The former king of Afghanistan reportedly plans to return to his country within a month, after nearly three decades of exile in Rome.
Former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, 87, who ruled Afghanistan for 40 years, hopes to return in time to celebrate the Afghan new year on March 21, an Afghan official told the Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity.
Many Afghans recall Zahir Shah's reign as a relatively stable golden era for the country. Zahir Shah's cousin deposed him in 1973 in a bloodless coup.
Zahir Shah's return would precede the convening of a loya jirga — a "grand assembly" of Afghan elders that is supposed to choose a permanent government to succeed the six-month interim administration of Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. Karzai, a supporter of the former king, took power in December.
But signs of unrest remain in Afghanistan. Regional warlords continue to skirmish for power in southeastern and northern Afghanistan, international peacekeeping troops in Kabul say they have twice come under fire during the past week, and Karzai says the killing of his administration's aviation and tourism minister was the result of a plot within his administration.
A CIA analysis reportedly has cited concerns about stability in Afghanistan, and today Zalamai Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, held talks with Karzai about concerns over the tourism minister's killing and the region's security, an Afghan official told Reuters.
On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld hinted for the first time that he might have to change his long-standing argument against a U.S. peacekeeping role in Afghanistan. He said he was unsure what eventually might be necessary. "It's not a pretty picture," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon news conference.
Karzai has accused officials in his government formerly affiliated with the Northern Alliance faction of killing his minister, Abdul Rehman, but other Afghan officials have denied an internal government plot in the killing. Karzai has asked Saudi Arabia to turn over a number of suspects in the case.
U.S. officials also have expressed concerns that Taliban and al Qaeda pockets continue to operate in Afghanistan, and have initiated attacks after viewing suspected activity by the groups. However, the 14 or more people killed in one such raid last month were not Taliban or al Qaeda fighters as initially believed, although they were killed because they fired upon American forces first, Rumsfeld said Thursday.
"Let's not call them innocents," Rumsfeld said of the dead from the Jan. 23 raid on a pair of complexes at Hazar Qadam, Afghanistan. "They were people who fired on our forces."
An American soldier was wounded in the ankle by one of those gunshots, U.S. officials have said.
Rumsfeld said the deaths of the men — who some have said were attempting to disarm the local population on behalf of the Afghan government — were "unfortunate," but occurred in the context of a chaotic situation in Afghanistan.
Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters 14 people were killed and dozens captured. Other witnesses have placed the death toll higher.
Days after the raids, the United States determined that the prisoners captured in the raids were not hostile and released them. Some were quoted in published reports saying they were assaulted by U.S. forces while in custody, a charge Rumsfeld and Myers denied Thursday.