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Mohammad Zahir Shah, last king of Afghanistan, dies at 92

Kabul, July 23, 2007 (International Herald Tribune – AP): Afghanistan's last king, a symbol of unity who oversaw four decades of peace before a 1973 palace coup ousted him and war shattered his country, died Monday. He was 92.

Mohammad Zahir Shah's demise ended the last vestige of Afghanistan's monarchy and triggered three days of national mourning for a man still feted as the "Father of the Nation" since his return from exile after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban.

Though he was not always effective during his 40-year reign, Zahir Shah is remembered warmly by his conflict-weary countrymen for steering the country without bloodshed.

When the fall of the Taliban in 2001 offered fresh hope for national reconciliation, many clamored for Zahir Shah's return — not only to his homeland but to the throne.

When he did come back from Italy in April 2002, he stood aside in favor of an anti-Taliban tribesman, now-President Hamid Karzai. A new constitution passed in January 2004 consigned the monarchy to history, with Zahir Shah named the ceremonial Father of the Nation, a position that dissolves with his death.

"The people are relying on you and you should not forget them," the monarch told the loya jirga, or grand assembly, which ratified the landmark charter. "I hope you will try your best to maintain peace, stability and the unity of the Afghan people."

Subsequently, Zahir Shah left Afghanistan several times for medical treatment, and rumors of his death surfaced repeatedly this year. The exact cause of his passing was not released.

Karzai, who announced the king's death during a news conference broadcast live nationwide, called him a "symbol of national unity" who brought development and education to the country.

The king remained a leader in his final years, but one who didn't seek the power of a throne, he said.

"He was the servant of his people, the friend of his people," Karzai said. "He believed in the rule of the people and in human rights."

Karzai said Afghanistan would observe three days of mourning for the king, whose body will lie in state at a mosque in Kabul then be taken by carriage to a hilltop tomb. His funeral was scheduled for Tuesday.

Born Oct. 15, 1914, Zahir Shah was proclaimed monarch in 1933 at age 19 within hours of the death of his father, King Muhammad Nadir Shah, who was assassinated before his eyes.

He was not a dynamic ruler, with uncles and cousins holding the real power during most of his reign.

But his neutral foreign policy and limited liberalization of a deeply conservative society managed to keep the peace — a golden age in the eyes of many Afghans pained by the extremism and slaughter that followed.

"Nobody can fill the shoes of his majesty," Mustafa Zahir, the king's grandson, told The Associated Press last month. "But we can carry on the torch of hope, not to restore the monarchy but to continue with that message of hope, although it will never have the same intensity."

In Washington, U.S. President George W. Bush called Zahir Shah "a monumental figure in Afghan history" who "supported the goal of a representative and freely elected government in his homeland."

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II called the king's passing a "great loss," while U.S. Ambassador William Wood reaffirmed Washington's commitment to Zahir Shah's "vision of a united, democratic, prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan."

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Afghanistan lost a "statesman of great stature."

"He was known as a man of peace who led his nation with wisdom in difficult times," Musharraf said.

The U.N.'s top envoy to Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, said the king "presided over the most tranquil and prosperous periods in Afghanistan's modern history and exerted a unifying influence, including during the difficult decades of conflict."

Educated in Europe, the king made modest moves to modernize Afghanistan. A patron of the arts, he funded music festivals and theater companies. He loved to hunt, ride and ski.

During the Cold War, Afghanistan's location bordering the Soviet Union and linking Asia to the Middle East magnified the country's importance. But Zahir Shah managed to keep it clear of the fray, as he had during World War II.

The king turned Afghanistan into a constitutional monarchy in 1964. The new constitution mandated primary education for all children, and gave women the right to vote, attend school and work.

But his reforms stalled, partly because Zahir Shah was reluctant to give up too much control. Political parties were never legalized, while parliament and the prime minister remained largely powerless.

His downfall came in 1973 at the hands of Mohammad Daoud Khan, a cousin and autocratic modernizer who earlier served a decade as prime minister.

With the king enjoying thermal baths on an island in southern Italy, Daoud Khan declared a republic with himself as president. Zahir Shah abdicated to avoid bloodshed, ending a 300-year-old dynasty.

Tall, elegant and reserved, he rarely gave interviews, especially after a 1991 assassination attempt by an Angolan-born Portuguese man posing as a journalist. The attacker, a convert to Islam, stabbed the former monarch several times with an ornate silver knife. Zahir Shah suffered face and throat wounds.

From Rome, he could only watch as Afghanistan suffered waves of killing and destruction in the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the 1992-96 civil war and the rise and fall of the Taliban.

The former king and his circle, like many Afghans, welcomed the Taliban at first, hoping for an end to the bloodshed. But disillusionment soon set in, and Zahir Shah began working to convene a loya jirga to forge a broad-based government.

The plan languished until after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. After the 2002 loya jirga, Zahir Shah was back in his grand downtown palace. But he said repeatedly he had no ambition to dust off the throne, insisting he wanted only to help revive and reunify his country.

One of few Afghan leaders to command respect beyond his own ethnic group, the Pashtuns, Zahir Shah exuded a regal air in his rare public appearances. Visiting dignitaries made a point of calling on him as well as the president.

The late former Queen Homaira Shah died in June 2002 in Italy of a heart attack and was buried in the hilltop cemetery in southwest Kabul named for Zahir Shah's father. Zahir Shah is survived by three sons and two daughters and had two sons who preceded him in death.