The first full session of Afghanistan's new parliament almost broke down Tuesday after a lawmaker demanded that authorities bring to justice all warlords, some of whom are delegates.
Underscoring threats to the fledgling democracy, a purported statement forwarded to The Associated Press from fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar called the parliament "fake," and a suicide bombing wounded three Italian peacekeepers and three civilians.
The NATO peacekeepers were on their way to the airport in the western city of Herat when the bomber's car pulled up next to theirs and exploded, said the city's police chief, Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi. One of the wounded civilians, a woman, was in critical condition.
The attack took place as the national assembly convened its first working session in the capital, Kabul, a day after it was inaugurated in an emotional ceremony. Good feelings quickly gave way to a stormy debate over procedural matters as well as the potentially explosive issue of warlords sitting among the elected representatives.
‘A confusing situation’
One delegate, Malali Joya, called for all of Afghanistan's human rights abusers and "criminal warlords" to be brought to justice. Delegates responded by pounding their fists on the tables to demand she sit down. But she refused, shouting that it was her right as an elected official to speak her mind.
Another delegate, Sayed Mubat Shah, appealed for calm.
"We have a big responsibility," he said. "We all have equal rights. We are the voice of the Afghan people."
Joya rose to prominence with a similar display at the 2003 loya jirga, or grand council, under which Afghanistan's constitution was hammered out.
Among those in the parliament with allegedly bloody pasts are Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a militia leader accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch, and Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a former Taliban commander who has since reconciled with the government.
"It's still a confusing situation," delegate Mirahammad Joinda said. "Everybody is backing their own side. It's not clear what will happen."
The legislature has been criticized for including many regional strongmen, raising concerns over whether it can truly be a positive political force.
The popularly elected parliament marked Afghanistan's final step in its transition to democracy after U.S.-led forces ousted the hard-line Taliban regime four years ago for sheltering Osama bin Laden.
‘A fake parliament’
The country has had no elected national assembly since 1973, after which coups and a Soviet invasion plunged it into decades of chaos that killed than 1 million people. That period was followed by the rule of the Islamic extremist Taliban militia.
A written statement, purportedly from Mullah Omar and forwarded to the AP in Pakistan by e-mail Tuesday, condemned the parliament and claimed the Taliban rebellion was strengthening.
"Now a fake parliament has come into being, inaugurated by the American Vice President Dick Cheney," the statement said.
Cheney attended the parliament's inauguration during a brief visit Monday.
"It is now clear to everyone that Afghans did not give up their struggle despite those fake processes, and their resistance is gaining strength and has spread to every part of the country," the statement said.
It was distributed by Mohammed Hanif, who claims to speak for the rebels though his exact ties to the Taliban leadership are unclear. The statement's authenticity could not be confirmed independently.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced Tuesday that U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan will be reduced by about 3,500 next spring as a result of increased NATO forces and a growing Afghan army. It will be the first major reduction in U.S. troop strength here since late last year.