Afghans began a crucial meeting yesterday to approve a constitution designed to take their war-battered country to its first free elections next year. Five hundred delegates attended the opening session of the Loya Jirga, or traditional grand assembly, to thrash out details of the country's new political blueprint amid concern that various political, ethnic and religious factions would seek to dominate debate. 'I know there's pressure on you from various sides, but resist it and do what's good for the prosperity of the Afghan people,' former monarch Zahir Shah said in his opening address at the heavily guarded Kabul Polytechnic. 'People have put a lot of trust in you.' Despite demands that delegates should be allowed to elect a chairman for the meeting, it was announced even before the inauguration that Pir Syed Ahmed Gilani, a religious and political figure close to President Hamid Karzai, would preside over the day's proceedings. The move was considered a victory for Mr Karzai, who earlier said he would retire from politics if the Loya Jirga rejected a presidential form of government for a parliamentary system that risks a stalemate between the president and an equally-powerful prime minister. The dispute over the power structure to be adopted appears far from resolved. Islamic parties remain unhappy because the proposed constitution does not declare that Afghanistan would be governed by Islamic Sharia law. Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special representative to Afghanistan, earlier warned that the assembly would be 'unlikely to produce a stable, legitimate political order' unless debate was focused strictly on representative and balanced government.