Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — Suspected Taliban gunmen burst into a mosque and gunned down the deputy mayor of Kandahar at his prayers, officials said Tuesday -- a brazen attack that underscored the immense challenges faced by Western forces as they push to restore law and order in the volatile southern city.
Kandahar and its surrounding districts are the focus of an expected drive this spring and summer to try to expel the Taliban and establish credible governance in Afghanistan's second-largest population center. The operation is already in its early stages.
In the meantime, serving as a municipal or provincial official in Kandahar has become one of the country's most hazardous occupations. Azizullah Yarmal, the deputy mayor killed Monday night, was the latest in a roll call of local dignitaries marked for death in recent months by insurgents.
"Measures are being taken to strengthen the government system in Kandahar; therefore the enemy is trying to target government officials to slow this process," said Zalmai Ayubi, a spokesman for the provincial governor.
The assassination took place during evening prayers at the Sadozo Mosque, near one of the city's most crowded markets. Dozens of worshipers were present, but Yarmal was clearly the target. He was shot multiple times, witnesses and officials said. The assailants escaped.
"He didn't have any enemies," said Ayubi. "He was a devout and sociable person."
The attack came less than two months after the slaying of Majid Babai, a popular cultural affairs minister for Kandahar province. Gunmen on a motorbike cut him down Feb. 24 as he walked on a Kandahar street.
Many of the attacks on government officials and installations wind up killing bystanders while missing their targets. Hours before Yarmal's assassination, attackers strapped a remote-controlled bomb onto a donkey and detonated the device as the animal approached a police checkpoint. Three children under the age of 12 were killed, provincial officials said.
Most of the 30,000 troops arriving in Afghanistan under President Obama's buildup are being deployed in the country's south, a longtime bastion of the insurgency. Previous offensives by U.S. Marines have sought to dislodge Taliban fighters from havens in Helmand province, and at least some are thought to have taken refuge in Kandahar.
Many senior Afghan officials in the south have already escaped more than one attempted attack by insurgents, and lower-level officials are being targeted as well. Lal Mohammad Khan, a tribal elder in the Gereshk district of Helmand province, was killed last week in circumstances chillingly similar to Monday's slaying; he too was shot dead in a mosque.
Those who are targeted do not even have to hold positions of any authority. Mere association with the government is enough to earn a death sentence. Municipal officials said last week a janitor at a government building in Kandahar was killed.
NATO forces, in turn, have been trying to tighten a noose around the city, hunting insurgents in its outlying districts. On Monday night, a force made up of Afghan and Western troops captured a suspected Taliban commander they said was responsible for weapons procurement and paymaster duties for a local militant cell in Kandahar district.
Those mourning Yarmal on Tuesday included the city's mayor, Ghulam Haider, who described his deputy as a trusted advisor and friend.
Haider, who himself has been the target of nearly constant threats, said the insurgents' campaign of violence was intended as a show of strength -- and a message to the government.
"Such miserable things are happening in Kandahar," he said.