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Deal reached on Afghanistan constitution

Afghanistan’s constitutional convention agreed on a historic new charter on Sunday, overcoming weeks of division and mistrust to hammer out a compromise.
Former president of Afghanistan and chairman of the loya jirga, Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, right, speaks with female delegates at the meeting in Kabul on Saturday. Afghan delegates reached agreement on a new charter on Sunday.Ahmad Masood / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Afghanistan’s constitutional convention agreed on a historic new charter on Sunday, overcoming weeks of division and mistrust to hammer out a compromise meant to bind together the war-ravaged nation’s mosaic of ethnic groups.

Just a day after warning that the meeting, or loya jirga, was heading toward a humiliating failure, chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi announced that last-ditch diplomacy had secured a deal.

After the new draft was circulated, the 502 delegates gathered under a giant tent in the Afghan capital rose from their chairs, standing in silence for about 30 seconds to signal their support for the new charter.

“Let’s promise before God and our people to implement this constitution,” Mujaddedi said. “If we don’t, it will bring us no good.”

The charter was amended to grant official status to northern minority languages where they are most commonly spoken, an issue which had brought the meeting close to collapse.

U.N.: It’s a huge success
A spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan also applauded the news.

“This historic achievement represents the determination of the Afghan people to see their country transition to a stable and democratic state,” the spokesman said Sunday in a statement.

“This is another important step in the peace process that justifies the commitment of the Afghan people and the international community to date and which must be sustained, if not increased."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad hailed the accord. “It’s a good framework,” Khalilzad said.

Hopes for national reconciliation
Sidiq Chakari, a Tajik delegate and spokesman for faction leader and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had taken part in a boycott Thursday, said the deal was a milestone on the way to peace.

“It’s a very big achievement. I do hope it will bring friendship between our ethnic groups,” he said. “Everybody wants to switch to disarmament and reconstruction.”

Some Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, had pressed until the last for the charter to reverse what they say is the domination of Dari names for public institutions such as universities and courts.

But they went along in the end.

“It will help demilitarize the capital and inject new freedom into education, the media, normal life,” said Khalid Pashtun, a fervent advocate of his kinsmen’s rights.

The accord gives the U.S.-backed Karzai the presidential system he had insisted on, though only after some notable compromises.

Karzai has argued strongly for a dominant chief executive to hold the country together as it rebuilds and reconciles after more than two decades of war, and said he wouldn’t run again if he didn’t get his way.

It was also a triumph for the United States and United Nations, whose officials worked tirelessly to broker a backroom agreement to bolster a peace process begun after the ouster of the Taliban two years ago.

Working through compromises
In three weeks of often rancorous debate, religious conservatives forced through amendments to make the constitution more Islamic — possibly with a ban on alcohol.

On the other hand, wording was changed to spell out that men and women should be treated equally — a key demand of human rights groups.

In the most bruising tussle, minorities such as the Uzbeks and Turkmen from the north won official status for their languages in the areas where they are strongest, with only grudging acceptance from Pashtuns.

Rivals of Karzai, mainly from the Northern Alliance faction which helped U.S. forces drive out the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden, strengthened parliament with amendments giving it veto power over some key appointments and policies.

Constitutional commission
A new commission is to be set up to monitor implementation of the constitution — another potential power base for a rival.

But with no provision for a prime minister or strong regional councils, the wide-ranging powers sought by Karzai in a draft released in November appeared to have survived mainly intact.

The charter makes the president commander in chief of the armed forces, charges him with determining the nation’s fundamental policies and gives him considerable power to press legislation.

“The strong presidency was quickly settled,” Khalilzad said, although he acknowledged parliament had been bolstered. “It’s more balanced in that way.”

Observers said it was vital for the constitution to command broad support, and analysts have voiced concern that Karzai’s reliance on the support of his fellow Pashtuns could make him a partisan figure in the eyes of the country’s myriad minorities.

That could make it more difficult to push ahead with other aspects of the U.N.-sponsored peace drive, especially the disarmament of the unruly regional factions that control much of the country.

Security still a prime concern
The world body has warned that taming the factions, and persuading some of the estimated 100,000 militia fighters still roaming the country, is essential to prevent intimidation from spoiling the presidential elections scheduled for June.

It has also warned that the poll could be delayed until September to give Afghan and U.S. troops more time to improve security in the south and east, where Taliban insurgents and their allies regularly attack troops, government staff and aid workers.

“The challenge locally is to build on what was positive and attend to what was negative,” Brahimi said, including poor security across the country for ordinary Afghans which the constitution is supposed to help solve.

“They live in fear all the time. The fact is there is no rule of law,” he said.

Delegates at the loya jirga said parliamentary elections would likely follow within six months.