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Karzai sworn in as Afghan leader

Karzai holds a copy of the Koran as he is sworn in.
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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Hamid Karzai has been sworn in as Afghanistan's first popularly elected president, as 150 foreign dignitaries -- including U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- looked on.

A smiling Karzai, wearing a traditional green robe and a black lambskin hat, received a standing ovation at Tuesday's ceremony, held under tight security in a restored hall of the war-damaged former royal palace in Kabul.

"We have now left a hard and dark past behind us and today we are opening a new chapter in our history," Karzai said in his inauguration speech.

"On this day of a new, peaceful, prosperous era for our country, I would like to wish for the best for Afghanistan."

The new president talked about "duty" as he laid out the challenges facing the nation and his goals for it.

"We have a duty before our people to deliver, to the best of our ability, an Afghanistan that is free, stable, prosperous and enjoying a dignified place in the region and the world," Karzai said.

Among the 150 overseas guests were U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, two of the key architects behind the overthrow of the hardline Taliban regime following the September 11 attacks on America.

At a news conference with Cheney earlier in the day, Karzai was quick to thank the United States.

"Today whatever we have achieved -- the peace ... the reconstruction ... the fact that Afghanistan is again a respected member of the international community -- is because of the help that the United States of America gave us," he said.

"Without that help, Afghanistan would be in the hands of terrorists, destroyed, poverty stricken and without its children going to school or getting an education."

Cheney said the United States had been a proud partner of brave Afghan citizens as they liberated their nation.

"The tyranny has gone, the terrorist enemy is scattered and the people of Afghanistan are free."

To ensure the safety visiting dignitaries, Afghan authorities and international forces launched their largest security operation since October's presidential election -- with police cordoning off the route from the city's airport to the presidential palace -- after the ousted Taliban warned of attacks across the country.

Just over three years ago Afghanistan was under the rule of the oppressive Taliban and the nation was being used by terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as a base to plot the attacks on America. The United States invaded with its allies in late 2001, ousting the Taliban a few months later for harboring bin Laden.

While 2004 finds Afghanistan in a better state, Karzai warned that much is left to do.

"I must hasten to say that our fight against terrorism is not yet over," the new president said in his speech. "The relationship between terrorism and narcotics, however, and the continued threat of extremism in the region and the world at large are a source of continued concern."

The U.S.-backed Karzai was elected in October of this year with the support of the majority of Afghans. But his administration also still enjoys the support of 18,000 U.S. troops -- a number they would very much like to reduce if conditions allow.

Opium trade But it has been a tough start for the 46-year-old leader, who has already survived several assassination bids against him.

In addition, opium production is up -- the country producing a staggering 87 percent of the world's opium and heroin.

The United Nations said some government officials -- and the warlords that still run large chunks of the country -- have their fingers in the drug trade pie. Karzai said he needs the world's help to persuade, or pay, farmers to give up growing the deadly but profitable crop.

In the end, Karzai is certain the people of Afghanistan have the commitment necessary to overcome the challenges facing them.

"I am confident and proud that this nation is determined to rebuild Afghanistan and they're determined to rebuild it fast to live in security. They long for a country that stands on its own feet."

Copyright 2004 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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