Karzai at the helm. The country's various ethnic factions are believed to be awaiting the results of the loya jirga to decide their next move.

Officials at the U.S. embassy told United Press International that the key to the survival of any transitional government would be the future of the three so-called power ministries of Defense, Interior and Intelligence, which control the army, police and intelligence services, respectively.

The U.S. official said they did not want Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim to lose his position in the transitional government because of his role as the effective leader of the military forces of the Northern Alliance. It is feared that Fahim, who is an ethnic Tajik, might break with Karzai if he loses his position.

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The country's Pashtuns would be happy to see Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni go. Qanooni may lose his job, the official said, because his possible departure is not considered potentially divisive.

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