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Tuesday, 11 June, 2002, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Former king urges Afghan unity
Former Afghan king Zahir Shah
The former king says he does not want to be leader
Afghanistan's former king has told a traditional gathering that he wants to see the war-torn nation adopt a democratic system based on Islam.

My only wish is to bring peace in the country, national unity, reconciliation and to take the nation back to peace and integrity

Mohammed Zahir Shah
Around 2,000 delegates applauded the entrance of the elderly Mohammed Zahir Shah to the huge tent where the meeting, known as a loya jirga, is being held to decide Afghanistan's future.

The meeting opened more than 25 hours later than scheduled after dissent among the delegates over who would be chosen to lead the country.

The first day ended with many delegates seeming pleased with the assembly and with interim leader Hamid Karzai's speech.

The BBC's Liz Blunt says that it is easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a quite astonishing event, and almost beyond people's imagination just one year ago.

Men who fought each other for years are sitting side by side, while women - who were banned from public life under the Taleban - are taking part in a national council for the first time in history.

Our correspondent says that the loya jirga is not merely an Afghan event but a world event whose opening was broadcast live around the globe.

End of exile

Many jirga representatives said they wanted to nominate and vote for Zahir Shah, but he ruled himself out of contention on Monday.

Father of Nation
Hamid Karzai said Afghanistan's figurehead should:
Open loya jirga
Open parliament
Draft constitution
Preside at national events
Uphold peace
Confer titles and medals
Live at the former royal palace
The former king threw his support behind Mr Karzai, but some delegates see him as tainted because he is also supported by leaders of Afghanistan's armed factions and Western donor countries.

Zahir Shah, who is 87, told the loya jirga his sole desire was to serve the war-weary nation.

"By the will of God, after 29 years of exile, I am back in my country with my nation," he said in a barely audible whisper.

He urged the loya jirga to elect Mr Karzai to be leader of Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai, who followed Zahir Shah onto the podium flanked by national flags, lavishly praised the former king and proposed that he be given the formal title of "Father of the Nation".

The BBC's Kate Clark in Kabul says that while Mr Karzai's speech was well-received, his praise for former participants in the civil war went down badly in some quarters.

And there was dismay as a woman delegate was prevented from speaking in the last few minutes of the session.

Corruption challenges

Mr Karzai warned there were some difficult tasks ahead for Afghanistan's new rulers, including cleaning up many government departments.

Women at loya jirga
Women are taking a full part in a national council for the first time
"Any future administration should rid the country of corruption and bribery," he said.

The loya jirga - the first in nearly four decades and one of the few in history to admit women - was billed as a civilised and democratic way to pick a new government for the country which has suffered through 23 years of war.

Before the opening, old ethnic and territorial rivalries again seemed to be coming to the fore with many Pashtuns - the majority people in Afghanistan - wanting the return of the king.

The interim government of Mr Karzai - who is Pashtun - has included many ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks from the former ruling Northern Alliance.

Loya jirga
2,000 delegates
1,051 elected members
Guaranteed seats for 160 women
53 seats for current government
100 seats for Afghan refugees and six for internally displaced Afghans
25 seats for nomads
But one of them, Interior Minister Younis Qanooni from the Northern Alliance, resigned "for the sake of national unity".

Such actions may go some way to mollifying delegates who were angry not only that the former king had decided not to stand for head of state but also that decisions appeared to have been made before the meeting started.

Afghanistan's former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, has said he will not stand against Mr Karzai in the leadership election.

However, there will be a vote because at least one other delegate - Masooda Jalal - has put her name forward.

The leaders chosen by the loya jirga will steer a transitional regime until democratic elections are held in 2004.

The BBC's Jacky Rowland
"It's been a big achievement to get all these warlords together"
David Johnson, US Co-ordinator for Afghanistan
"The United States continues to fight a war in Afghanistan"
John Butt, Loya Jirga Observer
"This is an age old afghan tradition that is being revived"


Political uncertainty






See also:

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