- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai proclaimed a “new beginning” for his country yesterday in an emotional address to women, warlords and democrats assembled for the inaugural session of the new Afghan parliament.

Police and soldiers sealed off blocks around the parliament building, where Vice President Dick Cheney; his wife, Lynne; and dozens of foreign dignitaries watched Mr. Karzai speak to the 351 new members of the bicameral National Assembly.

“Today marks a new beginning for Afghanistan,” declared Mr. Karzai, who broke down in tears toward the end of his more than one-hour oration.

“This immortal phoenix, this beloved Afghanistan, once again rose from the ashes of invasion and subjugation,” he said. “We have the right to declare to all those who aspire the destruction of our soil that this country will never be vanquished.”

Mr. Cheney described the ceremony as “another milestone” in the democratization of the Muslim world.

“Once again, in free elections, the Afghan people have shown the world their determination to chart their own destiny,” he said. “We are proud to count Afghanistan as a free country, a fellow democracy and a friend of the United States of America.”

On the streets, however, there were mixed reactions to the occasion, with many Afghans complaining that the legislative body includes several infamous war criminals and drug barons who deserve incarceration rather than inauguration.

Among them are hard-line Muslim cleric Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, both of whom have been blamed by international organizations for some of Afghanistan’s worst human rights violations in the early 1990s.

“Why should I care about them?” asked taxi driver Abdul Rahim Sarooli, 41. “They tortured people, they fought each other for years on end, and they destroyed my country. Why will they suddenly change? The whole of parliament is rotten to the core.”

But others hope for a new era, in which disputes will be settled through parliamentary debate rather than the violence that has plagued Afghanistan for nearly three decades. And with 68 female parliamentarians taking their seats, there is room for tempered optimism.

Under Taliban rule that ended just four years ago, women were not allowed out of the house unless covered by an all-encompassing burka and accompanied by a male relative. Now, one of them, Shukria Barakzai, is vying to become speaker of the Wolesi Jirga, the 249-member lower house.

There are still major questions about how the assembly will function and whether it can play a meaningful role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

The 2004 constitution offers little guidance, apart from saying that the assembly can pass laws and veto presidential appointments. Most new members lack any formal education, let alone governing experience.

“I think most of the parliamentarians intend to make a good-faith effort to get along,” said a high-ranking U.N. official who attended the inaugural.

“But if months go by without them accomplishing much, a lot of these guys will lose confidence in the assembly and go back to getting things done the old-fashioned way — and that would be disastrous. It would reverse all of the progress Afghanistan has made over the last four years.”

Mr. Cheney visited later with U.S. troops at Bagram air base, where he said the Afghans will “continue to have the full support of America and our coalition” in their “journey of freedom and progress.”

Referring to Iraq, which he had visited a day earlier, the vice president said, “Your comrades are doing fantastic work over there.

“On occasion, they receive mixed signals from politicians about whether America has what it takes to stay in the fight. I assured them that the American people do not support a policy of submission, resignation and defeatism in the face of terror.”

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