Killing of cleric prompts outrage in Kabul and apology from coalition forces

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 29, 2010

KABUL -- A gunner in a U.S. military convoy shot and killed a local imam as he was driving his car here Thursday morning, prompting outrage among residents and an apology from coalition forces.

The killing of civilians is a sensitive political issue in Afghanistan and has become a public cause for President Hamid Karzai. U.S. commanders have taken pains to minimize such killings in recent months, but each new civilian death is capable of inflaming public sentiment against the presence of American troops.

The shooting Thursday occurred along a stretch of four-lane highway in the eastern Kabul neighborhood of Paktia Kot, outside Camp Phoenix, a U.S. military base. The site is not far from where a suicide bomber targeted a passing convoy Tuesday, wounding eight American soldiers.

In a statement describing the shooting, the U.S. military said the convoy "fired on what appeared to be a threatening vehicle," without elaborating.

Neighbors and friends at the scene said Mohammad Yunis, a cleric from Laghman province, was shot about 8 a.m. while idling in his Toyota Corolla station wagon on a mud side street that abuts the highway between Kabul and Jalalabad. They said the imam, who had two wives and multiple children, was waiting to pick up one of his sons and take him to an Islamic school when the convoy passed by and opened fire. They added that other children were in the car. The gunfire came from the third or fourth vehicle, they said, and was not preceded by an explosion or other shooting.

"After they shot him, they didn't stop. They just kept driving," said Baryalai, a 45-year-old day laborer at the scene who goes by one name.

Residents said they counted four gunshot wounds in Yunis's torso. At least eight bullet holes were visible in the passenger side of his vehicle.

The killing prompted a brief protest in Paktia Kot before elders called it off out of fear of a confrontation with Afghan forces.

Residents expressed outrage over the shooting of a man they described as a respected religious leader who had spent the past three months in Kabul teaching at an Islamic school and preaching at the Marqazi Jumad mosque.

"A lot of innocent people have been killed by the Americans," said Shabaz Khan, 20, a student.

When American soldiers determine that a vehicle is too close to their convoy, they have a series of procedures they are instructed to follow before resorting to shooting, such as using hand signals, making loud noises and firing warning shots. U.S. military officials said that an investigation is underway.

"This really does hurt, because we absolutely do not want to kill civilians," said one U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the matter is under investigation. "It hurts our overall cause."

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