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In this two-part series of papers, a generalized non-orthogonal amplify and forward (GNAF) protocol which generalizes several known cooperative diversity protocols is proposed. Transmission in the GNAF protocol comprises of two phases - the broadcast phase and the cooperation phase. In the broadcast phase, the source broadcasts its information to the relays as well as the destination. In the cooperation phase, the source and the relays together transmit a space-time code in a distributed fashion. The GNAF protocol relaxes the constraints imposed by the protocol of Jing and Hassibi on the code structure. In Part-I of this paper, a code design criteria is obtained and it is shown that the GNAF protocol is delay efficient and coding gain efficient as well. Moreover GNAF protocol enables the use of sphere decoders at the destination with a non-exponential Maximum likelihood (ML) decoding complexity. In Part-II, several low decoding complexity code constructions are studied and a lower bound on the Diversity-Multiplexing Gain tradeoff of the GNAF protocol is obtained.