- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The suicide bomber who killed the head of an Afghan peace council struggling to start meaningful negotiations with the Taliban delivered a potentially fatal blow to the efforts to find a political settlement in Afghanistan.

Afghan officials on Wednesday mourned the death of former President Berhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the High Peace Council. His assassin had claimed he was a Taliban leader seeking to reconcile with the government and had waited for days in Kabul on the pretext of wanting to talk to Mr. Rabbani about peace.

The assassination sapped hope for reconciling with the Taliban and raised fears about deteriorating security in Afghanistan just as foreign combat troops are starting to pull out. Some U.S. and Canadian troops have left in recent months, and all foreign combat forces are to go home or move into support roles by the end of 2014, when Afghan forces are to be in charge of protecting and defending the nation.

Mohammad Ismail Qasemyar, the international relations adviser for the peace council, said the bomber, identified as Esmatullah, had approached several council officials, telling them that he was an important figure in the Taliban insurgency and would speak only directly with Mr. Rabbani.

“He wanted to talk about peace with Professor Rabbani,” Mr. Qasemyar said.

The appeal was passed up to President Hamid Karzai, who called Mr. Rabbani and encouraged him to meet with Esmatullah, said Ahmad Wali Masood, the brother of Ahmed Shah Masood, the resistance leader who was killed by al Qaeda in 2001. It’s unclear if Esmatullah was the attacker’s real name.

The bomber stayed for days at a house used for guests of the peace council while waiting for Mr. Rabbani to return from a trip to Iran, Mr. Qasemyar said.

On Tuesday, the two met and the attacker went to shake hands with Mr. Rabbani at his home, bowing his head near the former president’s chest and detonating a bomb hidden in his turban, Mr. Qasemyar said.

The U.S.-led coalition said another attacker also was involved, but that could not be confirmed by Afghan officials. The Interior Ministry said one person had been detained in connection with Mr. Rabbani’s death — the driver of the car that took the bomber to Mr. Rabbani’s house.

Mr. Rabbani was seen as a unifying force who brought together different ethnic factions, many of whom disagreed about whether the government should even be seeking negotiations with the insurgency.

Mr. Rabbani had been a leader of the Northern Alliance resistance movement, and his involvement in the peace council silenced many in that group that didn’t want to sit around a table with Taliban militants.

It was unclear who — if anyone — among Afghan powerbrokers might be able to fill that role now.

Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst and former Foreign Ministry official under the Taliban regime that was toppled in late 2001, said it was hard to foresee a future for the year-old peace council.

“It is clear for Afghan people, and even for the international community, that the Taliban do not agree with what the Afghan government is suggesting,” Mr. Muzhda said. “Nobody thinks that any positive development regarding the peace process through the High Peace Council is possible.”

Sarajuddin Sirat, who is active in the council and headed Mr. Rabbani’s political party in northern Baghlan province, said the former president’s death will make it very difficult for peace negotiators to move safely around the country to talk with Taliban figures.

“How can we feel safe?” he asked. “Look what happened to Rabbani.”

The street where Mr. Rabbani lived was under tight security Wednesday, and those gathered outside feared another suicide attack because so many dignitaries were there paying their respects.

A black cloth, a symbol of mourning, was draped over a wall. Throughout the day, top clerics, tribal leaders, government officials, former jihadi commanders and members of Mr. Rabbani’s party streamed in and out of the house as a loudspeaker broadcast readings of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

The dignitaries included Gen. Mohammed Qasim Fahim, the vice president; Abdullah Abdullah, a top opposition leader who ran against Mr. Karzai in the last election; Ismail Khan, a former warlord and current minister of water and power; and Atta Mohammed Noor, a powerful governor of Balkh province in the north. Local citizens denounced the Taliban, saying it was shameful for insurgents to kill an old man working for peace.

Neyamatullah Shahrani, a religious adviser to Mr. Karzai, said it will be difficult to replace Mr. Rabbani.

“He belonged to all Afghans. He was serving all the Afghan people. It’s too early to say how it will affect the peace efforts, but it is very difficult to replace Rabbani. He had relations with all these tribes in Afghanistan.”

The Pakistani government and leaders across the world condemned the killing. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Mr. Karzai as he rushed back to Kabul from the United States.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi, police chief in Kabul, said the Taliban was behind it.

When contacted by the Associated Press, Taliban spokesmen declined to discuss the killing, and spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said they were still investigating the killing.

“We are still gathering information on this. Right now our position is that we cannot say anything about this incident,” Mr. Mujahid said in a statement posted Wednesday on a Taliban website.

In Washington, Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Mr. Rabbani’s assassination a “great setback” for the cause of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan.

“Former President Rabbani was a historic figure who fought the Taliban in the 1990s and who continued to work for peace and stability as the head of the High Peace Council,” Mr. Kerry said in a statement. “Afghanistan’s enemies want to use his death along with other previous attacks to destabilize the region. We cannot let that happen. Too much is at stake for the people of Afghanistan and the country’s future.”

Afghans at Mr. Rabbani’s home blamed the Haqqani network, a militant organization based in Pakistan and affiliated with the Taliban and al Qaeda that has conducted several attacks in the capital.

And some criticized the government for failing to provide security while standing just steps away from its top officials.

“They are continuing to kill our leaders,” said Mr. Rashuddin, who was a close associate of Mr. Rabbani‘s. “How can the bombers get into Kabul? How can they get into the house close to Rabbani? There should be tight security. The Americans are saying they are for peace and security while our leaders are dying in front of our eyes.”

Mr. Rabbani, whose death came just days after insurgents attacked the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, was the latest high-ranking official close to Mr. Karzai to be killed by militants in recent months. Outnumbered on the battlefield, insurgents are conducting targeted attacks against officials aligned with the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition, lowering hopes that Afghan forces can secure the country.

“Every day they are killing,” said Mirza Mohammad, a 50-year-old former Afghan army officer from Parwan province. “The killing of Rabbani has brought chaos to Afghanistan.”

Mr. Mohammad, who was among those paying respects Wednesday at Mr. Rabbani’s home in Kabul, called for a national uprising. “We will soon get revenge,” he said. “Pakistan is behind this attack.”

Meanwhile, in the Waghaz district of eastern Ghazni province, nine Afghan policemen were killed Tuesday evening while they were trying to defuse a roadside bomb, said Gen. Zirawer Zahid, the provincial police chief.

And in the south, two NATO service members were killed in an insurgent attack, the alliance said in a statement Wednesday. NATO did not provide further details.

Including the latest deaths, at least 28 international troops have been killed so far this month in Afghanistan.

Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report from Kabul.