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Afghan constitutional convention paralyzed by power struggle

Friday, January 2, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan's constitutional convention came off the rails Thursday, as panicked officials adjourned the gathering in the face of a boycott by opponents of President Hamid Karzai.

The delay was the most severe setback yet to this war-ravaged nation's attempt to put its vision of a secure future on paper, and raises real concern that the historic gathering will end in failure.

Critics blamed the government for its insistence on a strong presidency, and its unwillingness to hear minority demands on such emotive issues as language rights. Others point to the machinations of warlords and faction leaders seeking a new niche if Karzai wins the powers he is seeking.

"There are several fundamentalists at work here," Mirwais Yasini, the loya jirga's deputy chairman, told The Associated Press. "The jihadi groups all want a share of the power."

The 502 delegates have spent nearly three weeks wrangling over a draft constitution presented by Karzai's U.S.-backed government back in November.

Frustrated by the lack of agreement, council chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi called a vote early Thursday on the first of a slew of disputed amendments.

More than half of the delegates cast ballots on issues including how far to liberalize the economy and how many parliament seats to reserve for women and members of the country's impoverished, nomadic Kuchi tribe.

But some 200 members, mostly from the Tajik and Uzbek dominated north of the country, stayed in their seats and refused to leave the huge tent where the gathering is taking place for lunch in a surprisingly resolute rebellion.

Even Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, and Karim Khalili, a Karzai deputy and ethnic Hazara faction leader, were shouted down when they appealed to the delegates to take part.

Mahsa Toyie, a Tajik delegate from the western city of Herat, accused Karzai's government of trying to push through a charter that ignores the claims of small minorities.

Needs wide-ranging support

"This constitution is not for one tribe, it is for the whole country," she said.

On the surface, the council is badly scarred by a dangerous ethnic rift.

Karzai appears to have rallied a clear majority behind his core demand for a presidential system that he says would provide strong leadership for a country racked by internal conflict.

But his support comes mainly from his Pashtun kinsmen, alarming smaller groups from the north that helped the United States oust the mainly Pashtun Taliban two years ago.

The president says a simple majority is all that is needed to pass the constitution, but most observers recognize that a constitution that doesn't win wide-ranging support will hamstring the country as it seeks to put two decades of devastating conflict behind it.

Delegates say they cannot return to their villages without evidence that democracy will mean equal rights.

Some Pashtuns have stoked the acrimony, rejecting such aspirations out of hand.

But observers suggest that the rebellion is also being fueled and exploited by influential religious conservatives to pursue their own agendas.

A key article in the draft has already been amended to state that no future legislation can run counter to the "provisions" of Islam -- seen by some as code for Islamic Shariah law.

Mujaddedi, a Karzai loyalist, on Thursday denounced as a "dirty person" the author of a petition suggesting the Islamic tag should disappear from the country's official name.

And demands for a constitutional court and a slew of vice-presidents to represent minorities have been consistently loud.

Rabbani has even suggested the system sought by Karzai could eventually lead to dictatorship and spark a new round of conflict.

"They want some kind of platform and voice that in their minds gives them a great deal of power," one Western diplomat said Thursday on condition of anonymity, acknowledging that the pressure is growing for a compromise.

"The longer this goes on the harder it gets to solve."


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