- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2011

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN Pushing through a ring of his security men, President Hamid Karzai climbed into his slain half brother’s freshly dug grave Wednesday and sobbed alongside the coffin at a funeral attended by thousands of mourners.

Overcome with grief, the president appealed to his countrymen to stop the violence.

Hours later, a bomb attack killed five French soldiers and an Afghan civilian in the east of the country.

The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was shot at close range by a confidant a day earlier, left Afghanistan’s leader without a powerful ally in the southern province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and site of recent military offensives by the U.S.-led military coalition.

The radical Islamic movement took responsibility for the killing, and the president, speaking later at a press conference, challenged his insurgent adversaries to give up violence.

“My message for [the Taliban] is that my countrymen, my brothers, should stop killing their own people,” Mr. Karzai said. “It is easy to kill and everyone can do it, but the real man is the one who can save people’s lives.”

In a land of big men, warlords and gangsters, Wali Karzai was all of these. He was the president’s bulwark against the Taliban’s forces in the south and the enforcer of Hamid Karzai’s tenuous rule over the Pashtuns, who dominate the insurgency.

To the international community, Wali Karzai offered indispensable reach and ruthlessness, but he was also an embarrassment - a partner whose other partners included opium dealers and smugglers.

On Wednesday morning, a sea of mourners surged toward the grave in the Karzai family’s home village of Karz in the south. The large wooden casket holding Wali Karzai’s body was filled with red flowers.

A tearful President Karzai appeared at the fringe of the throng of thousands and pushed toward the lowered coffin.

He paused at the edge of the open pit, then climbed down in it, partially disappearing from view, and wailed.

He remained there for at least a minute, his grief overwhelming other cries and prayers. Relatives and guards were unable to coax him out, but two men locked their arms underneath Mr. Karzai’s and pulled their leader out by force.

As Mr. Karzai left, his phalanx of guards again powering through the masses, a stream of people dropped fistfuls of dust on the casket.

Wali Karzai’s death will transform power relations in the south, where the international military coalition has few friends of stature and none with the sweeping influence of the president’s powerful sibling.

Hamid Karzai will struggle to find an ally resourceful enough in balancing alliances with tribal and political leaders, drug runners and militias in a province where the Taliban still hold much sway.