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Landmark Afghan Parliament Opens

  • Benjamin Sand

Afghanistan's first popularly elected parliament in more than thirty years has been sworn into office in the capital, Kabul. The landmark session is seen as a major advance for the country's new democracy, four years after U.S. forces helped topple the oppressive Taleban regime.

School children sing a traditional patriotic song during Monday's historic swearing-in of Afghanistan's first democratically elected parliament since 1973, and the first ever under its new constitution.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai told delegates that the National Assembly embodies the country's commitment to self-government.

Mr. Karzai says the new parliament is an important step toward democracy and highlights Afghanistan's sense of unity.

Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife joined the celebrations, sitting in the front row during the nearly three-hour ceremony.

The assembly, which consists of a 249-seat lower house and a 102-member upper house, is regarded as a major advance for U.S.-backed efforts to establish democracy in Afghanistan.

But most observers say the country still has a long way to go.

Nearly two-thirds of the representatives in the lower house are warlords, many with private armies and ties to Afghanistan's illegal drug trade.

And under the constitution, parliament has only limited ability to enact new laws or check the president's power.

Peter Dimitroff, the Afghanistan director of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute, says reformers need to be realistic about what the assembly can accomplish in its inaugural session.

"The two biggest dangers here are managing the expectations of the Afghan people in terms of how efficient this new body is going to be, and quite frankly, it's also managing the expectations of the parliamentarians themselves," he said.

But he adds the establishment of the National Assembly is already a powerful symbolic change.

For example one quarter of the newly elected representatives are women. Under the ousted Taleban regime, girls were forbidden to attend school and women were not allowed to work. Starting Monday, they will be helping direct Afghanistan's national government.

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