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Taliban mullah feeds off anti-U.S. anger

By Stan Grant, CNN
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Cleric walks in bin Laden's footsteps
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Muslim cleric who reveres slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden says U.S. vulnerable now
  • Mullah Abdul Aziz says people in Pakistan are angry at the U.S.
  • He is hardline cleric who was jailed for leading radicals into a shootout with Pakistani commandos
  • He also has 80 schools across Pakistan and encourages girls to learn

Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- The compound is large and rambling with a mosque, a girl's school, some rundown buildings and a rabbit warren of winding alleys. Bearded men in traditional Pakistani dress lounge around on rugs and cushions. They offer faint smiles and gentle, limp handshakes.

Here the leafy charm of Pakistan's capital Islamabad falls away. This is a dusty, harder place.

Two men armed with assault rifles meet me at the gate. They're highly trained Pakistani police posted here to watch the man I'm coming to meet.

He's branded a terrorist, and in 2007 was jailed for leading his followers at Islamabad's radical Red Mosque into a bloody shootout with Pakistani commandos.

Mullah Abdul Aziz is still equally revered and feared. But the man I meet is disarmingly gentle and welcoming. He is small, with the customary beard and white turban of Islamic clerics.

Mullah Aziz likes to call himself a man of peace; a simple teacher. In an unusual posture for a hard-line Islamic cleric, he strongly supports girls' education.

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He shows me around his school, inside girls' heads and faces are covered, the curtains are drawn to stop us filming. There are 80 of these schools around Pakistan, Mullah Aziz proudly boasts.

"I am called a terrorist, but travel across the country, ask anyone. They love us". He tells me.

The mullah's charm never falters. He invites us for lunch: a simple meal of chicken and rice. The longer I am with him the more open and relaxed he becomes.

But it's here his words betray him. He scarcely seems to notice our camera as he reveals the steel behind the smile.

This 'simple teacher' proclaims allegiance to the Taliban and calls Mullah Omar, the militant Islamic group's leader, a freedom fighter.

He says suicide bombing is justified if ordered by a Muslim cleric. And he reveres slain al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden: his death he holds sacred.

"I was sad and happy. I was sad because Muslims lost a great leader. But I was happy too because it is the wish of all Muslims to be martyred and he was martyred," he says.

He warms to the martyrdom theme. As he feeds rice to his five-year-old adopted son, Mullah Aziz tells me how his eldest son was shot dead at the Red Mosque siege. He was offered the chance to get his son out, he says, but preferred that he stay and fight.

"If I had 100 sons, it would be my dream that they be martyred," he says.

The mullah's mother and brother also were shot dead.

But Mullah Aziz himself preferred life. He was arrested escaping from the mosque dressed as a woman in a traditional black burqa.

He still keeps the reminders of that bloody day. He shows me the bullet riddled furniture strewn about the compound. It keeps him focused on his struggle to impose Islamic government across the world.

He knows exactly who the enemy is. I ask: "Are you at war with the United States?"

"Yes. The U.S. is at war with us. They kill innocent Muslims. Ask anyone, there is great hatred for America," he says.

Mullah Aziz senses the United States is vulnerable in the region right now, with people angry that the raid on bin Laden's compound was carried out without Pakistan consent.

The government, fending off allegations it was shielding the al Qaeda leader, accused the Americans of infringing on Pakistan sovereignty. Mullah Aziz feeds on this fear and suspicion. And, with a mischievous smile, he says, "We invite President Obama to convert to Islam ... If he did that all problems, even wars, would be resolved."

But this is not a man to laugh at. He wants the U.S. out and supports all means necessary.