KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai's half brother, the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan and a lightning rod for criticism of corruption in the government, was assassinated Tuesday by a close associate. His death leaves a dangerous power vacuum in the south just as the government has begun peace talks with insurgents ahead of a U.S. withdrawal.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of the Kandahar provincial council, was shot to death while receiving guests at his home in Kandahar, the capital of the province that was the birthplace of the Taliban movement and was the site of a recent U.S.-led offensive.
Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor of Kandahar, identified the assassin as Sardar Mohammad and said he was a close, "trustworthy" person who had gone to Wali Karzai's house to get him to sign some papers.
As Wali Karzai was signing the papers, the assassin "took out a pistol and shot him with two bullets — one in the forehead and one in the chest," Wesa said. "Another patriot to the Afghan nation was martyred by the enemies of Afghanistan."
The killing coincided with a visit to the capital, Kabul, by French President Nicolas Sarzoky.
"This morning my younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was murdered in his home," the Afghan president said during a joint news conference with Sarkozy. "Such is the life of Afghanistan's people. In the houses of the people of Afghanistan, each of us is suffering and our hope is, God willing, to remove this suffering from the people of Afghanistan and implement peace and stability."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assassination at the heavily guarded house, hidden behind 8-foot (2.5 meter) blast walls. The Interior Ministry said an investigation was under way.
Wali Karzai, who was in his 50s and had survived several previous assassination attempts, was seen by many as a political liability for the Karzai government after a series of allegations, including that he was on the CIA payroll and involved in drug trafficking. He denied the charges. The president repeatedly challenged his accusers to show him evidence of his sibling's wrongdoing, but said nobody ever could.
Wali Karzai remained a key power broker in the south, helping shore up his family's interests in the Taliban's southern heartland, which has been the site of numerous offensives by U.S., coalition and Afghan troops to root out insurgents. Militants have retaliated by intimidating and killing local government officials or others against the Taliban.
The United Nations said in a quarterly report issued June 23 that more than half of all assassinations across Afghanistan since March had been in Kandahar. In April, the Kandahar police chief Khan Mohammad Mujahid was killed by a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform who blew himself up beside the official's car.
According to a government official with knowledge of the investigation, Wali Karzai was holding a meeting in his home with five provincial council members and a number of local village elders, including the assassin. The official said Mohammad was a close friend and had represented Wali Karzai many times in their shared home village of Karz, the president's hometown. Mohammad was the village elder of Karz and was his emissary and travel companion throughout Kandahar, the official said.
At about 11:30 a.m. Mohammad asked Wali Karzai to speak with him privately and to sign some papers in an adjoining room, the official said. Three shots rang out, according to the official. Wali Karzai's bodyguards ran into the room and found him on the floor with bullet wounds to his head, hand and leg. The bodyguards shot and killed the assassin.
The government official said that it remains unclear whether the killing was the result of an internal feud or a Taliban plot.
Although tribal rivalries are common in Kandahar, bloodletting within tribes is fairly uncommon, he said.
Agha Lalai, deputy of the provincial council, said he was one of the first to respond to the sounds of shots.
Lalai said that he and several other men picked up Wali Karzai and attempted to carry him out of the house, but he died before they left the grounds.
In Kabul, the political elite reacted to the killing with shock and concern about the future of the country's southern region and beyond. Though Wali Karzai held an elected office in the provincial council, people who knew him said he seemed to float above the various political and tribal spheres dominating the south. Throngs of people came to Karzai's house on a daily basis seeking remedies for everything from family disputes, to tribal battles, to political intrigues.
Members of the international community had urged the president to remove his brother from his powerful provincial position, saying that it was essential if he was to prove to the Afghan people that he was committed to good governance. But despite his alleged forays into narco-trafficking, smuggling, and land theft, many Western officials also relied on him because of his unparalleled reach and understanding of the various players in the area.
Noorolhaq Olomi, a former parliament member from Kandahar, said Wali Karzai was the most powerful man in southern Afghanistan — "more of a governor than the governor" and "everybody's leader in the south, not just Kandahar."
"I cannot say whether this was political or personal or some other matter," Olomi said. "But whoever did it, it shows the weakness of this government. The president needs to change things. He needs to change himself and build a government that is real. Right now, there is no government. It's all a fraud."
Condolences flooded into the president palace throughout the day.
Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, condemned the murder and said the coalition would support efforts to prosecute anyone who played a role in the killing. "President Karzai is working to create a stronger, more secure Afghanistan, and for such a tragic event to happen to someone within his own family is unfathomable," Petraeus said in a statement.
Both Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called the president to express their sadness at his brother's death.
Abdullah Abdullah, the top opposition leader in Afghanistan who ran against Karzai in the latest presidential election, called it "an act against national personality and the ones who are at the service of the Afghan people."
Mohammad Yusuf Pashtun, a senior adviser to the president for construction, water, energy and mines, said the death will have a big impact on security in southern Afghanistan.
"My first impression is that in spite of all the negative propaganda against him he managed to be a source of stability in that area," he said. "When it comes to bringing people together in the south, this creates a vacuum. I don't know what will happen now, but something must be done by the local leadership."
Rangina Hamidi, a resident of Kandahar and daughter of the city's mayor, said Wali Karzai is survived by five children — two sons and three daughters. She says his youngest son was born about a month ago.
Wali Karzai has been the reported target of multiple assassination attempts.
In May 2009, a bodyguard was killed when his motorcade was ambushed by insurgents but Wali Karzai was not harmed.
That attack came less than two months after four Taliban suicide bombers stormed Kandahar's provincial council office, killing 13 people in an assault that Wali Karzai said was aimed at him, although he had left the building a few minutes beforehand.
Wali Karzai also survived a November 2008 suicide attack on the provincial council offices that killed six other people.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah, Rahim Faiez, Solomon Moore, Heidi Vogt and Deb Riechmann in Kabul and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed to this report.