KALAI BALLA, Afghanistan (AP) In the village of Taqob, outside Kabul, two teen-age girls at a Taliban checkpoint lift the shrouds of every woman who flees the city and every woman who arrives, peering into their faces. They search for insurgents, foreigners, spies.

Paul Wong
An Afghan refugee collects wheat donated by USAID yesterday in Jalozai refugee camp in Pakistan. More than two million Afghan refugees currently live in Pakistan.<br><br>AP PHOTO

Of all the signs of panic among the radical Islamic Taliban, this new step to search women is perhaps the most ironic: They are now afraid of chadri the head-to-toe shrouds all Afghan women are compelled to wear on the streets.

For the people of Kabul, the most surprising thing now is that the Taliban is suddenly scared. It is afraid of U.S. bomb strikes, afraid of an attack on Kabul by opposition Northern Alliance forces and afraid of a popular uprising in support of its enemies.

Kabul is a city on the brink, according to accounts from those who fled in recent days, from traders who travel between the capital and the north, and from local staff at humanitarian aid agencies.

The Taliban has set up checkpoints on the main roads, strengthened its military positions north of the city and deployed anti-aircraft guns in the mountains around Kabul.

The dreaded Ministry for the Enforcement of Virtue and Suppression of Vice, Afghanistan”s religious police, has unleashed a terror campaign in recent weeks, witnesses say, targeting young men seen as possible sources of insurgency or unrest. They are being beaten, locked into cargo containers used as cells or taken away to Policharki prison, the city”s most notorious jail.

Those who have escaped describe a medieval world where intellectuals are reviled where religious police hit women and girls in the streets with large sticks, like stray cattle and where young men are being ordered to fight a jihad to prove their Muslim credentials.

The Virtue and Vice police are arresting young men for wearing their beards too short and for “Titanic” haircuts worn long in the front in the style of Leonardo Di Caprio.

People have been arrested over their hair choices long before the Taliban was singled out for condemnation in the Bush administration”s war on terror, said Shuraj, 18, whose name means “brave,” but the scale of the present terror campaign is unlike anything he has seen.

“It all started after the Americans said they would bomb,” he said, casting the arrests as a crackdown by the predominately Pushtun Taliban against other ethnic minorities.

Shuraj is an ethnic Tajik who fled Kabul a week ago with about 100 members of his extended family. He says he has been beaten twice in recent weeks by Vice and Virtue police who burst into the school where he teaches English.

“They said, “Why are you teaching now? It”s time to pray,” ” he recalled.

Five years of Taliban rule has stripped the country of educated people, he says. “There is no one left to be English teachers,” said Shuraj, who works as a pharmacist because he is not allowed to study at a university. The reason, he says, is discrimination against ethnic Tajiks.

Those from the Hazara minority, Tajiks, Uzbeks and others face the most systematic persecution by the Taliban, but even fellow Pushtuns feel beleaguered, said Mohammad Anif, 67.

“It”s a lie that the Taliban is good for Pushtun people only. There are about 100 Pushtun families here. The Taliban is against all the people of Afghanistan,” said Anif, who lives in a refugee camp at Anaka village in the Panjshir Valley. He fled to the opposition-controlled area of northern Afghanistan three years ago.

For men of Shuraj”s age, the darkest terror is Kabul”s Policharki prison. “Everyone is afraid of Policharki jail, even a child,” said Shuraj. “When people hear the name, they tremble.”

Anyone who can afford the journey is getting out of Kabul, but the poorest cannot escape.

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