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Background: Loya Jirga

June 11, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Afghanistan’s grand council convened, 1,500 delegates strong, in an enormous tent in Kabul today. The Loya Jirga, as it is known, brought together representatives from various ethnic and tribal groups to form a new government.

Former Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah, formally opened the meeting, the first Loya Jirgah since he was deposed and then exiled in 1973.

MOHAMMAD ZAHIR SHAH, Former King, Afghanistan (Translated): In this Loya Jirga, I ask all the delegates to consider the priorities of the nation and the desires of the people. And to have a good outcome, we should choose the right person to bring us a good future.

GWEN IFILL: At the apparent urging of U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, Zahir Shah yesterday renounced any official role in the new government, endorsing interim leader Hamid Karzai instead. Today, Karzai urged the delegates to work for unity and independence.

HAMID KARZAI, Interim Prime Minister, Afghanistan (Translated): Afghanistan freedom– this was the hope of the Afghan people. This hope was the hope of our women, our sisters, our mothers, our elders, and our nation. This was the decision of the Afghan people, that they should take and they should decide who they will choose for their country and the leadership of their country.

GWEN IFILL: The assembly got off to a confusing start, with Karzai declaring himself the victor before any votes were cast. He later withdrew that declaration. Secretary of State Colin Powell said today the U.S. did not exert undue pressure to assure Karzai’s election.

COLIN POWELL: We have helped create the conditions so that such a meeting of 1,500 representatives under a tent provided by Germany could come together and find their way into the future in accordance with their traditions and their processes. And to the extent we’ve helped that, I think we’re all very proud of having done that. We have not tried to put a heavy hand on it in any way.

GWEN IFILL: A new constitution will now be written, and nationwide elections will be held in 18 months.