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Kandahar mayor perseveres amid threat of assassination

From Nic Robertson, CNN Senior International Correspondent
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The dangerous life of Kandahar's mayor
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Survivor of an IED attack, Ghulam Hamidi worries about keeping sidewalks clear
  • His last two deputies were assassinated
  • Kandahar mayor's office has no windows or heat

Kandahar, Afghanistan (CNN) -- For the mayor of Kandahar, public service at the helm of Afghanistan's second-largest city carries a grave risk. His last two deputies were assassinated, and Ghulam Hayder Hamidi survived a roadside bomb 15 months ago.

"There was one guy standing there, the blood was dripping from his fingers," Hamidi told NATO Television. "I walked to my office, the car was completely gone."

Two people died and six were wounded in the attack, according to NATO.

But some of the mayor's duties are like those of any other mayor. He frets about cleaning up garbage and keeping the sidewalks clear. "These shopkeepers occupy the sidewalks completely," he said. "The traffic problems will happen and who's responsible? I am."

His office is in a historic building defended by a heavy, metal fence and barbed wire. Once a reporter has made his way to the building, an armed guard standing outside must give approval before the reporter can reach the mayor's office.

The office itself is under repair -- no windows, no heat. There, on a recent day, the 64-year-old man went about the business of running a city of more than 500,000 people, writing petitions for those who were seeking his help.

Though he insists that security in the city is improving, he acknowledged that he himself does not feel safe. "These days -- not," he said. "Because I got the warning ... three times."

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In a walk outside his office, one of his guards interrupted him before he reached the street. "The security company is saying don't walk," he explained to a reporter accompanying him.

When he travels inside his bulletproof vehicle, a gift from Canada, Hamidi's vulnerability becomes apparent. The vehicle is dwarfed by military trucks that themselves are often no match for roadside bombs.

Though the primary enemies to U.S. forces here are the Taliban, Hamidi says he is more worried about corrupt officials. "These kind of police warlords, drug dealers and power brokers are enemies for security and development," he said.

He pointed to a road-widening project outside a property that belongs to the new police chief, whom he describes as a warlord.

"Yes, yes, he was, he is," said Hamidi, who added that he could barely believe that President Hamid Karzai had appointed one of the region's warlords to the job.

"Very bad things they do," Hamidi said. "They destroy Kandahar. Now, how will he build Kandahar? How he will bring peace here?"

Hamidi called for the military effort against the Taliban to move forward with haste. "We have to do very quickly," he said. "We have to show to our people good service and quickly. These people are hungry for good service."

But the mayor's plans have hit roadblocks. For example, a store owned by a minister's family was knocked down in an attempt to improve a street, and they appealed to a higher authority. "They complained direct to the president," Hamidi said.

"He is making the story to President Karzai that 'Mayor Hamidi destroyed my grandfather's mosque.' "

Hamidi acknowledges that his city plans don't have universal support, but he blames tribal differences for the criticism.

Meanwhile, though his family wants him to quit before he's attacked again, he said he has no plans to heed their advice. "I was born in this province," he said. "I eat from this province. I educate from this province. I study from this province. and I have good times in this province and I owe this province. I have to work for this, my city."

But if that work does not succeed, its failure could put the planned U.S. withdrawal at risk.

Some 150,000 coalition forces are in Afghanistan. Their aim is to train the Afghan security forces to prepare for transition from certain areas of Afghanistan beginning in July 2011.