Two civilians killed in clashes with security forces in western Afghan city
Saturday April 30, 4:36 PM AP
Two civilians were killed and eight more wounded when security forces opened fire during street celebrations in the western Afghan city of Herat, police said Saturday, denting President Hamid Karzai's efforts to stabilize the war-ravaged country.
The shooting broke out Friday during a holiday for the anniversary of the fall of Afghanistan's last communist government. It triggered a demonstration Saturday in which protesters called for "Death to Americans," while the U.N. reported fresh gunfire in the city.
City police chief Baba Jan said Afghan soldiers opened fire on Friday evening in an apparent attempt to control crowds at an event organized by the Education Ministry. However, Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal said the shots were fired during a row between troops and police.
Jan said one woman died at the scene and another later in a hospital. There were unconfirmed reports of further fatalities, while more civilians were injured in the ensuing panic.
Protesters then threw stones at security forces, Mashal and witnesses said.
The president expressed condolences to the families of those killed and wounded. He ordered an investigation and "severe punishment" for those responsible, his office said in a statement.
Officials said one soldier had been arrested and that a team of investigators was en route from Kabul.
On Saturday morning, about 700 people marched from the home of former Herat Governor Ismail Khan to the office of his successor, Sayed Mohammed Khairkhwa.
The demonstrators carried portraits of Khan and shouted slogans including "Death to Khairkhwa" and "Death to Americans" and called for Khan's return.
Police massed in front of the U.N. office along the route and accompanied the marchers, who remained peaceful.
U.N. spokeswoman Ariane Quentier said gunfire was heard in the city on Saturday morning but had no details. Staff were ordered to stay at home or take refuge in bunkers on U.N. compounds, she said.
The violence was the worst in Herat since September last year, when Khan's ouster prompted street riots in which three people died and mobs ransacked the U.N. offices.
Khan, now a minister in Karzai's Cabinet, was a veteran leader of mujahedeen rebels who fought occupying Soviet troops in the 1980s and took power in Kabul on April 28, 1992, before plunging the country into civil war.
Afghan national police and national army troops have been deployed to Herat since Khan's removal and thousands of fighters have been demobilized under a U.N. program to consolidate the power of the central government.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad had pressed for the removal of Khan, whom the central government accused of withholding customs revenue from the nearby Iranian border and whom the U.N. accused of holding up disarmament.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. military, whose forces are focused on the insurgency-plagued south and east, had no information on the incidents.
7 Killed in Afghanistan Airstrike
Saturday April 30, 2005 8:28am
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - An airstrike on a suspected insurgent camp in central Afghanistan killed three civilians and four militants, the U.S. military said Saturday.The Afghan civilians, a woman, man and a child, died when warplanes attacked the camp in Uruzgan province on Friday, a military statement said.
Afghan Minister Hails Progress On Ground Forces, Disarmament
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
29 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak said on 28 April that deployment of Afghan National Army ground forces will be completed in 2006, Afghanistan Television reported.
Wardak was speaking at a military parade commemorating the 13th anniversary of the fall of the communist regime in Kabul.
The government in Kabul has articulated its desire to eliminate its dependence on international assistance as soon as possible, albeit with what it describes as "enduring arrangements" with the United States and other countries. It has also sought to integrate the country's various ethnic groups into the Afghan armed forces.
Lieutenant General David Barno, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, noted on 15 April that official Afghan armed forces now number 22,000. He added that "the reduction in the number of coalition forces [in Afghanistan] depends on how strong the Afghan National Army becomes."
Afghanistan has decided with respect to regional and international threats to "establish and strengthen long-term strategic relations with the international community," Wardak said, without adding any details.
Wardak also said the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) process is 80 percent completed and will be finished in June.
Ninety-five percent of all heavy weapons have been collected, he added.
After initial setbacks, the DDR program began its pilot project in the northern Konduz Province in October 2003.
The DDR process is being applied only to officially recognized militia forces, leaving a multitude of armed groups that fall outside the process.
Since 1978, Afghanistan has served as a virtual storehouse for weaponry -- whether brought in by Soviet invaders, provided to Afghans to counter the Soviets, or offered by other countries in the region to client militias during Afghanistan's brutal civil war of the 1990s.
