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Afghan leader seeks support for new offensive

KABUL (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai sought Sunday to rally public support for an upcoming military operation in the Taliban's birthplace, promising that U.S. and NATO troops will push into insurgent areas there only after consultations with community leaders.

His remarks to about 2,000 officials and tribal leaders in Kandahar reflect a NATO strategy that makes bolstering the stature and capabilities of the Afghan government in the city, the largest in southern Afghanistan, as important as clearing neighborhoods of insurgents.

"There will be no military operation without your cooperation and consultation," Karzai told the leaders as the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and NATO's top civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, looked on.

As Karzai was appealing for public support, NATO confirmed that international troops were responsible for the deaths of five people, including three women, killed Feb. 12 in Gardez south of Kabul. A NATO statement said a joint international-Afghan patrol fired on two men mistakenly believed to be insurgents. The three women were "accidentally killed as a result of the joint force firing at the men," it said.

U.S. and NATO forces are preparing a campaign in Kandahar expected to kick into high gear in June that will test President Barack Obama's gamble that tens of thousands more troops can turn the tide in the 8-year war. NATO hopes to wrap up the operation by Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer that begins in early August.

Both U.S. and Afghan commanders have emphasized the need for support among Kandahar's half million people, most of whom are members of the same Pashtun ethnic group as the Taliban. The Taliban was organized in Kandahar in the early 1990s and made the city their headquarters before they were ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

Securing Kandahar is considered the key to turning back the Taliban in the south, which is the main battlefront of the war. A NATO service member was killed Sunday by a bomb in southern Afghanistan, NATO said without specifying the location or the victim's nationality.

During his speech, Karzai, who was born in a village near Kandahar, appealed to tribal leaders to send their sons to the Afghan army and police to show support for the government and to participate in a nationwide peace conference expected in Kabul next month. He noted that of 270 recent graduates of the Afghan officers' academy, only two came from Kandahar.

Karzai also announced he would increase monthly salaries of district chiefs from about $75 to more than $400 to attract talented people and discourage bribery and kickbacks.

"Afghanistan will stand on its own feet when people have trust in their president and cooperate with their government," Karzai said. He repeated a call for Taliban not linked to al-Qaida to lay down their arms and join a government reconciliation program.

But some in the crowd made clear that they would cooperate with the government only when it can guarantee their safety. Although Kandahar is under nominal government control, Taliban fighters have been infiltrating into the city from villages to the north and west.

"First of all, the people sitting here, they won't be telling you what is in their hearts unless their safety is guaranteed," tribal leader Agha Lalai told the president.

When Karzai asked why, the elder replied: "Because if they say so, they'll be waiting for their deaths in the evening."

Another man complained about police and soldiers who "steal motorcycles from people and no one stops them, no one cares."

Another demanded implementation of strict Taliban-era punishments to curb rising crime.

Nevertheless, NATO officials believe they have no choice but to try to win over public support if the Kandahar operation is to succeed in establishing an effective local government to lure people away from the Taliban.

"You've got to have the community really wanting (us) in, otherwise things are stalled," said Maj. Gen. William Mayville, deputy chief of staff for international forces.

Sayed Ziarbaksh, a Kandahar official who attended the meeting, agreed, saying the NATO offensive cannot be effective unless it is followed by effective institutions of government.

"If (troops) just come and go, it may not be worthwhile," Ziarbaksh said. "If there is no government, then there will be Taliban in those places."

Nearly nine years after the Taliban were overthrown, the Afghan government maintains little control outside of Kabul and other major cities, especially in the Pashtun areas of the south. Public anger at the government for failing to bring security and basic services such as electricity and running water fuel support for the insurgents.

Last week, Obama told Karzai and other Afghan officials during a six-hour visit that they must step up progress in reducing corruption and ensuring the delivery of basic services to the Afghans.

Under strong international pressure, Karzai recently gave an anti-corruption body powers to prosecute cases in court. The attorney general has also opened an investigation into the former head of the Ministry of Hajj and Mosque, Sediq Chakari, who has been implicated in the disappearance of travel funds for last year's annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Zemeri Bashary said Sunday that the ministry formally asked Interpol less than a week ago to arrest Chakari, who is living abroad.

Also Sunday, three Afghan police were killed and three wounded when their vehicle came under attack near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

Germany's defense minister announced a thorough investigation into a friendly fire clash that left six Afghan soldiers dead.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg said in Germany that his office and the office of the German prosecutor general will investigate what happened Friday night when German troops opened fire on Afghan soldiers in Kunduz province.

The incident occurred on the same day that three German troops were killed and eight were wounded in heavy fighting with insurgents near Kunduz.

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Associated Press writers Christopher Bodeen and Rahim Faiez in Kabul, and pool reporters in Kandahar contributed to this report.