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.
Myers said it was possible some of the dead had their hands bound, as some witnesses have claimed, because while securing the compound U.S. forces may have restrained wounded men who later died.
Messages From Above
The United States and its allies continue to search for al Qaeda or Taliban officials in the region, and air-dropped pamphlets have fallen in some of Pakistan's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
The pamphlets — in the Pashto and Dari languages, and similar or identical to ones dropped in Afghanistan by U.S. forces — warn readers against giving refuge to Osama bin Laden, who U.S. officials accuse of masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The pamphlets, which picture bin Laden, add that the al Qaeda leader is dispatching killers around the world and mocking those who would help him.
Seeds of Unrest?
In other developments:
The CIA is warning seeds of civil conflict still exist in Afghanistan, according to a report cited in the New York Times. The CIA declined to comment on the report, but a senior Bush administration official emphasized "the overall security situation in Afghanistan is relatively stable," and civil war is far from imminent. "Where there are problems that need to be monitored are in the regions where there are no established powers yet in place, but that was to be expected," the official told ABCNEWS. "It bears careful watching and that is what the report stresses."
U.S. troops at Camp X-ray in Cuba are preparing 125 pounds of lamb to Muslim halal standards, to allow the 300 prisoners there to celebrate Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of the Sacrifice," the most important feast in the Islamic calendar. The celebration begins Saturday.
An Italian judge has sentenced a man alleged to be the head of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network in Europe and three other Tunisians to up to five years in prison for a variety of crimes — including trafficking in explosives, chemicals and false documents, and of organizing illegal immigration into Italy. The men, who denied they were terrorists and were not charged as such, included Essid Sami Ben Khemais, suspected of running some al Qaeda operations in Europe.
British peacekeepers in the Afghan capital of Kabul said Thursday that they exchanged gunfire with attackers for the second time in a week. British paratroopers were getting out of their vehicles around 8:30 p.m. local time Wednesday when unidentified gunmen opened fire on them, a spokesman for the international peacekeeping force told The Associated Press. There were no immediate reports of casualties after the brief incident.
ABCNEWS' Rahimullah Yusufzai in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.