KABUL, Afghanistan -- Among the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar's word was always law. Now, as the purist Islamic movement collapses, its leaders are desperately trying to salvage safety for the bearded, one-eyed cleric who led them to rule -- and to ruin.
Cornered in their last military stronghold of Kandahar, the southern Afghanistan city that is also their spiritual home, the Taliban are offering to lay down their weapons -- but at a price.
Under the still-murky terms of a surrender accord announced Thursday by the Taliban and tribal leaders opposing them, Omar's safety would be guaranteed. The leader of Afghanistan's incoming interim government, Hamid Karzai, said it still hadn't been decided whether the Taliban leader would be arrested, as the United States demands.
President Bush quickly let it be known he wouldn't countenance any deal that left Omar -- who refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, chief suspect in the Sept. 11 terror attacks -- at liberty.
''The president believes very strongly that those who harbor terrorists must be brought to justice,'' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. Asked whether Bush believed that category included Omar, he replied: ''Yes.''
In seeking to strike a deal, the Taliban have very little leverage. Kandahar has been under intense American bombardment for nearly two months, and a contingent of more than 1,000 U.S. Marines is backing up anti-Taliban tribal forces who have been advancing on the city.
Even so, the Pashtun tribesmen closing in on Kandahar have little desire for a battle to the death with the Taliban, their ethnic kin. And the surrender pact tests the prestige of Karzai, picked only a day earlier by Afghan factions as head of an administration that will govern for six months while a new post-Taliban order is forged.
Throughout the confrontation over bin Laden, Omar has been a highly visible yet profoundly enigmatic figure.
From his customary seclusion in Kandahar -- where his young disciples coalesced to form the Taliban movement -- the 41-year-old cleric issued pronouncements that were sometimes contradictory and confusing, but never strayed from an essential message: The Taliban would not yield.
Karzai said as part of any deal to save himself, Omar would have to renounce terrorism. The United States replied, in essence, that such a renunciation would be too little, too late.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that the Bush administration would not accept any deal that allowed Omar to remain free and ''live in dignity'' anywhere in the region. And he suggested that any accord that failed to bring Omar to account could lead to an abrupt end to American support for anti-Taliban tribal forces.
''Our cooperation and assistance with those people would clearly take a turn south if something were to be done in respect to the senior people in that situation that is inconsistent with what I have said,'' Rumsfeld said.
The Taliban, unsurprisingly, portrayed the offer to surrender Kandahar as a self-sacrificing move on Omar's part.
''Mullah Omar has taken the decision for the welfare of the people, to avoid casualties and to save the life and dignity of Afghans,'' the Taliban's former ambassador to Pakistan, Abdul Salam Zaeef, said in the Pakistani capital.
Hours before the surrender accord was announced, Karzai had told The Associated Press he would offer amnesty to ordinary Taliban fighters -- but not to Omar, the man who once declared himself Amir ul-Momineen, or true leader of the Muslim faithful.
As the Taliban came to prominence -- and moved on to raw, unchecked power -- Omar rarely strayed far from his roots. He seldom left his compound on the outskirts of Kandahar. The outside world was not welcome; he rarely met anyone who was not a Muslim. Almost no photographs of Omar exist.
Left one-eyed by a shrapnel shard to the face during the fight against the Soviet Union, Omar is largely unschooled except in the Muslim holy book, the Quran.
Before the confrontation with the United States began, Omar declared the Taliban would fight ''until there is no blood in Afghanistan left to be shed, and Islam becomes a way of life for our people.''
On Thursday, as Omar's fate hung in the balance, Zaeef, the ex-envoy to Pakistan, sounded a more forlorn note.
''I think,'' he said, ''we should go home.''
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