It began with a spray of bullets and splintering glass. Maulvi Abdullah Fayyaz, a leading religious scholar in the southern city of Kandahar, was working in his office May 29 when two men on a motorbike pulled up outside the window and opened fire, leaving him dead.
Next to be killed was Eida Khan, the outspoken headmaster of a religious school in eastern Paktika province. He was dragged from his classroom at gunpoint June 16 and beheaded outside.
By the time Maulvi Niamatullah was shot to death in a remote district of Kandahar province July 24, he was the sixth prominent Afghan cleric to be slain by unknown assailants in less than two months, and the authorities had reached a disturbing conclusion.
"These murders are not coincidences. They are part of a strategy by Taliban fighters to kill Afghanistan's religious leaders," said Fazl Hadi Shinwari, head of the national council of religious scholars as well as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
A purported spokesman for the insurgent Taliban militia, Abdul Latif Hakimi, has asserted responsibility for Fayyaz's and Niamatullah's deaths on behalf of the group. Shinwari, echoing other officials, said he had "no doubt" that the militia was behind all six killings.
In part, officials believe the slayings reflect a recent shift by the insurgents toward "soft" civilian targets -- including tribal leaders, judges, election workers and doctors killed this year in a wave of attacks apparently aimed at disrupting parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
But the bearded, mostly elderly men who make up Afghanistan's ulema, or religious clergy, appear to be a particular focus of aggression because they are a crucial source of legitimacy for Afghanistan's emerging government, according to Afghan and Western officials.
The ulema are loosely organized into provincial councils, or shuras, which send representatives to a national council of more than 2,000 clerics, known as the Ulema Shura. The network first coalesced in 2002 to issue a religious edict that nullified the Taliban's call for holy war against foreign forces and the Afghan government.
In January, after President Hamid Karzai declared a campaign to curb the opium trade, the Ulema Shura pronounced drug cultivation and trafficking un-Islamic. More recently, the group affirmed that it was the religious duty of Afghanistan's overwhelmingly Muslim citizens to support the upcoming elections.
"Afghanistan is a very religious country, and people put a lot of faith in what their religious leaders tell them," said Sayed Hussein Halemi Balkhi, a member of the council. "When an edict comes from the Ulema Shura, they accept that."
The influence of the Afghan clergy is especially threatening to the insurgents, experts said, because the Taliban first emerged as a movement of religious students and based its claim to power on a promise to return Afghanistan to what its leaders asserted was the true practice of Islam.
"Someone who has the capacity to break down the religious authority of the Taliban is probably the most dangerous threat to them on the propaganda front," observed a Western diplomat based in Afghanistan.
That possibility was thrown into stark relief in May when Fayyaz convened clerics from across the country to strip Mohammad Omar, the fugitive Taliban leader, of the title he had taken during the militia's rule: leader of the faithful. In 1995, the village cleric had claimed the highly symbolic designation before a throng of cheering followers, wrapping himself in a cloak reputed to have belonged to the prophet Muhammad.
Ten days after the May meeting, Fayyaz was assassinated. And several days after that, a suicide bomber attacked the mosque where Fayyaz's memorial service was being held, killing 20 mourners.
In retrospect, said a senior Afghan official, "we should have thought better about the implications" of nullifying Omar's title and "asked the clerics if they appreciated the risks. . . . This was an extremely daring thing for them to do, and it clearly led to the start of the killing of the clerics."
Shinwari, the chief justice, said informants told him that soon after Fayyaz's assassination, Taliban leaders met in Pakistan near the Afghan border to discuss whether to continue killing clerics. "Just one person opposed it," Shinwari said.
The Muslim clergymen targeted since then have been a diverse group. Some had been actively preaching in favor of the government, including Maulvi Saleh Mohammed, the head of the provincial council of southern Helmand province, who was shot on his way to morning prayers July 13. Eida Khan was known for using sermons to accuse neighboring Pakistan of fomenting terrorism.
Other victims were not considered particularly outspoken. One was the deputy leader of the Paktika provincial council, Maulvi Agha Jan, who was shot and stabbed to death with his wife July 7 by assailants who crept into their home while they slept.
Although clerics have been assassinated before now, the frequency and range of the recent attacks point to the Taliban insurgency's growing strength, experts and diplomats said.
Yet Afghan and Western officials also contend that the Islamic militia's willingness to risk alienating Afghans by killing religious leaders suggests a measure of desperation -- and may explain why the group has asserted responsibility for only several of the slayings.
"This is a self-defeating strategy in the long run," a Western official said.
Already, however, there are signs of a chilling effect.
"Definitely, some of our members said they will no longer speak out in favor of the government until they have protection," said Maulvi Sayed Imam, a leading member of the Kandahar shura, speaking by telephone. He said he no longer travels through the province to spread his message because it is too unsafe.
Balkhi, of the Ulema Shura, said some clerics are also beginning to resent the government for failing to follow the group's more conservative decrees, including demands that TV shows stop featuring women dancing and singing and that the ban on selling alcohol be more stringently enforced.
"They feel that they face the danger for supporting the government but don't get anything from the government in exchange," he said.
The unease was palpable recently when members of the Ulema Shura gathered in a house in Kabul for a week-long meeting. Men in long beards and an assortment of turban styles greeted one another warmly, but some spoke of feeling sorrowful that so many of their number were no longer alive to attend.
"In one way, we are happy they were martyred, because God promises that this means they will get special treatment," said Maulvi Enayatullah Balekh of Kapisa province, near Kabul. "But we feel sad in our hearts that we cannot see them anymore."
Others leafed morosely through the Ulema Shura's newspaper, dominated by reports of Karzai and Shinwari denouncing the killings.
Abdul Samad, a cleric from central Uruzgan province, arrived limping from a mine attack several weeks ago that left shrapnel in his foot. "I received several death threats before it happened," he said.
Noor Ala, an administrator for the shura, said Maulvi Agha of Paktika had recently complained of feeling insecure.
"Two weeks later, he was dead," Ala said.
Shinwari said he had asked the government to assign police officers to protect the clerics, but some at the meeting said they doubted that would solve the problem.
"If we have bodyguards, it means that we are on the side of the government," said Maulvi Esarullah of eastern Nangahar province. "We are supposed to be impartial."
"I don't want security for just us," said Abdul Basir Mahboubi of central Wardak province. "I want security for all of Afghanistan."