Hamid Karzai was sworn in yesterday as Afghanistan's first popularly elected president, as the impoverished country tries to leave its brutal past behind and bolster a young democracy that still faces the twin threats of terrorism and drugs.
A smiling Karzai, wearing a traditional green robe and a black lambskin hat, received a standing ovation on his arrival for the solemn ceremony. US Vice President Dick Cheney, the highest-ranking US official to visit Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, was among the 600 guests, including 150 foreign dignitaries.
After the Afghan national anthem reverberated around a restored hall of the war-damaged former royal palace, Karzai repeated the oath of allegiance read to him by Afghanistan's white-bearded chief justice, Fazl Hadi Shinwari.
Karzai then swore in his two vice presidents, Ahmad Zia Massood and Karim Khalili, members of the country's two largest ethnic minorities.
In his inauguration speech, Karzai said the hopes of ordinary Afghans would drive him during what is likely to be a tough five-year term. He reiterated his main pledges -- cracking down on the booming opium trade, disarming militias and lifting living standards.
"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," Karzai said, speaking in Pashtun and Dari, Afghanistan's two main languages.
He said the fight against terrorism was "not yet over" and urged sustained foreign aid and cooperation to defeat increasing links between extremists and drug-trafficking.
"The same cooperation has led to the rebuilding of the Afghan state and significant progress in restoring peace, stability and security to our country."
Wary of attacks by Taliban or al-Qaeda militants on the proceedings, Afghan and international forces launched their biggest security operation since the Oct. 9 election that gave Karzai a landslide victory.
But overnight attacks near the Pakistani frontier that left 12 dead provided a reminder of threats to Afghan stability.
Dozens of insurgents armed with assault rifles and rockets attacked an Afghan military base in Khost province, sparking a firefight that left four Afghan soldiers and at least six militants dead, an Afghan commander said.
Also in Khost, insurgents opened fire on a US patrol, which returned fire and killed two of the assailants, US spokesman Major Mark McCann said. No Americans were reported hurt.
Efforts by militants to launch a rocket toward Kabul on Monday evening, however, were less successful, a NATO spokesman said. The rocket landed harmlessly on a cattle farm outside the city limits.