Candidates in Afghanistan Begin Registration for September Elections
By Benjamin Sand Islamabad 30 April 2005 VOA
Candidates for Afghanistan's local councils and national parliament have begun registering for the races.
The three-week registration period is the first step for candidates planning to compete in September's elections.
U.N. election coordinators say nearly 10,000 candidates and more than 60 political parties are expected to participate.
Richard Atwood chairs the joint U.N.-Afghan election committee.
"We're pleased that the first morning of candidate nomination has run relatively smoothly in all 34 provinces," Mr. Atwood said.
According to the registration rules, candidates have to be Afghan citizens and provide signatures from at least 300 voters supporting their application.
People running for the national parliament also have to provide statements promising they have no links to any illegal militias.
Mr. Atwood says a number of women have already registered for the parliamentary elections. Of the 249 seats he says, 68 have been officially set aside for female candidates.
The elections are widely regarded as a key step towards full democracy for Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, a new constitution has been adopted, followed by first ever-presidential elections last October.
Security is a key concern as the election season gets under way.
The voting was originally scheduled for last October during the presidential election, but poor organization and threats from Taliban and Al-Qaida linked rebel groups forced an 11-month delay.
Lieutenant General David Barno, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, says the insurgent forces are weaker now than they were then, but the threat remains.
"I expect the enemies are looking to stage some type of high visibility attack - some spectacular media event here in the next six to nine months and, as I would put it, 'get them back on the scoreboard'," said General Barno.
U.S. and NATO military forces in the country are expected to increase their troop strength leading up to September's elections, to help guard against attacks.
Kabul Daily Calls On Pakistan To Help Locate Neo-Taliban Radio Station
Daily Afghan Report
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty - April 28, 2005
Commenting on the recent reactivation of the Shari'ah Zhagh (Voice of Shari'ah) radio by the neo-Taliban, the "Kabul Times" wrote on 26 April that while the Afghan government is not worried about the radio station, U.S. military officials have vowed to find and destroy the transmitters. The newspaper says that no radio station can operate without the assistance of professional engineers, and since the neo-Taliban as "a bunch of mullahs...are completely ignorant about engineering," it asks who is helping them technically and financially with their radio station. Then the paper speculates that Pakistani military intelligence, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), must have answers to these questions as "it has been dealing with the Taliban since their inception." The "Kabul Times" adds that since Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has consistently declared his resolve to fight terrorism, the ISI "is expected to fall into line and find out" about the Shari'ah Zhagh. The neo-Taliban radio station began limited broadcasting to southern Kandahar Province in mid-April (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 27 April 2005). AT
Afghan authorities arrest mullah, five others for killing woman accused of adultery
Saturday April 30, 2:30 PM AP
Afghan authorities have arrested a mullah and five others for the killing of a woman accused of adultery, an official said Saturday.
The six, including the mullah, or Islamic preacher, were arrested last week after the Ministry of Interior dispatched investigators to the northwestern province of Badakhshan following reports _ quickly denied _ that the woman was stoned to death.
"The mullah who authorized the father to kill her was not a judge," Interior Ministry spokesman Latfullah Mashal told The Associated Press. "The killing was against the law."
Islamic law permits the death penalty against women for adultery, though the punishment was more commonly reported under the former Taliban government.
Mashal said the woman may have been beaten, but not stoned, before she was fatally shot with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
He said the mullah, the woman's father, her alleged lover and three others would go on trial soon in the capital on charges being prepared by the attorney-general.
Officials say the victim, Amina, who was in her late 20s, was killed on April 21, a day after being caught in the home of a man called Mohammed Karim. Karim was beaten but escaped with his life, officials said.
The woman's husband had recently returned from Iran.
Taliban deny link with accused Afghan drug kingpin
Tuesday April 26, 4:50 PM
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's ousted Taliban have denied that an Afghan arrested in the United States and accused of being a top heroin trafficker ever supported them, as a U.S. prosecutor has said.
U.S. authorities said in New York on Monday they had arrested Bashir Noorzai, whom U.S. President George W. Bush has identified as one of the world's most-wanted drug traffickers.
Noorzai has been accused of conspiring to import more than $50 million (26.2 million pounds) worth of heroin into the United States and Europe. He also provided weapons and manpower to the former Taliban regime, a U.S. prosecutor said.
