Karzai pledges to bring peace

KABUL, DEC. 22. The soft-spoken aristocrat, Mr. Hamid Karzai was today sworn in as leader of Afghanistan in the first peaceful handover of power in 28 years before tribal elders, U.N. delegates, diplomats and a top U.S. General gathered to witness an end to war.

``I would like to promise you that I will fulfil my mission to bring peace to Afghanistan, that we cannot see again the chains of fighting and shooting in our country,'' Mr. Karzai said in a speech in both Pashto and Dari - the two main languages of Afghanistan - minutes before he was sworn in. In the hall in the Interior Ministry in the heart of Kabul, 2,000 tribal leaders, incoming Cabinet members and diplomats gathered for the ceremony to inaugurate Mr. Karzai as head of a government tasked to bring peace to a land riven by war for decades.

``This is indeed a momentous day for Afghanistan, but the challenges ahead are also momentous and everyone present today will have a share in facing up to those challenges,'' the United Nations Special Representative, Mr. Lakhdar Brahimi said. The ceremony to swear in the 30-member interim administration that took over from the outgoing President, Mr. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a professor of Islamic Sharia law, and which will stay in power for six months began with a prayer by an Islamic cleric.

The national anthem played as curtains parted at the back of the stage to reveal a huge portrait of Ahmad Shah Masood, legendary leader of the Northern Alliance that defeated the Taliban and assassinated in a suicide bombing two days before the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Mr. Brahimi, who brokered the talks in Bonn this month at which Afghan groups agreed on the administration, spoke first and reminded his audience that ``each and every'' Afghan had been touched by tragedy in decades of civil war and foreign invasion. He reminded the incoming administration of ``the people of Afghanistan whose prayers can almost be heard echoing through the valleys and mountains of this ancient land''.

Armed British troops patrolled the Afghan capital for the first time to boost security. ``It's a great day,'' said Mr. James Dobbins, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan. He arrived with Gen. Tommy Franks, the man in command of the U.S. war in Afghanistan that wrested power from the Taliban after six years of fundamentalist rule when men were banned from trimming their beards and women could only walk the streets veiled in the all- enveloping burqa.

``I will safeguard the achievements of Jihad (holy war),'' Mr. Karzai said in his oath of office, administered by the Acting Chief Justice. ``I will try my best to rise above the ethnic, religious and linguistic prejudices to serve my country and work for national unity,'' Mr. Karzai said, speaking in Dari. To applause, he pledged to respect the role of women.

Among the women at the ceremony, none was wearing a burqa. They were wearing silk scarves over their hair, and many were wearing makeup - just weeks after the disappearance of the fundamentalist Taliban who banned them from appearing in public. A red carpet was laid out on the tarmac of the compound and an honour guard and a small military brass band were lined up beside it, giving a drum roll as Mr. Rabbani arrived.

``In my view the problems and hardships of our people are coming to an end. We are now tied with modern civilisation. We are now together with the international community,'' Mr. Rabbani said.

Security was tight in a capital that has been ravaged by war since the Soviet invasion on Christmas day 1979. Soldiers of the Northern Alliance that swept into Kabul on November 13 in the wake of the retreating Taliban, arrested three suspected armed fighters of the fundamentalist militia in the interior ministry compound.

- AP