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Afghan Assembly Approves New Constitution - 2004-01-04

After weeks of argument, Afghanistan has approved a new constitution, hammering out deals on some of the difficult issues, while postponing others until a new government is elected. But some observers say the agreement comes at a very high price.

Afghanistan formally adopted its new constitution, following a last-minute deal among members of the constitutional assembly, the "loya jirga."

Delegates spent two-weeks longer than originally planned debating key issues for Afghanistan's new system of government.

Key points included the powers of the country's future president and which of Afghanistan's many languages should have official status.

A few issues are being put off for decision by the next government, including the heavily debated question of high officials holding foreign passports.

In a speech to loya jirga delegates following the signing of the constitution, Afghan transitional President Hamid Karzai said the document represents a new unity for the country, plagued by over two decades of civil war.

In the spirit of national harmony, Mr. Karzai also announced plans for an amnesty for some of the prisoners of war, who fought for the former hard-line Taleban regime, overthrown by an Afghan-U.S. coalition in 2001.

But some observers say the unanimity over the constitution came through bribing delegates with money or promises of official appointments.

Vikram Parekh is senior Afghan analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy institute.

"In exchange for supporting the constitution, they are extracting pledges or commitments, for example when the next Cabinet is chosen," he said.

But others, such as United Nations Special Representative to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi, defend the new constitution as a chance to move beyond the nation's troubled past.

"Will it be criticized? I fear it will be," said Mr. Brahimi. "But I nevertheless think that the people of Afghanistan are very happy tonight, and see in this constitution a new source of hope."

Approval of the constitution marks a major step toward holding the country's first free elections in more than two decades, slated to take place later this year.