But a Taliban spokesman denied that Noorzai had ever helped them and said the accusation against him was a smokescreen to obscure the involvement of others in drugs, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency said on Tuesday.
"There is no question of giving money or weapons to the Taliban by Haji Bashir," the Taliban's political spokesman, Abdul Hayee Motmaeen, told the news agency.
"The government of the Taliban struggled a lot against narcotics and had banned poppy cultivation," Motmaeen said, referring to a successful anti-drug drive the Islamic militia launched in the last year of its rule.
Drug production has flourished since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001 and the United Nations says drugs and the trafficking gangs are one of the country's most serious problems as it struggles to restore stability.
Motmaeen said Noorzai was a powerful man and he did not need the support of the Taliban, or support them.
"The allegations of Haji Bashir's link with the Taliban and supply of money and weapons to the Taliban are only meant to cover up (the involvement of others)," he said. "His relations with the Taliban were just like those of other Afghans."
Noorzai was travelling to New York when he was arrested by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, David Kelley, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, told a news conference on Monday.
According to a U.S. indictment, Noorzai led an international trafficking organisation since about 1990 that manufactured heroin in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He controlled fields where poppies were grown for opium, and his organisation used laboratories in Afghanistan and Pakistan to process it into heroin and arranged to transport it abroad, the indictment charged.
Noorzai's organisation provided demolitions material, weapons and manpower to the Taliban, and in exchange the Taliban provided protection for Noorzai's drug business, the indictment said.
"Noorzai and the Taliban had a symbiotic relationship," Kelley said. "The Taliban permitted Noorzai's business to flourish."
But, he added: "You can assume that as the Taliban's influence was eroded by other circumstances, that had an impact on their relationship."
U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban for sheltering al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, architect of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The Taliban have been waging an insurgency since then, and U.S.-led troops remain in Afghanistan pursuing them and al Qaeda militants. The indictment did not identify a connection between Noorzai and al Qaeda.
Last June, Bush designated Noorzai a major trafficker under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. The law is used to identify drug traffickers who pose threats to U.S. security, foreign policy or the economy, Kelley said.
If convicted, he faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and up to life in prison. U.S. authorities also are seeking at least $50 million of Noorzai's illicit profits, Kelley said.
Internal Flights By Private Afghan Airline Banned
Daily Afghan Report
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty - April 28, 2005
The Afghan Transport Ministry has banned Kam Air's internal operations, Tolu Television reported on 27 April. Feda Mohammad Fedawi, the airline's deputy director, told Tolu that there is no legal basis for banning Kam Air's flights. "We have done nothing illegal and the matter has not been evaluated by a legal source," Fedawi added. The Transport Ministry has not commented on the ban. Kam Air, Afghanistan's first privately owned airline, began operating in late 2003. In February, a Kam Air flight originating in western Herat city crashed near Kabul, killing all aboard (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 February 2005). It is not clear if the ban on Kam Air is related to the crash. AT
Kabul Bids Farewell to Powerful Friend
IWPR 04/28/2005 By Wahidullah Amani and Hafizullah Gardesh
The announcement earlier this month that United States ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is leaving his post in Kabul to become the US envoy to Iraq has stunned many in the Afghan capital.
The Afghan-born diplomat, commonly known as the "viceroy", has wielded extraordinary power since he was first appointed as a US special presidential envoy following the fall of the Taleban in late 2001.
He was instrumental in helping set up the interim government and was intimately involved in last year's presidential election. But some argue that he has been too deeply embroiled in the country's political process.
"Khalilzad was an Afghan and was familiar with the Afghan character," said Mohammad Sediq Patman, a political analyst and member of the commission that drafted the new constitution. "He was the only ambassador whom people could contact directly."
Khalilzad was born in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1951. An ethnic Pashtun, he is fluent in both Dari and Pashtu. He was educated in Lebanon and the US, and earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago in 1979.
Considered a Washington insider, Khalilzad served in the Reagan administration as well as under both former president George Bush senior and the current president.
"Khalilzad was extremely successful in carrying out his mission in Afghanistan, and because of that the US government has decided to send him to Iraq to get the situation there under control," said Patman.
