KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai gave the green light to a major security crackdown in the Taliban birthplace of Kandahar on Sunday, assuring residents that the operation was aimed at battling corruption and bad government as much as insurgents.

Hundreds of tribal and religious leaders gathered in a steamy conference hall publicly endorsed the plan, although Afghan officials acknowledged skepticism remains over the high-stakes operation, seen as a possible turning point in the nearly nine-year-old war.

Afghan and international forces already have started to ramp up security, raising fears among the estimated half million people living in and around the city that military action will lead to more bloodshed.

Karzai worked to allay those fears, saying the operation would not resemble a heavy military offensive with tanks and air strikes that could endanger civilians.

"The cleaning-up operation will start first inside Kandahar city, and then we will go to the districts," he said, urging the audience to put aside fears of retaliation and join him in retaking control of the city from insurgents, criminals, and power-brokers.

"We need your cooperation with this operation," he said. "I don't accept any excuse for not cooperating."

That message pleased NATO officials who said it was important for Karzai, as president of the country, to publicly take ownership of the operation.

U.S. commanders believe control of Kandahar, the provincial capital, is the key to wresting the ethnic Pashtun south away from the Taliban.

It was only the second time in recent years that Karzai has visited his home province. His government has little presence there, and insurgents have exploited public discontent with the central government in Kabul to win support in the region. They have also targeted those who support the government and its international partners.

Karzai pounded the lectern and won applause when he said corruption was undermining security and urged people to turn in anyone - even his closest supporters - if they were suspected of graft.

He expressed sadness over the deaths of 56 people last week when a 13-year-old suicide bomber detonated his vest of explosives at a wedding party in a village near Kandahar. Yet the grisly attack seems to have rallied support among the war-weary public for tighter security in the city.

Pakistan Accused

Pakistan's intelligence agency not only funds and trains Taliban fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but is also represented on the insurgency's leadership council, a report issued by the London School of Economics alleges.

Though such assertions are not new, and were denied by Pakistan, the scope of the ties alleged is startling.

Report author Matt Waldman of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government interviewed Taliban commanders and Western security officials.

- Los Angeles TimesEndText