The attack was the deadliest in Afghanistan since a major upsurge in violence kicked off in March, belying U.S. claims that it is stabilizing the country and reinforcing fears militants here are copying the tactics of those in Iraq.
Hundreds of mourners were crowded inside the Mullah Abdul Fayaz Mosque in the center of the main southern city of Kandahar when the militant walked in and detonated explosives strapped to his body, leaving blood and body parts littered over a wide area.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the assault as an "act of cowardice by the enemies of Islam and the enemies of the peace of Afghan people" and ordered a high-level investigation.
Parts of the suicide bomber's body were found and Kandahar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai said he belonged to Osama bin Laden's terror network.
"The attacker was a member of al Qaeda. We have found documents on his body that show he was an Arab," Sherzai told reporters. "We had an intelligence report that Arab al Qaeda teams had entered Afghanistan and had been planning terrorist attacks." He did not elaborate.
A purported Taliban spokesman, Mullah Latif Hakimi, said in a telephone call earlier to The Associated Press that the rebels were not responsible for the bombing. Hakimi often calls news organizations, usually to claim responsibility for attacks on behalf of the Taliban. His information has sometimes proven untrue or exaggerated, and his exact tie to the rebel leadership is not clear.
Among the dead was Kabul police chief Gen. Akram Khakrezwal, two of his nephews and six of his bodyguards, Sherzai said. The attacker detonated the explosives after coming close to the police commander, but it was not clear he was targeted, Afghan Ministry of Interior spokesman Latfullah Mashal said.
Khakrezwal, a supporter of Karzai, had been the Kabul police chief for two months. Prior to that, he had been the police commander in a northern city and earlier in Kandahar.