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Newly free Kabul plays soccer, music

With an abandon he said he had not felt in years, 17-year-old Ahmad Zaki chased down a soccer ball on a dusty field in central Kabul on Wednesday. His teammates and opponents yelped in delight as they ran after him, laughing at the tightness of his athletic shorts. He hadn't worn them since he was 13.

Their skills rusty but their enthusiasm at a peak, Zaki and his friends took advantage of the second day of the Taliban's absence in the Afghan capital to break at least two rules laid down by the hard-line regime after it captured Kabul in 1996: no sports and no short pants.

"I've been waiting for this moment since I was young," Zaki said, out of breath during a pause in the game. "Now I hope I can play every day."

Small scenes like this played out across the capital a day after Northern Alliance troops took control of the streets, the first signs of the tentative rebirth of a city.

A boxing club closed in 1997 by the Taliban, who wanted to turn it into a sandal factory, was refitted with its punching bags and readied to reopen.

In the Jamhuriat marketplace, cassette vendors blared previously forbidden Indian and Persian pop music from tiny loudspeakers and openly hawked the cassettes featuring pictures of unveiled beauties to crowds of young men and boys. Even a few Western titles, such as a recording by Jennifer Lopez and the soundtrack to Legends of the Fall, could be found.

"Under the Taliban, we were allowed to sell only religious music and recorded readings of the holy Koran," said Ahmad Farid, who operates a cassette stall with his brother, Nisar. "Now I think business will improve."

The early changes in behavior were far from universal. At the Shahala family's home-based, underground beauty parlor, formerly illegal due to the Taliban edict against women wearing makeup, patriarchs barred foreign visitors from seeing the beauticians and their customers.

"We do not allow access to our women," said Sahid Sahala, whose sister runs the beauty parlor. "Even if we open a legitimate salon someday, we will provide access to customers only."

As in other areas of Afghanistan, most women in Kabul continued in public to wear the head-to-toe burqas; a few shed the heavy garment and showed their faces. As it has elsewhere, the Northern Alliance announced that it would encourage women to seek employment outside their homes and to gain an education, both forbidden under Taliban rule.

That announcement came over the airwaves of the newly opened Radio Afghanistan, and the radio station quickly followed the advice; it hired three women to read the news.

It all seemed part of a calculated plan by the Northern Alliance to distance itself from the Taliban and gain good will ahead of negotiations on the shape of a future government for Afghanistan.

Soldiers and police patrolling the street maintained a casual and friendly attitude toward citizens. And they, it seemed, had been given a crash course in human rights terminology.

When one soldier was asked about the whereabouts of prisoners taken by the Northern Alliance, he replied that he did not know, but added: "We follow the Geneva (Convention) rules. We treat enemy prisoners well. We do not torture, and we do not beat." His comrades in arms gathered around him, nodding as he spoke.

Indeed, the alliance seemed so far successful in its attempt to keep a low profile as it sought to establish basic law and order and itself as a credible political force. There were no reports of major violence or looting in the capital, and officials of the alliance established themselves in the ministries of defense, foreign affairs and interior.

Most shops reopened after weeks of uncertainty and bombings in Kabul, and thick crowds thronged the open-air markets and bazaars.

Radio Afghanistan played popular Afghan music along with public service announcements urging residents to stay calm, obey the law, and return to work. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister named by the alliance, also said there were plans to begin a new network to serve all of Afghanistan with television broadcasts, which were also banned by the Taliban. He did not give a timetable.

In another public relations push that taps public sympathy for its assassinated former leader, alliance forces have papered the capital with images of Ahmad Shah Massood, the slain leader of the Northern Alliance.

"We are all still in mourning for our lost leader," said Bariolai Osmoni, 38. "My only wish is that our country can produce other great leaders who can make Afghanistan proud and independent."