Published September 23, 2011
KABUL, Afghanistan -- A surging crowd of mourners on Friday touched and kissed the coffin of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, killed by a suicide bomber claiming to carry a Taliban peace message, and vented at their own government and its efforts to reconcile with the insurgency.
In angry chants at a hilltop cemetery, grieving followers of Rabbani's political faction vilified President Hamid Karzai, blamed Taliban insurgents for Afghanistan's woes and denounced Pakistan for allegedly stirring up the conflict. Shouts against the United States, which backs the government, reflected frustration that a decade of Western support has failed to unite their divided land.
"Death to Karzai. ... Death to the foreign puppets," chanted the throng, some young men, others veterans of the guerrilla war against Soviet occupying forces in the 1980s. "Pakistan is our enemy. ... Long live the resistance. ... The Muslim people are united."
At one point, presidential security guards tried to stop a Rabbani ally, former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, from joining the swelling crowd in an area around the walled-off grave. He forced his way in anyway, and guards briefly opened fire in the air to block thousands of other mourners, some of whom threw stones at security forces.
"A terrorist was allowed to enter and kill our leader; we are not allowed to attend his burial," a furious Saleh declared.
The chaotic outpouring of frustration, and statements that the time for peacemaking has passed, pointed to Afghanistan's ethnic divisions and the fragility of its government. It also contrasted with an earlier, stately ceremony at the presidential palace, where Karzai hailed Rabbani as a tireless advocate for reconciliation.
"It is our responsibility to act against those who are enemies of peace," said Karzai, urging Afghans to shun despair over the death of Rabbani in an attack at his home on Tuesday, and instead escalate efforts to end the fighting. The U.S.-led coalition plans to withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014, shifting responsibility for security to Afghan forces that are still being coached by foreign mentors.
The 70-year-old Rabbani was the leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, which helped overthrow Taliban rule during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. His death threatens to deepen rifts between the country's ethnic minorities, especially between those who made up the Northern Alliance -- including Tajiks like Rabbani -- and the majority Pashtun, who make up the backbone of the Taliban.
Karzai, who is Pashtun, had appointed Rabbani to Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which was seeking to reconcile the nation's warring factions. It has made little headway since it was formed a year ago, but its efforts are backed by many in the international community.
One by one, lawmakers and foreign envoys at the palace paid tribute before Rabbani's casket, draped in a red, black and green national flag. A military band played the national anthem. Then a procession of vehicles, some bearing large portraits of Rabbani, showing him dignified in robes and with a long white beard, drove up a hill overlooking Kabul, the capital.
There, the observances turned unruly.
Supporters of the former president's political faction, chanting and distraught, reached out to the coffin and the funeral at one point resembled an opposition rally. Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik leader who lost to Karzai in the 2009 presidential election, said the president has to explain who killed Rabbani. He grew enraged when his microphone was switched off, saying it was an effort to silence him.
"Death to those wanting to make a deal," mourners shouted. "We don't want Karzai."
The suicide attacker who killed Rabbani had a bomb in his turban, and gained entry to the former president's home by convincing officials, including Karzai's advisers, that he represented the Taliban leadership, based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, and wanted to discuss reconciliation.
No one has claimed responsibility for the killing, and Taliban spokesmen have declined to discuss it.
Namatullah Ahmady, a university student who attended the burial, said Rabbani's death dashes all hope for making peace with the Taliban.
"It's finished," he said, adding that if the insurgents now say they want to reconcile, the government should say: "We're not interested."
Waqif Hakimi, a spokesman for Rabbani's political faction, Jamiat-e Islami, said only a small number of people became overly emotional.
"They were chanting against the Taliban and terrorism and other things, but it did not escalate," he said. "Some people were shouting their different slogans, but it was not the message of the party."
Some mourners wanted to open the coffin so they could see Rabbani's face, but his family did not allow it.
In Washington on Thursday, U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency of backing extremists in planning and executing an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan last week and a truck bomb attack that wounded 77 American soldiers days earlier.
Pakistan rejected the American claims that it is supporting extremist attacks on American troops. Some analysts believe Pakistan seeks to bolster its influence in Afghanistan as a way to counter the regional influence of India, its longtime rival.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was among those attending Rabbani's funeral ceremony at the presidential palace. Iran's state media said Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister and confidant of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, led the Iranian delegation.
"Today we are witnessing one of the biggest and saddest events of this important political time in the history of the world," said Salahuddin Rabbani, the former president's son. He urged the Afghan government to aggressively investigate the killing.
Separately, a car hit a roadside bomb in Maywand district of Kandahar province, killing seven civilians and wounding four others, according to Kandahar police chief Gen. Abdul Raziq.
Also, NATO forces said two service members died following a bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan on Friday, and Italian military officials in Rome said three Italian troops were killed in a road accident. Italy's Sky TG24 television said the vehicle they were riding in overturned in front of the Italian base in the western city of Herat on Friday.
The deaths bring to 439 the number of international troops killed so far this year in Afghanistan.