June 15, 2002
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Karzai wrangles with Loya Jirga delegates over cabinet

Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul

Afghanistan's Loya Jirga (grand assembly) and Hamid Karzai, the man it elected president, wrangled on Saturday over the make-up of a government whose mission is to heal ethnic wounds and rebuild a war-shattered nation.

Karzai, elected in a secret ballot with 85 per cent of the delegates' votes on Thursday, has been engaged in intense behind-the-scene bargaining with leaders of various ethnic groups to forge a multi-ethnic cabinet acceptable to all.

The new government will run the country for 18 months before general elections are held.

Delegates to the Loya Jirga insist they have the right to approve members of a broad-based government, but supporters of the 44-year-old, Western-educated Karzai say he must make the final decision.

Karzai urged the Loya Jirga to elect a transitional parliament to oversee his new government and to approve members of his cabinet.

The interim government emerged under a United Nations-sponsored agreement reached in Bonn last December.

Officials and delegates say a deal over the cabinet will be finalised shortly, but it is still unclear whether or not it needs to be approved by the assembly.

"They will definitely need to be approved by the Loya Jirga, every single portfolio, especially the key posts," said Mir-Hossein Mahdawi, a delegate from Kabul.

But Karzai's ministers dispute that.

"Karzai has been elected with an overwhelming majority. It is up to him to choose members of his cabinet," interim Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told reporters.

At one stage on Saturday the assembly erupted in uproar as scuffles broke out among delegates following speeches denouncing Pakistan and supporters of former king Mohammad Zahir Shah.

The chairman of the Loya Jirga, Ismael Qasimyar, switched off the microphone and pleaded for calm.

"Please avoid provocative issues and try to speak only of the problems of the country," he said.

One deputy launched a scathing assault on neighbouring Pakistan for its support of the hardline Taliban.

Islamabad switched sides after the September 11 attacks and backed the US-led campaign to topple the Taliban.

Another deputy began a speech denouncing the monarchists around former King Mohammad Zahir Shah but was cut short.

At the chairman's request, former interior minister Yunus Qanuni made a passionate plea to delegates to avoid causing tension in a country just emerging from years of strife.

"You have not been elected to cause tension, to raise provocative issues. You have been elected to shape the future of your country, work for national unity. Let's not lose this golden opportunity," he said to repeated applause.

Confusion also prevails over the mandate of the emergency Loya Jirga, called under the UN accord, particularly whether or not its rulings should have supremacy over provisions of the Bonn accord.

Karzai insists that the Bonn accord be observed to the letter, while some delegates want to exceed its mandate.

The assembly is also divided on what to call the new government.

Pro-Islam mujahideen (holy warriors) who fought the Soviet occupation and the extremist Taliban want the government's title to include the word Islam.

But more secular delegates and officials, disgusted by abuses in the past in the name of Islam, oppose the idea.

Abdullah said a name had already been chosen for the new government - the transitional government of Afghanistan - under the Bonn accord.

"A permanent name will be decided after the constitution is written. Then it will be put to debate," he said.

The assembly, a colourful gathering of Afghans from all regions and walks of life, is due to end on Sunday or Monday.

A key task of the Loya Jirga is forming a government that pleases the Pashtun supporters of the former king as well as the powerful Uzbeks and Tajiks of the Northern Alliance at the core of the interim government.

A Pashtun from the south, Karzai enjoys the backing of the former king, the minority-dominated Northern Alliance, the United States and the United Nations.

At a news conference on Friday, Karzai said the US-led war on terrorism remains the top priority of his administration, along with national reconciliation and reconstruction.

Some 13,000 international troops are in Afghanistan, scouring the mountainous southeast for forces loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his Al Qaeda cohort Osama bin Laden - the alleged mastermind of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US.


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