KABUL, Afghanistan — An emotional President Hamid Karzai kissed his slain half brother's forehead Wednesday and lowered him into a grave at his family's ancestral cemetery, a brief pause in the jockeying for who'd replace southern Afghanistan's political kingpin.
Ahmed Wali Karzai's assassination a day earlier by a family associate opened a power vacuum in volatile Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban insurgency. The younger Karzai had been instrumental in maintaining the Afghan government's relations with tribal leaders in Kandahar and was a sometime ally of the United States, and his death leaves major questions about security in a region considered crucial to the U.S. military strategy to draw down forces from Afghanistan.
Underscoring the security concerns during the power vacuum, the governor of neighboring Helmand province, Mohammed Gulab Mangal, narrowly escaped a bomb attack on his motorcade as he was traveling to the funeral in Karz, north of Kandahar city.
In Kandahar, many residents said President Karzai had no choice but to replace his half brother — who parlayed his position as the head of the provincial council into the most powerful post in the region thanks to family ties, corruption and deal-making — with another controversial figure, Gul Agh Shirzai.
The governor of the eastern Nangarhar province and a onetime warlord, Shirzai is a member of the Karzais' rival tribe, the Barakzai, but he has a reputation for using a heavy hand to ensure stability and rein in Taliban militants. Kandahar is Shirzai's homeland as well, and he served as governor there before resentment of his violent ways led to his removal in 2004.
Analysts and Kandahar residents said Shirzai's style was well suited to Kandahar's combustible mixture of insurgents, tribal leaders and drug dealers
"When he was the governor of Kandahar, he had managed to build a good relationship with the locals. People respect him and his family a lot, and people believe in his capabilities," said Khaled Pashtun, a parliamentarian from Kandahar. "I think he is the only person that has the ability to fill (Ahmed Wali Karzai's) shoes. And I don't think anyone will oppose his comeback."
Another possibility to replace the slain Karzai is Abdel Razek, the provincial police chief and a close ally of the president's, experts said.
Thousands of Kandahar residents attended the funeral despite tight security, including Afghan troops deployed across the area and U.S. Apache helicopters circling overhead. A phalanx of high-ranking officials and prominent Afghans, including President Karzai and Shirzai, spent the previous night in Mandigak palace in Kandahar city before setting off in motorcades for the village of Karz at 7 a.m. Wednesday.
A sobbing Karzai lowered his brother into the grave and then departed with his motorcade. Back at the palace, he delivered a short speech to a few hundred mourners, saying, "Every day our people are killed, which is not in the interest of our country. The killing of our people should stop."
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said that President Barack Obama had telephoned Karzai on Wednesday to "express his condolences" for the killing.
Despite initial claims by the Taliban that they were behind the killing, witnesses said that the younger Karzai — known for abusive behavior toward even close associates — had been killed in a dispute with a man who ran checkpoints for him, Sardar Mohammed, who'd come to his house for a meeting. Witnesses said that an argument occurred between the two and Karzai began cursing at Mohammed, who shot him in the chest and skull. Karzai's bodyguards immediately killed Mohammed.
Shah Wali Karzai, the president's oldest brother, reportedly was appointed to replace the slain Karzai as the leader of the Popalzai tribe, the other powerful tribe in the region.
Amid fears that the power vacuum would result in violent clashes, the streets of Kandahar, a city of some 500,000 people, were empty late Wednesday. Most shops were closed, and Afghan soldiers and police were searching vehicles.
The death plunged the region into yet more uncertainty, analysts said.
"Whoever replaces Karzai, I think, will have a hard job ahead," Pashtun said. "It will take him years to gain the maturity of experience of Ahmed Wali Karzai in tribal politics and leading people."
Also on Wednesday, five French soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing northeast of the Afghan capital, Kabul, in one of the deadliest attacks on the French contingent here. The attack occurred a day after French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Kabul to announce that France would withdraw one-quarter of its roughly 4,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of next year.
(Zohori is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.