Mon, Aug 28, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Taliban targets clerics faithful to Kabul

ASSASSINATIONS Insurgents are going after civilian `soft targets' as part of their campaign to discredit President Hamid Karzai and destabilize the government

THE OBSERVER , KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

Staying one step ahead of the assassins is a nail-biting business, says Maulvi Ghulam Muhammad, one of Afghanistan's most senior Islamic clerics.

Armed bodyguards stand outside his office in the southern city of Kandahar and visitors are frisked. By day he varies his route to work and keeps vigilant; at night he slips between safe houses.

"Hardly a week passes when a suicide bomber is not hunting for me," says Muhammad, who leads the provincial religious council.

Over the past year the Taliban have killed a dozen Kandahar clerics, many in drive-by shootings. Muhammad fears he will be number 13.

The violence between coalition troops and Taliban fighters hogs the headlines in Afghanistan, where more than 600 insurgents have been killed over the past month alone.

But the militants are also conducting a ruthless assassination campaign against civilian "soft targets" as part of their drive to discredit President Hamid Karzai and destabilize his government.

Teachers, judges, aid workers and landmine removal specialists have been shot, bombed or beheaded for their links, however tenuous, with Karzai or the US.

In June five interpreters were killed when a bomb tore through their bus on the way to the US base outside Kandahar. The US government's aid wing, USAID, says it has lost 100 staff over the past three years.

But it is the killing of clerics from the Ulema Shura, a 2,000-strong body of religious leaders, that has had a shocking, symbolic resonance.

Religious leaders remain a powerful influence in Afghan society, but since 2001 the clerics have thrown their moral weight behind Karzai. Taliban leaders claiming religious sanction for their "holy war" are displeased.

"The maulvis tell people jihad is over and now is the time for rebuilding. That is a severe blow for the Taliban. So to obtain silence they kill them," said Ahmad Fahim Hakim of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

The Taliban have killed 20 clerics and wounded 40 over the past year, said Haji Khasrauw, aide to former chief justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari.

In one of the most recent attacks, a grenade was flung into a mosque in Khost Province, injuring three men including the mullah.

The bloodshed started in Kandahar, the Taliban's spiritual home, in May last year. A motorcycle-mounted gunman shot Maulvi Abdullah Fayyaz, then head of the Kandahar shura, through his office window.

The killing came 10 days after Fayyaz had publicly divested Taliban leader Mohammed Omar of his self-awarded title "Leader of the Faithful."

Just days later a bomb ripped through a crowd of mourners at Fayyaz's funeral, killing 21 and apparently showing that mosques were no safer than their mullahs. The attacks have sharply escalated since then.

The past month has seen two attacks on Kandahar clerics. One, Maulvi Shams ul-Haq, was shot in the head but survived.

The other was less lucky. Abdul Satar, who distributed a religious newsletter, bled to death outside his front door.

The beleaguered clerics are wrapped in theological tussles as well violent struggles. The Taliban claims that violence against foreigners is sanctioned by the Koran.

Pro-government scholars argue the opposite.

"The coalition troops were invited here by our government, which was elected by Muslims. So the coalition has our full permission," Muhammad said.

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