Karzai promises to seek security, development after inauguration as new Afghan prime minister

Saturday, December 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Afghanistan's new prime minister was sworn in Saturday before an audience of commanders in combat fatigues, dignitaries in turbans and women in headscarves _ not burqas _ and promised to seek security and development for his war-wrecked nation.

As British peacekeepers patrolled outside, Hamid Karzai told the packed, steamy Interior Ministry hall that history would judge how his interim government meets the daunting challenge of rebuilding a nation left nearly without infrastructure, economically ruined after 23 years of war and deeply divided by ethnic and tribal loyalties.

``If we deliver to the Afghan people what we promise, it will be a great day, and if we don't, then we will go in to oblivion,'' Karzai told a news conference in the capital following his inauguration.

He said development and security would be his priorities, but he has to work fast. His 30-member administration will be in place for six months until a tribal council picks a two-year government to lead the way to a permanent constitution

The inauguration ceremony emphasized unity. A smiling former President Burhanuddin Rabbani _ the leader of the northern alliance and once seen as a contender for power _ embraced Karzai to the audience's applause and signed a document formally handing over authority.

Some 2,000 people were crammed into the hall _ commanders, tribal leaders and dignitaries in robes or Western suits. Some were returning from years in exile, others traveled to Kabul from far-flung parts of Afghanistan. The few women at the ceremony _ including two women sworn in as ministers _ wore headscarfs but not the all-enveloping burqa required by the Taliban.

Among the foreign diplomats and guests was Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S.-led military campaign that along with Afghan fighters brought down the hard-line Taliban regime that ruled the country for five years as well as uprooted Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.

``We should put our hands together to be brothers and friends. Forget the painful past,'' said Karzai, wearing a traditional lambskin hat and a green-and-purple Uzbek robe. He spoke in his native Pashtu and in Dari, Afghanistan's most popular languages.

The challenges he faces are immediate. Relief workers have warned of widespread hunger during the harsh winter, and 5 million Afghan refugees remain in neighboring countries. The country's finances are in shambles.

Karzai's inauguration was welcomed by European and other governments Saturday, with many pledging aid for reconstruction. The United Nations estimates billions of dollars will be needed.

At the same time, the U.S. military will be leading its hunt for the remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaida _ as well as for bin Laden. Karzai has promised to help find the groups' fleeing leaders.

The president of neighboring Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said Saturday he's ``reasonably sure'' that bin Laden has not escaped to his country, and that there's a ``great possibility'' the al-Qaida leader is dead.

Also Karzai must start trying to bring central control over a country where bands of men roam the capital with guns and commanders in the provinces have their own private armies and hold the loyalty of many residents.

Armed British Royal Marines patrolled outside the Interior Ministry during the inauguration. Some 3,000-5,000 foreign peacekeepers are due to deploy and protect the new administration _ with force if necessary, according to their U.N. mandate.

Karzai told reporters the peacekeepers were a symbol of the international community's commitment to Afghanistan. He said they would not patrol the streets of Kabul and their presence would be temporary until a national army and police force can be established.

But ethnic divisions may complicate the process of creating nationwide security bodies.

A leader in Pashtun community _ the country's largest ethnic group _ insisted Pashtun tribal forces cannot be disarmed by members of the northern alliance, which is made up of ethnic minorities and holds the key defense, interior and foreign ministries.

``Everything works through shuras (local councils), and taking guns away from Pashtuns in the south can only be done by Pashtuns,'' Mohammed Khaqzar, a former Taliban intelligence chief who abandoned the religious movement, said in an interview.

Karzai, a 43-year-old Pashtun, was picked for his post in large part in hopes he'll be able to bridge such divides.

After guests filed past smartly-dressed Afghan soldiers into the minister, the inauguration ceremony began with a reading of from the Quran, then the audience stood to sing the national anthem. Karzai signed the oath of office and then swore in his ministers.

The solemnity was interspersed with signs of the long familiarity of men who have been battlefield allies and rivals.

Warlord Ismail Khan _ who has made it plain he doesn't think he's getting his due in the new government _ made his entrance an hour late, just before Karzai was to take the oath. Karzai interrupted his speech to hail Khan from the podium, calling out, ``My brother!''

A large portrait of Ahmed Shah Massood, a revered guerrilla leader slain by a suicide bomber on Sept. 9, was draped behind the podium, and speaker after speaker referred to him reverently. An empty chair was placed on the stage in his memory.

Representatives from every province jostled to get through a metal detector into the ceremony. Loudspeakers broadcast the proceedings to an overflow crowd milling outside.

``I am very happy for the women of Afghanistan today. Our lives have just begun,'' said Najia Sohail Zara, a schoolteacher who fled her country in 1996.

``We all pray that this day will mark the end of the long dark night of conflict and strife,'' special U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told the audience.

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that until now, the Taliban had been the face of Afghanistan. ``Today we want to clean this face,'' he said. ``Islamic countries will support you.''

Rabbani thanked the international community for its support against the Taliban, saying his country is ``thirsty for peace.''

The ethnic Tajik leader had been president from 1992 until he was ousted by the Taliban in 1996. During his rule, factional fighting ravaged Kabul and killed some 50,000 people. Since his ouster, he was the titular leader of the alliance of factions that battled the Taliban from a tiny enclave in the northeast.

Rabbani, who never gave up his claim to the presidency, heads the alliance faction that now holds Kabul. During negotiations last month in Germany over a new government, he tried to resist some of the proposals, raising worries among some Western diplomats that he was reluctant to hand over power.

Karzai said Afghanistan must come to terms with its past and when asked about a possible war crimes commission, said it was ``not a bad idea.''