x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Suicide bomber hid explosives in his turban to kill Kandahar mayor

Hours before his death in a suicide bombing, Ghulam Haidar Hamidi tells The National: 'We are fighting the corrupt people here. I am strong enough to fight with - and for - the people of Kandahar. I don't want to be anywhere else.'

KANDAHAR // Just hours before the mayor of this Afghan city died in an attack by a suicide bomber who had hidden explosives in his turban, Ghulam Haidar Hamidi joked about the challenges he faced in such a violent province.

"I am not a security guy, I am not a police guy," Mr Hamadi, a native pf Kandahar native, who spent 30 years working as an accountant in the United States, said with a laugh during an interview with The National at the governor's compound on Tuesday afternoon. "But we are fighting the corrupt people here."

Beneath a splash of bright, white hair and wire-frame spectacles, Mr Hamidi spoke in what would be one of his last interviews about the strides he was making in a city beset by political violence and corruption.

That optimism, along with his life, was destroyed yesterday morning when a bomber penetrated several layers of security before detonating and killing the mayor, a close ally of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, during a meeting with residents over a land dispute.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination, saying it was in response to Mr Hamidi's recent initiative to demolish houses built illegally on government land in Kandahar city.

A Taliban spokesman said the movement killed the mayor to avenge the deaths of two children they said died during the demolition work, an incident Mr Hamidi spoke of on Tuesday.

He said that while the two children had been killed, the issue had been solved with tribal leaders from the neighbourhood.

"The village leaders went to Shah Wali [Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother, and leader of the Popalzai tribe] and he solved the problem in a good way," Mr Hamidi said.

No matter the reason, Mr Hamidi, who served for nearly five years, was probably already on the Taliban hit-list.

In the past few months, Taliban fighters have assassinated a string of high-level government officials in Afghanistan but particularly in Kandahar, their spiritual homeland and Afghanistan's second-largest city.

The battle for Kandahar, in the heart of Pashtun territory, has been at the crux of the war between Nato troops and Taliban fighters. Since April, insurgents have killed Kandahar's police chief, the head of its Ulema council, and now the mayor.

And little more than two weeks ago, the powerful brother of Mr Karzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was shot dead in his home by one of his own guards.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but evidence suggests the shooting was the result of a personal dispute.

Mr Wali Karzai presided over Kandahar as his own political and economic fiefdom through personality and high-level connections to the central government and Nato force.

His death set off a power struggle in the already violent southern region.

As mayor and with close ties to the president, Mr Hamidi may have been one of the successors to Wali Karzai's empire in Kandahar, observers say.

Wali Karzai held the formal position of provincial council chief, but wielded more power than the governor. In the wake of his death, reports say Mr Karzai wants to appoint a stronger governor in the province.

But while Mr Hamidi denied on Tuesday that he had ambitions for the governorship, he was also a fierce critic of Gul Agha Sherzai, the former governor of Kandahar and one of the top contenders to retake the position.

Mr Sherzai, now the governor of the eastern Nangarhar province, was accused of abusing power during his time as governor in Kandahar from 2002 to 2003.

"He [Mr Sherzai] is dreaming to come to Kandahar again, but it will never happen," Mr Hamidi said. "The old power brokers of Kandahar understand they [will] not get anything here now."

Mr Hamidi was known among residents of Kandahar for working hard to boost city revenue and make use of public land.

"People liked him, he was a hard worker and sometimes he or his staff wouldn't even be paid," said Ali Khan, who works for a non-governmental organisation. "He was a good man."

But his crusade against illegal land-grabbing, which he said was helping fuel the city's rampant corruption, appears to have led to his death.

"I have been offered positions in Kabul and in Herat [in western Afghanistan]," Mr Hamidi said, the day before he died. "But I am strong enough to fight with - and for - the people of Kandahar. I don't want to be anywhere else."