Reported U.S. Strike Disconcerts Karzai

Times Staff Writer

The deaths of six villagers in what Afghan officials said was a U.S. airstrike embarrassed President Hamid Karzai's government Monday as it tried to rally support for a draft constitution that is key to reuniting this war-ravaged country.

The attack Friday night destroyed two houses in the village of Warez in the eastern province of Nuristan, killing four children, a woman and a young man, Deputy Governor Abdul Haleem Nooristani said in a telephone interview.

Word of the attack reached Kabul, the capital, on Monday, as Karzai accepted the draft of a new constitution that, if approved by a traditional grand council next month, would concentrate significant powers in the presidency. An aide to Karzai confirmed that the airstrike had taken place.

It occurred in a hostile region bordering Pakistan, where winning hearts and minds is seen as crucial to extending Kabul's control into the unruly heartland of the Pushtuns, Afghanistan's major ethnic group. The village of Warez is situated about 25 miles northwest of Asadabad, which sits near the Afghan-Pakistani border.

The attack also came amid an investigation by Karzai's government into allegations that Afghan militia fighters paid to guide U.S. troops had robbed, assaulted and tortured civilians during a sweep last month in Zabol province, hundreds of miles to the southwest.

U.S. and Afghan forces searching for suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in eastern Afghanistan are turning people against Karzai, a fellow Pushtun, said Nooristani, who was appointed by the Afghan president.

"As the deputy of the province, I can assure you that there are no guns in this whole village and no Al Qaeda, no Taliban," Nooristani said. "The people in this area are very upset about this, and they are fed up with the central government."

The bombed houses belong to central government supporters Maulvi Ismail Khan and Maulvi Ghulam Rabani, the former governor of Kunar province, Nooristani said.

Rabani's 16-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter were among the dead, added Nooristani, who said American troops had ignored warnings to check with provincial authorities before launching attacks, to avoid being misled by Afghan guides who use U.S. forces to settle local scores.

"When the Americans came here we told them, 'Whatever you do, please get in touch with the governor,' " Nooristani said. "But they haven't, and this is what they're doing alone, by themselves. As far as I am aware, the central government hasn't taken any kind of action about this."

Jawed Ludin, Karzai's spokesman, said the central government was investigating the bombing.

"It hasn't happened with the cooperation of the government, and we are in contact with the international coalition forces to find more explanations for it," he said.

Col. Rodney Davis, spokesman for the U.S. command at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, did not respond to an interview request Monday.

Marine Capt. David Romley, a Pentagon spokesman, said he had no information on the incident and could not confirm that it had happened.

"We're at war, and we take extraordinary measures to avoid any civilian deaths, wherever we are," Romley said. "Nonetheless, there are unintended consequences that are inevitable in conflict."

With elections set for June, Karzai desperately needs support among the Pushtuns. He is taking cautious steps toward talks with moderate Taliban leaders while building up an Afghan National Army to battle resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.

The draft constitution, which Karzai and Zahir Shah, the once-exiled Afghan king, received from an independent commission Monday, is a central part of the effort to unite a country torn apart by 24 years of war. But if the Taliban insurgency, warlordism and instability continue to rack large parts of Afghanistan, it will be difficult to hold free and fair elections -- and to make the new constitution anything more than grand words on paper.

Although many Afghans have demanded that Afghanistan be ruled by Islamic Sharia law, the draft constitution simply notes that, "The religion of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam." It adds that no law can be contrary to Islam, but guarantees followers of other religions the freedom "to perform their religious ceremonies within the limits of the provisions of law."

Under the proposed constitution, Afghanistan would be ruled by a president and National Assembly, with an upper and lower house, and an independent judiciary similar to the U.S. system of government. The president would be elected for a five-year term, could serve a maximum two terms in office, and could be removed by a two-thirds majority of both the lower house and a traditional grand council, or loya jirga.

"I think the commission could easily have gone for a parliamentary system, with a symbolic president and a powerful prime minister," said Ludin, Karzai's spokesman. However, he added: "for a parliamentary system, you need a strong tradition of democracy, and you need strong political parties for that to work. The most important thing that a country like Afghanistan needs is stability."

The president also would be commander-in-chief of the armed forces and have the power to appoint cabinet ministers and the attorney general with the approval of the National Assembly's lower house. And the president would have the power to call a referendum on important issues and declare a state of emergency with the approval of the National Assembly.

The lower house would be directly elected; the upper house would be partially appointed by the president and would include some women.

The draft also guarantees freedom of expression for all Afghans, as well as the right to unarmed protest and the right to form political parties as long as they do not violate the principles of Islam, or "military or paramilitary aims or structures." Political parties may not be based solely on ethnicity, language, region or religion.

Free education up to secondary school, for boys and girls, would be a constitutional right, and the government would be obliged to promote education for women. Under the Taliban, girls were banned from school and women were prohibited from working in all but a few jobs.

The loya jirga is set to convene in Kabul in December to debate the draft constitution and vote on it.

Times staff writer John Hendren in Washington contributed to this report.

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