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Afghan imams wage political battle against U.S.

Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the joint U.S., Afghan and NATO military effort in Afghanistan.

Mohammad Nabi Aman, the imam at the Kabul mosque where Balegh preaches, said the U.S. Embassy has repeatedly invited him for meetings and Ramadan dinners. He said he has refused every invitation. "People don't like to see their imams and their leaders waiting in front of the gates of foreigners," Aman said.

A sense of religious conflict also underlies the criticism. The reason that the insurgency has grown so strong in recent years, said Abdul Bashir Hafif, an imam at a private mosque in a wealthy Kabul neighborhood, is that "Americans are considered to be Christians and Jews."

Influential leaders

To harness the political power of imams, Afghanistan's Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs sends letters to mosques each week with suggested topics for sermons. Karzai's office has long paid the Ulema Council - a collection of 3,000 mullahs - a monthly stipend in return for support for the government's agenda.

The United States has also sought to temper the mullahs' rhetoric. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has spent millions of dollars to fly mullahs to the United States and other countries to meet Muslims outside Afghanistan in the hope of encouraging a more moderate stance. The U.S. military funds mosque refurbishment projects and is partnering with the Afghan religious affairs ministry to facilitate building an electronic database of mosques.

A senior U.S. military official said dozens of mosques in key Afghan districts are used as "command-and-control nodes" for the Taliban, places where fighters can take refuge and stash weapons.

"The Taliban has used that network of mosques to extend their message," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss U.S. intelligence information. "Many, many mosques are directly linked back to the madrassas [in Pakistan] and teachings of the Taliban."

On Feb. 3, Afghan intelligence agents said they had raided a small mosque in a narrow, muddy lane in a Kabul slum. Inside the imam's bedroom, stashed in metal boxes, they found two dozen mines, which they said were intended to blow up Kabul's airport. The disruption of the alleged plot and the arrest of the imam, 23-year-old Abdul Rahman, was a small but significant victory for Afghan authorities.

But by the next day, in his Friday sermon across town, an imam cast suspicion on the arrest.

"Who was he really working for?" Enayatullah Karimi said to dozens gathered at the Ayub Khan Mina mosque. "The Jews and Christians are training some Islamic scholars. They have beards and wear turbans just like us."

"The Jews and Christians are our enemies," Karimi told the crowd. "No doubt about it."

Anger over comment

It was a comment by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) - calling for permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan - that set Habibullah, the firebrand imam, off.

"There are some nut cases with pro-West and pro-infidel ideas who are urging President Karzai to accept the Americans' offer," he said last Friday. "But no matter how well protected these people are in the arms of foreigners, they should know that God will take revenge on them and turn their bones and flesh into dried spiderweb powder."

He grew increasingly agitated, at times shouting into the microphone. The Afghans who support the U.S. troops, he said, "don't have the patriotism of street animals."

"We brothers are Muslims and worship one God," he concluded. "Let us hug each other."

Two elderly men in the front row nodded in appreciation. "God bless you," they told Habibullah. "God bless you."

Special correspondents Javed Hamdard and Asad Haidari contributed to this report.

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