- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2001

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan In the compound of the supreme leader of the defeated Taliban movement, one crude mural depicts a tranquil rural scene except for the two green jet fighters zooming across the painted sky.

Elsewhere in the headquarters from which Mullah Mohammed Omar imposed his harsh brand of Islam, some pillars are painted and shaped like tree trunks, much like those seen at amusement parks abroad. In the parking lot is a molded cement sculpture with fake rocks and branches.

Some rooms in the compound are spacious and look onto scraggly geranium gardens, but they are not opulent. They are as spare as the bare rock mountain that looms beyond the high brick walls of the complex.

The former owner is now a fugitive, and there are new tenants. Yesterday, U.S. Special Forces in crisp, desert camouflage uniforms and Afghan tribal warriors with old Russian rifles and rusty rocket launchers roamed the compound. Some were former Taliban fighters who defected.

The place has evolved into a center of post-Taliban political activity and discussion in a city that has endured some of the most sustained bombing of the U.S. military campaign.

In one of the chambers, Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, sat cross-legged with other tribal leaders and conferred on the administration of Kandahar, which the Taliban abruptly surrendered last week.

But the negotiating sessions have yet to translate into a competent leadership for a city that lacks most basic services, and even most of its residents. Up to three-quarters fled the U.S. attacks on Taliban positions and the uncertainty of war, and many have yet to return.

"Lots of shops are closed for fear of theft and looting," said Mahdoob, an auto-parts salesman. "We want an organized administration, which so far we don't see."

Mahdoob kept his store open, though shutters were pulled down all around Shahedan Chowk, or Martyr's Corner, a busy traffic circle named after fighters who died in the war against the Soviets.

Traffic policemen in untucked uniforms and high-peaked caps that looked decades old tried to regulate an unruly stream of traffic.

But for the most part they were ignored by surging crowds, motorized rickshaws spewing clouds of exhaust fumes and pickups full of gunmen, a routine sight and source of insecurity since the Taliban left.

The gunmen belong to different factions and appear to have carved up the city. On one stretch of road, forces loyal to Mullah Naqeebullah, a commander who helped Mr. Karzai broker the Taliban's surrender, guarded residences where some Islamic militia leaders used to live.

One hundred yards up the street, a truck with an anti-aircraft gun on its bed was parked in a gas station. It belonged to fighters affiliated with Mr. Karzai.

The third and largest faction of fighters in Kandahar belongs to Gul Agha, a former governor of the city and its province of the same name who got his old job back with Mr. Karzai's approval.

"These armed men, they give strange looks at the civilians. People are afraid to come out of their homes at night," said Abdul Qadir, a resident. "If you have a gun in your hand, you're the boss."

At Mullah Omar's compound, the gunmen appeared mesmerized as they watched a dozen U.S. soldiers perform mundane tasks.

The soldiers, who had been staying in the compound, loaded rucksacks, sleeping bags and generators onto a truck. Some rode in a pickup truck with no windshield and flying the red, black and green flag of Afghanistan's exiled monarch, Mohammed Zahir Shah. The colors are a popular anti-Taliban symbol in southern Afghanistan.

The Americans rarely spoke when crowds were around. A middle-age, Western man wearing jeans, a windbreaker and sunglasses was with them.

Anti-Taliban tribal leaders say U.S. soldiers, who have established a base near Kandahar to search for leaders of the Taliban and the al Qaeda terrorist network, have removed boxes of evidence from Mullah Omar's compound.

U.S. warplanes have bombed a sentry's tower and other places in the compound, but it is largely intact and its space and location on the outskirts of the city make it one of Kandahar's few secure sites for large meetings.

The U.S. bombing in the city was pinpointed: the Taliban's criminal investigation bureau is a pile of rubble, while buildings next to it stand unscathed.

However, the empty Pakistani consul's house partly caved in during a U.S. air assault on a house next door, believed to be owned by Arabs linked to terror suspect Osama bin Laden.

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