Afghan Jirga Debates Constitution

Farooq Wardak, left, an official of the Afghan Loya Jirga, or grand council, shows ballot paper to delegates as Chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi looks on during the second day of the meeting Monday, Dec. 15, 2003 in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghan elders gathered in Kabul to draft the country's constitution.
Delegates reassembled Monday at a landmark convention to debate Afghanistan's first post-Taliban constitution after an early victory for its U.S.-backed leader increased the chances they will put their fractious, war-scarred country under a strong presidency.

The 500 Afghans — including 100 women — attending the loya jirga, or grand council, are finalizing a new charter seen as a vital step in the U.N.-sponsored drive to stabilize the country two years after the fall of the hardline Taliban regime.

Hundreds of soldiers are guarding the event, which got under way Sunday in a huge tent on a city college campus amid warnings from the U.S. military that militants might try to attack it.

Early Tuesday, at least two loud explosions echoed across Kabul, and a spokesman for international peacekeepers said they were investigating.

The blasts occurred amid extremely tight security. There had been threats that Taliban insurgents might target the council.

The exact location of the blasts, which rang out at about 12:50 a.m. local time was unclear.

"I can confirm explosions, but I can't say anything about the locations," said Lt. Col. Joerg Langer, a spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeeping force. He said the force was investigating.

Afghan police vehicles were trying to find the site of the explosions.

International peacekeepers helping provide security said Monday that a missile was fired toward its downtown headquarters on Saturday, landing well short and causing no injuries. But there have been no security scares since the meeting began.

The council must decide vital issues such as just how Islamic Afghanistan should be and the role of its women. But it risks being overshadowed by a struggle over how to share power in a nation used to fighting for it.

President Hamid Karzai's power barely extends beyond the capital because of the power of warlords in the provinces. He pressed Sunday for a strong presidential system that officials hope will be able to stand up to the resurgent Taliban and make the country safe enough for aid workers and foreign investors.

On Monday, the president congratulated President Bush on the arrest in Iraq of Saddam Hussein, and said it would go a long way toward helping Afghanistan defeat its own insurgency, where a triumvirate of opposition figures — al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Omar and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are all at large.

Saddam's capture "will definitely have a psychological impact on the whole network of terrorists and terrorism," Karzai told CNN. "It will prove to them that they cannot hide and yet kill people; that they will be found and their terrorism stopped."

"Osama and Mullah Omar will also be found," he said.

The 160-article draft constitution put before the loya jirga foresees no post of prime minister in a highly centralized government and would allow the president to appoint top officials in the provinces, too. Karzai this week said he would not stand in elections slated for June next year if a strong prime minister's post is created.

On Sunday, a leader of the 1980s resistance against the Soviet occupation viewed as a close Karzai ally was elected chairman of the council. Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, an Islamic moderate and former president, secured 252 votes.

Karzai supporters said Mujaddedi's appointment was a good omen.

"He is a real scholar and a longtime holy warrior. He's the right man for the job," Rohul Amin Basher, an ethnic Pashtun, said Monday. "Of course it will also help Karzai."

Still, Mujaddedi's selection came only after a bruising debate that saw opponents line up to challenge Karzai's right to appoint 50 of the delegates and accuse him of imposing unfair procedures for the gathering.

On Monday, delegates were preparing to elect Mujaddedi's two deputies. Children read out poems to keep them entertained during the long pauses in proceedings extended by delegates' appeals from the floor.

"For no longer can the gun rule this country," said Dawlat Mohammed from northeastern Badakhshan province. "We have passed through very hard times. Now we need a push for peace."

Karzai heads an interim government that includes several ministers from the Northern Alliance, an uneasy coalition dominated by ethnic Tajiks which helped the United States drive the Taliban from power in late 2001.

The alliance's commander in chief, Mohammed Fahim, is Karzai's deputy and the country's defense minister. But 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.

Human rights groups warn that the draft constitution is too weakly worded to guarantee the rights of women or limit the power of Islamic hardliners in the judiciary, and that Karzai may offer too much to religious fundamentalists in order to secure their support.

The United Nations has acknowledged that the election of delegates was marked by vote-buying and intimidation, raising suspicions that many of those at the loya jirga are warlord proxies.