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Afghanistan: Karzai In Rome For Talks With Former King

  • Alexandra Poolos

Hamid Karzai, the prime minister of Afghanistan's incoming interim government, has arrived in Rome for a meeting with exiled former Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah. Karzai and the ex-king -- both ethnic Pashtuns -- are expected to discuss issues surrounding the six-month interim administration that Karzai is due to lead beginning on 22 December.

Prague, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- All eyes are on Afghanistan's new leader, Hamid Karzai, who takes office in four days as the country's interim prime minister.

Members of the international community, as well as Afghan citizens themselves, are waiting to see if the 46-year-old Pashtun military leader will be able to unite disparate Afghan factions under his new interim government and build a foundation for peace and stability, both absent from the country for some 23 years.

The main purpose of Karzai's two-day visit to Rome is to meet Zahir Shah, who has lived in exile in the Italian capital since 1973. Talks between the two Afghan leaders are likely to focus on how they can work together to ensure the interim government enjoys a smooth transition to power in Kabul.

Karzai is due to meet the former king tonight in an exclusive residential compound on the capital's northern outskirts.

As he left for Rome last night, Karzai expressed optimism about the talks: "I'm on my way to Rome to meet with his majesty, the former king, and also to have an opportunity to talk to the Italian government. I'm grateful to the British government [for providing me with] the opportunity to travel from Kabul on a Royal Air Force plane. That's been a very nice gesture. And, so far, things are going very well, and let's hope for the best."

Zahir Shah is seen as a key player in trying to unite Afghanistan, at least symbolically. He is expected to return to his homeland next year, possibly in March, to lead a national assembly of tribal leaders, or Loya Jirga. The assembly will rule the country for two years while a constitution is drafted and a judicial system and police force are put into place.

At a recent Afghan art and cultural event in Rome, the former king's son, Mir Wais Zahir, said his father foresees difficulties in installing the new government in Kabul: "He [the king] thinks the war is not completely over. There is something that disturbs us, that still there are people around who can create problems. We think that we have to go and resolve everything completely, [for] this war [to be] finished forever. We don't want to have other wars, other fratricidal wars between Afghanistan, between Afghan brothers. That's what we want."

Many of the groups that form the opposition Northern Alliance, which ousted the Taliban from power, were once bitter foes. Memories are still fresh of the ethnic conflicts of the early 1990s, when street battles between ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras, ethnic Uzbeks and Pashtuns reduced much of Kabul to rubble.

In brief comments to reporters in Rome today, Karzai said rival anti-Taliban Afghan factions will have to unite under the new government: "We have a Ministry of Defense, and all forces in Afghanistan must eventually be under the Ministry of Defense."

A planned international security force will be a boon for Karzai and his ministers as they work to establish the authority of the new government and overcome any challenges to power from rival Afghan leaders.

At the Rome airport, Karzai told reporters that the deployment of such a force will "probably" begin before he and his fellow ministers set up shop in Kabul on 22 December: "Probably. I can't give you a date, but I believe they will."

An Afghan Defense Ministry official, Dr. Gulbuddin, confirmed Karzai's statement, saying today that government officials have agreed in principle to an international security force of about 5,000 troops in the country.

A formal agreement on the deployment is expected to be announced later today. Gulbuddin said details that still need to be resolved include the powers the troops would have under a United Nations mandate and where the troops would be based. Britain is expected to lead the force and contribute up to 1,500 troops.