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Afghan government struggling to keep support of Islamic council

By David Nakamura and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 10:40 PM

KABUL - Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration is struggling to shore up support from an influential Islamic council, which appears to be shifting to more conservative, anti-government views at a time when it is being asked to play a key role in persuading Taliban insurgents to surrender their arms.

The Ulema Council, composed of 3,000 mullahs from across the country, has long been counted on to spread a pro-government message to remote villages and keep the Karzai administration informed about popular opinion. The administration pays each mullah a monthly stipend of about $100 and in return expects support for its agenda.

But council leader Fazl Hadi Shinwari, a former Afghan Supreme Court chief justice who is in his late 80s, has been in a coma at a hospital in India for months since suffering a stroke. And the government is having trouble finding a suitable replacement, said Mohammad Umer Daudzai, Karzai's chief of staff.

In the meantime, 350 Ulema Council members made headlines at a meeting a few weeks ago when they voted to demand that Karzai implement sharia law, a strict Islamic code that includes severe punishments, such as death by stoning for adultery. That was the method the Taliban chose last month for the executions of a young couple who had eloped.

Without strong government support from the council, Daudzai said, clerics sympathetic to the Taliban could win influence over the populace.

"They might say suicide is allowed, and then we'll have more and more suicide bombings," Daudzai said.

The critical role the mullahs play in influencing society came into stark relief this past week when they organized a handful of fiery demonstrations in Kabul and elsewhere in protest of a Florida church's plan to burn copies of the Koran, the Muslim holy book. Hundreds of young men burned effigies, threw rocks and chanted anti-American slogans, and the mullahs said they believed the actions by the church, which later postponed its event, could help the Taliban recruit young, disaffected Afghans.

Enayatullah Balegh, an Ulema Council member and professor of sharia law at Kabul University, organized one protest of more than 500 people last Monday. He said the council does not support the insurgency.

However, he said the group agrees with some of the Taliban's values and believes that the government should "use religion to be tolerant, to be peaceful and to listen to some of the legitimate [Taliban] claims that are in line with Islamic religious principles."

Furthermore, Balegh said, the council is increasingly frustrated by NATO's tactics in the nearly nine-year-old war.

"The violations by international forces, like ransacking houses, putting pressure on the government, promoting and demoting people in the government - that is against the principles of the Ulema Council," he said. "The national sovereignty of Afghanistan is seriously under question."

A key part of NATO plan

Keeping the mullahs on board could be critical as NATO forces ramp up a surge this fall to clear Taliban strongholds and bring security to regions that have become more dangerous, mostly in the south and east. A government "reintegration plan" developed in recent weeks calls for at least one council member to be on each of the provincial teams that will reach out to lower-level Taliban fighters.

The mullahs, who preach to thousands of mosque members, exert broad influence in their communities, presiding over births, religious education, marriages and deaths.

A critical issue for them, as for everyone else, is security. Insurgents have killed several prominent clerics, including Mohammad Hassan Taimu, a hajj pilgrimage leader who died when an improvised bomb detonated last week in Kandahar.

Habib Salehi, a spokesman for the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said mullahs in Taliban-controlled areas are "psychologically influenced" by the insurgents and need government support and protection.

"They want the Afghan government to seriously support the mullahs who are trying to work for peace and stability," Salehi said.

That is why the government offers stipends to the mullahs. In a scandal this summer, Karzai aide Mohammad Zia Salehi was arrested and accused of wrongfully accessing the special fund from which the money is drawn; the president intervened to get him released from jail in late July. Sources have said that Mohammad Salehi was under investigation for allegedly doling out cars and cash to presidential allies and talking regularly with the Taliban.

Daudzai said the payments to the mullahs are legal and transparent. He said the administration is launching a similar plan to provide money and protection to village elders, who also have been targets of Taliban attacks.

"Five times a day, they're leading prayers in the mosque," Daudzai said of the mullahs. "If they say one day one word against the United States, we have a big problem. But if they say one word in our support, we're fine."

A question of legitimacy

But the Ulema Council's relationship with the government hurts its credibility with the public, said Haroun Mir, an Afghan political analyst and a critic of Karzai's administration. He said the Taliban's arguments about religion hold more sway than those of the council, which he called a "useless institution."

Habibullah Hassam, who operates a Kabul mosque with 2,000 worshipers, is running for a seat in the Afghan parliament this month. Karzai's administration, he said, wants "the Ulema to pass a resolution or fatwa to make the Taliban struggle illegal, to give religious legitimacy to the central government. But the government has gained neither legitimacy nor given expulsion to the Taliban."

Some mullahs preach a hard line against the U.S. occupation. Abdul Raouf Nafi, who oversees a Kabul mosque with 6,000 members, said he does not support the Taliban's tactics but thinks Afghans are becoming "more anti-U.S."

"America hasn't done anything," Nafi said. "Look at what is happening. Afghanistan is being destroyed, and they claim they are building Afghanistan and helping it. Look at the roads. Can't America build [new] roads in a month? Of course they can, but they don't."

He added that Afghans have a saying: The winter is over, and the charcoal is still black.

"That means we've been betrayed," he said.

Balegh said the Ulema Council has a question for the Americans. He pointed to the January arrest in Pakistan of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second-ranking Afghan Taliban leader. Pakistani sources recently told the New York Times that their agents, with CIA assistance, detained Baradar after he secretly tried to negotiate a peace deal with the Karzai government that did not include Pakistan. What kind of motive is that? Balegh asked.

"We want the U.S. nation to question their politicians," Balegh said. "Why isn't that happening? That's our question."

nakamurad@washpost.com partlowj@washpost.com

Special correspondent Masood Azraq contributed to this report.

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