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Assembly Elects Hamid Karzai As Transitional Head of State

By Pamela Constable
THE WASHINGTON POST -- KABUL, Afghanistan

Hamid Karzai, the ethnic Pashtun leader who has led Afghanistan’s interim administration for the past six months, was overwhelmingly elected Thursday night by a national assembly to become transitional head of state for the next eighteen months to two years.

Karzai, 44, received 1,295 of a possible 1,575 votes cast by members of the assembly, known as a loya jirga. The assembly had been widely expected to elect him after his main potential rival, former Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah, repeatedly endorsed Karzai over the past several days.

Two last-minute challengers -- Masooda Jalal, a physician and women’s activist; and Mir Mahfooz Nedahi, a scientist and deputy government minister -- won 171 and 89 votes respectively after announcing their candidacies at the loya jirga Thursday morning.

“It is a great honor for me that you, my brothers and sisters, have trusted me to run the government in transition,” Karzai told the cheering delegates immediately after the vote was announced. “I am a humble servant of God, and I am at the service of development and Islam for Afghanistan.”

During the next several days, the loya jirga delegates must choose the heads of parliament and the supreme court, form a transitional parliament, and elect its members. Under a plan mandated by the United Nations, the transitional government must take office by June 22 and serve until elections are held late next year.

An especially sensitive task also awaits Karzai, who must quickly select a cabinet that satisfies all ethnic groups and reduces the power of rival officials in key ministries without undermining their support for his new government.

Karzai was named to head an interim coalition government last December at a U.N. conference in Bonn after the collapse of the Taliban. Foreign observers here, including U.S. officials, had suggested Karzai’s continuation in power would be the best guarantee of stability for Afghanistan as it recovers from years of war, civil conflict and religious repression.

Although Karzai had earned praise both at home and abroad for his efforts to unify and rebuild the nation during the past six months, however, it was not clear until now how broad a popular mandate he could muster in a country long riven by bitter ethnic feuds.

But as the loya jirga approached, Karzai increasingly emerged as the most logical candidate. His victory seemed virtually assured earlier this week after Zahir Shah, 87, ended a groundswell of support for his return to power by strongly endorsing Karzai, and key members of the Tajik ethnic group reached a private power-sharing deal for the transitional government.