Amid tight security, Karzai sworn in


KABUL, Afghanistan - Hamid Karzai was sworn in yesterday as Afghanistan's first popularly elected president, three years after U.S.-backed resistance fighters swept the Taliban government from power.

Karzai, who easily won election Oct. 9 to a five-year term after serving as head of a transitional government, took the oath of office in a nationally televised ceremony on the presidential grounds in front of an audience of hundreds of Afghan ministers, tribal elders, political and military leaders and 150 foreign dignitaries, including Vice President Dick Cheney.

With American snipers perched on rooftops and Apache helicopter gunships patrolling overhead against a threatened Taliban attack, Karzai promised in his 15-minute address to select an efficient, reform-minded Cabinet that will not be constrained by powerful factional and ethnic interests, as have his Cabinets in the past.

"We have now left a hard and dark past behind us, and today we are opening a new chapter in our history, in a spirit of friendship with the international community," said Karzai. His speech was alternately delivered in Pashto and Dari, the country's two major languages.

Cheney led a delegation from Washington that included Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and one of President Bush's most trusted advisers, Karen Hughes. Cheney is the most senior administration official to visit Afghanistan since the Taliban government was toppled in December 2001.

Wearing a black lambskin hat and traditional striped silk coat over his shoulders, Karzai took his oath in front of the aging former king, Zaher Shah. Karzai then swore in his two vice presidents, Ahmed Zia Massoud and Mohammed Karim Khalili, who represent the two largest ethnic minorities, the Tajiks and the Shia Hazaras, after Karzai's own ethnic group, the Pashtuns.

Karzai vowed to strengthen security and stability across the country, combat narcotics production and smuggling, and collect weapons and disarm militias, all key campaign pledges. He spoke of bringing the rule of law and prosperity to the country, protecting the civil liberties and human rights of the people, fighting corruption, building national unity and strengthening international relations.

Though much reduced, the threat of terrorism still remains, Karzai warned, and he appealed for continued international assistance to help Afghanistan in its fight against extremists.

"Our struggle against terrorism is not over," he said. "On the road to fighting worldwide terrorism, we feel the need of serious cooperation from the region and from other countries in the world."

Earlier in the day, Cheney and Rumsfeld met separately with some of the 17,000 U.S. forces stationed in Afghanistan.

Rumsfeld warned a group of special operations forces of a long struggle ahead: "There are still groups of extremists who would like to take this country back. It's not going to happen."

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