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Karzai Says Will Change Shi'a Law If Unconstitutional

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) meets with his Polish counterpart Lech Kaczynski in Kabul.
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai has promised to make changes to a new law for Shi'ite Muslims if any part is found to violate the constitution, after provisions on women's rights caused an international uproar.

Karzai said he had met the justice minister and the country's most senior religious leaders to discuss the law, which has already been passed by parliament and signed by Karzai but has not yet come into effect.

The law is meant to legalize minority Shi'ite family law, which is different than that for the majority Sunni population.

But it has provoked an outcry among Afghanistan's Western allies concerned about its potential impact on women's rights in the former Taliban state. U.S. President Barack Obama has called the law "abhorrent."

Karzai last week said Western concerns about the new law were "inappropriate" and may have been based on "misinterpretations," but has ordered his government to check it does not violate the constitution or Islamic law.

"We have already initiated procedures to correct, if there is anything of concern, that [it] should be changed," Karzai told a news conference alongside his Polish counterpart Lech Kaczynski, who was visiting the Afghan capital.

"If there is any article in the law that is not in keeping with the Afghan should be corrected in consultation with our clergy, in accordance to the constitution and our Islamic Shari'a," Karzai added.

Shi'ite Muslims account for some 15 percent of the population of mainly Sunni Muslim Afghanistan and the wide-ranging Shi'ite Personal Status Law aims to enshrine differences between the two sects.

But the United Nations, NATO, and several Western nations have voiced their concern over the law, saying it needed to be reviewed, after some articles were seen to greatly infringe on women's rights and even legalize marital rape.

Women's rights have improved significantly in Afghanistan since the 2001 overthrow of the strict Sunni Islamist Taliban government. It prohibited women from working, attending school, or leaving their homes without a male relative.

But Afghanistan remains a deeply conservative Muslim society, particularly in remote rural areas, something the Kabul government has to balance alongside demands from its Western backers for a pluralistic, democratic political system.

Some Shi'ite women officials have said they approve of the law in principle because it enshrines important differences between the Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim sects in Afghanistan, but that in its present form it was unacceptable.

Some lawmakers have also said Karzai signed the law hastily because he is facing a crucial election on August 20 and wants to curry favor with Shi'ite voters, who can swing an election.