But some analysts say that Khalilzad, who became ambassador in November 2003 after serving nearly two years as special envoy, had too much authority and sometimes overshadowed President Hamed Karzai.
"Khalilzad was interfering in the political and national affairs of our country, disregarding the will of the people," said Bashir Bezhen, a spokesman for the Kangara-e-Milli, or National Congress party. Bezhen accused Khalilzad of fanning political and ethnic tension by expressing clear preference for Karzai during the presidential elections.
"If we'd had a non-Afghan [US envoy], he would have been more impartial," said Bezhen, who claims Khalilzad was removed in response to a request from his party, an assertion few other observers would take seriously.
Shukria Barakzai, a political analyst who served as a member of the constitutional drafting commission, agreed that Khalilzad's legacy was somewhat ambiguous.
"Khalilzad's interference in the internal affairs of our country was unacceptable to Afghans," she told IWPR. She said the US ambassador exerted direct influence on members of the constitutional commission during the drafting process and played the role of kingmaker during the presidential elections in October 2004.
But on balance, Barakzai rates Khalilzad's contribution as positive. For one thing, she said, Khalilzad played an extremely important role in maintaining security, preventing neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran from trying too hard to gain a foothold.
This influence, said Barakzai, was due as much to Khalilzad's background as to the prominence of his adopted country. "Khalilzad's presence in Afghanistan was unacceptable to our neighbours, because they saw Khalilzad as an Afghan, not just as the White House envoy," she said.
Khalilzad has been closely involved in Afghan affairs for many years. At the State Department from 1985 to 1989, he pushed hard for more aid for the mujahedin who were fighting Soviet forces, Washington's Cold War enemy. It was this extra influx of cash and military aid, including Stinger missiles, that many observers credit with turning the tide of the war, leading to the Soviets withdrawal in 1989.
Khalilzad's long involvement with his homeland has been controversial at times. His past role as a consultant to the US oil giant Unocal in the Nineties raised eyebrows when he was appointed ambassador, as did his defence of the Taleban in the years before Osama Bin Laden emerged as the Islamic regime's most notorious guest and ally.
Fazul Rahman Orya, a political analyst, does not dispute the charges that there was some diplomatic meddling, but says Khalilzad just did what was necessary. "Our country needed someone to help formulate its foreign and domestic policies, and Khalilzad was very useful in this regard," he said.
Orya believes that Khalilzad's departure could actually be a positive development for Afghanistan, since whoever follows him will be able to set new priorities. "The new ambassador will most likely focus on civil society rather than the warlords," he said.
Others wish the ambassador could have stayed a bit longer. The head of the supreme court, Fazal Hadi Shinwari, sent an open letter to the US Congress, asking that Khalilzad's mission be extended through the parliamentary elections currently scheduled for September 18. His request elicited strong reactions from Afghan political parties and observers, who grumbled that the supreme court had no business interfering with US political decisions.
Shinwari defended his move, saying that he had issued the plea not as a member of the supreme court, but as head of the nation's ulema, or council of religious scholars. Sentiment on the street seems to show that Khalilzad will be missed.
Reflecting the general mood, Sardar Mohammad, 40, a resident of Kabul's downtown Shahr-e-Naw district, told IWPR, "As an Afghan, Khalilzad worked hard for the reconstruction of the country. I don't know how the new ambassador will be, but Khalilzad was certainly good for Afghanistan." No new ambassador has been named as yet. Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul. Hafizullah Gardesh is the IWPR local editor.
Ullema council objects Afghan, Tollo, Aina and Kabul TVs programming
Pajhwok Afghan News 04/28/2005 By Habib Rahman Ibrahimi
KABUL - Members of the Afghan Ulema Council meeting at the Afghan Supreme Court on Wednesday say television programs broadcast on Kabul, Tollo, Afghan and Aina TV are against Islam.
Speaking on behalf of the Ulema Council, the acting head Molvi Qyamuddin Kashaf said that according to an order issued by President Hamid Karzaimm, the ministries of information and interior should control the out-put on TV, and instill a ban on alcoholic beverages and illegal restaurants.
The head of programming in the information and culture ministry, Shah Zaman Werz Stanakzai said the Ulema Council were putting forward their own views, and not representing the view of the Afghan people, the programs are made to suit the demands of the people.
