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Sep 22, 11:13 AM EDT

New Afghan leader promises equal rights for women


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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan's new president-elect pledged in his victory speech on Monday to give women prominent roles in his government and told his nation that women are important to the country's future.

The remarks by President-elect Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai came a day after the landmark power-sharing deal signed by Afghanistan's two presidential candidates. The agreement resolved a drawn-out dispute that threatened to plunge Afghanistan into political turmoil while complicating the withdrawal of U.S. and foreign troops.

Ghani Ahmadzai also said his former opponent - Abdullah Abdullah, who will fill the newly created role of government chief executive - has turned from competitor to colleague and that the two are committed to improving Afghanistan.

The country's election commission on Sunday announced Ghani Ahmadzai as the winner of a two-man runoff, ending an election process that began with a first round of voting in April. The announcement came only hours after Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah signed a political deal to form a national unity government.

The deal allowed the international community - including the U.S. and NATO - to breathe a sigh of relief, as the settlement greatly decreases the chances of ethnic vote violence. Ghani Ahmadzai has also pledged to sign a security agreement that would allow about 10,000 U.S. military trainers and advisers to remain in the country next year after all U.S. and NATO combat troops withdraw.

The speech Monday took on the air of a campaign celebration, with a large crowd of supporters in attendance. Ghani Ahmadzai clasped the hands of female supporters and he and others raised their hands over their heads, a notable moment in a country where women are often socially segregated.

The 65-year-old Ghani Ahmadzai said he wants Afghan women represented at the highest levels of government, including on the Supreme Court, where no female justices have ever served. He continued the theme during the nationally televised speech.

"In the face of these girls I can see future Afghan leaders," he said as he told his "sisters" in attendance that they have equal rights in society and government.

Mary Akrami, the head of the Afghan Women's Skills Development Centre, said she welcomed such sentiments but hoped they would be followed by action. She noted that Afghan women suffer heavily from family violence.

The incoming president is viewed as worldly and well-educated. A former finance minister, he has worked at the World Bank and earned a PhD from New York's Colombia University.

Perhaps to increase his religious bona fides in a devoutly Muslim country, Ghani Ahmadzai peppered his speech with references to Islam and said God is first and Afghanistan second.

In a message that appeared to be aimed at power brokers outside of Kabul, Ghani Ahmadzai said the national unity government's aim is to "end all parallel structures." He also promised a public report card every six months on the implementation of the constitution.

To the annoyance of many Afghans, the election commission did not officially release vote totals of the June runoff - ballots that underwent a long audit for fraud - when it announced Ghani Ahmadzai as the winner. Leaked results showed Ghani Ahmadzai had about 55 percent and Abdullah roughly 45 percent of the vote.

One of Abdullah's final demands in talks with Ghani Ahmadzai was that the election commission refrain from releasing the vote count because of the fraud he alleges took place.

Under the four-page power sharing contract, the president leads the Cabinet but the chief executive manages the Cabinet's implementation of government policies. The chief executive will also chair regular meetings of a council of ministers, essentially the same Cabinet group but designed to manage implementation.

The 13-year war against the Taliban has largely been turned over to Afghan security forces, a development that has seen casualties among Afghan soldiers rise significantly this year.

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Associated Press writers Rahim Faeiz and Amir Shah contributed to this report.

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