- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan A leading mullah rumored to have defected to Pakistan and later pegged as a "moderate" who was unhappy with the Taliban leadership said yesterday that international aid workers could not enter Afghanistan unless the bombing stopped.

But what Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said was not as important as where he said it. Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news channel known as the CNN of the Arab world, said the footage was taken in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. For much of the past week, the Pakistani press reported that Mr. Muttawakil had made a secret trip to Islamabad to negotiate with officials there.

Though no one in the Pakistani government had confirmed his presence, the story took on a life of its own, especially when visiting Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States might accept some Taliban role in a post-Taliban government.

The rumors of Mullah Muttawakil in Pakistan were followed by additional reports that he had defected.

When the Taliban said he had never left the country, speculation shifted to Mullah Muttawakil as the leader of a "moderate" Taliban faction that was at odds with supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. Mullah Omar has refused to turn over Saudi-born Osama bin Laden wanted for his role in organizing the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon a refusal that has prompted U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.

When Mr. Powell and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ended their Tuesday meeting with a joint news conference, Mr. Powell said: "To the extent that [moderate Taliban] are willing to participate in the development of a new Afghanistan with everybody being represented, then we would have to listen to them or at least take them into account.

"You can't export them. You can't send them to another country. You can't ethnically cleanse Afghanistan after this is over, but you can certainly get rid of this particular regime."

Gen. Musharraf sounded even more enthusiastic, saying there were many moderates within the Taliban.

"Extremism is not in every Taliban, so one could I wouldn't like to get into the details of who are moderates, but one knows for sure there are many moderate elements within the Taliban community," he said.

Mullah Muttawakil was not mentioned by name, but he was widely considered in Pakistan to be a likely candidate, in part because he was the only top Taliban leader willing to regularly appear in front of the television camera. Most refuse to have their pictures taken.

Mullah Muttawakil's remarks yesterday were not without substance. He said the Afghan people were in "deep agony" from "a wild and brutal bombardment."

He also said the bombing must stop first before international aid workers, evacuated shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, could return.

"Their security is in danger," he said.

Aid agencies have become high-profile critics of the U.S. air strikes this week, calling for a pause in the bombing so relief supplies can be delivered before the onset of winter.

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