Sat, Dec 20, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Afghan constitution talks start off at a snail's pace

AP , KABUL

Debate on Afghanistan's first post-Taliban constitution went on Friday, through the Muslim day of rest, as delegates tried to shake off controversy over the prominence of warlords at the historic convention.

The meeting in a huge tent at a Kabul college campus is supposed to decide critical issues such as how to share power in a country riven by ethnic divides inflamed by more than two decades of war.

But the slow-paced proceedings have been overshadowed by a row over a female delegate's outburst against powerful faction leaders who hold key posts at the grand council, or Loya Jirga.

"Some of us have come from far away and don't want to waste our time," said Fazel-ul Rahman Samkanai, a delegate from the southeastern province of Paktia. "We want to make up for the days we have already lost."

The UN granted protection to Malalai Joya, a delegate from western Farah province, amid concern for her safety after she on Wednesday denounced as "criminals" faction leaders such as former president Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a deeply conservative Islamist.

Both men command respect for their role in the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. But they were also participants in the ruinous civil war that followed.

Samkanai, speaking to the Associated Press by telephone during a break in the closed-door discussions, said Joya was continuing to attend, but that she was spending the night under UN protection.

"When she comes of the tent, two UN security guards escort her," Samkanai said.

The 500 delegates from across the country have broken up into 10 committees for article-by-article discussions on the draft constitution, presented last month by the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Detailed talks only got under way Thursday, the fifth day of the gathering, and the council's deputy chairwoman, Safai Sediqi, said Friday that all of the committees were lagging.

Some of the most sensitive issues -- the powers of the president, the role of Islam and the rights of women -- were among the first to be discussed.

Rights groups worry that references in the draft to citizens' rights could be overridden if Islamic conservatives control the legislature or the supreme court.

"There is no article that talks specifically about women," Nadera Hayat Burhani, a delegate from northern Balkh province, said Thursday, pleading also for an explicit ban on trafficking in women.

The council is taking place under tight security amid fresh evidence that suspected Taliban rebels and their al-Qaeda allies might try to attack the session.

Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said Thursday that police deactivated a bomb outside a Chinese restaurant in Kabul popular with foreigners. Three rockets slammed into Kabul early Tuesday, but none landed near the site of the council or caused major damage.

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