KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghans approved a new constitution on Sunday, embracing a deal shaped in three weeks of rancorous debate as a chance to cement a fragile peace and push ahead with reconstruction two years after a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime.
The charter, ratified after a last-minute deal to recognize minority languages, creates a strong presidential system that the country's U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai says is critical to uniting a country torn by two decades of war.
But the haggling also irritated ethnic tensions that could cast a shadow over landmark presidential elections scheduled for June. Delegates said parliamentary elections would likely follow within six months after the presidential vote.
"This is the success of the whole Afghan nation," Karzai said of the constitution. "We should respect it, we should implement it."
Lays the foundation
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.
"This document lays the foundation for democratic institutions and provides a framework for national elections in 2004," Bush said in a statement. "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."
Delegates to the constitutional convention played down the rift as they gathered for the last time in the huge white tent that housed the grand council, or loya jirga.
In a speech wrapping up the session, Karzai pledged to learn Uzbek, the language at the group that almost scuttled the accord, and challenged rivals to campaign in his Pashtun heartland.
The new constitution is a "significant milestone" on the path to democracy, said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who worked with U.N. officials to help secure the agreement.
"With the world watching, you have adopted one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world," he said in a statement. "You have made history."
Karzai 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. The U.S. ambassador, however, insisted that the constitution still creates a strong presidency.
No final vote, no applause
To celebrate the agreement, children in traditional dress from around the country took to the stage to sing patriotic songs, waving Afghan and U.N. flags.
At the urging of the council chairman, delegates rose in unison and stood in silence for about 30 seconds to signal their approval of the draft.
But there was no final vote, and no applause.
Sidiq Chakari, a Tajik delegate and spokesman for former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a potential rival to Karzai, 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.
U.N. special representative Lakhdar Brahimi also paid tribute to the delegates, telling them they should be proud of their work, even if it draws criticism at home and abroad.
"I am certain that the people of Afghanistan are very happy tonight and see in this constitution a new source of hope," he said.
Brahimi also warned the assembled ministers and ethnic leaders, many of whom control private armies, to take action against abusive warlords create fear among civilians.
As part of the final agreement, delegates amended the charter to grant official status to northern minority languages where they are most commonly spoken.
Some Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, pressed until the end 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.
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 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.
"The president will be powerful, the decisions will be his," Karzai said, claiming that parliament would be there mainly "to help if he makes any mistakes."