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Afghan constitution gives hope for peace
( 2004-01-05 16:31) (Agencies)

A new constitution in the bag, delegates to Afghanistan's landmark grand council were preparing to head home Monday after three exhausting weeks of debate on how to revive their war-trampled country.

The 502-member council, or loya jirga, approved a new charter on Sunday for the post-Taliban era, installing a presidential system at the heart of a tolerant Islamic state.

U.S. President Bush said the new constitution marks a historic step forward after the removal two years ago of the strictly Islamic government of the Taliban militia, which allowed Osama bin Laden to use Afghanistan as a base of operations.

"A democratic Afghanistan will serve the interests and just aspirations of all of the Afghan people and help ensure that terror finds no further refuge in that proud land," Bush said in a statement.

On Monday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai invited the delegates to stay on for two more days at the Kabul college campus where they met during the gathering.

There were also celebratory lunch and dinner receptions to attend.

But many delegates were keen to go back to their villages, relieved that a bruising final debate over language rights had been resolved.

"Now I have something in my hand," said Abdul Fatah, a delegate from eastern Khost province, heading out of the still closely guarded site into the capital to visit relatives.

"It would have been a disgrace if we hadn't reached agreement after such a lot of talking. What would we have said to our people?" he said.

The charter creates the strong presidency that Karzai says is critical to uniting a country torn by almost a quarter century of fighting.

But the haggling also irritated ethnic tensions that could cast a shadow over landmark presidential elections scheduled for June. Parliamentary elections are expected to follow next year.

"This is the success of the whole Afghan nation," Karzai said at the closing ceremony on Sunday evening. "We should respect it, we should implement it."

With a deal secured, leaders had been were keen to play down the ethnic rift Karzai pledging to learn Uzbek, the language at the group that almost scuttled the accord, and challenging rivals to campaign in his Pashtun heartland.

Karzai supporters compromised with Islamic hard-liners and scaled back some of the far-reaching presidential powers he had pushed for in the face of opposition from regional faction leaders.

Sidiq Chakari, a Tajik delegate and spokesman for former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, 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," Chakari said. "Everybody wants to switch to disarmament and reconstruction."

U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi urged the assembled ministers and ethnic leaders, many of whom control private armies, to take action against abusive warlords who create fear among civilians.

In three weeks of debate, religious conservatives forced through amendments requiring laws to be in accordance with Islam possibly including a ban on alcohol.

But the document also states that men and women should be treated equally a key demand of human rights groups.

In the most bruising tussle, northern minorities such as the Uzbeks and Turkmen won official status for their languages in the areas where they are strongest.

Rivals of Karzai, mainly from the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance faction that helped U.S. forces drive out the Taliban, strengthened parliament with amendments granting veto power over key appointments and policies.

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.

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