Afghanistan's Last King Laid to Rest

The Associated Press
Tuesday, July 24, 2007; 12:48 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan -- An honor guard lowered the body of Afghanistan's last king into a bullet-riddled hillside tomb Tuesday, as dignitaries, lawmakers and relatives said goodbye to the man they call the "Father of the Nation."

King Mohammad Zahir Shah's coffin _ wrapped in Afghanistan's black, red and green flag _ traveled from the presidential palace to one of Kabul's main mosques and then to the hillside tomb on a gun carriage pulled by an armored military vehicle.

Afghan officials and dignitaries, including President Hamid Karzai, walked behind the coffin much of the way amid heavy security.

Named the "Father of the Nation" in the nation's new constitution, Zahir Shah died Monday after a long illness at age 92. A ruler of Afghanistan from 1933-73, he returned to the country in 2002 after 30 years in exile in Italy.

Zahir Shah's wooden coffin was first placed under the shade of pine trees at the presidential palace grounds, where Afghan politicians, tribal elders, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani and international dignitaries paid their respects.

A message was read from President Bush, who called Zahir Shah "a monumental figure in Afghan history" who "supported the goal of a representative and freely elected government in his homeland."

The coffin was then taken to a Kabul mosque where a short prayer was read. Then it was pulled to the top of Maranjan Hill, where dozens of ornate, red carpets had been laid on the ground and the bullet-pocked shrine was covered in black. Karzai and a small entourage descended into the tomb to see Zahir Shah's final resting place.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, U.S. Ambassador William Wood and U.S. Gen. Dan McNeill, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, were among the mourners.

Zahir Shah's death ended the last vestige of Afghanistan's monarchy and triggered three days of national mourning.

Although 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.

Karzai, in announcing his death on Monday, called Zahir Shah a "symbol of national unity" who brought development and education to the country.

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.

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.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II called the king's passing a "great loss," while Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Afghanistan lost a "statesman of great stature."

© 2007 The Associated Press