President Hamid Karzai called Sunday on community leaders in Kandahar to support a NATO campaign to bolster security in this Taliban stronghold, urging people to work with his government to "bring dignity back."
NATO has already begun an operation to ramp up security in Kandahar, and the campaign is expected to accelerate the coming months. Many of the estimated half million Kandahar residents are skeptical of the operation, fearing it will lead to more bloodshed.
During a meeting in a stuffy conference hall in Kandahar city, several hundred people including tribal chiefs and religious leaders cheered as Karzai denounced corruption among police and local powerbrokers.
He pounded the podium as he said corruption was undermining security as his government and its international partners struggle to turn back a resurgent Taliban.
The majority of the crowd stood and raised their hands as Karzai asked for their support.
"Please give me your hand to bring dignity back," Karzai said. He appealed again to the Taliban to lay down their weapons and reconcile with the U.S.-backed government.
"Step by step we can go forward," he said. "Let's cooperate. Let's coordinate."
It was only Karzai's second visit in recent years to Kandahar, the biggest city in the south and the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. U.S. commanders believe control of Kandahar is the key to wresting the ethnic Pashtun south away from the Taliban, who have exploited public discontent with the central government to win broad support in the strategic region.
Insurgents have responded to NATO plans with a rash of attacks against those who support the government and its international partners. So far this month, at least 39 international troops have been killed in Afghanistan, including 27 Americans.
Six Afghan policemen and three NATO service members died Saturday in separate roadside bomb blasts. In addition, 39 insurgents were killed Saturday in two operations - one in Kandahar province and the other in Uruzgan province, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
On the eve of his visit, Karzai met in the capital of Kabul with Afghan security officials and the top U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who accompanied the president to Kandahar. Aides described the Saturday meeting as a "decision brief" where the president was briefed on all aspects of the Kandahar security campaign.
NATO and Afghan officials have taken pains to avoid describing the Kandahar operation as a military offensive, a term that has made the residents wary about what was to come.
Presidential spokesman Waheed Omar said Karzai would call the campaign a "process of stabilization" to bring better governance, services and new development to the area. Omar said the president was expected to announce a few development projects for Kandahar in a move to gain public support for his government.
Karzai's influential half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, considered among Kandahar's most powerful figures, said the favorable response from those at the meeting amounted to a green light for the security operation.
"The military operation is always a concern," he said. "The way the president described the military operation, there will no longer be a concern from the people."
During his remarks, Karzai sought to address issues often raised by Kandahar community leaders - notably corruption that has driven many southern Pashtuns into Taliban ranks.
As the representatives sat cross-legged on a large red carpet, Karzai spoke about last week's national conference, or peace jirga, in Kabul, saying it showed the Afghan people were united in their desire for peace. Addressing the Taliban, Karzai said "please respect this call from the people of Afghanistan."
Karzai said people detained by the U.S. and Afghan government for suspected insurgent links should be freed unless there were compelling evidence against them. "God willing in the coming weeks ... they will be released," he said.
NATO officials had hoped that Karzai, who was born near Kandahar, would use his influence to encourage support for the security operation here. His visit was seen as a major step toward forging links between disaffected southerners and the central government in Kabul.
"This process of reaching out to Kandahar can only be led by the president," said Tony White, spokesman for the chief NATO civilian official. "It can't be led by us. It's important for him to address the senior leadership - tribal and religious - and show his support for the effort."
White said Kandahar was isolated and disconnected from Kabul.
"Karzai can't get it back into the fold without the (the local leaders)," White said. "We anticipate that he will reassure them that there's no military offensive planned."
A spokesman for McChrystal, Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis, said the visit was "about Afghans taking leadership and ownership of the effort in Kandahar."
"Security is an important part of it but also the crucial governance piece and also some of the major development efforts," he said.
As part of the effort to accelerate a political solution to the war, the United Nations announced that a U.N. committee is reviewing whether certain people could be removed from a blacklist that freezes assets and limits travel of key Taliban and al Qaeda figures. That was a recommendation of this month's peace jirga.
A committee is expected to complete its review at the end of the month and give its recommendations to the U.N. Security Council, which will make the final decision on whether to remove any names off the list. The U.S., Britain and France, who maintain troops here, wield veto power on the council and would have to agree to changes on the list.
By Associated Press Writer Deb Riechmann