For Afghans, a free parliament

First democratic legislature in 35 years convenes to face serious problems


KABUL, Afghanistan -- An elected Afghan parliament was sworn in for the first time in more than 35 years yesterday to face threats from drug lords, rampant corruption and a surge in suicide bombings.

President Hamid Karzai, his voice breaking with emotion, said Afghans had won the world's respect with their struggle to build a democracy. But he cautioned that a lot of hard work still lay ahead.

"We Afghans have the right to stand with honor and dignity with the international community," Karzai told the assembly.

"We shall say that this undying bird rose up again, from the ashes of invasion and shame, and is flying again," he added. "And we declare that this destroyed country and tired nation will exist for ever and ever."

Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, had front-row seats to the opening of parliament, along with U.S. Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who commands about 20,000 American troops here. Many of those soldiers are still battling Taliban and other insurgents four years after U.S.-led forces toppled the Islamic extremists' regime.

Afghans elected 249 members to parliament's lower house Sept. 18 under a voting system designed to prevent parties or blocs from dominating the assembly. Instead, it represents a broad spectrum of political and religious views that many Afghans fear may paralyze their government.

Communists sit beside bitter enemies such as former guerrillas who drove out Soviet forces in 1989. Women, who hold about a third of seats, can freely debate a few former members of the Taliban regime, which forced women to veil themselves from head to toe and denied girls an education.

The new parliament will be able to pass laws and veto members of Karzai's Cabinet, but most power remains in the president's hands.

After decades of war, Afghans long for a stable government that can solve problems, including corruption, unequal economic growth from foreign aid and continuing insecurity in large parts of the country.

Karzai is struggling to stop a multibillion-dollar heroin and opium trade that is considered by many to be a bigger threat to Afghanistan's emerging democracy than terrorism. His government's counter-narcotics effort is hindered by corruption and has shown mixed results so far.

The amount of farmland used to grow opium, the key ingredient in heroin, dropped 21 percent this year, according to a United Nations and Afghan government survey released last week. But the harvest is expected to decline only slightly, mostly because of good weather that produced a bumper opium crop on the remaining farmland, the survey found. Afghan farmers are expected to harvest more than 4,500 tons of opium, just a 2.4 percent drop from last year.

Afghanistan is expected to earn $2.7 billion from illegal drug exports this year, almost as much as in 2004, the study said. That's worth more than half the country's legal gross domestic product.

Despite Karzai's repeated promises to end the drug trade, critics of his administration say he has appointed governors, police commanders and other officials who either traffic in opium and heroin or profit from the illicit trade.

In addition to the presence of suspected traffickers in the new parliament, up to 60 percent of the lower house's members are linked to human rights abuses, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In recent weeks, insurgents have stepped up suicide bombings that used to be rare here. In a freak attack on Canadian troops, a suicide bomber exploded Sunday when a motorcycle rider accidentally hit him in the city of Kandahar.

Three U.S. soldiers were wounded Sunday by a roadside bomb near the southern village of Dai Chopan, where U.S. forces have fought with Taliban militants. At least 66 U.S. troops have died in hostile fire, including roadside bombs, this year.

Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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