updated 1/8/2006 12:23:58 PM ET 2006-01-08T17:23:58

President Hamid Karzai said Sunday he was open to the return of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, but he does not expect the fugitive to come out of hiding to reconcile with the government.

“We would like all the Afghans, Taliban or non-Taliban, whoever they are, if they want to come back to their country, to participate in the life of this country, it’s their home, they’re welcome,” Karzai said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

Asked if his offer included Omar, Karzai said, “If he wants to come, he should get in touch with us.”

“We would see what he has to say, of course,” the president said. “But I don’t think he will come. He has so much on his hands against Afghanistan. We don’t even know as to where he is hiding. He has to first give us an account as to what he’s done.”

The hunt for Mullah Omar
Omar has been in hiding since U.S.-led forces ousted his Islamic extremist Taliban regime in late 2001 for hosting Osama bin Laden. American officials have said they believe the two men are in rugged mountains on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Karzai said the hunt for the two would continue.

“I am sure we will find them one day,” he said during the interview at his palace in the capital, Kabul.

Omar is believed to be leading holdouts from his old regime in a rebellion against Karzai’s government that left about 1,600 people dead last year, the most since 2001.

Karzai said he expected suicide attacks to continue in Afghanistan “for a long time,” but he believed many of the bombers in a recent spate of assaults may have been duped into killing themselves.

“We will have this for a long time,” Karzai said. “We are ready to face them. We will be after them wherever we find them.”

A ‘bigger threat than terrorism’
The president also said a booming trade in opium and heroin threatens Afghanistan’s existence as a nation-state, and that foreign criminal gangs were working with terrorists to force farmers to grow poppies.

“Afghanistan has to fight drugs, period, or we will not survive as a nation-state,” Karzai said.

Afghanistan is the world’s biggest producer of illegal narcotics, yielding enough opium to make about 450 tons of heroin — sparking warnings the country is fast becoming a “narco-state.”

Karzai called drugs a “bigger threat than terrorism” and said the problem has criminalized the economy, tainted the country’s international image, hindered the development of strong government institutions and undermined young people’s lives.

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