Newsweek: Mohammed Omar's Driver Says U.S. Soldiers Came Close to Finding Him; 'Man of the People' Fled His Kandahar Compound in Rickshaw, Slept in Basements

Architect Who Built Omar's Complex Says Omar Did Not Marry Bin Laden's


Jan 13, 2002, 00:00 ET from Newsweek

    NEW YORK, Jan. 13 /PRNewswire/ -- The longtime personal driver of Mullah
 Mohammed Omar, the chief of the Taliban, tells Newsweek how close the
 Americans and Afghan allies came to killing or capturing the elusive
 self-styled Leader of the Faithful.  Qari Saheb, who is hiding in Pakistan,
 tells Newsweek in the January 21 issue (on newsstands Monday, January 14) that
 he was with Omar at his compound in Kandahar last October 7 when the first
 American bombs began to fall.  According to Saheb, Omar initially spurned
 advisers who begged him to flee to safety.  "Even if [President] Bush shows up
 at my door, I will not leave," said Omar.   Knowing that the Americans would
 target his SUV, aides ushered Omar into a rickshaw and pulled him to the
 center of town, Omar shifted to a mud-covered truck and disappeared.  He spent
 the next several days moving from house to house, sleeping in basements.
     (Photo: )
     Special Correspondent Scott Johnson and Assistant Managing Editor Evan
 Thomas report that last fall, after the Taliban's control of Afghanistan had
 crumbled, American soldiers came to search Omar's house.  Saheb claims that
 Omar's supporters were hiding so close by that they threw grenades as the
 Americans withdrew.  A Taliban commander ordered his six tanks to open fire,
 but U.S. bombs destroyed them first.  "What kind of an army are these
 Americans," says Saheb.  "It was amazing to see how they destroyed all our
     Omar has been depicted as a monstrous figure, the one-eyed mullah whose
 henchmen buried homosexuals alive and who ordered the destruction of ancient
 monuments.  But driver Saheb, as well as other associates of Omar interviewed
 by Newsweek, pointed out that the mullah was seen as a man of the people who
 had brought order to chaos and at least tried to crack down on corruption.  In
 the end, said Saheb, Omar turned out to be a simpleton and a dupe for Osama
 bin Laden.  But Saheb also described Mullah Omar as a man who used his
 simplicity to pose as a symbol of purity in a world of sordidness.  Saheb's
 vantage point at the wheel of one of Omar's several luxury SUV's offers a
 revealing glimpse of a messianic figure who was either cunning or deluded or
     Saheb tells Newsweek that Omar would slip out of his compound several
 times at night alone -- disguised and riding a cheap motorcycle -- to talk to
 the common folk.  "He wanted to know their problems, to see if they were being
 treated well by the Taliban."  When Omar was elevated in 1996 to become the
 Leader of the Faithful he insisted on personal frugality, reprimanding his
 cook for serving meat every night when the soldiers in the field had none.
 "The solider is my power, not the minister," he'd tell his driver.
     Omar was generous with favors, dispensing new cars to commanders who asked
 for them.  After a time, he had so many supplicants that he could no longer
 maintain an office.  "Everywhere is my office," he told Saheb.  "I can issue
 orders from anywhere."  Saheb spent hours driving Omar around; after a time
 the car began to reek of a kind of perfume which, Omar claimed, had been worn
 by the Prophet Muhammad himself.  As part of the Taliban's war on decadence,
 Omar had banned all forms of music, but riding in his SUV he liked to pop in a
 CD of Saraji, a Taliban who has sold millions of records of patriotic war
 songs.  When Omar built a home, he had the walls painted with murals of
 flowers and fighter planes.  According to Haji Mohammed Alkozai, the director
 of the construction company that built the ruler's compound, Omar provided
 specifications on the strength of a cruise missile and demanded that the house
 be fortified to withstand attacks.
     The mullah's complex was designed with ten rooms set aside for three wives
 with an adjoining complex of four rooms for an additional wife.  It has been
 widely reported that Omar's fourth wife was a daughter of bin Laden.  But one
 of the architects of the complex, Amin Zazai says that's not true.  He claims
 that Omar took a fourth spouse (the maximum allowed by Islamic law) to avoid
 marrying bin Laden's daughter and becoming ensnared in future family
     Newsweek also reports that in 1998, two Taliban elders living in London,
 Nabi Misdak and Gen. Rahmatullah Safi, came to Afghanistan to try to persuade
 Omar to give up bin Laden.  According to Saheb, who was at the meeting, Omar
 demanded guarantees that if he handed over bin Laden, the Americans would
 accept the Taliban government.  The visitors couldn't make such a promise.
 The Americans, said Omar, "just want to use the card of Osama to stop our
 government.  Osama is not the issue.  Islam is the issue."  Omar said the
 Americans could not tolerate a single, unified Islamic government --
 presumably, one run by him.  Interviewed by Newsweek in London, Safi said, "I
 told Omar, 'I don't know how Osama bin Laden will provide heaven to the
 Muslims of Afghanistan.  But already here they are living in hell.  In
 history, we have never been a terrorist people."
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