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Afghan President Backtracks on Law Legalizing Rape in Marriage

Responding to criticism from around the world, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Saturday that a new law that critics say makes it legal for men to rape their wives will be studied and possibly sent back to parliament for review.

Karzai said he ordered the Justice Ministry to review the law, and if anything in it contravenes the country's constitution or Shariah law, "measures will be taken."

The law, signed by Karzai last month, is intended to regulate family life inside Afghanistan's Shiite community, which makes up 10 percent to 20 percent of the country's 30 million people.

But the United Nations Development Fund for Women has said the law "legalizes the rape of a wife by her husband."

The United States has urged Karzai to review the law, and Karzai said he has spoken with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about it. Canadian officials have also criticized the legislation.

One of the law's most controversial articles legislates the frequency of sexual relations between Shiite husbands and wives. Article 132 says the husband has a right to sex every fourth night unless the wife is ill.

Karzai did not mention Article 132 during a news conference Saturday. But he said he had studied the law earlier in the day and that "I don't see any problems with it."

He complained that Western media outlets had mistranslated it. He read an article of the law during the news conference that appears to restrict Shiite women's right to leave their homes, though Karzai underscored a provision that allows women to leave in emergencies.

Still, he said the law should be reviewed in consultation with scholars and religious leaders.

"I ordered the justice minister to review the law, and if there is anything that would contravene the country's constitution or Shariah law or the freedom our constitution gives to Afghan women, without any doubt there will be changes in it, and again it will be sent to the parliament of Afghanistan," he said. "Measures will be taken."

The issue of women's rights is a source of tension between the country's conservative establishment and more liberal members of society. The Taliban government that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 banned women from appearing in public without a body-covering burqa and a male escort from her family.

Now, millions of girls attend school and many women own businesses. Of 351 parliamentarians, 89 are women.

But in the staunchly conservative country, critics fear those gains could easily be reversed. Fawzia Kufi, a lawmaker who opposed the legislation, said this week that the law undermines all advances for Afghan women in the last seven years.

In the latest Afghan violence, a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan on Saturday killed a service member from the NATO-led force. No other details, including the service member's nationality, were released.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, said that coalition and Afghan forces killed 20 militants during a series of operations in the Kajaki region of Helmand province on Friday.

A U.S. statement said the forces were patrolling in a "known Taliban stronghold" when they were ambushed with gunfire and mortars. The combined forces responded with gunfire and airstrikes, killing 20 insurgents, it said.

Friday's fighting was the latest in a string of battles in Kajaki, a region controlled by militants that produces much of Afghanistan's illegal opium poppies, the main ingredient of heroin.

The U.S. said fighting around Kajaki on Wednesday killed 20 militants, and fighting there on Tuesday killed 31 militants.

U.S. commanders have said they expect violence in Afghanistan to spike this year as 21,000 new U.S. forces arrive in the country to battle an increasingly bloody Taliban insurgency. The U.S. already has a record 38,000 troops in the country. President Barack Obama has promised to increase the U.S. focus on Afghanistan as he draws down troops from Iraq.