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The Sydney Morning Herald, January 29, 2011

Karzai backs infamous warlord to be speaker

Considered among the most Islamist of the warlords, he is close to Saudi Arabia and the kingdom's severe Wahhabi form of Islam

KABUL: An Afghan warlord accused of gross human rights violations and who was once close to Osama bin Laden has received the backing of the President, Hamid Karzai, for the important post of speaker of the new parliament.

Sayyaf a notorious warlord
People in Kabul showed their hatred for warlords by throwing blood on their posters during parliamentary elections of 2010. Notorious warlord Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf is not only safe from persecution of the crimes he committed from 1992-96 against thousands of innocent people, but is also free to participate in elections and enjoy power in the Afghan government.

To the dismay of diplomats and MPs, especially women and those from Afghanistan's ethnic Hazara community, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf was Mr Karzai's early candidate for the speaker slot, MPs said. He has been accused of a string of atrocities during Afghanistan's civil war of the 1990s, in particular the killing of hundreds of Hazara civilians in Kabul in 1993.

The new parliament, the country's second since the Taliban regime fell in 2001, was inaugurated on Wednesday. It includes a gallery of former mujahideen warlords and guerilla commanders who have been held responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians.

Advertisement: Story continues below One MP, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested Mr Karzai wanted Mr Sayyaf as speaker to rile the West.

The opening of the parliament was itself a rebuff to Mr Karzai, who last week had ordered a month's delay to investigate allegations of vote-rigging against some MPs. Mr Karzai backed down under heavy international pressure and MPs' threat to meet in a rump session, and at Wednesday's inauguration he seemed intent on getting even, accusing the West of ''unnecessary'' interference in his country.

He called for the shutting down of provincial reconstruction teams, the civil-military hybrid units that carry out development work alongside international troops, and for parliament to ''put limits'' on the operations of foreign forces. The world has spent billions of dollars of aid, often through the reconstruction teams, and about 150,000 coalition troops are stationed in Afghanistan.

The Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Homayoun Azizi, had been campaigning behind the scenes for Mr Sayyaf, several MPs said. While most MPs think that Mr Karzai supports Mr Sayyaf to be speaker, a contest that has not officially begun, some think the President could switch to another candidate if he sees that Mr Sayyaf is unelectable.

''The hands of these people [mujahideen] are red with the blood of the Afghan people … Taliban and mujahideen are the same for me,'' said Shukria Paikan, a female parliamentarian from the northern province of Kunduz. ''It's very obvious that Karzai is supporting Sayyaf.''

Analysts and diplomats say that parliament will play an increasingly important role as the only political check on Mr Karzai, and it is likely to provide much more opposition than the first parliament did. Having an ally as speaker would give Mr Karzai a far better chance at managing the new parliament.

There is speculation he will seek changes to the constitution, including one that will allow him to stand for office again. Any peace deal with the Taliban, which Mr Karzai says he is seeking, also might require constitutional amendments, which only the parliament can pass.

''If Sayyaf is speaker, it is possible that Karzai can be president for a third time,'' said Abdul Latif Pedram, a politician from the northern province of Badakhshan. ''It's a difficult time for him, and he needs a very close ally to be speaker.''

Mr Sayyaf was an early supporter of Mr Karzai's presidency, and he remains loyal. Considered among the most Islamist of the warlords, he is close to Saudi Arabia and the kingdom's severe Wahhabi form of Islam.

His relationship with bin Laden, a Saudi, dates to the early 1980s, when both were fighting against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Mr Sayyaf is said to have been instrumental in bringing bin Laden back to Afghanistan in 1996 after he was expelled from Sudan.

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