As discussions continued on Sunday on the country's new draft constitution, delegates look increasingly likely to back a controversial system of wide-ranging presidential powers.

The strong presidential system laid down in the draft has been
one of the most divisive issues at the Loya Jirga, or grand assembly.

Several of the 502 delegates, including some powerful former anti-Soviet mujahidin, have said they would prefer a prime minister or at least a parliament with real teeth to counter-balance sweeping presidential powers. 

"According to the information we have, the majority of the delegates have agreed on a presidential system or have said they would support a presidential system," said Safia Siddiqi, one of the four deputy chairpersons to the Loya Jirga.

"Majority of the delegates have agreed on a presidential system or have said they would support a presidential system"

Safia Siddiqi,
Deputy chairperson to Loya Jirga

"We will know whether the future government will be presidential or parliamentary after the committees finish their work and they vote in an open session for a specific type of government," she told reporters Saturday.

"We have to wait and see the majority's decision."

Critics have warned that if too much power is in the hands of the president, it risks widening the country's deep ethnic and factional divides. 

On Saturday Karzai repeated that he would stand in next year's presidential polls only if the Loya Jirga approves the presidential system. 

Karzai hails progress

With Afghanistan slowly emerging from decades of conflict,
delegates appeared to have backed Karzai's view that a strong presidential system was needed as the country lacked mature political parties for a successful parliamentary democracy.

Karzai also hailed the progress the loya jirga had made since its opening last Sunday on debating the 160-article document which will pave the way for the country's transition to democracy in elections scheduled for June 2004. 

"It's not slow progress; it's very good progress," he told reporters. "The work of the Loya Jirga is going very well," he
said. 

Karzai would stand in polls only if
presidential system is approved

Delegates, who include 100 women, have been divided into 10 groups to discuss the 160-article draft before coming together for open sessions, which are held in a huge white tent, set up in the heavily guarded Kabul polytechnic campus. 

"The 10 committees continue to work on the constitution," said Muhammad Azam Dadfar, first deputy chairman of the Loya Jirga. 

"Things are going normally and according to the schedule. They have worked on around 70 articles and the discussion is still going on," he said. 

Flexible deadline

Karzai said the constitution could be ratified by the end of December, but was not worried if the Loya Jirga dragged on. 

"Let the Loya Jirga take as much time as it needs to," said Karzai, who had earlier expressed the hope it could be over in seven to 10 days. 

Women delegates are also calling for Western-style equal rights to be enshrined in the constitution. 

The United States has also raised concerns about the extent to which religious freedom is protected by the draft. 

Streets around the Loya Jirga site have been sealed off while foreign peacekeepers, newly trained Afghan soldiers, police and secret service agents provided tight security amid threats from resurgent Taliban fighters.