Rocky Road For Loya Jirga

Afghan police armed with a rocket launcher and assault rifle sit at a checkpoint near the site of the Loya Jirga meeting, Monday, June 10, 2002. While international forces are responsible for security in the capital, Afghan forces are securing the perimeter of the meeting.
Afghanistan's Loya Jirga grand council is lurching forward - or trying to, at least - in its assigned mission to choose a new government.

Wednesday, there were tense moments early on as two trucks full of armed men driving toward the site of the council meeting were stopped by international peacekeeping troops.

A spokeswoman for the peacekeeping forces, Lt. Col. Helen Wildman, says at least one of the men got out and aimed a gun at the peacekeepers. She says no shots were fired, several men were arrested, and peacekeepers were able to disarm the rest of the group. They are described as bodyguards for Ahmad Wali Massood, the brother of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massood.

Later in the day, there was even more excitement - of the political variety - as scores of Afghan delegates walked out of the Loya Jirga assembly, saying they were angry about the lack of a free vote to decide the future of their war-shattered country, including the next president.

Some 60 to 70 delegates walked out of the giant tent housing the assembly, where inside the debate was in full flow.

Delegates complained other decisions at the U.N.-sponsored Loya Jirga - the first deemed to have any legitimacy in more than a quarter-century - were also being railroaded through.

The walkout accentuated the deep rifts between the mostly ethnic Pashtun supporters of former king Mohammad Zahir Shah from the south and northern minorities who oppose giving him any role at all in a future government.

But delegates across the spectrum agreed no voting and little consultation was taking place at the Loya Jirga, an institution that has been around for a thousand years but had been long viewed as a rubber stamp body under the old monarchy.

The Loya Jirga was preparing to vote for a president with Hamid Karzai, interim leader and U.S. favorite, the sole candidate, prompting protests the process was undemocratic.

The traditional parliament was also electing a chairman and two deputies for the Loya Jirga, which some of the delegates also saw as an unfair process.

"Who are they to make fools of us?" complained one delegate to the assembly, saying that the choice for the chairperson of the Loya Jirga had been selected by the Loya Jirga Commission instead of by the delegates.

Delegates say that not even the names of the candidates were revealed.

The assembly is expected to decide Wednesday on the new Afghan president, another cause for complaint as the urbane, western-educated Karzai, is the only candidate.

The second-day session on Wednesday had already got off to an unsettled start after Karzai mistakenly declared at the close of Tuesday's opening session he had been appointed president.

He said he mistook thundering applause from the delegates, following the ex-king's announcement of support for Karzai's candidacy as a sign he had been elected president by acclamation.

Karzai's claim - which he later acknowledged to have been an error - added to the confusion and tension surrounding a much-heralded meeting that had already been delayed by a day due to factional bickering.

In a gesture to the former king's supporters, Karzai in his speech on Tuesday proposed the former monarch be named "father of the country" and be given a figurehead role - handing out medals of honour, for instance - and be given an official residence.

But some delegates objected to even a symbolic role for former king as "father" of the nation when he had not lived in the country for nearly 30 years.