Afghanistan's 'Father of the Nation' Dies

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, whose 40-year reign until his exile in 1973 coincided with one of the most peaceful periods in Afghanistan's recent history, died Monday. He was 92.

"With paramount grief, I would like to inform my countrymen that ... Mohammad Zahir Shah has bid farewell to this mortal world," Afghan President Hamid Karzai told reporters.

State television interrupted its normal broadcast and a woman dressed in black announced that Zahir Shah had died. Prayers and recitals from the Quran followed.

The former king died in his bed after months of illness.

Describing Zahir Shah as the founder of Afghanistan's democracy and a symbol of national unity, Karzai announced three days of mourning.

Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan from 1933 until he was deposed by his cousin in 1973. He lived in exile in Italy before returning home as an ordinary citizen in 2002, but was accorded the honorary title "father of the nation."

Born in Kabul on October 15, 1914, Zahir Shah received part of his education in France and returned to Kabul for military training. He ascended the throne in 1933 after his father was assassinated by a deranged student.

For two decades, the king remained in the shadows, allowing three uncles to run the government. But he gradually gained in confidence and took full control in 1953, overseeing a cautious modernization of his backward realm.

He supported an end to women wearing the veil, used foreign cash to develop the country's infrastructure and managed to keep a balance between Soviet and Western interests.