Originally created 11/18/02

Ali in Afghanistan on goodwill mission for U.N.



KABUL, Afghanistan -- Muhammad Ali arrived in Afghanistan on Sunday for a three-day visit to focus world attention on rebuilding one of the most devastated countries on earth.

Ali, a devout 60-year-old Muslim and now a "U.N. Messenger of Peace," met President Hamid Karzai at the presidential palace, and was greeted as a hero.

"We are honored, we are very happy a guy like him was coming to Afghanistan," Karzai said as ministers, government officials, and U.S. Ambassador Robert P. Finn shook hands with Ali.

Ali, who has Parkinson's disease, sat motionless during Sunday's ceremony, his hands shaking slightly.

Speaking through an aide, the former heavyweight champion said he wished he could stay longer and joked that he would consider taking up Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani's offer of buying him a house in Kabul.

Karzai gave Ali a green gown called a chappan - the same chic, trademark garment Karzai himself often wears over his suits.

Earlier, Ali, dressed in black shirt and pants, was handed flowers by Foreign Ministry officials as he stepped off a white U.N. plane.

On Monday, he is due to visit a girl's school, a women's bakery, and young athletes at one of the city's sporting clubs, said Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan.

Silva said Ali, who departs Tuesday, was making the visit - his first to Afghanistan - as a guest of the U.N. children's agency and the U.N. World Food Program.

"Mr. Ali wanted to come here ... in order to emphasize the need for continued international support for Afghanistan and the Afghan people," Silva said.

Ali is one of dozens of celebrities from around the globe to serve as a goodwill ambassador or "Messenger of Peace" for the United Nations.

During the Vietnam war, while he was at the height of his boxing career in 1967, Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army for religious reasons.

He was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title and banned from boxing before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1971.

Ali went on to regain the title by knocking out George Foreman. Later, he lost that title but won it back again for an unprecedented third time.

Ali, who now trembles and has difficulty walking, became one of sport's most beloved figures and is often ranked as the greatest athlete of the past century.