Stanakzai accepts that some movies are shown which are not within the constraints of Afghan tradition, but a monitoring commission will check the content of these programs.
But Stanakzai said the TV Stations have no authority to show films with nudity or semi-nudity. "There are no pornographic movies on TV." Stanakzai added that, if anyone has any objections to the TV broadcasts they should point out specifics and give examples, and the programs will be stopped. He said the Ullema council can share their ideas with the commission to better develop programs.
Molvi Kashaf criticized President Karzai's government for not putting a halt on the sale of alcoholic beverages and illegal guesthouses. And he said the Holy Jihad and blood of Martyrs was shed to have a pure Islamic society in Afghanistan.
He added "We want TV programs according to our constitution but not like Tollo and Afghan TV, which broadcast show immoral naked women dancing." Lutfullah Mashal the spokesman of the interior ministry didn't comment on the Ulema councils objections.
Sibghatullah Mujadidi the head of peace commission said: "If we go on the path of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) correctly, we won't face these troubles." Mujadidi blamed bribery in some governmental offices and the sale of alcohol but he also accepted the fact that governmental officials were not acting seriously to stop such immoral acts.
The Afghan Ullema Council is led by Molvi Fazlullhadi Shinwari the chief justice of the Supreme Court and has hundreds of members from all over the country. The members of the council have monthly meetings in the capital Kabul to discuss issues to promote a better Afghan society.
Stirring the ethnic pot
By Iason Athanasiadis / Asia Times Online / April 29, 2005
TEHRAN - Today's Iran is the latest manifestation of a great and endlessly undermined Persian empire that once stretched from Iraq to Afghanistan, embracing a multitude of ethnicities along the way. The Islamic republic that came into being a generation ago is a microcosm of its imperial past, with Arabs, Azeris, Bakhtiaris, Balochis, Kurds, Turkmens and Lurs co-existing alongside the majority Persian population.
But as this month's riots by ethnic Arabs in the southern province of Khuzestan demonstrated, Iran's multicultural milieu could also be its Achilles' heel, an open door for foreign opportunists seeking to infiltrate this fledgling nuclear power.
Iran is particularly vulnerable to foreign penetration in that non-Persian, non-Shi'ite ethnic minorities inhabit its extremities. Aside from Khuzestan's Shi'ite Arabs, there are Sunni Balochis in the southeast, Sunni Kurds and Shi'ite Azeris in the northwest and Sunni Turkmens in the northeast.
All these areas adjoin countries that are either hostile to Iran's ruling clerics or contain US troops. The United States has dramatically expanded its presence in the region post-September 11, 2001, even as it has raised the level of its anti-Tehran rhetoric. US troops and advisers currently reside in Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Pakistan. At the same time, Tehran maintains ambiguous relations with neighbors Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Iraq, although it is currently on a regional charm offensive and a pro-Iranian government seems poised to come to power in Baghdad.
Tensions rising in Balochistan
While Iraq is already a proxy battleground between Tehran and regional powers Saudi Arabia and Israel, flashpoint areas for ethnic and other trouble appear along Iran's edges, too. In the arid southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, the Iranian army has been fighting for years a bloody campaign against organized drug-smuggling networks that run heavily defended convoys along the heroin route from Afghanistan to Europe.
The province is particularly crucial for Iran's national security in that it borders Sunni Pakistan and US-occupied Afghanistan. Moreover, its Balochi inhabitants complain that, as a Sunni minority, they face institutionalized bias by the Shi'ite state. In addition, they complain of discrimination in the education they are given, the jobs they can get, and the forms of cultural expression they are allowed.
Sections of the population claim that a systematic plan has been set in motion by the authorities over the past two years to pacify the region by changing the ethnic balance in major Balochi cities such as Zahedan, Iran-Shahr, Chabahar and Khash. Similar allegations sparked the rioting in Khuzestan this month, after a letter purportedly signed by Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi advising that the Arab element in the province be diluted was circulated in Balochistan, and that US special forces teams have allegedly fanned out into Iran from Afghanistan.
Though the claim has been strenuously denied by Tehran as much as Washington, it remains that, three years after the US-backed ousting of the Taliban, the US military is digging into Afghanistan for a long stay. Furthermore, Tehran has long been suspicious of a US military presence in the Pakistani port of Gwadar, fearing that the deepwater facility could be used as a launching pad for US espionage in Iran and the sponsoring of separatist meddling in Balochistan.
