- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

LONDON Thousands of American troops scouring Afghanistan for Mohammed Omar have been looking for the wrong man, said an Afghan villager who claims that his face is on the CIA's wanted poster and not that of the fugitive Taliban leader.
Maulvi Hafizullah, a former protocol officer for the Taliban, has been hiding in fear for his life in a remote part of southern Afghanistan since his photograph appeared as Omar on hundreds of thousands of leaflets airdropped by American forces earlier this year. The leaflets offer a $5.15 million reward, more than a million times the average weekly income in Afghanistan.
Maulvi Hafizullah, who had fled to his home village after the collapse of the Taliban last December, was horrified when he saw the leaflet. "I looked at the photo, and it was me," he said. "The CIA are blind and stupid."
Besieged by villagers and even asked by his own 5-year-old son if he was really Omar, Maulvi Hafizullah fled his village and went into hiding. "I'm afraid to leave the house," he said. "If I do, soldiers or villagers will tear me to pieces so they can get the money."
Maulvi Hafizullah and the Taliban leader share bushy black beards, but one fundamental difference seems to have been neglected on the "wanted" poster: Maulvi Hafizullah has two eyes, but Omar has only one, having been half-blinded in a Soviet rocket attack in 1986.
"We don't know anything about this man," said an American government official. "There aren't that many pictures of Mullah Omar around, anyway. What this does show is that this kind of poster drop certainly is effective, as people are chasing it up on the ground."
There is some justification for what may be a highly expensive case of mistaken identity. The Taliban leader was so reclusive during his six-year rule that most Afghans have no idea what he looks like. There were no official portraits, he refused to allow himself to be filmed or photographed, and there is even doubt about the most commonly used grainy image from the British Broadcasting Corp. of him holding up Prophet Muhammad's cloak in 1996.
He traveled only twice out of his adopted hometown of Kandahar and rarely left his compound, venturing out at night on a motorbike in disguise to listen to what people were saying about his regime.
The case of the man who is not Omar is the latest embarrassment in a campaign that has yet to capture any senior Taliban officials. After a year of false leads and daily sorties by American special forces, Omar constantly has eluded capture. Earlier this year, American troops surrounded a village in which he was said to be hiding, only to have him escape on a motorcycle.
He generally is thought to be still alive, hiding out in rural villages somewhere in the mountains north of Kandahar. Last month, Al Jazeera television ran a statement purportedly from him, in which he vowed to fight on until Afghanistan has been "liberated" from foreign forces.


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