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Karzai Set to Address Joint Session Next Week

During his visit to Washington next week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will join a select group of foreign leaders granted the privilege of addressing a joint meeting of Congress.

Karzai is the latest in a string of U.S. allies who have been so honored, including several who strongly supported President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in March 2003. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Spanish President Jose Maria Aznar, both of whom backed the Iraq campaign, have each addressed a joint meeting of Congress since the war began.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard, another supporter of the Iraq invasion, addressed a joint meeting in June 2002.

Karzai’s address to Congress is scheduled for Tuesday, June 15, although the events surrounding the memorial for former President Ronald Reagan have caused some confusion about next week’s timetable. An official at the Afghan Embassy in Washington confirmed that Karzai is slated to make his address on Tuesday.

Karzai was installed as Afghanistan’s interim leader by the U.S.-led coalition that toppled the Taliban regime following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Karzai is now heavily favored to win a five-year term as Afghanistan’s president in the September elections, and he is kicking off an international tour this week to help build support for his government.

In addition to meeting with President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he arrives in town next week, Karzai also hopes to confer with members of the House and Senate Appropriations and foreign affairs committees, according to Ashraf Haidari, a spokesman for the Afghan Embassy in Washington.

There are currently about 20,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, a number that has grown as the Afghan elections grow nearer. There are thousands more troops from various allied nations. Remnants of the former Taliban regime and al Qaeda terrorist network have been stepping up their attacks on coalition forces in recent months, and seven U.S. troops have been killed in the past month alone. Overall, more than 120 Americans have died during the Afghanistan campaign.

The 46-year-old Karzai comes from an ethnic Pashtun family that has long been active in Afghan politics. He attended college in India and was there when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Based in Pakistan during the long struggle against the Soviets, Karzai was a key strategist for the Mujahideen forces.

Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Karzai returned home, and in 1992 he was appointed deputy foreign minister under former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, although he later resigned that post. When the Taliban militia ousted Rabbani in 1996, Karzai briefly aligned himself with the group, but he later became alarmed by the Taliban’s authoritarian style and rigid interpretation of Islamic law.

Karzai, his father and younger brother fled the country in 1997 for Pakistan, where they led opposition to the Taliban. His father was assassinated in 1999, allegedly by Taliban agents, and Karzai became the leader of the Popolzai, a powerful Pashtun clan with about 500,000 members.

After U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in October 2001 as part of the campaign to topple the Taliban, Karzai returned home and rallied Pashtun leaders to support the coalition forces.

He was sworn in as interim prime minister of Afghanistan in December 2001. A special council called a loya jirga voted overwhelmingly in June 2002 to appoint him as head of state until national elections could be held.

Karzai is the first Afghan leader to address Congress and in doing so will be added to a list of luminaries that includes Queen Elizabeth II of England, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.

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