All this is against the backdrop of a simmering Baloch insurgency against Islamabad on the Pakistani side of the border, which local officials blame Tehran for inciting. The construction of a military base housing an army battalion with heavy weapons, including tanks, on the Pakistani side of the border has sharpened tensions. It has also been reported that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence set up a unit in the provincial capital, Quetta, last year to monitor suspected Iranian activity in Balochistan.
A former Pakistani interior minister was also quoted by the Daily Telegraph as saying that Tehran's state-controlled radio had launched a propaganda campaign against Islamabad. "Radio Tehran broadcasts between 90 and 100 minutes of programs every day which carry propaganda against the Pakistan government," the former minister said. He added that Iran was suspected of providing financial, logistical and moral backing for the insurgency. United Press International also recently quoted unnamed US officials claiming that Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf had granted the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK) organization permission to operate from Pakistani Balochistan.
If true, this is sure to escalate tensions between Islamabad and Tehran over the controversial Marxist-Islamist group that has assassinated several top Iranian government figures since 1979 and enjoyed Saddam Hussein's protection until 2003. The MEK are reportedly in talks with Washington, while their fighters are under US protection in Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
An American spy visits Iran
When Reuel Marc Gerecht climbed into the back of a truck a decade ago at the start of a secret trip to Iran, he was embarking on a long-cherished journey into a country that he had spent his entire life until then studying, but could never visit. He was also rebelling against a career of often numbing tedium in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), mostly spent at headquarters or sitting in the US Consulate in Istanbul sifting through Iranian visa applicants in his search for well-connected intelligence recruits to run inside Iran.
In his book Know Thine Enemy , Gerecht penetrates Iran with the help of an Azeri-Iranian accomplice as he mulls over ways to destabilize its clerical regime. From cultivating high-ranking Azeris to inciting separatist Kurds to fostering divisive clerical rivalry between the holy Shi'ite cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, Gerecht constantly mentally prods methods of destabilizing the Islamic republic.
In the process, he sheds valuable light on how an intelligence professional might approach the dismemberment of a hostile country. "I continuously scripted possible covert action mischief in my mind. Iranian Azerbaijan was rich in possibilities. Accessible through Turkey and ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, eyed already by nationalists in Baku, more Westward-looking than most of Iran, and economically going nowhere, Iran's richest agricultural province was an ideal covert action theater."
Worried that he would be revealed as an American infiltrator, Gerecht never made it to Tehran. But his book is a fascinating introduction into the psychological warfare that intelligence operatives wage. Examining opportunities for exploiting the ethnic distinction between the Azeris and the Persians, he looks for "a weak link between Azeris and 'proper' Persians" that would allow "a case officer [to] slice a man's soul, the regime and conceivably the country apart".
Gerecht wistfully comments that "a well-constructed program, even if it failed, could still unnerve the mullahs. Here, covert action needs only to scare - to let the mullahs know the Great Satan is toying with the idea of tearing Iran apart. Even the hardcore Iranians know they will lose if the United States really takes aim. Worldwide Islamic revolution, terrorism or assassination wouldn't look so appealing if the price were Azerbaijan."
Last week, as violent riots raged in Iran's southern province of Khuzestan between ethnic Arabs and government forces, another powerful extract from Gerecht's book came to mind: "An independent or autonomous Shi'ite state in southern Iraq would have re-energized Iraq's Shi'ites, long docile under ferocious Sunni rule. The age-old clerical rivalry between Najaf and Qom would have been reborn. Hostile to the clerical hubris of [ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini's Iran, Najaf's Arabic-speaking mullahs would loudly have debated the fundamentals of Khomeini's theocratic rule. Dissident senior Iranian clerics disgusted with Tehran could have repaired to Najaf, as the ayatollah once did under the Shah. A network of anti-regime clerics could have formed. At minimal cost to the United States, Washington could have encouraged a Shi'ite civil war."
What Gerecht did not explore were the effects that a burgeoning rivalry between Najaf and Qom - coupled with the coming to power of a Shi'ite-majority government in neighboring Iraq - might have on Iran's Shi'ites, especially the ethnic Arabs living in the southern province of Khuzestan.
