Kabul, Afghanistan Emphasizing unity in a deeply divided country, Hamid Karzai was sworn in as Afghanistan's prime minister Saturday, acknowledging his interim government has little time to heal a nation whose last generation has known nothing but war.
While armed British peacekeepers patrolled outside, the 43-year-old Pashtun tribal leader signed the oath of office in the country's first peaceful transfer of power in decades and swore in the 29 members of his Cabinet, including two women.
Karzai embraced outgoing President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who leads the anti-Taliban northern alliance and was seen as a possible rival for control of the nation, as applause thundered.
Some 2,000 people crammed into the Interior Ministry hall _ commanders in combat fatigues, tribal leaders and dignitaries in turbans and robes or Western suits. Some were returning from years of exile abroad, others traveled Afghanistan's dusty, hazardous roads to reach the capital, Kabul. The few women at the ceremony, sitting separately from the men, wore headscarfs but not the all-enveloping burqa required by the Taliban.
Among the foreign diplomats and guests was Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S.-led military campaign that along with Afghan fighters brought down the hard-line Taliban regime that ruled the country for five years as well as uprooted Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network.
"I promise you that I will fulfill my mission to bring peace to Afghanistan," said Karzai, wearing a traditional lambskin hat and a green-and-purple Uzbek robe. He spoke in his native Pashtu and in Dari, Afghanistan's most popular languages.
"Our country, as a result of the long war, has been distracted. We need hard work from all Afghans," he said. "We should put our hands together to be brothers and friends. Forget the painful past."
Karzai's administration will rule for six months. At the end of that period, a tribal council called a "loya jirga" will convene to plan a two-year administration that will take Afghanistan toward a permanent constitution.
After the ceremony, Karzai said he doubted reports that U.S. warplanes had mistakenly struck a convoy carrying tribal leaders loyal to the new government in eastern Afghanistan on Friday. The Pentagon said the convoy was carrying Taliban leaders. The strike reportedly killed 65 people.
"I don't believe it. I don't think it's true," Karzai said of reports by local officials that the convoy carried tribal commanders headed to Kabul for the inauguration. But he said he would examine the issue with the Americans.
Looming over the proceedings was the ghost of who first fought the occupying Soviets in the 1980s and then the Taliban before being assassinated by a suicide bomber on Sept. 9.
During the three-hour ceremony, a large portrait of Ahmed Shah Massood, a revered guerrilla leader slain by a suicide bomber on Sept. 9, was draped behind the podium, and speaker after speaker referred to him reverently.
The solemnity was interspersed with signs of the long familiarity of men who have been battlefield allies and rivals.
Warlord Ismail Khan _ who has made it plain he doesn't think he's getting his due in the new government _ made his entrance an hour late, just before Karzai was to take the oath. Karzai interrupted his speech to hail Khan from the podium, calling out, "My brother!"
There was no mention of bin Laden, the "guest" of the Taliban, pursued by the United States for the September attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
On a trip to the central Chinese city of Xi'an, Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Saturday he's "reasonably sure" that bin Laden has not escaped to his country, which neighbors Afghanistan, and that there's a "great possibility" the al-Qaida leader is dead.
Afghanistan's interim government faces a staggering challenge. Relief workers have warned of widespread hunger during the harsh winter, and 5 million Afghan refugees remain in neighboring countries. The country's infrastructure and finances are a shambles. Loyalties are more often given to commanders with private armies than a central government.
Karzai later told a news conference his priorities will be security and economic development. "If we deliver to the Afghan people what we promise, it will be a great day, and if we don't, then we will go into oblivion," he said.
As a Pashtun, Karzai represents Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. His appointment to prime minister is viewed as a balance to the grip on several key ministries by the northern alliance, made up of ethnic minorities.
Karzai also is man with Western sensitivities and speaks English, making Americans comfortable with him. He worked closely with the U.S. military in seizing Kandahar, a southern city that was the Taliban's stronghold.
The inauguration ceremony ended with Rabbani signing the transfer of power certificate, a poignant moment for this country, which since 1973 has seen power transferred only in coups and bloody war.
Rabbani thanked the international community for its support against the Taliban, saying his country is "thirsty for peace."
The ethnic Tajik leader had been president from 1992 until he was ousted by the Taliban in 1996. During his rule, factional fighting ravaged Kabul and killed some 50,000 people. Since his ouster, he was the titular leader of the alliance of those factions that battled the Taliban from a tiny enclave in the northeast.
Rabbani, who had never given up his claim to the presidency, heads the alliance faction that now holds Kabul. During negotiations last month in Germany over a new government, he had tried to resist some of the proposals, raising worries among some Western diplomats that he was reluctant to hand over power.
During the ceremony, British Royal Marines in camouflage uniforms _ a vanguard of international forces mandated to protect the new government _ patrolled outside the whitewashed Interior Ministry. Uniformed Afghan police roamed the city.
After a cleric opened the ceremony with recitations from the Quran, the audience stood and sang the national anthem.
"We all pray that this day will mark the end of the long dark night of conflict and strife," special U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi told the audience.
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said that until now, the Taliban had been the face of Afghanistan.
"Today we want to clean this face," he said. "Islamic countries will support you, and Iran as your great neighbor will help you,"
Representatives from every province jostled to get through a metal detector and into the hall. Loudspeakers broadcast the proceedings to an overflow crowd milling outside. Old men in graying beards, wrapped in shawls of woolen blankets, stood next to clean-shaven men in topcoats and Western suits and Uzbeks in traditional clothes.
The interim government signals new life for Afghan women, who were systematically repressed by the Taliban's five-year rule.
"I am very happy for the women of Afghanistan today. Our lives have just begun," said Najia Sohail Zara, a schoolteacher who fled her country in 1996.
Already Karzai's government has received promises of assistance from around the world. The United Nations estimates billions of dollars will be needed to rebuild the country.
Karzai said Afghanistan must come to terms with its past and that a war crimes commission is "not a bad idea."