KOENIGSWINTER, Germany -- Weary of war, even one they appear to be winning, Afghanistan's rival factions stunned their hosts and foreign patrons on the first day of U.N.-brokered talks here by broadly agreeing Tuesday on the two crucial issues of securing peace and sharing power.
While contention may still loom as the 30-odd ethnic and political leaders tackle the details of naming an interim post-Taliban government and imposing law and order, the usually fractious figures demonstrated unexpectedly common commitment to ending decades of repression and bloodshed.
The Afghan delegates, who only a day earlier were still haggling over who would represent the factions and their relative clout in the negotiations, all gave at least tepid endorsement to the return of the country's deposed king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, as a transitional head of state, U.N. spokesman Ahmed Fawzi said.
The four groups represented were also reported to be close to accepting the concept of a multinational peacekeeping force, rather than the all-Afghan security deployment that the dominant Northern Alliance had previously insisted on.
"All four leaders spoke of this meeting as the beginning of a new era for Afghanistan, one that promises dignity and peace for its people," reported Fawzi, who said the faction leaders hailed the talks as "a path toward salvation."
The talks high on a Rhine River promontory in this spa town near Bonn bring together the political leaders of the Northern Alliance, made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, and three ethnic Pashtun-dominated factions of exiles known as the Rome, Cyprus and Peshawar groups. The Rome group represents allies of the former king, whose return as even a figurehead leader had been rejected by Northern Alliance political leader Burhanuddin Rabbani until a few days ago.
"Even yesterday I was not that hopeful, but today I've come out of our meetings with lots of hope. There's been a big change in the stance of the Northern Alliance," said Fatima Gailani, the Western-educated daughter of Pir Sayed Ahmad Gailani, head of the Peshawar group, so named because the exiles are based in that Pakistani city.
Younis Qanooni, the Northern Alliance's interior minister and head of its delegation here, set minds at ease at the start of the talks when he professed his faction "ready for a transfer of power to the real representatives of the Afghan people."
Because Northern Alliance forces now control most of Afghanistan, there had been fears that the battlefield victors would rather sit on their spoils than share power with the other factions.
In an appeal read by special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan alluded to those expectations in urging Afghanistan's warlords and regional kingpins to put aside personal ambition for the good of the country.
"You must not allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated, particularly those of 1992," Annan said, referring to the chaotic power grab that led to lawlessness and the eventual toppling of Rabbani's 4-year-old government in 1996 by the fundamentalist Taliban. "To many skeptics, it appears that that is precisely what you are about to do. You must prove them wrong and show that you can choose the path of compromise over conflict."
In close-quarters shuttle diplomacy, the Afghan leaders milled around the sprawling, mountaintop Petersberg hotel, dropping in on one faction's room and then another to lobby former adversaries for their support of a broad-based interim leadership to run Afghanistan's government for three to six months.
By next spring, U.N. organizers hope the Afghans can convene a "loya jirga," a council of tribal elders, to name a provisional president and parliament and set out a framework for a democratic constitution. In a year or two, they hope to see elections in which all adults would participate, ending Afghan women's decade of disenfranchisement.
The presence of Gailani strengthens the push for female empowerment in what has long been a male-dominated society. With all four groups now including female delegates or advisers, the conference has shown itself committed to bringing women out from under their awkward burkas and into the forefront of modern society, Gailani said.
She and others privy to the talks at the Petersberg summit confirmed the general consensus that Zaher Shah, the 87-year-old former monarch who has been living in Rome since his 1973 ouster, should serve as titular head of state until a permanent leader can be chosen.
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