- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s constitutional convention came off the rails yesterday, as panicked officials adjourned the gathering in the face of a boycott by opponents of President Hamid Karzai.

The delay was the most severe setback yet to this war-ravaged nation’s attempt to put its vision of a secure future on paper, and raises concern that the gathering will end in failure.

Critics blamed the government for its insistence on a strong presidency, and its unwillingness to hear minority demands on such emotional issues as language rights. Others point to the machinations of warlords and faction leaders seeking a new niche if Mr. Karzai wins the powers he is seeking.

“There are several fundamentalists at work here,” said Mirwais Yasini, the loya jirga’s deputy chairman. “The jihadi groups all want a share of the power.”

The 502 delegates have spent three weeks wrangling over a draft constitution presented in November by Mr. Karzai’s U.S.-backed government.

Frustrated by the lack of agreement, council Chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi called a vote early yesterday on the first of a slew of disputed amendments.

More than half of the delegates cast ballots on issues such as how far to liberalize the economy and how many parliamentary seats to reserve for women and members of the country’s impoverished nomadic tribe, the Kuchis.

But some 200 members, mostly from the Tajik- and Uzbek-dominated north of the country, in a surprisingly resolute rebellion, stayed in their seats and refused to leave the huge tent where the gathering was taking place.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord, and Karim Khalili, a Karzai deputy and ethnic Hazara faction leader, were shouted down when they appealed to the delegates to take part.

Mahsa Toyie, a Tajik delegate from the western city of Herat, accused Mr. Karzai’s government of trying to push through a charter that ignores the claims of small minorities.

“This constitution is not for one tribe, it is for the whole country,” she said.

On the surface, the council is badly scarred by a dangerous ethnic rift.

Mr. Karzai appears to have rallied a clear majority behind his core demand for a presidential system that he says would provide strong leadership for a country wracked by internal conflict.

But his support comes mainly from his Pashtun kinsmen, alarming smaller groups from the north that helped the United States oust the mainly Pashtun Taliban two years ago.

The president says a simple majority is all that is needed to pass the constitution, but most observers recognize that a constitution that doesn’t win wide-ranging support will hamstring the country as it seeks to put two decades of devastating conflict behind it.

Delegates say they cannot return to their villages without evidence that democracy will mean equal rights.

Some observers suggest that the rebellion, in addition to its ethnic roots, also is fueled and exploited by influential religious conservatives pursuing their own agendas.

Rights groups worry that Mr. Karzai may give too much away to veteran faction leaders such as Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik who was president during Afghanistan’s ruinous 1992-96 civil war, and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a deeply conservative Islamist.

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