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Analysis: Buddhas' fate signals Taleban divisions


LONDON, England (CNN) -- For those who watch the Taleban closely, the decree to destroy the ancient Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, indicates deepening divisions within its fractured ranks.

Afghan opposition leaders in India said the fundamentalist Islamic movement began tearing down two immense, 2,000-year-old statues of the Buddha carved into a rock face near the central town of Bamiyan. Cultural authorities worldwide have urged Taleban to spare the statues, but Taleban leaders consider them graven images "insulting to Islam."

When Mullah Turabi, the hard-line justice minister, called on Taleban leader Mullah Omar to demand the destruction of false gods, the Taleban chief directed him to the legislative Shuria council.


The movement has controlled most of the country since 1996, but a fragmented opposition is still fighting in the northern mountains. Only three countries -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- have recognized the Taleban as Afghanistan's government.

Turabi got the Shuria council to agree to his edict that "all statues and idols" should be destroyed because they "idolize infidel gods." Many on the council went along because U.N. sanctions demanding the Taleban hand over suspected international terrorist Osama bin Laden have hardened them against the outside world and its views.

The debate was held in secret, and little is known of how it progressed except that the new ruling countermands a 1999 decree preventing the destruction of Afghanistan's many archeological sites. That decree was pushed through the Shuria council by the then-Minister of Culture Mullah Muttaki, a moderate within the Taleban's influential inner circle.

Outside Afghanistan, representatives of the government ousted by the Taleban say they are getting calls of support from expatriate Afghans who would have formerly backed the Taleban. They read the issuing of such a hard-line edict as forcing apart the moderate and hard-line elements within the Taleban inner circle -- something they hope will hasten the demise of their enemy, who currently controls more than 90 percent of Afghanistan.

No one in the legislative chamber will now speak out against the destruction of the Buddahs, because anything less than overt backing for Mullah Omar when the country is under such international pressure would be seen as dissent.

An indication that moderates within the Shuria are not behind the edict wholeheartedly came when Foreign Minister Mullah Muttawakil issued a clarification saying statues in places currently used for worship by non-Muslims, such as Hindus and Sikhs, were to be left alone.

But the unique 38-meter (125-foot) and 53-meter (174-foot) Buddhist figures at Bamiyan, which are carved into a cliff overlooking the town, are not covered by that revision.

Nic Robertson, CNN's deputy London bureau chief, has traveled extensively in Afghanistan and wrote a 1999 series of reports for CNN.

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