Afghan Constitution Debuts ; Monday's Draft Struggles to Bridge the Gap between Democracy and Islamic Law

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A panel of Afghans Monday presented their leaders with a draft of the country's new Constitution, offering the war-scarred nation a document that promises to draw on Islamic and democratic values to create a strong presidential system.

The long-delayed draft, presented with pomp and prayers beneath the falling leaves of a courtyard inside the presidential palace, will now be open to public discussion ahead of a 500-member constitutional loya jirga, or grand assembly, planned for next month.

But the proposed Constitution fell short of answering many of the questions Afghan and international observers have about the future direction of the nation. Some of the vagaries of the text underscore the ongoing tensions here between progressives, who would like the Constitution to lay the groundwork for Western-style democracy, and conservatives, who want to ensure Afghanistan is governed by principles outlined in sharia, or Islamic law.

The constitutional draft, which names Afghanistan as an Islamic Republic and bears the year on the Muslim calendar - 1382 - at the top, calls for the creation of a largely elected bicameral national assembly which is forbidden to pass any law "contrary to the sacred religion of Islam." But it did not call for a return to strict sharia, instead envisioning the "creation of a civil society ... based on the people's will and democracy."

As such, the 160-article text is viewed in some corners as the basis of compromise between traditional and modern values - and in others as a disappointment, especially for those who had hoped to see specific provisions on issues such as women's rights.

"This commission did everything it could to create a document which is in agreement with Islam and the national will of the people," said Naimatullah Shahrani, the chairman of the drafting commission and an Islamic scholar. Mr. Shahrani, who wears a wide, wound turban and a bristling white beard, presented copies of the proposed Constitution in regal red-leather binders to the country's president, Hamid Karzai, as well as to the country's father figure, King Zahir Shah, and the senior United Nations official here, Lakhdar Brahimi.

"This is not completed," Mr. Shahrani explained. "Maybe a lot of people will give their opinion on different issues, and then the commission will prepared a new draft before the loya jirga."

The release of the Constitution Monday cleared up some of the uncertainties over what sort of government would lead Afghanistan after nationwide elections, scheduled to take place next June. The proposed Constitution put to rest rumors that the commission would try to institute an office of prime minister, akin to the French system, in an attempt to balance power between Mr. Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, and leading members of the Northern Alliance, the primarily- Tajik military umbrella group.

Instead, the Constitution will allow for a powerful presidency, a concept that a Karzai spokesman defended in a press conference. "The most important thing a country like Afghanistan needs is stability," said Jawal Ludin, "and I think that's what the commissioners had in mind. …