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, has died, President Hamid Karzai said Monday. 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.
'Father of the Nation'
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 will dissolve 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 announced the death during a news conference that was broadcast on national television.
The president said there would be 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.
Born Oct. 15, 1914, Zahir Shah was proclaimed monarch within hours of the death of his father, King Muhammad Nadir Shah, who was assassinated before his eyes. Zahir Shah was only 19.
Not a dynamic ruler
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.
Mustafa Zahir, the former king's grandson, labeled the king's reign a "golden age" for Afghanistan. The country has always been poor but was then stable and moving toward democracy when he ended the absolute monarchy in 1964, he said.
"Nobody can fill the shoes of his majesty," Mustafa Zahir, who heads the Department of the Environment, told The Associated Press last month. "But we can carry on the torch of hope, not to restore the monarchy but to continue with that message of hope, although it will never have the same intensity."
The king's health had been "very precarious" earlier in 2007 and family members thought he was going to die then, Mustafa Zahir said.