KABUL // As his young students rocked back and forth reciting verses from the Quran, Mawlawi Sibghatullah described how US troops had gunned down his predecessor just a few metres away. The killing last month is not disputed by Nato, which quickly issued a statement offering its "sincere regrets" and "deepest condolences".
But here on the outskirts of Kabul the basic facts of that morning have morphed into something entirely different and what appears to have been a tragic mistake has instead become accepted as part of a wider conspiracy. "The first vehicle passed, the second vehicle shot him and in the third vehicle they applauded. That's why we understand they targeted him for the enjoyment of shedding his blood," Mr Sibghatullah said.
"When they train their soldiers, they tell them that their targets are those men who have beards and turbans and are Islamic scholars." Mohammed Yunis was, by all accounts, a peaceful and highly respected member of the local community. He had two wives and, according to one village leader, 14 children and had only been imam at the Marqazi Paktia Kot Mosque for a few months. Witnesses say his car was shot eight times - four of the bullets hitting him - as he set out towards town in late January to teach an Islamic studies class. At least one of his sons was with him, but escaped without serious injury.
The incident occurred beside a stretch of road that in recent years has become a notorious spot for insurgent attacks against foreign troops. A suicide bombing less than two days earlier had wounded a number of people near a US military base in the area. Yunis's killing is the kind of death Nato calls a tragic but unfortunately inevitable aspect of this war. For many Afghans, however, it is part of pattern that has emerged under the occupation.
Rumours and allegations of deliberate actions by international forces against Islam are now rife in this country. They range from the desecration of the Quran to the murder of clerics, assaults on women and the spreading of Christianity. Much of this is hearsay, but it spreads fast and is the cause for growing anger. Like his predecessor, Mr Sibghatullah comes from the eastern province of Laghman. He had not long returned to Afghanistan after years studying in Saudi Arabia when the shooting happened and it seemed to confirm his worst suspicions.
"Last time the majority of people studied Islam and had Islamic education. Now they work just for money, before they worked for Islam. A lot of people have also shaved their beards and taken off their turbans. They are scared of the Americans," he said. For Mr Sibghatullah, 34, it is quite clear that the United States and its allies are not staying in Afghanistan to help. "They came here to change our culture. As fire and water can never join each other, so one religion does like another religion to be stronger than it. They came here to replace our rules and apply their own," he said.
Such views are not uncommon in Afghanistan and they represent a serious challenge to Nato. This is a deeply traditional and conservative country, where religious and tribal leaders are the most respected members of society. In remote areas, news is often passed on through the local mosque and perception is just as important as reality. Mohammed Wazir, one of Yunis's sons, was initially told that his father had been injured in an accident. Then when the 12-year-old arrived at home he saw "women had surrounded my father's dead body and they were crying".
Asked why US troops had opened fire, he replied: "They hate mawlawis [religious scholars]. They don't want to accept our religion they want to kill the religious people." The head of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has often stressed the far-reaching effect that incidents like the one on Kabul's outskirts can have, even going so far as to issue new terms of engagement soon after taking up his position.
According to the UN, civilian casualties rose by 14 per cent in 2009 from 2008. However, Taliban attacks were reported to have caused most of the 2,412 deaths. Nasrullah Noori, a tribal leader in Paktia Kot, said government officials and Turkish soldiers had visited the village to offer their condolences and calm anger. "We have had a lot of imams in this mosque, but he was the only one that all the people loved.
"This mullah is not the only man the Americans have killed. They have killed a thousand other Afghans. We are not in the government and we cannot fully understand the situation, but we believe that if there is not justice in this world there will be in the next. We are very comfortable with that." @Email:email@example.com