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Afghanistan Prepares to Reveal Draft Constitution - 2003-09-30

Afghanistan is preparing to unveil a draft of its new constitution, a document with a goal of, among other things, bridging the gap between the country's Islamic and secular groups.

The draft, which will be made public in the coming days, calls for a democratic government and guarantees the rights of Afghanistan's most vulnerable citizens.

Abdul-Salam Azimi, deputy chairman of the commission that drafted the proposed constitution, says it incorporates many of the suggestions made by the country's human rights commission.

"There is a very clear indication on human rights, and actually this is very rich about women, about [the] handicapped, about widows about children, about families," he explained.

Under the terms of the draft, the president is given a strong role as leader of the country, serving a term of five years. As now written, the constitution limits the president to two consecutive terms.

The draft also calls for the creation of two legislative houses, a lower house whose membership would be based on the population of each constituency. Also an upper house, or Senate, that would contain two representatives from each province. There would also be additional Senate seats appointed by the president.

Half of the appointed seats will be reserved for women, who were greatly discriminated against under the Taleban regime.

Mr. Azimi says the constitution would establish a government with equal rights for all ethnic groups.

"This is the problem now in Afghanistan," he said. "It is divided by ... political parties, by ethnic groups and others. But this is not the right way, this not according to the law. ... The positions in the government should be occupied [based on] knowledge."

The commission that drafted the constitution sought to produce a document that would satisfy all of Afghanistan's various factions and avoid a repeat of the bloody factional fighting of the past. But ethnic rivalries run deep in the country and they are reflected in the debate about the constitution.

Conservative Muslim scholars are pressing for the adoption of strict Sharia law, while other Afghans are seeking a more secular legal system. The constitution, in its present form, has no provision for Sharia law. Instead it calls on the country to follow Islamic principles.

Another point of contention is the issue of language. The commission proposes giving Dari, a Persian dialect common in the north and in many of Afghanistan's cities, equal status with Pashto, the language of Afghanistan's largest ethnic group that previously held the status of "national language."

The commission is expected to present the draft to President Hamid Karzai on Thursday, who will make the document public a few days later.

After a period of public debate, the constitution will be presented to the grand council, or Loya Jirga, who will vote on it in December. The council is then expected to formally adopt the constitution, paving the way for elections next year.