Afghans agree new constitution paving path for elections

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The Independent Online

After weeks of rancorous debate in which proceedings almost broke down, a grand assembly of Afghans agreed yesterday on a national constitution - a move that officials hope will clear the way for elections more than two years after American-led forces overthrew the Taliban.

A day after warning that the loya jirga (grand assembly) was heading for dismal failure, its chairman, Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, appeared before the 502 delegates gathered in a tent in Kabul and announced that a "very successful agreement" had been reached.

These words were music to the ears of the Bush administration, which, bogged down in a chronic guerrilla war in Iraq, is eager to show that its intervention in Afghanistan is making progress.

The country still faces a swath of problems, particularly a resurgence of the Taliban, al-Qa'ida and other anti-government militants in the southern and eastern borderlands whose persistent attacks have made large areas too dangerous for international aid agencies.

Nor does Afghanistan, which is the world's largest opium producer and has a plethora of warlords and militias, have anything approaching a national judicial or law enforcement system capable of enforcing the terms of a new constitution. Corruption abounds, large areas of the country, which is awash with arms, are lawless. Yet even so, officials say rebuilding a nation shattered by foreign invasion and civil war is inevitably a slow process.

If it holds, yesterday's agreement at least represents a step forward. "There is no winner or loser," the President, Hamid Karzai, told delegates. "Everybody has won, it is everybody's, it belongs to every Afghan."

Although details of the contents of the constitution had not been released by last night, it is expected to provide for a centralised presidency with sweeping powers. This is what the Americans had sought and what Mr Karzai, the leader of the US-sponsored Afghan transitional government, had insisted on.

Both believe this is necessary as a means of containing the rivalries between Afghanistan's ethnic groups, which have been a troubled part of its history for centuries.

Mr Karzai, who is from the Pashtun majority, took this stance despite opposition from Tajiks, who have dominated Kabul since the Taliban's fall. They know he is the favourite to win the elections and fear he will enjoy excessive powers. The deliberations lasted for more than three bruising weeks. Six days ago, the chairman, an elderly professor in Islam, reportedly walked out and went home in frustration, only returning on the urgings of senior officials from the interim government.

By then, the loya jirga was already at a standstill, with scores of delegates boycotting the voting on final amendments because of alleged government interference.

The talks snagged seriously towards their close over whether to grant official status to minority languages. But there were other disputes over fundamental issues such as the constitution's relationship with Islamic law, human rights and the recognition of the rights of women, which have been long suppressed.

During the proceedings, religious conservatives forced through amendments to make the constitution more Islamic. The wording was also reportedly altered to state specifically that men and women should be treated equally.

Rivals of Mr Karzai, mainly from the Northern Alliance factions that helped American forces overthrow the Taliban, succeeded in securing some measures that strengthened the role of parliament by extending its veto power over appointments.

¿ In an audiotape shown by the satellite channel al-Jazeera yesterday, a voice said to be that of Osama bin Laden urged Muslims to continue fighting a holy war rather than co-operate with peace efforts in the Middle East. The speaker said the region?s problems were part of a religious and economic war in which "big powers" were trying to take over its oil. Al-Jazeera played the tape while showing a still photo of bin Laden.