KABUL, Afghanistan – The former Afghan king renounced any role in the new government Monday — a move aimed at defusing a crisis that forced a one-day delay in the opening of the grand council to select new leaders for this war-battered nation.
Some of the 1,550 delegates to the council, or loya jirga, were shocked by the decision of 87-year-old Mohammad Zaher Shah, who ruled for 40 years. The step apparently was aimed at pacifying the ethnic Tajik clique that took power through a U.N.-brokered agreement last year after the U.S. bombing campaign toppled the Taliban.
Ethnic Tajik leaders of the former Northern Alliance strongly oppose any role for the former king. Diplomats said the Tajik concern that Zaher Shah might stand for election as head of state forced the loya jirga to be postponed until Tuesday.
"I have no intention of restoring the monarchy and I am not a candidate for any position in the loya jirga," Zaher Shah said in a statement read by an aide at his Kabul home. The former king is to convene the loya jirga.
Zaher Shah also supported current interim leader Hamid Karzai for president during the 18-month transitional period. The king's decision leaves Karzai with only one declared opponent — Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik who ruled between 1992 and 1996.
The new president's government will write a constitution and oversee preparations for nationwide elections.
There was no immediate reaction to Zaher Shah's announcement by Northern Alliance figures. However, some ethnic Pashtun delegates who wanted him to play a greater role in running Afghanistan threatened to boycott the loya jirga.
Many Pashtuns complain of discrimination by Northern Alliance figures because Pashtuns formed the overwhelming majority of the Taliban.
After Zaher Shah's announcement, there were rumors Pashtun delegates were leaving Kabul or marching on the king's residence to demand he reconsider. There was no sign of either late Monday.
"God willing, everything will be fine," Kabul Police Chief Din Mohammed Jurat said outside the king's residence. "Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun. He is the only one who can unite the country.
"The king is the father of the nation and he will do what's best for the nation and he will do what he promised."
An ethnic Pashtun, Zaher Shah returned to Afghanistan in April after 29 years in Italy to try to unite his shattered homeland, deeply divided along ethnic lines after 23 years of war.
However, those divisions appear to be widening at a time when many Afghans hope the loya jirga will help heal the nation's wounds.
"We want the king as a candidate," said a Pashtun delegate identifying himself as Mirwais. "How can this be one step toward democracy? What kind of a democracy is this?"
He said the ex-monarch was pressured into his decision by an international community that wants to remove any challenges to Karzai.
Another delegate identifying himself as Hajji said delegates "will not eat tonight because it is too sad for us."
Despite their declared neutrality, international officials here hope Karzai defeats Rabbani, whose four years in power were marked by bitter factional fighting.
During Rabbani's rule, the combatants destroyed nearly 70 percent of Kabul and killed about 50,000 people, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
Before the king's announcement, Afghan officials played down any disputes, saying the loya jirga was delayed for logistical and administrative reasons.
However, President Bush's personal envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the delay was caused by erroneous reports Zaher Shah was seeking public office.
"I told them that they need to get their act together," Khalilzad said of the Afghans. "We are here to help but ultimately it is their responsibility. They have a historic opportunity."
He said Afghans squandered an earlier opportunity for peace in 1992 after the pro-Soviet regime collapsed. Forces led by Rabbani's defense minister, the late Ahmed Shah Massood, battled with those of dissident leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Masood's key ally, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, attacked minority Shiite Muslims as the government marginalized ethnic Pashtuns. When the Taliban overthrew them in 1996, the Pashtun Taliban attacked Tajiks and Shiite Muslims.
Massood was killed by a suicide bomber in September but his clique dominated the Northern Alliance while fighting the Taliban last year. In a United Nations-brokered agreement in December, Tajiks from Massood's Panjshir Valley stronghold took most top posts in the administration.
Khalilzad urged all ethnic groups to put aside past rivalries and use the loya jirga to form a broad-based government. He said "significant" changes must occur for the transitional government to be accepted by most Afghans.
"It is important that there is a significant change and not merely a symbolic one," he said. "Hopefully, they have learned their lessons."