KABUL, Afghanistan – Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who returned from three decades of exile to bless his war-battered country's fragile course toward democracy, died Monday, President Hamid Karzai said. He was 92.
Weak if well-meaning during his 40-year reign, Zahir Shah was a symbol of yearned-for peace and unity in a nation still struggling to emerge from the turmoil that began with his 1973 ouster in a palace coup.
When the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001 offered fresh hope for national reconciliation, many clamored for Zahir Shah's return — not only from exile but to retake the throne.
Zahir Shah returned home from Italy in April 2002, but stood aside in favor of a young anti-Taliban tribesman, the now-President Karzai. A new constitution passed in January 2004 consigned the monarchy to history with Zahir Shah named the ceremonial "Father of the Nation," a position that dissolves with his death.
"The people are relying on you and you should not forget them," the monarch told the loya jirga, or grand assembly, which ratified the charter. "I hope you will try your best to maintain peace, stability and the unity of the Afghan people."
Since his return, Zahir Shah left Afghanistan several times for medical treatment.
Karzai, who announced the king's death during a news conference broadcast live nationwide, called the king a "symbol of national unity" who brought development and education to the country. The king remained a leader in his final years but one who didn't seek the power of a throne, he said.
"He was the servant of his people, the friend of his people," Karzai said. "He believed in the rule of the people and in human rights."
Karzai said Afghanistan would observe three days of mourning over the death of the king, whose body will lie in state at a mosque in Kabul then will be taken by carriage to a hillside tomb. His funeral was scheduled for Tuesday.
Born Oct. 15, 1914, Zahir Shah was proclaimed monarch in 1933 at age 19 within hours of the death of his father, King Muhammad Nadir Shah, who was assassinated before his eyes.
He was not a dynamic ruler, with uncles and cousins holding the real power during most of Zahir Shah's reign, during which Afghanistan remained poor and forgotten.
But his neutral foreign policy and limited liberalization of a deeply conservative society managed to keep the peace — a golden age in the eyes of many Afghans pained by the extremism and slaughter that followed.
Shah was remembered outside Afghanistan as having a positive influence on his country.
"He presided over the most tranquil and prosperous periods in Afghanistan's modern history and exerted a unifying influence, including during the difficult decades of conflict," said Tom Koenigs, the U.N.'s special representative for Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz offered their condolences.
"The news has saddened us as King Zahir Shah was an eminent personality of this region who played an important role as head of the Afghan nation for more than four decades," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said.
Afghanistan has always been poor but was then stable and moving toward democracy when the king ended the absolute monarchy in 1964, his grandson, Mustafa Zahir, told The Associated Press last month.
"Nobody can fill the shoes of his majesty," said Mustafa Zahir, who heads the Department of the Environment. "But we can carry on the torch of hope, not to restore the monarchy but to continue with that message of hope, although it will never have the same intensity."
The king's health had been "very precarious" earlier in 2007 and family members thought he was going to die then, Mustafa Zahir said.
Educated in Europe, the king made modest moves to modernize Afghanistan. A patron of the arts, he funded music festivals and theater companies. He loved to hunt, ride and ski.
During the Cold War, Afghanistan's location bordering the Soviet Union and linking Asia to the Middle East magnified the country's importance. But Zahir Shah managed to keep it clear of the fray, as he had during World War II.
The king turned Afghanistan into a constitutional monarchy in 1964. The new constitution mandated primary education for all children, and gave women the right to vote, attend school and work.
But his reforms stalled, partly because Zahir Shah was reluctant to give up too much control. Political parties were never legalized, while parliament and the prime minister remained largely powerless.
His downfall came in 1973 at the hands of Mohammad Daoud Khan, a cousin and autocratic modernizer who earlier served a decade as prime minister.
With the king enjoying thermal baths on an island in southern Italy, Daoud Khan declared a republic with himself as president. Zahir Shah abdicated to avoid bloodshed, ending a 300-year-old dynasty.
Tall, elegant and extremely reserved, he rarely gave interviews, especially after a 1991 assassination attempt by an Angolan-born Portuguese man posing as a journalist. The attacker, a convert to Islam, stabbed the former monarch several times with an ornate silver knife. Zahir Shah suffered face and throat wounds.
From Rome, he could only watch as Afghanistan suffered waves of killing and destruction in the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the 1992-96 civil war and the rise and fall of the Taliban.
The former king and his circle, like many Afghans, welcomed the Taliban at first, hoping for an end to the bloodshed.
But disillusionment soon set in, and Zahir Shah began working to convene a loya jirga to forge a broad-based government.
The plan languished until after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
After the 2002 loya jirga, Zahir Shah was back in his grand downtown palace. But he said repeatedly he had no ambition to dust off the throne, insisting that he wanted only to help revive and reunify his country.
One of few Afghan leaders to command respect beyond his own ethnic group, the Pashtuns, Zahir Shah still carried a regal air in his rare public appearances. Visiting dignitaries made a point of calling on him as well as the president.
Yet he also appeared brooding and distant, not least when sat alongside Karzai to convene a constitutional loya jirga that produced a constitution declaring Afghanistan an Islamic republic — and providing no official role for the royal family after Zahir Shah's death.
The late former Queen Homaira Shah died in June 2002 in Italy of a heart attack and was buried in a special hilltop cemetery in southwest Kabul named for Zahir Shah's father.