Afghanistan inaugurated its first popularly elected parliament in more than three decades Monday, a major step toward democracy following the ouster of the hardline Taliban.

But there were concerns about whether the legislature will be a constructive political force as more than half of the new lawmakers are regional strongmen.

The national assembly began with a reading from the Koran, the national anthem and a folksong by schoolgirls dressed in brightly colored robes. President Hamid Karzai, while acknowledging the country's problems with poverty, corruption and terrorism, called the assembly a display of unity.

"This is an important step toward democracy," he said.

He closed his speech by tearfully saying that Afghanistan was "again standing on its feet, after decades of war and occupation"

Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, sat in the front row. Cheney signed a guest book afterward.

"It's a privilege to be present on this historic day for the people of Afghanistan," he wrote.

The 249-seat body is made up of a mix of tribal leaders, Westernized former refugees, warlords, women and ethnic minorities, in itself a victory for a nation recovering from a ruinous civil war.

Afghans voted for the lower house in September, and also elected provincial councils that then chose two-thirds of the 102-seat upper chamber. Karzai appointed the remaining 34.

With little or no experience at governing and many lacking basic education, the lawmakers will have to learn quick.

"Today was a very good day," said Kubra Mustafawi, one of the assembly's women. Nearly one third of the delegates are women. "After 30 years, the Afghan nation has gathered under the umbrella of peace."

Most of the government's power is still concentrated in the hands of the president, although parliament will be able to pass laws and veto his Cabinet selections.

The country has had no elected national assembly since 1973, when coups and a Soviet invasion plunged it into decades of chaos that left more than 1 million people dead. Civil war raged in the early 1990s, followed by the disastrous rule of the Taliban.

After Monday's largely ceremonial opening session closed in only two hours. Security and stability were expected to be major issues for the lawmakers in the weeks ahead.

The inauguration of the assembly formally concludes the political transition process agreed on by Afghan factions under U.N. auspices in December 2001, though Afghanistan is still a long way from stability.

Some 20,000 U.S. troops are deployed here, along with thousands of NATO peacekeepers. But violence is rife in the country's south and east, where remnants of the Taliban are waging an insurgency marked by near daily killings and bombings.

Expressing concern about the security, France said Sunday that it will send hundreds more troops to Afghanistan next year. France currently has about 600 peacekeepers in the country.

Just days before parliament was to open, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a car not far from the assembly building, slightly damaging a Norwegian peacekeeping vehicle.

The country's economy also continues to rely heavily on the trade in illicit drugs — a threat NATO's top operational commander, U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, has suggested is more serious than the Taliban insurgency.

Opium production has boomed since the fall of the Taliban and Afghanistan and is now source of most of the world's heroin.

The makeup of the assembly itself has also been an issue.

"The international community will try to portray the opening of parliament as a triumph," said Sam Zia-Zarifi, Asia research director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But many Afghans are worried about a parliament dominated by human rights abusers."

Among those in the parliament with bloody pasts are Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful militia leader accused of war crimes by Human Rights Watch, and Abdul Salaam Rocketi, a former Taliban commander who has since reconciled with the government.

Another winner was the former Taliban leader who oversaw the destruction of two massive 1,500-year-old Buddha statues during the fundamentalists' reign.

"People are concerned about the warlords, because they entered parliament by force, by guns, by money," said delegate Malali Joya.