- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Officials in Kandahar proclaimed yesterday that peace had been restored to their war-ravaged city and appealed for international aid to help rebuild.

Soldiers loyal to the new governor, Gul Agha, patrolled streets and alleys in pickup trucks, navigating the rubble of bricks and mud left behind after more than two months of U.S. bombing.

Shoppers confidently filled the city's bazaars, where market stalls were selling everything from fresh slabs of red meat to the firewood needed to cook it.

"We are asking everyone to trust us and our city will be peaceful again," said Mohammed Shah Khan, the senior military commander for the city that was the birthplace of the Taliban regime in the early 1990s.

Last Friday, the Taliban surrendered Kandahar, its last remaining stronghold, to local opposition commanders. They have since set up a temporary government in negotiations with Hamid Karzai, the designated leader of a six-month interim government for the entire nation.

Mr. Karzai flew to Kabul Wednesday night to take up his new position, leaving behind a city that appeared outwardly calm but with plenty of tension below the surface.

A dozen injured Arab prisoners lay in one ward at the city's main hospital, grenades strapped to their chests and threatening to blow themselves up if anyone but the doctor entered.

These thousands of fighters from throughout the Arab world came to Afghanistan at the call of Osama bin Laden to wage "holy war" against the West.

Apart from the Arabs in the "suicide ward," the three-story hospital appeared to operate normally with an impressive stockpile of medicine.

A dozen or so elderly Afghan men filled another ward, wrapped in clean white bandages, each with an intravenous drip flowing into his arm.

The surreal standoff in the suicide ward could just as easily serve as a metaphor for the entire city, lying quietly in pain and unsure what to expect next.

Tribal fighters manned machine-gun positions overlooking major intersections. At night the streets are deserted, with the quiet broken only by the occasional crackle of automatic weapons or a bomb exploding in the distance.

Guards with rocket-propelled grenades watched over the approaches to buildings used by officials of the new government.

"Now is the time we need the help of the international community, especially in Kandahar, which has almost completely been destroyed," said Mr. Khan, the commander.

"We need construction equipment, new roads, schools, machines to dig wells and a U.N. peacekeeping force."

A giant green-domed mosque stands unscathed in the central market, a shrine that is said to contain a cloak worn by the Prophet Muhammad himself.

Little else remains to suggest the city's past grandeur as an oasis for traders traveling through southern Afghanistan's vast desert.

The vineyards and orchards on the outskirts of the city have shriveled from years of drought and neglect.

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban supreme leader, is said to remain in hiding somewhere outside the city.

"We have a general idea where he is, and the U.S. knows about it," said Yusuf Pashtu, an adviser to the new governor. He declined to say more.

Seven years ago, Mullah Omar stood outside the mosque and wrapped himself in the prophet's cloak to legitimize his self-proclaimed role as spiritual and temporal ruler of all of Afghanistan.

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