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Women lead protests as Afghan warlords muscle in on power
13 June 2002
As Afghanistan's embryo parliament got down to business yesterday there was a rising tide of anger at the prominent role of warlords with long histories of human rights abuse.
Many delegates and observers were angry at the backroom deals which allowed the warlords to attend the loya jirga , or tribal council.
The mood was set by Sima Samar, the minister for women's affairs, who said: "This is not democracy. This is a rubber stamp. Everything here has already been decided by those with the power. This jirga includes all the warlords. None of them is left out."
Her deputy, Taj Kokar, and a group of women delegates confronted the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani. "Why have you killed and raped our women? Why do we have so many widows in this country?" she asked.
The startled political leader of the Northern Alliance, whose forces helped to destroy large parts of Kabul in the 1990s, had no reply.
The British-led peacekeeping forces tightened security at the site yesterday after German troops, helped by local Afghan police, disarmed and arrested four gunmen who tried to drive two pick-up trucks through a cordon at the entrance.
They turned out to be the bodyguards of Ahmad Wali Massoud, Afghanistan's former ambassador to London and the brother of the Northern Alliance's main military commander who was killed last year. A spokeswoman for the International Security Assistance Forces (Isaf), said one of them had aimed a gun at the German troops.
Although there are only about 200 women among more than 1,500 delegates, they are not being cowed. While male candidates are dropping out of the race to become elected head of state, one woman, Masooda Jalal, is still opposing the favourite, Hamid Karzai.
Ms Jalal tried to speak on the opening day but as she reached the microphone at the front of the hall, Mr Karzai was approaching the podium for his closing speech. "Who do you want to hear: this lady or me?" he asked. The delegates gave no answer and Mr Karzai started his speech, leaving her to return unheard to her seat.
Delegates have complained that armed men working for Mohammed Arif, the Northern Alliance's head of intelli gence, stand menacingly close while delegates talk in the corridors, taking photographs and eavesdropping .
Monitors for the United Nations, which worked with Afghans to set the rules for the council, counted 43 of Mr Arif's security men although he was originally permitted no more than 19. Security for the event was meant to be in the hands of Isaf in order to avoid any danger of intimidation.
When the UN monitors started checking Mr Arif's security people for their credentials they were astonished to discover that the extra armed men also had permission to attend without the knowledge of the monitors, but with the approval of the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi.
The presence of the warlords has also disappointed some foreign diplomats. "I was amazed to see those so-called warlords sitting together in the first and second rows," said Klaus-Peter Klaiber, the European Union's special representative.
"It tells me only one thing. The interim administration has decided to try to integrate former warlords into policy-making in Kabul. If they succeed, that will be an achievement".
Under the rules worked out by the UN/Afghan team no one directly or indirectly involved in the killing of innocent people could be a delegate. But on the eve of the conference Mr Brahimi and Mohammed Ismail Qasimyar, the loya jirga commission's chair, agreed to give seats to all 32 of the country's governors.
The decision was co-ordinated with the US, whose special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, said this week: "One needs to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitate difficult compromises, and justice, which requires accountability."
"The degree to which the UN and the US have compromised is shocking," said Sam Zarifi, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, who watched the delegate-selection process.
"It's odd to believe there can be kinder, gentler warlords. For the United States it's a strange position on which to base one's strategy in the first theatre of war on terrorism.
"This loya jirga is a struggle between fear and hope. The women appear to be the bravest."
Jonathan Steele, Kabul