- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2011

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — Pushing through a ring of his security men, President HamidKarzai 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 WaliKarzai, who was shot at point-blank range by a close 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 claimed responsibility for the killing, and the president, speaking later at a somber 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, WaliKarzai was all of these. He was the president’s bulwark against the Taliban’s forces in the south and the enforcer of the president‘s tenuous rule over the Pashtuns who predominate the insurgency.

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

On Tuesday 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 WaliKarzai’s body was filled with red flowers.

A tearful president 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.

WaliKarzai’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. The president 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.

The assassin was from WaliKarzai’s tribe and hometown and traveled with and worked beside him for seven years.

Afghan officials said it’s not clear whether he was killed by insurgents, as the Taliban claimed, or died as the result of an internal dispute.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid issued a statement Wednesday saying that insurgent fighters killed WaliKarzai because he cooperated with U.S., British and Canadian forces in the south.

“He was aligned with foreign occupiers” who bombed Afghan villages, Mr. Mujahid said.

The Taliban spokesman called WaliKarzai a “puppet” of the West and alleged that he was on the CIA payroll and profited from the illegal seizure of government and private land.

WaliKarzai had denied working for the CIA or being involved in shady business dealings.

Mr. Mujahid warned that if other Afghan officials fail to support the insurgency and befriend those aligned with the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition, they will face the same fate as the slain WaliKarzai.

In Wednesday’s insurgent strike in the eastern Kapisa province, an attacker detonated a bomb near a meeting of local leaders that was being guarded by French troops. Five French soldiers and an Afghan civilian were killed, the French president’s office announced in Paris.

Four other French soldiers and three other Afghan civilians were seriously injured in the attack in the village of Joybar.

Afghan security forces were a conspicuous presence at the burial, with troops and intelligence agents dispersed around and within the crowd.

Despite heightened security, two members of the Afghan intelligence service traveling to WaliKarzai’s funeral with Helmand provincial Gov. Gulab Mangal were injured when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Kandahar’s Maiwand district, said Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand.

Rustam Shah, former Pakistan ambassador to Afghanistan, said WaliKarzai’s death exposed the fragility of the security infrastructure in the southern provinces, particularly Kandahar, where the Americans have boasted of progress in wresting territory from the Taliban.

“It will be a big blow to the government’s image in the Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan,” he said.

“The president will have to be very careful to move quickly to consolidate and maintain his power structure in Kandahar.”

Solomon Moore reported from Kabul, Afghanistan. Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.