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Loya Jirga delegates stage walkout

June 18, 2002

KABUL, June 17: More than half of the delegates to Afghanistan’s grand assembly walked out of the gathering on Monday, frustrated by the paralysis that has gripped the meeting.

Witnesses said around a thousand of the 1,600 delegates at the Loya Jirga joined the walkout, hours before a pivotal speech by newly elected leader Hamid Karzai.

“There’s no point hanging around listening to boring speeches so we’re leaving,” said delegate Sayed Nimatullah, who said fresh fighting could erupt in the ethnically divided country if the assembly failed to agree on key issues, such as a new parliament.

The assembly, which began last Tuesday, has become bogged down over the composition of a legislature that will oversee Karzai’s government for the next 18 months, part of a process to restore peace and stability after 23 years of chaos and war.

Some delegates have said that the United States and the United Nations are pulling strings behind the scenes to achieve their desired result and they see a US hand behind the election of Karzai as president, the assembly’s only real decision so far.

They say Washington wants to keep the current balance of power in the government between the ethnic Uzbek and Tajik-led Northern Alliance, US allies in the war against the Taliban, and the Pakhtoons of the south, who include Karzai.

Delegates have also complained of intimidation by former warlords and provincial governors.

The UN-sponsored Loya Jirga, based on an ancient Afghan tradition, has gathered delegates from all walks of life across the country and overseas, from Afghan-Americans in business suits to religious figures in turbans.

INTIMIDATION: The delegates who walked out on Monday from large white tent where the gathering is being held complained not only of “foreign influence”, but also of intimidation.

“Governors and officials are telling people what to say in their speeches,” delegate Mullah Abdul Karim told reporters.

“I myself have been threatened into supporting Karzai and my first candidate was the former king (Mohammad Zahir Shah). This is just a Loya Jirga in name only.”

Fatemeh Gailani, daughter of a pro-king tribal leader, did not walk out, but she said people are scared about the influence of provincial governors on the proceedings.

“Karzai is a nice man, but people are frightened about the new cabinet (lineup),” she said.

An aide to Karzai said reports that delegates had been intimidated by powerful warlords and even received death threats would be investigated.

“The language of politics in our country has been high-key,” aide Ashraf Qani Ahmadzai said. “Often people use words that are quite harsh. Of course this is not an excuse. If there are cases of intimidation, it requires investigation.”

According to the UN-sponsored Bonn accord which brought the 44-year-old Karzai to power after the fall of the Taliban last year, the cabinet must be approved by the Loya Jirga.

But some delegates say Karzai might bypass the chamber and wait until parliament is formed before seeking approval.

The assembly, entering an unscheduled extra day on Monday, is now expected to end on Tuesday.

Ethnic minorities from northern Afghanistan on Sunday supported a proposal from Loya Jirga head Mohammad Ismail Qasimyar that each group of 10 delegates nominate one member of parliament, delegate Afasar Rahbin said.

But the Pakhtoons, the largest ethnic group from the south, favoured another Qasimyar suggestion that two representatives from each province be chosen.

The sticking point is that no two provinces have the same size of population. Rural provinces would be better represented under the two-representatives-per-province proposal.—Reuters