- The Washington Times - Friday, September 6, 2002

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan An assailant dressed in the uniform of the new Afghan army fired on a car carrying President Hamid Karzai yesterday, narrowly missing the president, hours after an explosives-packed car tore through a crowded Kabul market and killed 10 persons.
The violence was the most serious challenge to date to Mr. Karzai's government, which has been struggling to bring order and security to a country wracked by decades of bloodshed and civil war.
Afghan officials were quick to blame Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network for the violence, which came less than a week before the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
"Terrorists are behind both attacks, there is no doubt about it. And terrorists in this region are led by Osama and his associates," said Foreign Minister Abdullah.
The British Broadcasting Corp. identified the attacker as Abdul Rahman, who was killed, from the Kajaki area of Helmand province, an area in southern Afghanistan that was a base of support for the ousted fundamentalist Taliban regime. Rahman joined the security forces of Kandahar's governor only 17 days ago, the BBC reported.
President Bush expressed relief that Mr. Karzai was safe, and administration officials pledged to keep helping rebuild the country.
"We're not leaving," Mr. Bush said. "We want to help democracy flourish in that region."
Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, said Mr. Bush considers establishing a functioning government and viable economy in Afghanistan critical to the success of the U.S. mission there.
"We will be there no matter what happens until we are able to help the Afghans themselves consolidate a new order and stand on their own feet," said Mr. Khalilzad.
The assassination attempt occurred soon after Mr. Karzai, who was in his hometown of Kandahar for the wedding of his youngest brother, finished evening prayers at the city's historic Khalqa Sharif mosque.
After the prayers, Mr. Karzai and his party were given a tour of the governor's mansion, across the street from the mosque. The presidential motorcade was preparing to leave the governor's compound as hundreds of well-wishers were pressing against the gates.
"We were standing at the gates and saw Karzai wave," said Sardar Mohammed, an eyewitness to the attack. "Then I saw one guard point a Kalashnikov at Karzai and fire. There was a kid behind him, and he grabbed the gunman from behind."
Kandahar security chief Dur Mohammed said Mr. Karzai's U.S. military bodyguards immediately opened fire, killing the assailant and two others. The presidential motorcade sped off within moments of the attack while gunsmoke lingered over the mansion's grounds. The governor of Kandahar, Gul Agha Sherzai, was grazed in the neck, and Mr. Karzai was unharmed.
After the attack, Mr. Karzai returned to the governor's compound, where he is staying, and said he was fine.
The assassination attempt occurred hours after a car bomb rocked a busy market area in the center of Kabul, the bloodiest attack in the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taliban late last year.
There was confusion over the death toll in Kabul. Police said 15 persons were killed. Afghan state television put the number of dead at 26 with 150 injured. The Italian Emergency Hospital said 65 persons were admitted.
Witnesses said a small device thrown from a bicycle exploded first, and a much larger blast from a taxi went off moments later as people rushed to the site, in one of the most congested areas of the city on a day when many residents do their shopping before Friday's Muslim prayer day.
Dazed victims were led away from the scene, their clothing ripped and covered in blood. Sandals of some victims lay in the road, along with blood and shattered glass.
Kabul police Chief Basir Salangi accused al Qaeda of orchestrating the explosion. In addition to the terrorist network, former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun who opposes the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, also was a suspect in the bombing, police spokesman Dul Aqa said.
The violence also came just ahead of the anniversary of the Sept. 9 assassination of Ahmed Shah Masood, the revered military leader of the Northern Alliance, the opposition coalition that ousted the fundamentalist Taliban regime. That killing was blamed on bin Laden's network.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was "profoundly shocked" by the assassination attempt and the bombing in Kabul, his spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said in New York.
The United States has resisted efforts in the past to expand the U.N.-sponsored international security force, known as ISAF, beyond its current mandate to protect Kabul, although a U.S. detail provides personal security for Mr. Karzai.
But both Mr. Khalilzad and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said the United States was now "open" to a broader ISAF mission, something Mr. Karzai and human rights groups operating in Afghanistan have long urged.
New York University scholar Barnett Rubin, a leading U.S. authority on Afghanistan, recounted a conversation he had with a security official in the Karzai government during a trip to Kabul late last month.
"He told me, 'If you knew how many plots and attacks we stop in this city, you wouldn't even remain here one day,'" Mr. Rubin said.
Staff writer David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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