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Afghanistan: Karzai, Interim Government Receive Blessing Of Zahir Shah

During his two-day visit to Rome, Afghanistan's prime minister-designate Hamid Karzai received the blessing of exiled former Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah to form a transitional government, as well as pledges of financial assistance from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Karzai made it clear during his meetings that one of his top priorities once in office will be to "fight terrorism to the end."

Prague, 19 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, says the defeat of terrorism, plus economic and political stability, represent the "absolute priority" for the new Afghanistan.

"Terrorism has made our people suffer unbelievably difficult times. They [terrorists] have killed us," Karzai said. "They have destroyed our orchards. They have destroyed our vineyards. They tried to destroy Afghanistan. They tried to destroy the essence of Afghans. I am very determined to get rid of them. Not only in Afghanistan, but in the rest of the world, too."

Karzai made the remarks in Rome after talks last night with the exiled former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who gave Karzai his blessing, as well as his personal Koran. The meeting was of great symbolic importance for the incoming Afghan leader. The former king -- also an ethnic Pashtun -- has become an important figure in the effort to reunite Afghanistan after more than 20 years of war.

Karzai's interim administration is due to take power in Afghanistan on 22 December and rule for six months before handing power over to a two-year transitional government. Karzai called the king's blessing a "tremendous gesture."

"This is an extremely, extremely, extremely kind, fatherly gesture, and as I shall kiss the holy Koran as a sign of respect and kiss his majesty's hand as our king and father," Karzai said.

Zahir Shah -- who said he gave Karzai "lots of advice" during their meeting -- is due to return to Kabul next year to form a Loya Jirga, or grand council, to map out the country's future to national elections as part of a UN-sponsored peace plan hammered out near Bonn and signed on 5 December.

Amin Farhang, the leader of the king's delegation to the Bonn talks and interim minister for reconstruction, told RFE/RL today that Zahir Shah is likely to return to Kabul by early spring: "As far as I know, his majesty has decisively stated in his message on the occasion of Ramadan that he is returning to Afghanistan to be at the side of Afghan people and at their service. As far as I know, he will go before the month of April, [at the] beginning of spring or [at the] end of the winter to be with his compatriots."

Farhang expressed optimism that Karzai's new government will enjoy a smooth transition to power. He says Afghans are tired of war and chaos: "I think that Afghan people as a whole -- whether inside the country or living as refugees -- are happy with the agreements. Because, after long years, Afghans now feel for the first time that they have a country, a national identity, [that they] are Afghans and are respected in the world. Whereas in the past, it was not so."

Karzai, who was expected to return to Kabul later today, said he feels the enormous weight of his responsibility, but that the possibility of success is great because of the backing of the international community. He gave thanks both for the infrastructure aid promised by many countries and for the presence of the international security force that will soon be deployed in the country.

But Karzai cautioned the international community today not to walk away from the country before it is reconstructed: "I think the international community cannot afford to leave Afghanistan alone the way it did. The international community saw the consequences of neglecting Afghanistan. It should be wise enough not to do that again."

Karzai said an international security force of 3,000 to 5,000 troops likely will be deployed in Afghanistan until a national army and police force are ready to take over. The first contingent of the security force is expected to be in place by the time the interim government takes over on 22 December. The security force still requires a mandate from the UN Security Council and could be approved as early as tomorrow.

Karzai also promised to hand over Arab guerrillas who are caught in Afghanistan to face international justice. He also said he will apply tough Islamic law to common criminals in Afghanistan.