NAJIBAN, Afghanistan — The delegation came to Najiban to pay its respects to the dead. But insurgents offered them no respite, spilling more blood at even this most solemn — and heavily guarded — occasion.
The crowd of Afghan dignitaries — including two brothers of President Hamid Karzai — came under fire from suspected Taliban insurgents Tuesday as they visited the site of Sunday's massacre of 16 civilians by a U.S. soldier. One Afghan soldier was killed and two others wounded, but none of the senior officials — who included the governor of Kandahar province and the Afghan army chief — were reported harmed.
The attack by insurgents firing from long range showed that they can disrupt even the most well-guarded affairs, and even here in Panjway — a district of southern Kandahar province that's long been a Taliban stronghold but which U.S. military officials had recently described as one of the success stories of the U.S. troop surge.
Pentagon officials continued to remain tight-lipped about the suspect being held in Afghanistan in connection with the massacre _ a 38-year-old Army staff sergeant who had served three tours in Iraq before being deployed to Afghanistan late last year. The identity of the sergeant _ who reportedly walked off the base in the pre-dawn hours and methodically shot the civilians, including nine children _ was being withheld pending military charges that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said could carry the death penalty.
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In Washington, President Barack Obama issued his strongest condemnation yet of the shooting spree, calling it "outrageous" and "unacceptable," and he vowed that the Pentagon would conduct a thorough investigation. But he said that it wouldn't force an acceleration of his administration's plan to halt U.S. combat operations by the end of 2014 and transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
"We have a strategy that will allow us to responsibly wind down this war. We're steadily transitioning to the Afghans who are moving into the lead. And that's going to allow us to bring our troops home," Obama said.
Few Afghans in Najiban village on Tuesday were willing to listen to apologies, however. A McClatchy journalist, the only Western reporter at the scene, observed the delegation of Afghan officials encountering angry responses as it met villagers near the site where 11 of the 16 victims had been gunned down on Sunday.
"We are here to share your pain," said Asadullah Khalid, the minister of border affairs and the former governor of Kandahar.
A few angry locals objected as he spoke. The minister motioned them to sit down.
"We don't want the Americans here," one elder told the minister.
"We demand justice," another shouted.
Some Afghans said that the suspect should face justice in an Afghan court. The minister looked awkward _ what could he say in response? The circling U.S. helicopters and jets overhead seemed a reminder of which party in the Afghan-U.S. relationship held most of the power.
Abdul Qaym Karzai pronounced the massacre "a very bad incident."
As the Karzai brothers and other top officials started to walk back to their vehicles, a sound like exploding firecrackers swept loudly in the street. A few people jumped; others smirked, seemingly oblivious to the danger. Moments later, officials, security personnel and locals raced for cover as the insurgents apparently fired from the neighboring village of Alkozai, about one mile away.
For about 30 minutes, confusion reigned as the crackle of heavy weapons and the blasts of explosions echoed around the village. Next to a clutch of police trucks, an army officer in civilian clothes was hit. He sprinted for the safety of nearby wall, his trousers stained with a nasty-looking flesh wound. He was bundled into the back of a car and rushed away.
The Kandahar police commander, Gen. Abdul Raziq, stood with a satellite phone in one hand, relaxed to the point of nonchalance.
"No problem, no problem," he laughed, as he dismissed the morning's events in broken English. "Every day there is ambush."
Not so light-hearted was the Afghan man who stood nearby, a young boy in his arms, perhaps 4 or 5 years old. Everyone in his family was killed in the massacre.
The man spoke to an Afghan investigator about the killings, talking quietly and watching with empty eyes while the investigator filled out his paperwork.
When the man was finished asking questions he walked past the journalist, not eager to be interviewed.
One thing that was very clear was the determination of "the enemy," as the Afghan army chief of staff, Gen. Sher Mohammad Karimi, referred to the Taliban, even as he downplayed the attack's significance.
"When the enemy hears there is a high-level delegation showing its presence, they do anything they can," he said.
Despite the ferocity of the Taliban attack and the apparently deep-seated and enduring hostility in Panjway to the Afghan government and its U.S. backers, the general said he still had hope that the area could be pacified.
"We are trying our best to stabilize the situation," Karimi said.
Many Afghans seemed gloomy about the long-term prospects for Afghanistan when the U.S.-led international troop presence withdraws from their country and transfers security responsibilities to Afghan forces over the next two years.
"There will be no peace of Afghanistan," said an Afghan-American translator at the U.S. base, who didn't want to be named for fear of reprisals. "If the Americans leave in 2014, the fighting will get worse. They will have to come back and do this all again."
(Stephenson is a McClatchy special correspondent. Lesley Clark contributed from Washington.)
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