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Afghan President Expects National Elections to Take Place as Scheduled

Despite warnings that Afghanistan's national elections may be delayed, the country's president says the vote stands a good chancing of taking place in June 2004, as scheduled.

The 2001 agreement that established the current Afghan transitional government also set next June as the deadline for national elections. But given the unsettled state of the country two-years later, many observers have been predicting a delay of as much as a year.

Some say security problems, including an ongoing armed insurgency in the country's east, make it unlikely the deadline will be met.

A visiting delegation of ambassadors from the U.N. Security Council recently said August or September would probably be the earliest elections could take place.

But Afghan President Hamid Karzai says the country might be able to meet the election deadline after all.

He noted that delays were also predicted for the election of delegates to the constitutional assembly scheduled to start Sunday, but that vote was staged on time.

"We did not delay this [constitutional assembly] election, and it went on very, very well, with very good participation," he said. "We will work very hard to have the [national] elections on time."

The constitutional assembly, the loya jirga, meets to decide on what form the new Afghan government will take.

Debate on certain key issues, such as whether to have a presidential or parliamentary system, are likely to cause heated debate. But President Karzai says he sees a lot of common ground among the delegates.

The president surprised many observers Friday by naming General Abdul-Rashid Dostum, a northern commander accused of factional fighting with rival generals, as one of the delegates to the loya jirga.

General Dostum, who some reports have described as a semi-autonomous warlord, was originally elected as a loya jirga delegate to represent his fellow ethnic Uzbeks. But he was later disqualified under a rule banning military commanders from the delegate elections.

On Friday, President Karzai got around the ban by including General Dostum in the 50 delegates he is allowed to appoint to the 500-member assembly.