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Afghanistan: Assembly Continues Talks On Constitution In Kabul

Prague, 15 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, is continuing debate today over a new constitution that will pave the way for democratic elections in June.

The Loya Jirga opened yesterday in Kabul, bringing together more than 500 delegates from around the country.

Participants are expected to discuss several contentious issues, such as the power of the president and the balance of power between the central government and the provinces. It will also consider the role of women, human rights, and Islam.

Today, delegates were asked to choose two vice presidents to the body following yesterday's vote for a Loya Jirga president. Sixteen people applied for the position, including four women. Speaking to the assembly, female delegate Nadra Ayad Borhani said, "I have a suggestion to make. Because there are 100 female delegates as opposed to 400 male delegates, considering the current status of women in our country and the undeniable crucial situations that they are encountered with, we request a woman be chosen as deputy of Loya Jirga, and a woman as secretary."

The results are expected later today.

Yesterday, a large majority elected Sebghatullah Mojaddedi to preside over the Loya Jirga. He is regarded as pro-Western.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai yesterday called on delegates to come together to approve a draft constitution put before the Loya Jirga. It sets out plans for a presidential system, foresees no post of prime minister in a centralized governmen,t and allows the president to appoint top officials in the provinces.

Karzai said the country needs to have a strong central government. "In the current circumstances Afghanistan needs a government that has only one [central] power source," Karzai said.

Fazl Rahmaan Samkanai, a Loya Jirga representative from the eastern Paktika province, says he too favors a presidential system.

"I support the presidential system and I want Pashto [language] to be the national language of Afghanistan. I also want education, free of charge," Samkanai said.

Nadir Khan Katawaazai is another representative from the Paktika province: "In my opinion, it should be a republic [with a strong presidency]. A parliamentary system requires a prime minister, which would have positive results. But there are always civil obstacles in the world, thus it would create a dispute between the president and the prime minister. And that would destroy the country."

Other delegates say the draft concentrates too much power in the hands of the president. Abdul Hafiz Mansour, an elected delegate for Kabul province, said during speeches on 14 December that the proposed constitution is for the continuation of the current government rather than for the country's future.

The powerful Northern Alliance, a coalition dominated by ethnic Tajiks which helped the U.S. drive the Taliban from power in late 2001 and is represented in the current government, favors a prime ministerial system rather than a powerful presidential role.

Analysts say alliance leaders are worried they could be marginalized by Karzai, a Pashtun from the south. Pashtuns make up the country's largest ethnic group.

The debate on the constitution is expected to last for weeks, although Karzai has said it must not take more than 10 days.

(Sultan Sarwar from RFE/RL Afghan Service and RFE/RL's Azam Gorgin contributed to this report).