By Joshua Partlow Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 29, 2010
KABUL — A gunner in a U.S. military convoy shot and killed a local imam as he was driving his car here Thursday morning, prompting outrage among residents and an apology from coalition forces.
The killing of civilians is a sensitive political issue in Afghanistan and has become a public cause for President Hamid Karzai. U.S. commanders have taken pains to minimize such killings in recent months, but each new civilian death is capable of inflaming public sentiment against the presence of American troops.
The shooting Thursday occurred along a stretch of four-lane highway in the eastern Kabul neighborhood of Paktia Kot, outside Camp Phoenix, a U.S. military base. The site is not far from where a suicide bomber targeted a passing convoy Tuesday, wounding eight American soldiers.
In a statement describing the shooting, the U.S. military said the convoy “fired on what appeared to be a threatening vehicle,” without elaborating.
Neighbors and friends at the scene said Mohammad Yunis, a cleric from Laghman province, was shot about 8 a.m. while idling in his Toyota Corolla station wagon on a mud side street that abuts the highway between Kabul and Jalalabad. They said the imam, who had two wives and multiple children, was waiting to pick up one of his sons and take him to an Islamic school when the convoy passed by and opened fire. They added that other children were in the car. The gunfire came from the third or fourth vehicle, they said, and was not preceded by an explosion or other shooting.
“After they shot him, they didn’t stop. They just kept driving,” said Baryalai, a 45-year-old day laborer at the scene who goes by one name.
Residents said they counted four gunshot wounds in Yunis’s torso. At least eight bullet holes were visible in the passenger side of his vehicle.
The killing prompted a brief protest in Paktia Kot before elders called it off out of fear of a confrontation with Afghan forces.
Residents expressed outrage over the shooting of a man they described as a respected religious leader who had spent the past three months in Kabul teaching at an Islamic school and preaching at the Marqazi Jumad mosque.
“A lot of innocent people have been killed by the Americans,” said Shabaz Khan, 20, a student.
When American soldiers determine that a vehicle is too close to their convoy, they have a series of procedures they are instructed to follow before resorting to shooting, such as using hand signals, making loud noises and firing warning shots. U.S. military officials said that an investigation is underway.
“This really does hurt, because we absolutely do not want to kill civilians,” said one U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the matter is under investigation. “It hurts our overall cause.”
“Why are these Americans killing innocent people? What was his crime?” said Arif Khan, 30, a shopkeeper who attends the Marqazi Jumad mosque. The imam “has so many children,” he added. “His brother has already passed away. He is taking care of his brother’s children, too. Who will take care of them now?”
In a statement, the International Security Assistance Force apologized for the “unfortunate incident” and said Yunis’s family would be compensated.
“Despite all the measures that we put in place to ensure the safety of the Afghan people, regrettable incidents such as this one can occur,” Brig Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for the NATO-led force, said in the statement. “On behalf of ISAF, I express my sincere regrets for this loss of life and convey my deepest condolences to his family.”
Yunis died of his wounds at a hospital.
“That was a great mullah they martyred today,” Baryalai said.
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.