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Shopping grounds to a halt in Afghanistan as nation prepares to observe Eid

Kandahar, December 17, 2007 (The Canadian Press): The streets of Kandahar city, teeming with sheep peddlers and eager shoppers in recent days, are about to grow quiet as Muslims across Afghanistan settle in to observe Eid al-Adha.

Like Muslims elsewhere in Asia, the religious holiday commemorating Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismael for Allah is a big occasion for Afghans.

The timing of the festival is based on interpretations of the lunar calendar by religious authorities. For many Muslims, Eid begins on Thursday but the anticipation had started much earlier.

In the days leading up to the holiday, thousands of Kandaharis hit the market to pick out a sheep for slaughter and a new outfit, as is tradition.

Muslims are required to sacrifice the animal - one part going to the poor, the second to a friend and the last to be kept for one's own family - and even those who could barely afford it will go to market in search of a hard-to-come-by bargain.

As such, the streets of the city where Canadian troops have been based for the last two years are virtually overrun with sheep, as business-savvy shepherds seek to make a profit.

"I have a very good business these days," said 42-year-old Ahmadulla, who's been in the sheep business for a decade.

"I don't have a lot of money and this business even can be done with a small amount ... It is a golden chance for me to feed my family for one more year."

It is not uncommon even for those not typically involved in the sheep business to buy a small herd at low cost before the holidays and sell it at a marked up rate later.

As on Valentine's Day in North America when the price of a dozen long-stem roses momentarily skyrockets, so too does the price of a sheep at Eid. A sheep that would typically cost $100 could sell for twice that amount during the holiday, a phenomenon that particularly aggravates butchers.

But high prices have done little to mar the joy and anticipation that mark the lead up to Eid.

"Our father bought us shoes and clothes for Eid," a beaming 12-year-old Halima said. "I am very excited to have this stuff."

A burka-clad woman who hesitated to chat and wouldn't give her name said she, too, was buying new clothes for her and her daughter.

"My husband also does shopping for me but as a matter of fact, I don't like his taste," she said.

At mosques in Kabul, the Afghan capital, religious leaders asked Afghans to pray for the jobless and for less violence. Mosque visitors gave extra money to beggars sitting outside.

"Afghanistan has gone through much conflict. Today we want unity in Afghanistan. More people are jobless in this country, pray for the jobless," said Shah Sayed Wahidi, the religious leader at a Shiite mosque.

President Hamid Karzai made a renewed call to the United States and coalition forces to take their fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban militants beyond Afghanistan's borders. In a speech at the presidential palace Wednesday, Karzai said Afghanistan does not provide shelter for terrorism but is its victim.

"We want the struggle against terrorism to go after their shelters ... and training centres," Karzai said. He did not name any country, but such comments from Afghan officials are known to mean Pakistan.

Karzai's reference was the first public criticism of Afghanistan's eastern neighbour in months.

Afghan officials regularly accuse Pakistan of not doing enough to stop the training and the movement of militants across the porous border.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged that Taliban fighters seek safe haven in Pakistan before crossing into Afghanistan.

Karzai's remarks come at a time when the United States is reportedly reviewing its strategy in Afghanistan as the country goes through its most violent year since the Taliban was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Some 6,300 people, mostly militants, have died in insurgency-related violence this year. Seventy-three Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have lost their lives since Canada's mission in Afghanistan began in 2002.