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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghan Parliament Is Inagurated

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan inaugurated its first popularly elected parliament in more than three decades Monday, a major step toward democracy following the ouster of the hard-line Taliban.

But there were concerns about whether the legislature will be a constructive political force, as more than half of the new lawmakers are regional strongmen.

The national assembly began with a reading from the Quran, the national anthem and a folksong by schoolgirls dressed in brightly colored robes. President Hamid Karzai, while acknowledging the country's problems with poverty, corruption and terrorism, called the assembly a display of unity.

"This is an important step toward democracy," he said.

He closed his speech by tearfully saying that Afghanistan was "again standing on its feet, after decades of war and occupation."

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, sat in the front row. Cheney signed a guest book afterward.

"It's a privilege to be present on this historic day for the people of Afghanistan," he wrote.

The 249-seat body is made up of a mix of tribal leaders, Westernized former refugees, warlords, women and ethnic minorities, in itself a victory for a nation recovering from a ruinous civil war.

Afghans voted for the lower house in September, and also elected provincial councils that then chose two-thirds of the 102-seat upper chamber. Karzai appointed the remaining 34.

With little or no experience governing and many lacking basic education, the lawmakers will have to learn quick.

"Today was a very good day," said Kubra Mustafawi, one of the assembly's women. Nearly one-third of the delegates are women. "After 30 years, the Afghan nation has gathered under the umbrella of peace."

Most of the government's power is still concentrated in the hands of the president, although the parliament will be able to pass laws and veto his Cabinet selections. The country has had no elected national assembly since 1973, when coups and the Soviet invasion plunged it into decades of chaos that left more than 1 million people dead. Civil war raged in the early 1990s, followed by the disastrous rule of the Taliban.

After Monday's largely ceremonial opening session -- it closed after only two hours -- security and stability were expected to be major issues for the lawmakers in the weeks ahead.

The inauguration of the assembly formally concludes the political transition process agreed on by Afghan factions under UN auspices in December 2001, though Afghanistan is still a long way from stability.

 The United States operated a secret prison in Afghanistan as recently as last year, torturing detainees by chaining them to walls and forcing them to listen to loud music in total darkness for days, a human rights group alleged Monday.

The prison was run near Kabul, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report based on the testimony of several detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, who said they were held there.

According to the report, the detainees called the facility "Dark Prison" and were tortured and mistreated by American and Afghan guards in civilian clothes, suggesting it might have been operated by the CIA.