Afghanistan unveils draft constitution

Post-Taliban Afghanistan will be an Islamic republic run by a directly elected Muslim president and a two-house parliament, according to a draft constitution published on Monday.

The document, released after months of delays and political haggling, lays out a charter for an ethnically diverse state in which different religions and languages are accepted, but which is governed by Islamic principles.

The 160-article document makes no mention of sharia, or Koranic law, but says no law shall be in contradiction with Islamic law. It enshrines the right to freedom of speech and free education for men and women, and the right to run for office and participate in elections.

Speculation has swirled in recent months about the contents of the jealously guarded constitutional draft, which will be aired publicly among Afghans for a month and then debated and ratified by a loya jirga, or grand council, in December.

The fraught drafting process was viewed by western diplomats and aid representatives as a key test of Mr Karzai's ability to build consensus and overcome pressure from religious conservatives and political factions. The constitutional committee, Afghan officials and western advisers have burned the midnight oil in recent weeks as they wrangled over sensitive issues such as the structure of power, the role of the former King, Zahir Shah, and the degree to which Islamic law would dominate.

"People have been working day and night," said Farooq Wardak, head of the constitutional commission's secretariat. "We needed to reach a consensus with the cabinet and the president - that took time."

The question of power structure - whether the president would share office with a prime minister and the degree of sway he or she would hold over the parliament - was one of the principal issues holding up publication in recent days, according to Afghan officials familiar with discussions.

Some western diplomats argued against the creation of a prime minister, which they said could threaten the power of the president. Many Afghan and western observers expect the western-backed Mr Karzai to retain the presidency at elections next year.

"It would have been like having one leader with two heads," said Shukria Barakzai, one of the 35 commission members.

The decision not to have a prime minister will disappoint members of the Northern Alliance, a dominant faction in President Hamid Karzai's coalition government which had hoped to secure that position, they said.

Under the constitution, the president will be elected via secret ballot for a five-year term and run on the same ticket as the vice-presidential nominee. Members of the lower house, or Wolesi Jirga, will be elected directly and must include a female member from each of the 32 provinces.

The upper house, or Meshrano Jirga, will be made up of elected candidates drawn from provincial and district councils and members selected by the president from "among experts and experienced personalities" of whom half must be women.

The draft published on Monday does not offer any formal role to Zahir Shah, the octogenarian former king, but extends his ceremonial title as "father of the nation" until his death. It does not indicate this title would be passed on to his heirs.