updated 12/13/2003 8:56:54 PM ET 2003-12-14T01:56:54

Delegates assembling from every corner of Afghanistan on Saturday faced tough debate in hammering out the first post-Taliban constitution, the bedrock of what Afghans hope will be a better life after years of war.

Under intense security, some 500 representatives — from village mullahs to Western-educated exiles — must work out the role of Afghan women, Islam’s place in politics and the sharing of power in a nation accustomed to fighting over it.

The constitutional loya jirga, or grand council, which opens on Sunday, is a key step in the two-year drive to stabilize the country under an empowered central government, and will lead to landmark national elections planned for June.

Lessons for Iraq?
For U.S. officials pushing the process, the Afghans’ experience could provide lessons for Iraq, where American administrators have faced an even tougher task in drawing up a constitution. American and Iraqi leaders have differed over how to even start drafting the document. A timetable calls for elections to choose delegates for drafting an Iraqi constitution in early 2005 — about two years after Saddam Hussein’s fall.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Afghanistan’s new charter would be a “major milestone in its transition to a constitutional, representative government that respects its traditions and protects the welfare of its citizens.”

The European Union said it hoped the charter would be “pluralistic and based on universal human rights, including equal rights for men and women.”

Simple aspirations
But the aspirations of ordinary Afghans, among the world’s poorest people, are simpler.

“Look at the ruins of this country,” said Bismillah, a 43-year-old shopkeeper in Kabul who goes by only one name. “Let’s get the constitution approved so the government can get to work.”

It could take 10 days to several weeks for the loya jirga, meeting in a huge tent at a Kabul college campus, to finalize the 160-article draft presented by a constitutional commission in October.

While all the delegates have arrived without reported incident after last-minute elections in the provinces, the U.S. military has warned that Taliban militants plan to disrupt the gathering.

With Taliban attacks increasing in the countryside, U.S. forces have launched their largest military operation since the fall of the Taliban two years ago — in part to protect the loya jirga.

The new Afghan National Army has placed machine-gun posts and tanks near the council site’s perimeter and the city’s 5,500-strong international peacekeeping force is patrolling the nearby hills to prevent rocket attacks.

Delegates predicted testy debate over the kind of issues that would be typical of any country edging toward democracy: which of its main languages — Dari or Pashto — should be used for the national anthem, and whether higher education should be free.

Yet a shadow has already been cast over the council by allegations of irregularities in the election of its delegates, and suspicions that behind-the-scenes deals could produce a document too weak to protect ordinary Afghans, especially women.

Strength of presidency debated
Among the delegates cocooned at the carefully groomed loya jirga site, the strength of the presidency appears the most contentious issue. U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai favors a strong chief executive while opponents have pushed for a prime minister who would share power.

Karzai this week said he would not run in next year’s elections if a strong prime minister’s post is created.

Afghans have bitter experience of such an arrangement. During part of the 1992-96 civil war, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, today near the top of a U.S. wanted list for siding with the Taliban, was officially prime minister — even as his forces bombarded the capital under President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Afghans appear torn, wanting a government strong enough to rein in powerful warlords but not so strong as to create the makings of a dictator.

“We do need a strong presidential system, one person that will be in control of everything,” said Abdullah Arsala, 30, U.S.-educated Pashtun businessman from Jalalabad who is a loya jirga delegate.

But another delegate, 32-year-old Abdul Rehman, an ethnic Tajik, warned: “If we give all the power to one man he will just do something for himself.”

Some observers worry that the government, seeking support for a strong presidency, will give too much away to powerful warlords it needs to control, or to Islamic fundamentalists that still enjoy wide support, especially among the majority Pashtun population from which the Taliban emerged.

“The fear is that by dominating such institutions they could impose severe social restrictions,” said John Sifton of Human Rights Watch.

Rights groups also worry that the draft constitution does not spell out enough protection for women, giving only vague references to the rights of Afghan citizens.

A complete failure of the loya jirga is also possible. But the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, insisted even that would not be enough to knock the country’s fragile peace process off course.

Reverting to the last constitution, passed in 1964, “would not be the end of the world,” Brahimi said in an interview Friday.

“In Afghanistan today you have powerful people, you call them warlords and commanders, I call them faction leaders,” he said.

“They have got to change. They have got either to become political players or disappear. What I am saying is that this is not going to happen overnight.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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