KABUL, Afghanistan – Swept into a more permanent office by an overwhelming margin, Hamid Karzai welcomed his selection as Afghanistan's president in the same way that he has led its fragile interim administration — by promising ethnic healing and national reconstruction to a populace hungry for peace.
Karzai's selection Thursday night — somewhere between an appointment and an election at the hands of a 1,650-member traditional grand council — marked the midpoint of a U.N.-brokered process to build a new life for a country wracked by 23 years of war and ethnic conflict.
But the secret ballot also meant a beginning — of a government many hope will be more representative than the Karzai-led interim administration installed by the agreement of a handful of Afghans in Germany last December. Karzai faces the unenviable task of broadening that government without losing support.
"He needs to listen to the cries of the nation," said Juma Gul, a delegate from Helmand province, an ethnic Pashtun stronghold in southern Afghanistan.
The grand council, or loya jirga, is based on an Afghan tradition whose purpose is to bring far-flung community leaders together for important decisions in times of need. And while this loya jirga faced complaints of intimidation, harassment and the shunting aside of certain groups, many agree the process that led to Karzai's election has been better than anything Afghans have had in years.
"I think everyone is happier," said Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan. "It's not going to provide food or houses, but it's a start."
On Friday, the grand council begins the more arduous task of cobbling together the rest of the government, and the political waters are dangerous.
Many Afghans say they are unhappy with the domination in the current cabinet of former northern alliance members from the Panjshir Valley, who until this week controlled the three key ministries of defense, interior and foreign affairs.
Interior Minister Younus Qanooni offered his resignation at the loya jirga's opening session Tuesday, but the cabinet makeup — both ethnic and political — is considered one of the most tender issues involved in fashioning a new government.
Karzai, 44, chairman of the current interim government, won 1,295 votes from delegates to the loya jirga. Masooda Jalal, a female employee of the World Food program, won 171 votes and Mir Mohammed Mahfoz Nadai took 89. The United Nations said 1,575 votes were cast and 20 declared invalid.
"You trusted me," a beaming Karzai said after his victory was announced, removing his hat and bowing slightly to the crowd. "God will help us rebuild Afghanistan again."
The election of a new president — and the loya jirga itself — will be followed, under the U.N. plan, by a constitution and free elections at the end of Karzai's transitional administration.
Though Karzai is well-liked internationally, his appeal within Afghanistan is intertwined with people's deep hopes for their nation's reconstruction. Many delegates Thursday equated giving Karzai another chance with giving the country one as well.
"This nation has grown enormously pragmatic. They know exactly what dangers they are facing," said Qayyum Karzai, the leader's brother. "They know exactly what can go wrong. They know what occurred between the years of 1990 and the fall of the Taliban. They would like to avoid this by any means."
President Bush's special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, hailed the election of Karzai, whom the United States had promoted since the final weeks of the air war against the Taliban last year.
"It's a great day for Afghanistan — electing a government rather than a government though coups, military intervention or violence," Khalilzad said. Some delegates have criticized the United States for exerting pressure on the process to ensure Karzai's election.
Karzai, praised for his reconciliation efforts during six months in power, became a sure bet to win after his two major opponents — former king Mohammad Zaher Shah and one-time President Burhanuddin Rabbani — withdrew from the race.
"There was never any thought that the king wanted a political role. He is above politics," said Hamid Nasir Zia, an aide to the former monarch.
Karzai made a call for national reconciliation, even with some members of the deposed Taliban, who he said were "hijacked by the foreign people" — Arabs from Al Qaeda who came to dominate the regime. He also promised a brighter future if the country's 27 million people can put aside ethnic differences.
In the gallery, even among people wary of exploitation, the enthusiasm ran over.
"Twenty-three years of disaster, and the future of the nation has been formed as we watch," said Anisa Yaqeem, a female delegate from Kabul. "It was a consensus. We saw everything with our own eyes."