KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghans on both sides of an ugly ethnic divide at the country's constitutional convention said they narrowed their differences during crisis talks with American and UN officials yesterday.
The progress during a one-day break at the loya jirga could avert a complete collapse of the gathering, seen as a historic opportunity to help this war-ravaged nation toward the promise of peace and stability.
At the 502-member grand council, President Hamid Karzai's fellow ethnic Pashtuns have swung behind his call for a strong presidency he says is vital to hold the country together as it rebuilds and faces a stubborn Taliban insurgency.
Smaller groups, however, including Tajiks and Uzbeks from the north, have dug in against a charter they say would bring back the Pashtun hegemony that lessened with the defeat of the Taliban two years ago.
Exasperated council leaders were forced to abandon voting on the charter in a tumultuous session Thursday, after more than one-third of the delegates boycotted the ballot and staged a sit-in in the huge tent where the three-week-old meeting is taking place.
But after private talks yesterday with UN Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and council leaders, rebel delegates said there was new hope the constitution could be ratified soon.
Mohiuddin Mahdi, a Tajik delegate from Kabul, said the US ambassador called his group for talks -- possibly to discuss a deal for Afghan officials who have returned from exile to hold on to their US passports, at least temporarily.
Mahdi said most of the holdouts' demands had been met, including recognition of Uzbek as an official language alongside Pashto and Dari -- a request dismissed by many Pashtuns and that has poisoned the debate.
"Our proposals are national proposals, not for one tribe, one province, or one ethnic group," Mahdi said.
"After today, there is no danger of failure."
Khalilzad has been an energetic presence at the jirga, cajoling delegates on the margins and meeting privately with key players to press forward a state-building exercise that could provide lessons for Iraq.
But aides were keen to dispel any impression Khalilzad is steering developments, as Karzai -- who enjoys strong backing from Washington -- apparently is securing the dominant presidency he sought.
A US Embassy spokeswoman confirmed Khalilzad's involvement in yesterday's shuttle diplomacy, but declined to give any details.
Still, Kayum Karzai, one of the president's brothers who is also a jirga delegate, said an agreement was now within reach.
"Yesterday evening and today, there have been some very good developments," Karzai said. "Hopefully, we can go to the jirga tomorrow and present a united front."