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Last Updated: Monday, 19 December 2005, 12:24 GMT
Afghan MPs hold landmark session
Afghanistan's MPs put their hands on copies of the holy Koran as they are sworn in
Afghan MPs face daunting challenges in rebuilding the country
Afghanistan's first parliament for more than 30 years has held its inaugural session in the capital, Kabul.

President Hamid Karzai told 351 MPs the session was a "step toward democracy" and a display of national unity.

There was tight security for the ceremony, which is seen as another milestone in the country's transition.

The brief first session of the two-chamber parliament was attended by US Vice-President Dick Cheney and other foreign dignitaries.

QUICK GUIDE

The session was adjourned after about two hours.

A third of the members of parliament's lower house are women. Many of the new MPs are former mujahideen commanders, and there are also some former Taleban and communist leaders among the deputies.

Let me tell the world that Afghanistan is rising from the ashes of invasion and will live forever
Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Elections took place in September and form part of the return to democracy since the fall of the Taleban in 2001.

Milestones along the way have included the adoption of a new constitution in 2004 and the election of Mr Karzai as president last year.

Much to prove

The inaugural gathering began with a reading from the Koran and was followed by a brief speech by the ageing former King Zahir Shah, who was ousted in a coup in 1973.

Sabrina Saqeb, Afghan MP
About 30% of the newly-elected lawmakers are women

"I thank God that today I am participating in a ceremony that is a step towards rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of fighting. The people of Afghanistan will succeed!" the 91-year-old Zahir Shah told the assembly to applause.

President Karzai then swore in the new lawmakers.

"This gathering shows that all of the people of Afghanistan are unified. This is an important step toward democracy," he said.

The MPs have a lot to prove to a sceptical public, the BBC's Andrew North in Kabul reports.

This is not least because many of them were involved in the past bloodshed and were allowed to stand in the election, our correspondent says.

AFGHAN MILESTONES
December 2001: US-led forces drive Taleban from power
June 2002: Hamid Karzai named interim head of state
January 2004: New constitution adopted
October 2004: Presidential elections held, which Hamid Karzai wins
December 2005: Elected parliament meets for first time

Malali Joya, a woman MP, is among those angry at having to sit alongside former warlords.

"They destroyed our country and they never can be of benefit to the future of Afghanistan," she said.

"They want to build some laws against women's rights and against human rights. I will stand up and I will expose them and I will never compromise with them, even though I'm one person."

The hope is this new body will cement the country's transition from years of war and turmoil.

The opening session took place as attacks by insurgents have risen over the past year.

In the latest attack on Monday, suspected Taleban rebels killed at least three police officers in the eastern Kunar province, officials said.

Last week, two people were injured in a suicide attack near the parliament building.

Determination

Last week, the MPs held a week-long orientation programme in Kabul to prepare for the assembly's opening.

Lawmakers expressed their determination to overcome the divisions that have plagued the country for decades.

Afghanistan has had no elected national assembly since 1973 when coups and a Soviet invasion left the country deeply divided.

The US has about 20,000 soldiers tackling the Taleban-led insurgency, mainly in the south and east of the country.


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Watch scenes from the inaugural session



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