KABUL, Afghanistan — In an outpouring of resolve to escape a legacy of bloodshed, Afghan aristocrats and warlords who were sworn in to a new government here Saturday vowed to lead their country out of the darkness that has made it a nation of beggars and rubble.
Proclaiming that "the sun has once again risen over my native land," Prime Minister Hamid Karzai took the oath of office before a rowdy and emotional audience of 2,000 tribal elders, diplomats and dignitaries. Interrupted by shouts of "Allah is great!" from joyous onlookers, he pledged to heal the wounds of war and isolation.
"I promise you that I will fulfill my mission to bring peace to Afghanistan," said Karzai, dressed in a green and purple silk caftan and his signature karakul fur hat.
The ethnic Pushtun aristocrat returned from exile in Pakistan in October to lead the fight for Kandahar, the last stronghold of Afghanistan's Taliban regime. He is to preside over an interim administration for six months.
During that time, a commission appointed by his Cabinet will organize a transition to an executive and legislature that will wield authority for two more years, until elections are held for offices in a permanent civilian government.
In his speech, Karzai appealed to his fellow citizens to help end Afghanistan's poverty and isolation.
"Our country, as a result of the long war, has been distracted. We need hard work from all Afghans," he said. "We must put our hands together and be brothers and friends. We must forget the painful past."
The nearly three-hour ceremony was held at the Interior Ministry, the only conference hall large enough for such an event, and it was crammed with people hungry for a turn in history. The event marked the first time in 28 years that power has been transferred to a new Afghan government without the use of guns.
Western diplomats midwifed the new 30-member Cabinet at tense negotiations in Germany this month, but Karzai and the foreign leaders who attended his inauguration made clear that the onus is on Afghans to prove that they can feed the population's hunger for peace.
Special envoy James Dobbins and Army Gen. Tommy Franks, U.S. commander of the Afghan campaign, represented the United States at the ceremony.
At a news conference after his inauguration, the 43-year-old Karzai cautioned that the significance of this transfer of power will be fully apparent only after the government has served its term.
"If we deliver what we have promised to the Afghan people, this will be known as a great day. If we don't deliver this, it will be recorded as the day of oblivion," he warned.
The U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, assured Afghans who followed the inaugural festivities on radio that Karzai will lead them "with wisdom and foresight." But Brahimi also cautioned the Cabinet members, some of whom are tribal leaders who only a few months ago were at war with one another, that they face tough challenges and the wrath of the people if they fail them.
"The men and women of this proud nation have shown great strength, courage and dignity through tragedy, but we must never forget what they have suffered," Brahimi said, blaming the international community for failing to guide Afghanistan through earlier troubles. "An entire generation has grown up never knowing the simple joys of a peaceful life."
Since a 1973 palace coup that ousted the last king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, Afghans have weathered a succession of bloody putsches, the 1979 Soviet invasion, and civil wars and power struggles among rival Muslim factions.
"Looking around us, it is all too clear that Afghanistan has been physically and emotionally devastated," Brahimi said. "We all pray that this day will mark the end of the long dark night of conflict and strife."
Securing the peace and a chance for reconstruction is the top priority of the new leadership, Karzai said.
The head of a Pushtun dynasty who speaks flawless English and deftly negotiates the diplomatic minefields still surrounding the new government, Karzai brushed off reporters' suggestions that some members of his Cabinet harbor destabilizing ambitions. He also insisted that there is unity among the ministers on the need for an international peacekeeping force whose members have just begun arriving and could number as many as 5,000 by late next month.
The biggest threat to the new Cabinet had earlier appeared to be former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who sought to undermine the agreement on Afghanistan's future that was signed near Bonn on Dec. 5 and who has repeatedly sought to impose conditions on the country's new power structure.
But the 62-year-old--who held on to U.N. recognition as the Afghan head of state during the five years of Taliban rule--struck a conciliatory note as he passed the mantle of power to Karzai.