Kandahar Residents Meet New Governor

Times Staff Writer

At the first large gathering since this city fell just over a week ago, the new governor of Kandahar offered an olive branch to Taliban members who behave loyally and vowed that he himself would fight the United States if it tried to make its presence here permanent.

The governor, Gul Agha Shirzai, spoke Sunday at a service commemorating Eid al-Fitr, the three-day festival that follows the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was the first major opportunity for the new government in the Taliban heartland to try to exert its power and win over Kandahar's conservative people, who had been under the Islamic fundamentalist movement's rule since 1994.

Red-green-and-black flags, the banner used by supporters of Afghanistan's former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, fluttered above the Eidgha mosque, a huge blue edifice built by the deposed Taliban leadership.

About 25,000 people, most decked out in new robes and turbans as dictated by holiday tradition, attended the service on the outskirts of the city.

It was a smaller crowd than the Taliban once commanded, in part because the conservative Islamic movement made attendance mandatory and in part because many people driven away by war have not yet returned to the city.

During the service, prayer leader Mulavi Akhaunzada took a hard line against the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan.

He ridiculed Pakistani religious scholars who had directed thousands of the country's young men to go to Afghanistan and fight with the Taliban against other Muslims. An unknown number of Pakistanis were killed by U.S. bombs and Afghan opposition forces, or were taken prisoner.

He also denounced the Taliban, who he said blackened the reputation of Islam around the world by deeds such as the destruction of ancient statues of Buddha in Bamian province and by welcoming Al Qaeda, the terrorist group suspected in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"The attacks they did in America are not in our religion," Akhaunzada said. "To attack and kill thousands of innocent people, no matter what their religion, is forbidden."

Shirzai opened his remarks by reminding his commanders to regularly observe their prayers, so that the people of Kandahar would not think the commanders were any less devout than the Taliban.

"Those Taliban who want to be with us, and not to be the agents of others, we welcome them. They are our brothers," Shirzai said.

Aware of sensitivity about the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan, Shirzai said he will ask the Americans "to deliver and fulfill the promises that they have made to us, and then to leave our country safely."

The governor continued: "You should not think that I have become an American. . . . If they do not leave [after helping to rebuild Afghanistan], then we will fight against them, just as we fought against the Russians."

In Kandahar, Eid celebrations began at dusk Saturday with a tremendous cacophony of automatic gunfire. After the service Sunday, the city's people continued to savor pleasures that they could only dream about under the Taliban, such as listening to music tapes.

For the first time since 1994, the year the Taliban took over Kandahar, a live music performance was held Sunday at the bazaar near Martyrs' Square. Children rode small, hand-operated merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels made from wooden boughs. And teenage boys vied against one another in "egg fighting," a contest in which two hard-boiled eggs are tapped together to see which remains intact longer. The winner keeps the loser's egg.

As crowds strolled the streets near the governor's palace, two Humvees filled with U.S. service members rolled slowly into town, moving cautiously to mingle with Kandaharis in a sortie apparently meant to build goodwill.

"You are our guest. We are very happy to see you," an elderly man shouted through an interpreter to a man who identified himself as a Navy Seabee.

The sailor, unhelmeted but cradling an assault rifle, quickly learned the Pashto word for thank you and replied: "Mirvani!"

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