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'Loya Jirga' Starts Debating Afghanistan's Draft Constitution - 2003-12-15

After several delays, Afghanistan's constitutional assembly is underway, with the country's leaders calling for consensus in adopting a new system of government for the war-ravaged nation. V-O-A's Michael Kitchen reports from Kabul, the gathering has chosen a former Afghan president to the post of chairman.

With the playing of patriotic music, Afghanistan's widely respected former king, Zahir Shah, opened the country's grand council, the "loya jirga," charged with ratifying a new national constitution.

In his address, the popular ex-monarch urged the loya jirga's delegates to come to a swift agreement in the interest of the country.

The assembly was expected to elect a chairperson and then break into committees to review and debate a proposed draft constitution prepared earlier this year by the current transitional government.

Loya jirga delegates spent much of the first afternoon arguing over procedural issues, before selecting former Afghan president Sabghatullah Mujadidi as their chairman.

Mr. Mujadidi is closely associated with current transitional President Hamid Karzai, who served as an official in Mr. Mujadidi's administration.

With the last-minute addition of two delegates representing the disabled, there are now 502 loya jirga members, and debate among them is expected to be heated.

Among the controversial issues is whether to adopt a government headed by a powerful president, as called for in the draft proposal.

Some delegates oppose this idea, saying a parliamentary system would better allow each of Afghanistan's political and ethnic groups to have a voice in the country's affairs.

President Karzai, in his speech to the loya jirga, argued against parliamentary rule.

He warned that an Afghan parliament would likely become bogged down in political quarrels and could even push the nation back to civil war.

Mr. Karzai has said he would run for re-election if a presidential system is adopted.

In what he described as his longest speech to date, Mr. Karzai also catalogued the country's various achievements during his administration, ranging from the currency stabilization to the opening of numerous hospitals and schools.

But he added that Afghanistan also faces serious problems in the form of terrorist attacks, rising opium production, and official corruption.