New-government list whittled down

KOENIGSWINTER, Germany -- A U.N. envoy whittled down a list of 150 candidates Tuesday for posts in a new interim authority for Afghanistan, seeking to achieve ethnic balance while satisfying the many rival factions.

Four ethnic factions presented U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi with candidates for 29 ministerial posts in a post-Taliban government that will take power from the northern alliance and run the country for six months.

A consensus on the Cabinet could trigger a speedy transfer of power in the Afghan capital -- with Dec. 22 envisioned as a target date -- and secure billions of dollars in promised aid.

"This is a very difficult hurdle," said Brahimi's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.

Brahimi was using ethnic balance as the main criterion for selection but also considering competence and integrity, Fawzi said.

A U.S. envoy to the talks said the four factions were to consider Brahimi's list during a meeting Tuesday night, which could set the stage for a final agreement Wednesday.

"At this point that's simply a hope," U.S. envoy James F. Dobbins said.

Hamid Karzai, a leading anti-Taliban commander who was fighting near Kandahar, appeared favored to head the interim council, a Western diplomat said, after another leading candidate, Abdul Sattar Sirat, withdrew his name.

Sirat is a close adviser to former King Mohammad Zaher Shah.

Speaking in Kabul, northern alliance foreign minister Abdullah said the alliance also preferred Karzai because he represents Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Reaching a consensus on the ministry positions promises to be as contentious as the framework deal reached early Tuesday under international pressure on northern alliance leaders in Kabul to remove obstacles threatening the talks.

Factions representing the northern alliance, exiles loyal to the former king and two smaller exile groups are seeking to adequately represent Afghanistan's main ethnic groups -- Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara -- and women, who have been virtually excluded from public life under the Taliban.

In Kabul, the northern alliance said it wants 11 portfolios, including the powerful foreign, interior and defense ministries currently held by members of northern alliance chief Burhanuddin Rabbani's Jamiat-e-Islami party. A woman will be one of five deputy leaders, the alliance said.

So far, the talks have been slowed by disagreements within the northern alliance, which comprises seven rival factions united in their fight to oust the Taliban from Afghanistan.

Another split appeared Tuesday with reports that the northern alliance leadership in Kabul excluded Younus Qanooni, the interior minister and leader of the Bonn delegation, and foreign minister Abdullah from the list of 60 candidates it submitted to the United Nations under U.S. pressure.

The alliance delegation then added Qanooni and Abdullah to the list, said a delegate who spoke on condition of anonymity. Fawzi refused to discuss the names on the various factions' lists.

The northern alliance based its claims to ministries on a 1974 census breakdown of 38 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 17 percent Hazara and 6 percent Uzbek. That was the last census before the country plunged into 23 years of conflict.

"We went to Bonn with a very good spirit. We were ready to compromise and make concessions to go forward and lay the foundation of a new Afghanistan," Abdullah said. "We are expecting now that the international community plays its role and take its responsibility for the reconstruction of a stable Afghanistan."

Brahimi was prepared to travel to Afghanistan immediately to begin preparations, Fawzi said, but first the United Nations was consulting Tuesday with northern alliance leader Buranuddin Rabbani on the date for transferring power.

Rabbani still is recognized as Afghan president by the United Nations and is portrayed by Western diplomats as reluctant to be shunted aside by younger leaders.

Under the U.N. plan, the interim administration would govern for six months until a national assembly of tribal leaders, or loya jirga, convenes to ratify an 18-month transitional government paving the way for elections. Taking a symbolic role, the ex-king would convene the loya jirga.

The plan also envisions deploying an international security force to Kabul and other areas, integrating Afghan fighters into a future national army and creating a supreme court.