KABUL, Afghanistan – A surging crowd of mourners on Friday kissed the coffin of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, slain by a suicide bomber claiming to carry a peace message from the Taliban, and railed against neighboring Pakistan for allegedly fomenting conflict in their country.
The outpouring of anger at a hilltop cemetery exposed the divisions and suspicion that plague Afghanistan after years of war, and followed a stately funeral ceremony at the palace of President Hamid Karzai, who hailed Rabbani as a tireless advocate for reconciliation.
“It is our responsibility to act against those who are enemies of peace,” said Karzai, urging Afghans to shun despair over the death of Rabbani in an attack at his home on Tuesday, and instead escalate efforts to bring an end to the fighting that the U.S.-led coalition seeks to exit by the end of 2014.
One by one, lawmakers and foreign envoys stepped up to pay tribute before Rabbani’s casket, draped in a red, black and green national flag. A military band played the national anthem. Then the coffin was carried by uniformed servicemen with caps and white gloves, marching stiffly.
A procession of vehicles, some bearing large portraits of Rabbani, showing him dignified in robes and with a long white beard, drove up a hill overlooking Kabul, the capital. There, the observances turned unruly. Gunfire erupted briefly, possibly because guards were jittery about the possibility of an attack.
Supporters of the former president’s political faction, chanting and distraught, reached to touch the coffin.
“Death to the foreign puppets,” they shouted. “Pakistan is our enemy.”
The suicide attacker who killed Rabbani had a a bomb in his turban, and gained entry to the former president’s home by convincing officials, including Karzai’s advisers, that he represented the Taliban leadership, based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, and wanted to discuss reconciliation.
In Washington on Thursday, U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency of backing extremists in planning and executing an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan last week and a truck bomb attack that wounded 77 American soldiers days earlier.
Mullen insisted that the Haqqani insurgent network “acts as a veritable arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, undermining the uneasy U.S.-Pakistan relationship forged in the terror fight and endangering American troops in the nearly 10-year-old war in Afghanistan.
“Death to the ISI,” shouted mourners at Rabbani’s funeral.
Pakistan rejected the American claims that it is supporting extremist attacks on American troops. Some analysts believe Pakistan seeks to bolster its influence in Afghanistan as a way to counter the regional influence of India, its longtime rival.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar warned the U.S. that it risked losing Pakistan as an ally and could not afford to alienate the Pakistani government or its people.
“If they are choosing to do so, it will be at their own cost,” Khar told Geo TV on Thursday from New York City, where she was attending a U.N. General Assembly meeting. “Anything which is said about an ally, about a partner publicly to recriminate it, to humiliate it is not acceptable.”
Khar’s comments were first aired in Pakistan on Friday.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani responded to the U.S. criticism by saying Washington was in a tough spot.
“They can’t live with us. They can’t live without us,” Gilani told reporters Friday in the southern city of Karachi. “So, I would say to them that if they can’t live without us, they should increase contacts with us to remove misunderstandings.”
Rabbani’s mourners, many belonging to a political faction that opposes Karzai, gathered around the coffin as it was lowered into the ground and also lashed out at the Afghan government as well as the United States, which backs the Afghan president.
The 70-year-old Rabbani was the leader of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, which helped overthrow Taliban rule during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. His death deepens rifts between the country’s ethnic minorities, especially between those who made up the Northern Alliance — including Tajiks like Rabbani — and the majority Pashtun, who make up the backbone of the Taliban.
Karzai, who is Pashtun, had appointed Rabbani to Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which was seeking to reconcile the nation’s warring factions. It has made little headway since it was formed a year ago, but it is backed by many in the international community as helping move toward a settlement.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was among those attending the funeral ceremony at the presidential palace. Iran’s state media said Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister and confidant of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, led the Iranian delegation.
“Today we are witnessing one of the biggest and saddest events of this important political time in the history of the world,” said Salahuddin Rabbani, the former president’s son. He urged the Afghan government to aggressively investigate the killing.
Also, NATO forces said two service members died following a bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan on Friday. The deaths bring to 436 the number of international troops killed so far this year in Afghanistan.