Men and women from across the country lined up on Thursday to vote inside an immense tent at a Kabul college campus on proposed amendments to the 160-article draft document, including one giving women more seats in parliament.
The draft outlines a strong presidential system with a limited role for parliament. It would also make Islam the official religion, but without Islamic sharia law.
Interim leader Hamid Karzai has endorsed the draft, as have his supporters in the US, who want to see him run for president in elections scheduled for next June.
Karzai has argued a strong presidency is needed to rebuild
the country after two decades of civil strife. But his opponents at the constitutional Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, have criticised the process, saying it threatens to create an autocratic political system that sidelines minority groups such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras.
Karzai is from the largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and
the constitution could return the group to its traditional
position at the centre of Afghan power at the expense of
"This Loya Jirga is not a step towards stability," said delegate Wali Masud, brother of legendary Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Masud, assassinated by al-Qaida over two years ago.
Opposition to Karzai at the assembly has been led by former President Burhan al-Din Rabanni, Uzbek strongman Abd al-Rashid Dostum and Islamic conservative Abd al-Rab Rasul Sayyaf.
President Hamid Karzai hopes for
a swift adoption of constitution
All are linked to the Northern Alliance, a faction of mainly Tajiks that helped the United States topple the hardline Islamic Taliban regime in late 2001. None of the three leaders was seen voting on Thursday.
Delegates voted on amendments governing the powers of the presidency, whether minority languages would be given national status and if seats in parliament should be reserved for women and nomads.
Results of the vote were not made public as expected by the end of the day on Thursday, and no explanation was given. Delegates said talks between rival groups would be held on Friday with the full assembly reconvening on Saturday.
The Loya Jirga had been scheduled to last for 10 days, but behind-the-scenes wrangling and protests during sessions inside the giant white tent have dragged the assembly into its 18th day.
"This Loya Jirga is not a step towards stability."
Wali Masud, delegate
A sizeable boycott would damage Karzai's credibility within his country, although Western observers believe he has enough support to win the simple majority needed to pass the document.
Karzai and the US hoped for a swift adoption of
a constitution little changed from the draft, but the assembly
has underlined tensions in Afghan society over issues, ranging
from the role of Islam to the rights of ethnic minorities and