KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan has seen power transferred only in coups and bloody war since 1973 but a peaceful power transition finally took place Saturday as Hamid Karzai was sworn in as prime minister of the interim government.
The 44-year-old Pashtun tribal leader signed the oath of office before Chief Justice Mohammed Qasim.
Foreign diplomats who made the hazardous journey to Kabul packed into the cavernous hall and applauded wildly as Karzai embraced outgoing President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
"I promise you that I will fulfill my mission to bring peace to Afghanistan," Karzai said in native Pashtu and Dari, Afghanistan's primary languages.
"Our country, as a result of the long war, has been distracted. We need hard work from all Afghans," he said, wearing a traditional lambskin hat and an Uzbek robe."We should put our hands together to be brothers and friends. Forget the painful past."
When he finished he smiled and gave a slight bow to the audience of about 2,000, which then exploded in applause.
Following his speech Karzai swore in the 29 members of his cabinet — including two women — standing behind him on the dais.
Even though Karzai has heartily disagreed with Rabbani in the past, he was respectful, telling him and the audience: "I must say Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar," or God is great.
The ceremony ended with Rabbani signing the transfer of power agreement, a touching moment for this war-torn country.
The interim administration will govern for six months until a tribal council convenes to plan a two-year administration that will take Afghanistan toward a permanent constitution.
As speakers at the ceremony called for peace, U.S. forces continued to hunt on-the-run Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Airplanes destroyed a convoy on Friday that the Pentagon claimed carried top leaders of the two groups. But an Afghan official said the caravan was full of guests coming to the inauguration.
Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. commander of coalition forces that drove out the Taliban regime, was among the invited guests. He pledged to continue searching for fugitive fighters of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Franks did not directly answer questions about contradictory reports concerning the convoy bombing. "We will have to take a hard long look at it," he said.
The newly inaugurated 30-member government faces a staggering challenge: rebuilding a nation unprepared for a long, hungry winter and with coffers emptied by the fleeing Taliban regime.
As a Pashtun, Karzai represents Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group. His appointment as prime minister is viewed as a balance to the Northern Alliance's grip on several important ministries.
Karzai also is a man with Western sensitivities and speaks English, making Americans comfortable with him. He worked closely with the U.S. military in overtaking Kandahar, a southern Afghanistan city that was the Taliban's stronghold.
When outgoing president Rabbani arrived at the solemn proceedings, a drum roll sounded as he strode a red carpet, passing an honor guard of Afghan soldiers.
Cleric Barkat Ullah opened the ceremony with haunting recitations of the Quran. The audience then stood and sang the national anthem.
Speaker after speaker paid tribute to Ahmed Shah Masood, the legendary guerrilla leader who first fought the occupying Soviets in the 1980s, and then the repressive Taliban before being assassinated by a suicide bomber on Sept. 9. Behind the podium was a large portrait of the revered fighter.
Rabbani called him "the great hero of this Islamic jihad," or holy war, then thanked the international community for its support against the Taliban, saying his country is "thirsty for peace."
"This is a historic moment that has not been witnessed in the last century," he said.
The vast differences in this country, where warlords control large territories, were illustrated by the audience's disparate styles of dress. Some wore traditional deep blue turbans. Others were in military garb, and some wore topcoats and Western suits.
And though women are emerging from severe discrimination, the few who were allowed into Saturday's ceremony were segregated from the men.
Special U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi welcomed some dignitaries by name, struggling to speak in Farsi before giving up and switching to English.
"Looking around us, it is all too clear that Afghanistan has been physically and emotionally devastated," he said. "We all pray that this day will mark the end of the long dark night of conflict and strife."
Describing the suffering of the Afghan people, he said, "Up to 5 million of them are still living outside of their country as refugees, mainly in Pakistan and Iran."
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said until now, the Taliban had been the face of Afghanistan.
"Today we want to clean this face," he said. "Islamic countries will support you, and Iran as your great neighbor will help you,"
Security was tight. Armed British Royal Marines in camouflage uniforms — a vanguard of international forces mandated to protect the new government — patrolled outside the whitewashed Interior Ministry where the inauguration was held.
Uniformed Afghan police roamed the city and peered from rooftops. Entire neighborhoods near the ministry were cordoned off.
Representatives from every province jostled to get through a metal detector and into the hall. Many ticketholders pushed and shoved, trying to get in after being told the hall was packed to capacity.
The interim government signals new life for Afghan women, who were systematically repressed by the Taliban's five-year rule.
"I am very happy for the women of Afghanistan today. Our lives have just begun," said Najia Sohail Zara, a schoolteacher who fled her country in 1996.
Karzai, who carries the blessings of exiled King Mohammad Zaher Shah, must also try to unite a country where loyalties are given to warlords, many of whom have private armies.
The first British peacekeepers entered Kabul on Friday under U.N. orders to provide security.
Some Afghan leaders have challenged the role of international peacekeepers, saying they will not be allowed to use military force or to interfere in Afghan affairs.
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council authorized the peacekeeping force to use "all necessary measures" to ensure the government and themselves are allowed to operate in a "secure environment."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.