- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan — A landmark constitutional convention began in Afghanistan yesterday with solemn prayers, the hopeful songs of children and a stirring speech by the nation’s former king, who echoed the aspirations of his war-weary countrymen with a call for unity and peace.

About 500 delegates — from village mullahs to Western-educated exiles — gathered in a huge tent to hammer out a new constitution in a traditional loya jirga, or grand council.

They are expected to spar over the role of Afghan women, Islam’s place in politics and the sharing of power in a nation accustomed to fighting over it.

“The people are relying on you and you should not forget them,” the 88-year-old former monarch, Mohammad Zaher Shah, told the assembly. “I hope you will try your best to maintain peace, stability and the unity of the Afghan people.”

The loya jirga is a key step in the two-year drive to stabilize the country under an empowered central government; it is supposed to lead to landmark national elections slated for June.

The king spoke after a reading from the Koran, Islam’s holy book, and after Afghan folk songs by a group of children wearing Nike shirts under richly embroidered traditional vests. Several delegates were moved to tears.

“This constitution will determine the political, social, and economic future of Afghanistan,” President Hamid Karzai said. “This constitution will guarantee the rights of all Afghan people … and put an end to anarchy.”

Security was tight on warnings from the U.S. military that Taliban militants might try to attack the convention. Afghan soldiers lined the roads leading to the meeting site, and every person entering the tent — including the delegates — was checked for weapons and explosives.

Many delegates wore fine silk robes, some with Western suit jackets slung over them. Yellow, burgundy and cream colored turbans jutted out from the crowd.

Female representatives arrived in all-enshrouding burkas, but took them off once inside.

For U.S. officials pushing the process, Afghans’ experience could provide lessons for Iraq, where American administrators have faced an even tougher task in drawing up a constitution.

American and Iraqi leaders have differed over how to even start drafting the document. A timetable calls for elections to choose delegates for drafting an Iraqi constitution in early 2005 — about two years after Saddam Hussein’s fall.

American officials hailed the start of the gathering.

“To the members of the loya jirga, I say you are making history,” said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in an open letter. “The people you represent are watching you with great anticipation. And the world is watching as well.”

It could take 10 days to several weeks for the loya jirga, meeting at a Kabul college campus, to finalize a 160-article draft drawn up by a constitutional commission.

Delegates are divided, with Mr. Karzai pressing for a strong chief executive and opponents pushing for a prime minister who would share power. Mr. Karzai this week said he would not stand in next year’s elections if a strong prime minister’s post is created.

Mr. Karzai scored an early victory yesterday evening when an Islamic moderate viewed as a close ally was elected chairman of the council. Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, an aristocratic former president, garnered 252 votes.

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