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

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

afghanistan shah 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
afghanistan shah 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who returned from three decades of exile to bless his war-battered country's fragile course toward democracy, died Monday, President Hamid Karzai said. He was 92. Weak if well-meaning during his 40-year reign, Zahir Shah was a symbol of yearned-for peace and unity in a nation still struggling to emerge from the turmoil that began with his 1973 ouster in a palace coup. When the fall of the Taliban at the end of 2001 offered fresh hope for national reconciliation, many clamored for Zahir Shah's return - not only from exile but to retake the throne. Zahir Shah returned home from Italy in April 2002, but stood aside in favor of a young anti-Taliban tribesman, the now-President 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 charter. "I hope you will try your best to maintain peace, stability and the unity of the Afghan people." Since his return, Zahir Shah left Afghanistan several times for medical treatment. Karzai, who announced the king's death during a news conference broadcast live nationwide, called the king 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 over the death of the king, whose body will lie in state at a mosque in Kabul then will be taken by carriage to a hillside tomb. His funeral was scheduled for Tuesday. Born October 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 Zahir Shah's reign, during which Afghanistan remained poor and forgotten. 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. Shah was remembered outside Afghanistan as having a positive influence on his country. "He 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," said Tom Koenigs, the UN's special representative for Afghanistan. In Pakistan, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz offered their condolences.