Mullah Omar, the ascetic with golden chandeliers

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The Independent Online

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, lived in a strange sort of luxury. Gold-plated chandeliers hung above his bed. He even had his own private mosque, complete with mirrored minarets. It is not the sort of house where you would have expected to find a dictator so austere that he banned music.

Triumphant anti-Taliban fighters were giving guided tours yesterday at Mullah Omar's vast compound on the edge of Kandahar, the city where the Taliban first seized power, and where they finally lost it last week. Mujahedin took turns to try out Mullah Omar's imported mattress – beds are a rare luxury in Afghanistan, where most people sleep on the floor.

But, for all that, Mullah Omar's palace resembles nothing so much as a Seventies motel. The walls of the bedroom are decorated with moulded Formica painted brown to look like wood. The private mosque is a lurid shade of green and blue. The minarets even have little bits of mirror stuck to them to catch the light.

Visitors trampled all over what was once Mullah Omar's private world, mocking the rather naive murals of waterfalls and villages painted on the inside of the compound walls. You could even inspect his private bathroom, complete with not one but two squatter toilets, side by side. His and hers?

Kandahar is dotted with strangely luxurious houses among the long bombed-out ruins of the city, some lying in disrepair for 20 years. Many belonged to senior Taliban – and some are thought to have belonged to senior members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network.

Perhaps Mr bin Laden once stayed in Mullah Omar's home. If so, the accommodation was a far cry from the austere caves in which he is now reported to be hiding in Afghanistan.

In some ways, the property resembles an American ranch with a large open-air compound and ample stabling for horses and camels. About half of Mullah Omar's ranch lies in ruins, entire buildings reduced to rubble by American bombs. US special forces in desert camouflage were at the compound yesterday. Anti-Taliban tribal leaders say the soldiers who have established a base near Kandahar have removed boxes of evidence from Mullah Omar's compound. Here and there was the smell of a rotting corpse. Apparently the destroyed buildings included the house of one of Mullah Omar's three wives, where he would sometimes have slept.

Much has been said about the accuracy of the American bombing here. The Taliban's criminal investigation bureau is a pile of rubble, for example, but the houses next to it still stand. No civilians were hit. But they were bombing a huge compound, in which Mullah Omar lived with 250 of his retainers. There were no civilians to hit.

The bombs hit some buildings and left ones next door intact. That sort of accuracy raises the question of why American bombs repeatedly ploughed into civilian homes elsewhere in Afghanistan, killing at least 100 civilians over several days in the town of Khanabad alone.

Inside Mullah Omar's own house, there were signs that someone had searched each room. Doors had been smashed or blown open with explosives. Of the mullah himself, there was no sign. He has reportedly fled Kandahar, and is on the run, hunted by US Marines scouring southern Afghanistan.

The strangest sight of all is a bizarre giant sculpture of a dead tree. Made of plastic painted brown, a life-size giant tree trunk lies slanting across a barren rock – not unlike a miniature version of the jagged mountains that surround Kandahar. At the far end, two cactus saplings are springing into life. "I don't know why everybody mocks it so much," said Habibullah, a young Afghan looking at the sculpture. "There are sculptures like this in cities all over the West. But it's very unusual in Afghanistan. It proves Mullah Omar was an educated man."

Mullah Omar enforced a theocratic system of government so harsh it took Afghanistan back to the dark ages. He personally banned music. He refused even to have his own photograph taken – very few pictures of him exist – and almost never gave interviews.

And yet the strange luxury he enjoyed was not entirely out of keeping with the man. He did, after all, brandish Kandahar's greatest treasure, the cloak supposed to be that of Prophet Mohammed, before a huge crowd of worshippers. And he ordered the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas because they depicted the human form, in contravention of Islamic law. None of his private artwork did that.

As the mujahedin gleefully pointed out the hypocrisy of Mullah Omar's lifestyle yesterday, their own leader was busy moving in at the other end of the compound.

In one of the chambers, Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, sat cross-legged with other tribal leaders and discussed the future of Kandahar, a city in ruins that lacks the most basic services. Gunmen belonging to different tribal factions appear to have carved up the city into areas of control.

Three-quarters of Kandahar's population may have fled the American bombs but Mr Karzai seems to have taken a fancy to Mullah Omar's ranch.

The leaders change, but the lifestyle remains.

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