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Tuesday, 11 June, 2002, 19:05 GMT 20:05 UK
Afghans set scene for new era
Loya jirga delegates at prayer
The assembly was billed as civilised and democratic
Afghanistan's first tribal council for nearly 40 years has completed its first session, welcoming the country's former king and setting the scene for the election of a new president and government.

Afghans want an end to a nation of armed people, my greatest hope is that Afghans will have their country back

Hamid Karzai
In a speech to the meeting, known as a loya jirga, interim leader Hamid Karzai urged an end to the factional fighting which has divided Afghanistan over the last two decades.

Many delegates seemed pleased with the speech, but there was a mixed reaction when Mr Karzai praised participants in the country's civil war.

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

Earlier, former king Mohammed Zahir Shah told the gathering that he wants to see the war-torn nation adopt a democratic system based on Islam.

The opening session was delayed for more than 25 hours after dissent among the delegates over who would be chosen to lead the country.

Hamid Karzai
Karzai's speech mostly went down well with delegates
And the day ended as it began in confusion, as Mr Karzai appeared to misread audience applause as his election as president.

The BBC's Elizabeth 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 full part in a national council for possibly the first time in history.

And 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.

Difficult tasks

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".

Women at loya jirga
Women are taking a full part in a national council for the first time
Wearing a turban and traditional dress and switching between Pashto and Persian, the interim leader called for a new era of peace.

"Afghans want an end to a nation of armed people," he said.

"My greatest hope is that Afghans will have their country back."

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

"Any future administration should rid the country of corruption and bribery," he said.

End of exile

Earlier, about 2,000 delegates applauded the entrance of the elderly Zahir Shah to the gathering.

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

The 87-year-old 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.

The loya jirga was billed as a civilised and democratic way to pick a new government for the country which has suffered through 23 years of war.

But 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.

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

Afghanistan's former president, the Northern Alliance's Burhanuddin Rabbani, said he would 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 John Simpson
"Democracy has not started well"
David Johnson, US Co-ordinator for Afghanistan
"The United States continues to fight a war in Afghanistan"


Political uncertainty






See also:

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