KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The powerful half brother of President Hamid Karzai was gunned down in his heavily fortified home by a close associate Tuesday, setting off a power struggle in southern Afghanistan and raising doubts about stability in a critical area for the U.S.-led war effort.
The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, a wheeler-dealer and the key to his half brother's power in the south, leaves the president without an influential ally to handle the tricky job of balancing the interests of the region's tribal and political leaders, drug runners, insurgents and militias.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but officials immediately cast doubt that they were involved. If they were, it could undercut the president's own effort to talk peace with insurgents as foreign forces begin their exit.
The gunman's motive was unclear. He was identified as Sardar Mohammad, who had provided security for Wali Karzai and members of his family. Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor of Kandahar, described Mohammad as a close, "trustworthy" person who had gone to Wali Karzai's house purportedly to get him to sign some papers.
The two men met alone in a room. As Wali Karzai was signing the papers, the assassin "took out a pistol and shot him with two bullets -- one in the forehead and one in the chest," Wesa said. Another official, however, said the wounds were to Wali Karzai's head, hand and leg.
Wali Karzai's bodyguards then rushed into the room and gunned down Mohammad.
The assassination took place less than two hours before the president held an outdoor news conference with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Kabul. Before it started, tears welled up in the eyes of Karzai associates. When Karzai arrived, he spoke in a somber voice.
"This morning my younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was murdered in his home," the president said. "Such is the life of Afghanistan's people. In the houses of the people of Afghanistan, each of us is suffering and our hope is, God willing, to remove this suffering from the people of Afghanistan and implement peace and stability."
Later that evening, the president flew south to Kandahar to be with his slain brother and relatives. A funeral is scheduled for Thursday, and Wali Karzai was to be buried in Karz, the Karzai family village in Kandahar province .
Wali Karzai, who was in his 50s, was for years a lightning rod for criticism of corruption in the government. He was seen by many as a political liability for Karzai after a series of allegations including that he was involved in drug trafficking. He denied the charges. The president challenged his accusers to show him evidence of his sibling's wrongdoing. With no concrete evidence to force his ouster, U.S. officials worked to persuade Wali Karzai to align his activities with coalition goals, or at least not impede them.