KABUL, Afghanistan – An extraordinary gathering of 1,500 Afghans convened for a second day Wednesday after the former president joined the ex-king in bowing out of the leadership race, paving the way for the election of American-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai.
Mohammad Zaher Shah, the former monarch who formally convened the grand council, or loya jirga, on Tuesday urged the delegates to work "for the unity and independence of Afghanistan" after 23 devastating years of war.
However, the political maneuvering surrounding the loya jirga left some delegates disillusioned and angry that foreigners and special interests had usurped their role in guiding the nation's future.
"This is not a democracy; it is a rubber stamp," complained Seema Samar, the women's affairs minister. "Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones."
Nevertheless, the gathering of delegates from all sectors of Afghan society — women, turbaned clerics and sophisticated, foreign-educated, one-time exiles in Western business suits — marked a major step in the transformation of Afghanistan, which began after the United States and its Northern Alliance allies drove the Taliban from power last year.
On Wednesday, the main items on the agenda were the election of a loya jirga chairman and the head of state. Choosing the chairman was looming as a long process, with a number of nominations being submitted.
Secretary of State Colin Powell denied charges that Washington, which backs Karzai, had been heavy-handed in the loya jirga.
"It seems to be representative of all the people of Afghanistan," Powell said in Washington. The United States, he added, helped create the conditions under which the delegates "could come together and find their way into the future in accordance with their traditions."
Delegates, meeting in a giant, air conditioned and carpeted tent, must select a head of state and appoint a government that will oversee drafting of a constitution and run the country until elections in 18 months.
Tuesday's session adjourned after about two hours, and the election for the head of state is expected Wednesday.
"Afghans want an end to a nation of armed people," Karzai told delegates in his opening speech. "My greatest hope is that Afghans will have their country back."
However, the ethnic and political divisions that ravaged this nation for a generation threatened the hopeful new beginning sought by the interim government and the United Nations.
The opening session was delayed for a day because ethnic Tajiks who dominate the interim administration objected to any formal role in the new government for Zaher Shah.
To resolve the crisis, Zaher Shah said Monday that he would not accept any political office, and on Tuesday, the titular head of the former Northern Alliance, Burhanuddin Rabbani, bowed out of the race too. Both endorsed Karzai.
Rabbani's decision left Karzai with one opponent — Masooda Jalal, a World Food Program employee. She was not expected to mount a serious challenge, but her candidacy reflected the demands of Afghan women for a voice in public affairs after years of repression by the Taliban.
"She is a good candidate but after the last 23 years of suffering, it is really something just to be here," said Asella Wardak, one of the 160 women appointed to the loya jirga. "It's probably not practical now to have a woman president, but let's see tomorrow who votes for her."
Although the moves avoided a bitter factional fight, they angered and disappointed many delegates, who believed they had been deprived of the power to determine the country's new leadership.
"I am a believer in frankness," Finance Minister Amin Arsala said. "I want to make sure everything is above board. The people should know what has happened."
Although support for Karzai appeared widespread, many delegates worried about the makeup of the new government, fearing backroom deals would allow ethnic Tajiks to retain power at the expense of Pashtuns and other groups.
"People shouldn't think that the debate is over, that we won't be heard," said delegate Mohammed Musa.
To appease the former king's supporters, Zaher Shah was granted a major ceremonial role at the loya jirga. Karzai, a Pashtun like the ex-king, lavishly praised Zaher Shah as the "father of the nation" and said he would be granted privileges normally accorded constitutional monarchs.
Zaher Shah would be allowed to convene the next parliament and the constitutional commission, award titles and honors and even live in the royal palace, Karzai said.
Arriving at the conclave, the aged former monarch, who returned to Afghanistan in April after 29 years in exile, moved slowly to center stage and took his seat in a high-backed chair flanked by an Afghan flag. He pleaded for unity and peace.
"I'm here to do a service after long years of being away," Zaher Shah said in a soft voice. "My only wish is to bring peace in the country, national unity, reconciliation and to take the nation back to peace and integrity."