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Religious leaders warn of attacks against westerners in Afghanistan as anger over Iraq war mounts

KABUL, Afghanistan—Religious leaders are warning of attacks against westerners in Afghanistan as anger over the war in Iraq mounts, fueled by a recent call from the Taliban's fugitive leader Mullah Omar for a holy war against U.S. troops and their Afghan allies.

The initial Afghan reaction to the two-week-old war had been silent opposition. Many Afghans seemed relieved that after almost 30 years of war, fighting was taking place elsewhere.

But non-stop coverage of the war and reports of civilian casualties in another Islamic country has contributed to a growing sense of outrage, said Mullah Abdul Rhmam of the Hagi Xaqob Mosque in south Kabul.

"Every time the people pray, they request of God for the Muslims to win the war in Iraq," Rhmam said. "Iraq is a Muslim country and the American forces attacked it. According to Islamic law, if any Muslim country is attacked by a non-Muslim country, then it is for every Muslim 14 years old and older to go to jihad and fight."

Gulrahman Qazi, a political science professor at Kabul University, attributed Afghans' anger over the American-led war to the slow pace of international aid to Afghanistan.

"If the rebuilding of Afghanistan had started in earnest, people would have jobs and wouldn't have time to think of jihad," Qazi said. "Poverty leads to idle minds and that leads to violence. The extremists know this and use it to cause trouble."

Omar's decree, released on Monday in posters and widely displayed in southeastern Afghanistan, carried about 600 signatures from Islamic clerics reminding the faithful of their duty to wage war against infidels or non-Muslims.

His call to arms came 12 days after the war in Iraq started. In that time, Afghanistan has been wracked by increased violence, especially in southern Afghanistan, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban.

An international Red Cross worker was shot execution-style, two U.S. Special Forces servicemen were killed in an ambush, the international peacekeeping headquarters in Kabul was hit by a rocket, and there were smaller-scale attacks against coalition forces in Gardez and other areas near the capital.

American military commanders in Afghanistan have repeatedly warned that a U.S.-led effort to topple Saddam Hussein could become a rallying cry for al-Qaida and Taliban supporters opposed to the U.S.-backed central government and the presence of western troops.

"Afghans see America as very bad in its war with Iraq," said Mullah Mohammad Asif, a supporter of the call to jihad, of Sidul Anbia Mosque on the outskirts of Kabul. "Every day people come and request of God for Iraq to win. `Why does the United States attack Iraq?' the people ask. `Because it is Muslim,' they say, answering their own questions."

Deputy Minister of the Interior Hilaluddin Hilal said security had been tightened in Kabul following the attack on the international peacekeeping headquarters. He dismissed sympathy for Iraq as the sentiments of terrorists.

"Mullah Omar and (rebel leader) Gulbuddin Hekmatyar want to cause trouble for the government," Hilal said. "Saddam Hussein wants to cause trouble. Most Afghan people don't want to get behind them."

Hekmatyar, Hilal said, has offered thousands of dollars to anyone who kills westerners and Afghans working with them.

Since the war in Iraq began, Islamic clerics have noticed a disturbing trend in Kabul, the distribution of night letters—leaflets routinely posted on the doors of mosques denouncing the west. Those had been seen infrequently since the Taliban was ousted almost 19 months ago.

"Many people are now putting stickers on mosques calling for people to become angry—`the West occupies our country, kill all westerners,'" said Mullah Ataur Rahmam Salim of the Haji Awqaf Mosque. "In this time of war with Iraq, the enemies of Afghanistan have used Islam to call for a jihad against westerners. The enemy will try to make a problem between Afghan Muslims and westerners. Whether he succeeds or not is up to God."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.