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US Pounds Afghanistan as Ramadan Begins

As air strikes over Kandahar ushered in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, power struggles among various factions erupted in the capital Kabul.

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Muslims around the world begin a month of fasting and praying

The United States continued to bomb the southern Taliban stronghold of Kandahar as Muslims around the world began the holy month of Ramadan with fasting and prayers.

Afghan tribal leaders spoke of popular uprisings in the south and plans to advance on Kandahar.

In an unconfirmed report, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) spoke of US air strikes on Kandahar through the night and into the early morning. A part of the foreign ministry and a mosque are said to be damaged and 11 civilians killed.

Meanwhile the White House in a bid to soothe inflamed anti-US sentiments in the Muslim world, sent out a statement from President Bush, saluting Islam and playing up the US humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan.

"As the new moon signals the holy month of Ramadan, I extend warm greetings to Muslims throughout the United States and around the world," Bush said. He did not mention the military campaign.

Bin Laden still at large

The United States, which has rejected calls for a military cease fire during Ramadan, says that it is "tightening the noose" on Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network and the Taliban leadership.

But 41 days into the U.S.-led war, there is no word on the whereabouts of Bin Laden and Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

One U.S. official said the Northern Alliance had captured top Taliban leaders, who could have information on the whereabouts of bin Laden.

But Mullah Omar, the Head of the Taliban has vowed not to hand over Bin Laden to the US. He also said that the Taliban would regroup and continue fighting. The Taliban according to him still control four or five of Afghanistan’s 29 provinces.

"The situation in Afghanistan is part of a big plan including the destruction of the United States," he is reported to have said.

But US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld said Bin Laden would be relentlessly pursued, even if he slipped out of Afghanistan.

"I think we will find him either there or in some other country," he added.

Pakistan, which is under pressure from radical Muslims at home over its support for the U.S.-led war, has placed tanks on its border to stop Taliban or Bin Laden fighters crossing.

Vice President Dick Cheney said the United States would go after al Qaeda cells, using military means if necessary, beyond the borders of Afghanistan.

Power struggles and ethnic divisions

Afghan politics remains racked by ethnic divisions and the transition to a post-Taliban governments seems anything but smooth.

Internal division are surfacing even within the Northern Alliance. The minority Hazara troops of the Northern Alliance were said to be heading to Kabul to protect the Hazara population in the west of the capital.

This indicates that they do not trust the troops of former Afghan President, Burhanuddin Rabbani's Jamiat-I-Islami that moved in on Tuesday, although both are members of the Northern Alliance that united to drive out the Taliban.

While American ambassador to Afghanistan Dobbins is meeting with several Afghan leaders from various factions in the region, the Afghans themselves are looking to the United Nations to provide the mechanism to establish a new government.

The UN has been trying for years without success to get myriad Afghan political parties operating in Afghanistan together.

Under the present UN plan, leaders from all Afghan groups will meet and approve an interim government that will rule for a maximum of two years.

It increasingly seems as if the only person who can help peace is Zahir Shah, the exiled Afghan king who the United Nations sees as a potential neutral figurehead.

The 87-year-old monarch has lived in Rome since he was overthrown in 1973, but diplomats say his family and advisers are also deeply divided by rivalries.

Zahir Shah as given no indication of when he might be prepared to return to Afghanistan.