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Afghan constitution becomes law

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, shows the decree former king Zahir Shah.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, right, shows the decree former king Zahir Shah.

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KABUL, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- President Hamid Karzai has signed Afghanistan's new constitution into law, a document that gives him sweeping powers but exposed divisions when it was debated in a national assembly that concluded this month.

The constitution is intended to pave the way for war-torn Afghanistan's first free elections in June which the U.S.-backed Karzai is seen as favorite to win.

"I declare and enact the new constitution which was unanimously adopted," Karzai said in a statement following a signing ceremony on Monday before his Cabinet and foreign diplomats.

The ceremony took place against a backdrop of security worries that have held up registration of voters for the polls and raised doubts about whether they can be held on time.

The constitution envisages a strong presidency and enshrines equal rights for women. It describes Islam as the country's sacred religion but guarantees protection for other faiths.

Its religious stipulations were put to the test almost immediately when reformists in the government and conservatives in the Supreme Court clashed after the former lifted a ban on women singing on television.

Both sides argued that their position was backed by the new constitution, with reformers citing equal rights for women and the conservatives a clause stating that no laws should be counter to Islam.

A statement from U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called the enactment of the constitution a "turning point for the Afghan nation."

"We are witness to a major milestone in putting behind the era of the rule of the gun in Afghanistan," it said.

Khalilzad said the United States would stand by Afghanistan as it put the constitution into practice and prepared for the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The United Nations has warned that an increase in violance in the provinces that has claimed more than 500 lives since August could jeopardise the holding of the polls and has called on the international community to provide more peacekeepers.

It has pointed to the dangers posed both by Taliban guerrillas active in the south as well as by ostensibly pro-government commanders in the north more interested in consolidating their fiefdoms than Karzai's government.

The north-south divide was exposed in the constitutional debate with disagreements between the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns from the south and the mainly Tajik northerners who dominate many ministries in Kabul.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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