Agence France Presse, January 25, 2007

Iran a source of tension in Afghanistan's western Herat

"the Iranians and their Shiite allies want to destroy us through their propaganda in the media."

by Sylvie Briand

The influence of Iran is a source of tension between Shiites and Sunnis that recently exploded into deadly violence in Afghanistan's western city of Herat, residents say.

It is even seeing some Shiites lean towards the hardline Taliban movement waging an insurgency that occasionally shatters the city's calm, some say.

Pro-Iran Wahdat Party fighters during the bloody years of 1992-96 in Kabul ( )
RAWA: Gunmen of pro-Iran Hezb-e-Wahdat (Party of Unity) in Kabul in 1994. This party was made, supported and armed by Iranian regime and has been involve in heinous crimes against Afghan people but its leader Karim Khalili is vice-president today.

Herat, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from the Iranian border, has long been under Persian influence: even today most women prefer the chador to the burqa, the markets are filled with Iranian products, and mosques are financed by Tehran.

From private schools and roads to hospitals, "Iran has indeed poured millions of dollars into several major projects in this region and in Kabul," says Herat governor Sayyed Hussein Anwari.

The head of the local assembly, Rafiq Shahir, says the Shiite neighbour favours the city's Shiites.

"The Sunnis are very unhappy with this situation," he says.

The "support of Iran for the Shiite Hazaras, who are becoming more and more numerous in Herat, is helping the emergence of the Taliban," he says of the religious movement that was violently anti-Shiite during its 1996-2001 rule.

Tensions between the city's Shiites, who make up about 20 percent of Afghanistan's population, and Sunnis burst into the open a year ago, leaving five dead when clashes erupted during the Shiite religious procession of Ashura.

But Anwari, the governor, rejects suggestions that Iran's involvement is creating disharmony.

"There is nothing which allows one to think that the Iranians are behind the violence here as some would say," says the Shiite from the ethnic Hazara minority.

Provincial police chief Sahfiq Fazli concedes though that ethnic tensions fostered during Afghanistan's more than two decades of war are a "more important problem here than the activities of the Taliban".

Shahir says the situation plays to the interests of Iran and its adversary the United States, which has about 20,000 troops in Afghanistan, he says.

"The Iranians are not interested in seeing the Americans succeed in Afghanistan," he says.

At the same time, "for the Americans, it is preferable to have in Afghanistan a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, like in Iraq, than to see these groups unite against the foreign troops".

Afghanistan has always been in the centre of the "Great Game" tussles between regional powers -- Iran, Russia, Pakistan, India and the United States -- who have been looking at best to protect their interests at worst to settle scores on the Afghan battle field, Shahir notes.

The Taliban were supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, two US allies, while its opposition, the Northern Alliance, received help from India, Iran and Russia.

Today all eyes are on Islamabad, accused by Kabul of supporting the resurgent Taliban, but the Iranians are far from standing idly by.

A top aide to the British commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan is facing trial in Britain on charges of passing sensitive information to "the enemy" -- believed to be Iran.

One of the leaders of the Sunni community in Herat, Mullah Farouq Hosseini, believes firmly that "the Iranians and their Shiite allies want to destroy us through their propaganda in the media."

"We will fight all those who want to destroy our faith," vows this young man who still harbours resentment towards the country where he spent long years as a refugee.

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