There was a podium, but Afghanistan's prime minister ignored it. He chose a chair instead, and pulled it close to an audience of children huddled in rags.

"Do you eat meat?" Hamid Karzai asked Sunday.

"No!" the shivering orphans cried. "We only eat rice with sauce."

"What clothes do you have?" called out the new leader of this ravaged country, the first interim government official to visit the now-famous Alawuddin orphanage.

From around the room came shouted replies:

"One sweater."

"One outfit."

"I am cold."

To this sea of upturned faces -- many of which could use a little soap -- Karzai promised: "I will make you clothes, I will give you good food. I will heat your rooms."

For more than 800 orphans at the orphanage, whose dire need has tugged at hearts around the world, fulfilling those promises may save young lives.

Even a grown-up as busy as the new prime minister knows that.

Later, out of range of small ears, he vowed to work "like hell" to make good his word.

The orphanage -- a drab complex in a war-ruined district of Kabul -- houses toddlers and teen-agers alike. It was largely forgotten under Taliban rule, and since the rigid Islamic fundamentalists fled on Nov. 13, no one had visited from the new government.

The orphanage's population swelled under war. The children's parents include the dead, the dying, the missing and those simply too poor to care for them.

Photographs captured in November by The Associated Press, and a story describing the children's plight, prompted offers of help from around the world. In December, New York City firefighters brought food and powdered milk, dispensing it with large hands that patted small heads.

As they did for the Fire Department of New York, the orphans staged a small pageant Sunday, greeting their prime minister with "Welcome" and "God is great" and readings from the Quran.

Moving among the children, Karzai bent to stroke a girl's cheek and hoisted a small boy into his arms.

There is no heat in these cement rooms, where temperatures drop to freezing at night. The children wear two and three layers of tattered clothing, trying to stay warm. Some have no shoes.

Karzai was asked to describe how he felt upon seeing them.

"I have no words," said the man whose job requires finding the right words. "It's the story of Afghanistan."

He did not know the orphans would go to such trouble, Karzai said. "I just thought I would come visit quietly and see ... what I can do for them."

He also was asked why he avoided the podium placed for him on a makeshift stage.

"You can't stand up and give speeches to children," the prime minister replied.