NEW YORK – Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai visited Ground Zero Wednesday and placed a wreath of yellow roses by a memorial wall as he surveyed the ruins of the World Trade Center.
"The Afghans understand America's pain," said Karzai, who stood on a platform overlooking the labyrinth of gaping holes packed with debris.
"The people that committed the crime here in New York, the people that committed crimes in Afghanistan against Afghan people, they destroyed exactly the same way there as they did here," he said. "They were against life itself."
Karzai, who was escorted by members of his cabinet and New York Gov. George Pataki, put the flowers by a wooden wall covered with photos of Sept. 11 victims and personal notes and prayers. A black, red and green Afghan flag flew next to an American one.
Karzai, 44, was chosen by Afghan factions last month to head the nation's first government since the Taliban were ousted. His mandate expires in June.
He is on a U.S. tour aimed at drawing cash help from world leaders and private investors. Earlier this week, he was the first Afghan leader to visit the White House since the time of President Kennedy; on Tuesday night he sat next to first lady Laura Bush during the president's State of the Union speech.
Karzai said he was shocked to see the towers missing from New York's skyline, even though he knew they had fallen. He called the destruction "as horrific as the destruction of Buddha in Afghanistan. It's the destruction of life itself."
Earlier in the day, he appealed to the U.N. Security Council to expand the multinational force now in Kabul to other cities as a guarantee that the international community won't abandon his war-devastated country.
Karzai has previously said in Kabul and Washington that many Afghans feel the force should be expanded to be able to operate nationwide. But until Wednesday, he had stopped short of directly calling for an enlargement.
Appearing before the 15-member Security Council, which authorized deployment of the British-led force, Karzai said, "We hope that you would authorize an extension and expansion of the mandate of this force."
"The extension of presence of multinational forces in Kabul and expanding their presence to other major cities will signal the ongoing commitment of the international community to peace and security in Afghanistan," he said.
Karzai said Afghans from around the country had told him they felt "security is the key issue" following the hijacking of the country by "terrorists" who were routed late last year by U.S. led-forces.
The council authorized the force on Dec. 20 to help protect Afghanistan's new interim government, but restricted it to the Kabul area, as the Afghans who agreed to establish the temporary government wanted.
In the last month, Karzai's administration has had a change of heart in favor of expanding deployment — because of instability, lawlessness, and a resurgence of activity by local warlords.
The force is authorized for six months and can be renewed. It currently has about 2,500 troops, and is expected to reach its full strength of about 5,000 by the end of February.
But to deploy in other cities, the force would have to grow to 35,000 troops, according to an estimate by a senior U.N. official in Kabul. A new Security Council resolution would be needed to expand operations out of the capital.
Countries who have sent troops so far have not offered to increase their numbers for an expansion. Western diplomats have said they are more inclined to try to train Afghan police and military forces in the coming months.
Karzai said his government was committed to creating a national police force and army, but said that "will require some time."
In response to Karzai's speech, council president Foreign Minister Anil Gayan of Mauritius said the world body "stands ready to extend assistance ... to a nation that has suffered every privation known to mankind and deserves a better future."
But he did not directly respond to the request for an expanded force.