This month's riots gave a tantalizing indication of what a US-backed covert operation in Iran might look like. After several days of civil chaos, between five and 31 people were dead with hundreds injured or imprisoned. Iran's defense minister and the highest-ranking ethnic Arab in government, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, arrived in Ahwaz to declare that "Iranian Arabs enjoy a high status in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and I assure you any other type of political system but the Islamic Republic would have sought ways for uprooting them, just as the ousted Shah's regime moved in that direction".
Under the Shah, who was thrown out in the revolution of 1979, ethnic minorities were largely ignored and their languages banned as part of a national policy of stressing the Persian character of the state. In line with the Shah's anti-Arab policy, Khuzestanis were marginalized and their province was the only territory not to be named after its ethnic minority, unlike Kurdestan, Azerbaijan and Balochistan.
But the Arabs were not the only ones to be discriminated against. The Kurds were portrayed as being wild and untrustworthy, an official position that largely contributed to their taking up arms just five months after the proclamation of an Islamic republic and at a time when the country was domestically weak and fragmented.
The revolution arrived on a tide of rhetoric about the reinstatement of justice and equality for the oppressed Iranian people. Encouraged by the new approach, the country's ethnic minorities banded together to form a 30-member committee and went to Tehran to negotiate with the newly formed Supreme Revolutionary Council for more rights and even regional autonomy.
The government's reaction to their demands was to stress that there are no nationalistic boundaries within Islam. Talks broke down. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980 and transformed Khuzestan into a bloody battleground, the Kurds seized the opportunity to rebel in the north.
Ayatollah Khomeini demanded a "saintly war" against them and the insurgency was quashed after two years of fighting. In the south, the main theater of the Iran-Iraq War, several cities in the oil-rich province were laid waste, with the blasted ruins of Khorramshahr becoming Iran's Stalingrad and a turning point in the eight-year war of the 1980s. Khuzestan's inhabitants fought bravely during the war and proved their allegiance to Iran, but today, more than 15 years after the end of hostilities, many feel poorly rewarded, and parts of their province's infrastructure remain shattered.
They protest that the central government shows no concern for their economic plight and that the huge profits generated by the province's oil industry and agricultural sectors are not trickling into the local economy. "We're talking about the repressed complaints of the [Khuzestani] people," a high-ranking Iranian official with Arab roots told the Asia Times Online.
"After the end of the war, the government did not carry out reconstruction in Khuzestan as it did in other provinces. If the government wants to end this situation now, it can. It can change the governor and invest money in the region."
Although there is little proof of external interference in the recent riots - aside from the standard rhetoric about "paid agents" emanating from Tehran - a failure to address local grievances could allow conservative Persian Gulf governments to seize a foothold in the region. Already worried over the prospect of the developing of a Shi'ite arc that stretches from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, Saudi Arabia and the conservative Sunni sheikhdoms around it are consulting with Washington on how best to contain Iran.
According to one well-connected ethnic-Arab consultant who spoke to Asia Times Online, Saudi-funded Khuzestanis are now active in the province, converting locals to Sunni Islam. "You have right now Saudis penetrating into this region and for the first time we're speaking about people converting from Shi'ism to Sunnism because of the money they're being offered and a lack of hope," he said, citing recent talks with the head of an Arab tribe.
While Saudi agents have been carrying out such a program in Baghdad's Shi'ite neighborhoods (Qadhimmieh is one example), this latest development marks an attempt by Riyadh to extend its activities into Iran. The efforts to import Arab and Sunni nationalism into Iran are a reply to former attempts by Tehran to export the Shi'ite Islamic revolution to Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Yemen.
"I doubt that you can destabilize the Iranian regime with Arab discontent in Khuzestan, there are just not enough of them," said Gregory Gause, director of the Middle East studies program at the University of Vermont. Arab discontent "is a problem, but not a regime-threatening one. The Gulf Arabs could supply money, but little else."
Despite fears in Tehran that outgoing Iraqi premier Iyad Allawi's US occupation-aligned interim government may have smuggled weapons into Khuzestan across its long common border, no reports of weapons being used surfaced during the recent disturbances. "It's a war on two sides," the ethnic-Arab consultant told Asia Times Online.
