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Afghan king searches for his new role

The Afghan king returned to Kabul yesterday, while near Kandahar, an errant US bomb killed four Canadian troops.

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Afghanistan's former king ended a 29-year exile yesterday, arriving in the capital as flagbearers and costumed tribesmen danced in the streets. The crowd fought for a closer view of Mohammad Zahir Shah, a man many expect to assume the role of a patriarch and pacifier in this war-torn country.

The former king is due to chair the loya jirga (a quasi-democratic meeting of tribal elders) and possibly become the head of state, if elected, though most analysts do not expect the country to return to monarchy. The loya jirga, which will determine the composition of Afghanistan's future government, presents the Pashtun monarch with a host of ethnic and political complications – including the strong clout wielded by members of the Northern Alliance, a distinctly non-royalist group comprised of mostly Tajik and Uzbek leaders.

Zahir Shah, smiling broadly and moving with a new spring in his step, strolled down a red carpet at the airport and saluted a military honor guard before greeting dozens of his most loyal supporters. On his ride to his new renovated villa in a black Mercedes-Benz, the frail but steady octogenarian – wearing a black Italian leather jacket – sat next to the country's interim leader, a fellow Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, who had flown to Rome to escort the former monarch home.

But the royal return has left Afghans wondering whether the deposed king will ever again exercise real authority. Several analysts in Kabul say they're concerned that the former king could, like Mr. Karzai, become a political "captive" of the powerful security and intelligence ministries controlled by the Northern Alliance. Mohammed Sahriqi, a lecturer in political sciences at Kabul University, warns that the northerners dominating key ministries would have the king under "lock and key."

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