- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan U.S. Marines rumbled through the streets of Kandahar yesterday in an early morning convoy of armored cars sent to secure the city center and the outlying airport in the first known major American deployment in an Afghan city.
The convoy of at least 30 vehicles and nearly 100 men drove through the deserted city streets at about 3 a.m., heading for the airport east of the city that had been the scene of intense U.S. air strikes and fighting between the Taliban and opposition fighters prior to the former's departure a week ago yesterday.
U.S. commanders said they planned to remove unexploded bombs and booby traps left by the Taliban before rebuilding the airport with the help of local contractors.
"There is a ton of unexploded ordnance" said Lt. Don Faul, of Groton, Mass. "There are active minefields all around."
The Marines, based at Camp Rhino, southwest of Kandahar, cut off access to the airport as more Marines landed in helicopters, said Maj. Christopher Hughes, a public affairs officer for Task Force 54. There were no reports of fighting.
Maj. Hughes said that the troops were taking control of only a part of the airport and that they planned to return it to civilian control.
Officials in the new administration of Kandahar said the airport should begin receiving humanitarian aid flights next week. One local official said work was under way to patch up seven bomb craters in the airport runway.
"This is our link to the outside world," said Yusuf Pashtu, a close adviser to Gul Agha whose Afghan militia controls the city.
As the Marine convoy rumbled toward the airport, many Afghans waved AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers in joyful greeting.
"They are happy to see us but be aware there are still a lot of people in there who don't like us, so be careful," said Gen. James Mattis, commander of Camp Rhino.
He also urged Marines to help buy back Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which the United States supplied to Afghan fighters to repel the Soviets during the 1980s.
Commanders are worried that leftover Stingers could be used against U.S. helicopters.
"If you see someone with a Stinger, offer to buy it," Gen. Mattis told the Marines. "There are plenty still here and we will pay big money for it."
The presence of American commandos is an especially sensitive issue in a nation that has been destroyed twice in the past two decades by foreign fighters first the Soviets and more recently the thousands of Arabs who answered Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's call to wage war against the West.
Following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, widely blamed on bin Laden, the Taliban not only refused to hand over the terrorist mastermind but gloated that American ground forces would meet the same fate as Soviet forces.
"Nobody here minds the Americans," said Ahmad Karzai, a security adviser to the Kandahar government and the younger brother of Hamid Karzai, the man slated to become the interim head of a 29-member government to take office in Kabul on Dec. 22.
Mr. Karzai spoke while meeting with tribal leaders in one of the few buildings still standing in a sprawling fortress where Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar lived.
Most of the compound's buildings lie in ruin after a two-month pounding by American jets.
In the early morning hours yesterday, Marines dressed in desert camouflage converted an open area in the compound into a makeshift air base and began receiving vehicles.
From there, the convoy made its way through the city streets.
The deployment followed days of efforts by the city's new government to restore calm.
The streets now lie quiet at night, and the occasional crackle of gunfire has all but stopped.
On the edge of Kandahar, mud walls go on for miles, protecting entire neighborhoods as they have since biblical times.
In one such neighborhood, said to have been occupied by immigrant Arab fighters, the outer walls remained intact while streets inside lay littered with the rubble of houses destroyed by U.S. bombs.
"The Arabs living here, they came in the name of jihad but they were just terrorists," said Rahimullah Qandhari, a member of Mr. Agha's militia.
Sitting in the front seat of a Toyota pickup, with an AK-47 assault rifle resting lazily between his legs, he said no one knows for sure where the Arabs went.
"Some left for Quetta [in Pakistan]. Some left for Chechnya [in southern Russia]," he said.
At least 300 Arabs in 60 trucks left for Naruf, a mountain village more than 100 miles to the northeast, presumably to flee to Pakistan, Mr. Qandhari said.
Like others, he said that he had no idea where the fugitive Mullah Omar had fled.
Gossip in the street was that the one-eyed mullah had taken off for Pakistan on a motorcycle.
Pakistan has beefed up security by stationing army troops along its boundary with Afghanistan.

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