- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 12, 2011

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai’s half brother, the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan and a lightning rod for criticism of corruption in the government, was assassinated Tuesday by a close associate.

Ahmed Wali Karzai’s death leaves a dangerous power vacuum in the south just as the government has begun peace talks with insurgents ahead of a U.S. withdrawal.

Wali Karzai, head of the Kandahar provincial council, was shot to death while receiving guests at his home in Kandahar, the capital of the province that was the birthplace of the Taliban movement and was the site of a recent U.S.-led offensive.

Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor of Kandahar, identified the assassin as Sardar Mohammad and said he was a close, “trustworthy” person who had gone to Wali Karzai’s house to get him to sign some papers.

As Wali Karzai was signing the papers, the assassin “took out a pistol and shot him with two bullets — one in the forehead and one in the chest,” Mr. Wesa said.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination at the heavily guarded house, hidden behind 8-foot blast walls.

The Interior Ministry said an investigation was under way, and Kandahar Police Chief Gen. Abdul Raziq said police have detained several men who were guarding Mr. Mohammad’s home for questioning about his recent activities.

Wali Karzai, who was in his 50s and had survived several previous assassination attempts, was seen by many as a political liability for the Karzai government after a series of allegations, including that he was on the CIA payroll and involved in drug trafficking. He denied the charges.

President Karzai repeatedly challenged his accusers to show him evidence of his sibling’s wrongdoing, but said nobody ever could.

Wali Karzai remained a key power broker in the south, helping shore up his family’s interests in the Taliban’s southern heartland, which has been the site of numerous offensives by U.S., coalition and Afghan troops to root out insurgents.

Militants have retaliated by intimidating and killing local government officials or others against the Taliban.

The United Nations said in a quarterly report issued June 23 that more than half of all assassinations across Afghanistan since March had been in Kandahar. In April, the Kandahar police chief Khan Mohammad Mujahid was killed by a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform who blew himself up beside the official’s car.

According to a government official with knowledge of the investigation, Wali Karzai was holding a meeting in his home with five provincial council members and a number of local village elders, including the assassin.

The official said Mr. Mohammad was a close friend and had represented Wali Karzai many times in their shared home village of Karz, the president’s hometown. Mohammad was the village elder of Karz and was his emissary and travel companion throughout Kandahar, the official said.

In Kabul, the political elite reacted to the killing with shock and concern about the future of the country’s southern region and beyond.

Though Wali Karzai held an elected office in the provincial council, people who knew him said he seemed to float above the various political and tribal spheres dominating the south. Throngs of people came to Karzai’s house on a daily basis seeking remedies for everything from family disputes, to tribal battles, to political intrigues.

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