"Just as there's a Shi'ite community in northern Saudi, so are the Saudis now trying to find some footholds inside Iran. Khuzestan is an obvious choice. At the moment, it's very small scale. They enter with the appeal to pan-Arabism and slowly they put more pressure on people to convert to Sunni Islam. In the end, they convert because of political and economic dissatisfaction - it's not a religious thing yet."
The province is also potentially vulnerable for its mixture of vast oil supplies and an Arab-Persian demographic imbalance that bears a striking similarity to Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, where an Arab Shi'ite majority sits atop most of the kingdom's oil supplies and is correspondingly viewed with suspicion by the Sunni royal family. So sensitive is the Eastern Province that the Pentagon's military planners drew up contingency plans in the 1970s to invade it and seize its oilfields in the event that serious unrest or a Soviet invasion should threaten the integrity of the Saudi monarchy.
Saudi Arabia's Arab Shi'ite minority rioted from November to February 1980 in the Eastern Province, where they form the majority, a sensitive issue in the Sunni Wahhabi kingdom. Coming in the aftermath of the seizure of Mecca's Great Mosque, in the same year, by Sunni fundamentalists and a siege that lasted 15 days, the Shi'ite riots demoralized the Saudi royal family. The tension was finally defused after the then-Saudi deputy minister of the interior, Amir Ahmad ibn Abd al-Aziz, drew up a comprehensive plan to improve the standard of living in Shi'ite areas. While his recommendations were immediately accepted, plans for an extensive electrification project, swamp drainage, the construction of schools and a hospital and other infrastructure projects have only partially been implemented.
At present, Khuzestan and Kurdestan remain Tehran's greatest ethnic separatist challenge. The province's Arabs are among Iran's least-integrated ethnic minorities and lack a national hero of the stature of Sattar Khan and Bagher Khan, who, as Iranian legends of Azeri extraction, played a key role in the Constitutionalist Revolution of 1906 and in incorporating their communities into the national body.
The coming to power of an Arab Shi'ite and Kurdish Sunni government in Baghdad caught the imagination of Iran's ethnic Arabs and Kurds. In Iran's Kurdestan province, civil disturbances erupted this month when Kurdish celebrations over Jalal Talabani's appointment to the Iraqi presidency turned violent. With Israeli military and intelligence personnel widely reported to be active in Iraq's Kurdish areas, training Kurdish militias and allegedly infiltrating Iran for intelligence-gathering, Tehran will have to be extremely careful in policing the mountainous territory between the Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish borders.
"The external factor has always had a crucial impact on Iran's ethnic movements," said Kayhan Barzegar, a professor of Iranian foreign policy at Tehran's School of International Relations. "Under the new circumstances in Iraq some people along the boundaries feel that now is the time to try. The Kurds considered the [Iraqi] electoral success a great victory. In Sanandaj they're saying that this is a great era, that they must express themselves."
Iran's government is anxious that there is no repeat of the foreign-sponsored, ethnic-centered republics of Mahabad and Azerbaijan (Kurdish and Azeri, respectively). Both republics were Russian-backed and short-lived and remain embedded in Iran's collective memory as unpleasant historical precedents of a foreign superpower meddling in domestic affairs.
Ultimately, the Islamic Republic is a far more robust country today than when it took its first faltering steps in the early 1980s. Even were the minorities to be whipped up against the central government, the Persian majority is unlikely to be won over by a minority agenda. The removal of a strong Iraqi government took away the only regional actor that could realistically inspire Iran's Arabs to revolt or mount covert operations against Tehran.
As long as Iraq remains a weak state, Khuzestan's Arabs will not be tempted to betray their country and throw their lot in with Baghdad. At the end of his trip to Iran, Gerecht speculates about the possible effects of a US-backed covert action operation in Iran. "Would we be playing with fire, tempting a geographic implosion of the Muslim world," he wonders. "Perhaps. But nation-states don't take shape unless there is a popular will for them. A lavishly funded CIA covert-action program to tear Brittany from France wouldn't work. Bretons may hate Paris, but they're French. The same may be true for Azeris and the Islamic Republic. Still, a little CIA mischief would help the two make up their minds - while convincingly reminding the mullahs of US omniscience and power."
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