KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, returning yesterday to a former Taliban stronghold where he was nearly assassinated 19 months ago, said he would welcome rank-and-file members of the militia back into society.
Karzai, however, said about 150 leaders of the ultrareligious Islamic movement supplanted by his government after a US-led war were unworthy of rehabilitation and could be prosecuted.
"Our problem is mainly with the top Taliban -- who may number no more than 150 people -- who had links with Al Qaeda," Karzai said. "Those people are the enemies of Afghanistan, and we are against them.
"But those Taliban who are doing jobs and tilling the fields and working as shopkeepers, we want to welcome those Taliban," he said.
The president had previously said he believed that most Taliban could be reintegrated into society, but this appeared to be the first time he put a number on those the nation sought to prosecute.
Karzai said the government has been negotiating with less radical Taliban leaders for months, though he did not give names or details. Those talks would probably not include Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his inner circle.
The idea of reintegrating some elements of the Taliban has been floated for months. There also have been reports that the government is negotiating with some supporters of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in an effort to persuade them to switch sides.
The pitch to some Taliban elements appears to have Washington's support.
On Tuesday, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said he favors an amnesty for all but the worst of the old regime -- those that allied themselves with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and committed crimes against humanity.
It was Karzai's first trip to Kandahar since a gunman opened fire on him in September 2002 outside the provincial governor's house.
The gunman and two other people were killed when US special forces protecting Karzai fired back.
Security was tight yesterday, and a local security official said at least one man was arrested on suspicion of plotting terrorist acts.
The Taliban have increased attacks in recent weeks, especially in Kandahar and other southern and eastern provinces.
The United Nations has warned that if security throughout the country does not improve, it would be nearly impossible to hold successful elections. The vote was to take place in June, but violence has slowed voter registration, forcing a delay.
On his trip yesterday, Karzai met with the governor and tribal elders, traveled to his hometown of Karz, just outside Kandahar, and visited his father's grave. He urged residents to register to vote, and called on militiamen under the control of local warlords to embrace the government's disarmament program, which provides economic benefits for those that lay down their arms.
Karzai also traveled to his hometown of Karz, just outside Kandahar, and visited his father's grave.
The government has said that it hopes to disarm 40 percent of the estimated 100,000 private militiamen throughout the country by July, although most observers say that goal is overly optimistic.