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By Peter Graff
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai could invite militants to attend a "Loya Jirga," or grand council meeting, aiming to seek peace and reconciliation with the Taliban, a spokesman said on Sunday.
The plans signal a more public effort to engage with militants during Karzai's second term as leader, measures that Washington has encouraged in its counter-insurgency strategy.
Afghanistan's constitution recognises the Loya Jirga -- Pashtu for grand assembly -- as "the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan."
Karzai announced plans for a Loya Jirga in his inauguration speech last week, describing it as a measure to promote peace but giving few details.
Under the Afghan constitution, a Loya Jirga made up of parliamentarians and chiefs of district and provincial councils can amend the constitution, impeach the president and "decide on issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as supreme national interests."
The rare, colourful mass gatherings of elders have played crucial roles over the course of Afghan history.
Two have been held since the fall of the Taliban in 2001: one that named Karzai interim leader and a second that adopted the constitution. A third gathering of tribal chiefs from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier, was held in Kabul in 2007 to smooth over relations between the two countries.
The giant marquee tent where those assemblies were held is still standing in a Kabul field.
Hamid Elmi, a spokesman for Karzai, said the assembly envisioned by the president would not be the "Constitutional Loya Jirga" described formally under Afghan law but a "Traditional Loya Jirga," which could have a different make-up of notables.
"The meaning of the traditional Loya Jirga is how to bring about peace and how to invite the Taliban and opposition in Afghanistan," he said. "They are not coming to talk about the cabinet and the administration. They are coming to bring security and peace."
Elmi said the government was looking at two options: either calling a Loya Jirga at which militants would not be present but a broad spectrum of Afghans would debate how to reconcile with them, or actually inviting some militants to participate.
A decision on who would attend would not be reached until after the date is determined, he said. The onset of winter makes it difficult to hold the jirga soon, but Karzai would like to hold it before parliamentary elections in June, he said.
Karzai's government has said in the past year that it is reaching out to some members of the Taliban, with Saudi Arabia acting as a mediator. Taliban leaders say they will not negotiate with Karzai as long as Western troops remain in the country.
Hamidullah Tarzi, a former finance minister and one of many Afghan politicians who called earlier this year for a Loya Jirga to select a president as an alternative to a dubious war-time election, said the purpose of holding one was no longer clear.
"It's an interesting idea, but he should have done it before the election. It would have been very effective. Now that he is the sitting president, it's a different situation," Tarzi said.
Karzai's recent election foe, ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, also responded cautiously, saying the formal Loya Jirga described in the constitution could not yet be held because the district officials who would attend it have not yet been elected.
Karzai would have to spell out the aims if he wants support, Abdullah told Reuters.
"It will depend: what's the purpose of that Loya Jirga? What will be achieved in that Loya Jirga? These are big questions."
(Editing by Jon Hemming)