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Warlord grabs flag of minority in Afghan president race

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- When President Hamid Karzai eulogized a slain Shiite Muslim leader, the congregation met him with silence. But a Shiite warlord challenging Karzai for the presidency had only to stand before the assembly at the Kabul mosque to be greeted with cheers.

The snub to the U.S.-backed Karzai, a Sunni Muslim and ethnic Pashtun, is a warning of how tribal politics may color Afghanistan's first post-Taliban election on Oct. 9 -- and that Karzai could face a tougher-than-expected battle to win a five-year term.

Karzai remains the clear favorite. But with strong ethnic Tajik and Uzbek contenders among the 17 candidates challenging him, a runoff looks increasingly likely. A runoff will be held between the top two finishers if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote.

"The three pillars of Mr. Karzai's administration are broken," the Shiite warlord, Mohammed Mohaqeq, declared in an interview at his office in a quarter of Kabul still in ruins from the country's civil war.

"We wish he had prestige among the Pashtuns, but even there he's little favored," he said. "Karzai has not managed to bring security to the south."

Ethnic-based militias were the backbone of the Northern Alliance, which helped the United States drive out the mainly-Pashtun Taliban in 2001.

Like former Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, the top Tajik candidate, and Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mohaqeq stands only a slim chance of winning the first-ever direct presidential vote.

All three are criminals in the eyes of many Pashtuns, and there are few signs they can unite against Karzai. But each could dent his hopes of becoming the unifying figure Afghanistan needs.

On Tuesday, the three survived scrutiny by the joint U.N.-Afghan electoral commission, which announced a final list of candidates supposedly shorn of anyone linked to militias.

But the commission chief told a televised ceremony that Mohaqeq had drawn a raft of complaints -- prompting him to spend a quarter-hour upbraiding nervous-looking election officials.

Mohaqeq, a 48-year-old former militia commander, has turned such public humiliation to his advantage.

He lost his job as Karzai's planning minister in March, shortly after announcing his candidacy. Karzai aides say he quit, but Mohaqeq insists he was fired -- in a slap in the face to his ethnic kin.

"Karzai was rejecting the whole community that supported me," Mohaqeq said.

Shiites make up about 15 percent of Afghanistan's 24 million population, mostly living in remote villages in the Hindu Kush mountains. Virtually all the rest of the Afghan people are Sunnis.

There are also sizable Shiite communities in Kabul and other major towns, where they have traditionally done menial jobs and are looked down on by other Afghans.

Mohaqeq is well-known in Mazar-e-Sharif, where he allegedly commanded Shiite forces who massacred Taliban trying to seize the city in 1997. He claims noble roots in the Hazarajat, the traditional Shiite stronghold. And the mosque incident suggests he has clout in the capital.

He says he would give the poorest regions more priority for reconstruction, including the impoverished Hazarajat. Discrimination must end, he said.

He points out that, unlike Karzai's Shiite vice president, Karim Khalili, who fled to Iran, he stayed and fought throughout the Taliban period.

"It is normal for Afghans to favor those who defended them in the bad times," Mohaqeq said.

Karzai is hampered by Afghans' widespread frustration that billions in pledged aid have done little to improve their lives.

"It's not that Mohaqeq has the answers," said Vikram Parekh, an analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "But at least he articulates the grievances."

Mohaqeq's new Party of Islamic Unity, which was approved last month, is trying to take advantage.

In the courtyard of his office, an artist toiled on a 9-foot-wide mural featuring the gray-turbaned, silver-bearded candidate and a sea of happy Afghan faces.

Outside, a young man clipped a roll of campaign posters onto the rack of his bicycle for distribution across the city.

Mohaqeq said he expected to do well in the vote, even as he accused Afghan and American officials of behind-the-scenes interference to ensure a Karzai victory.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, an influential Afghan-American who meets regularly with the country's strongmen, has behaved "like an elephant roaming around a village with its eyes shut," Mohaqeq asserted.

But he said Afghanistan still needed foreign troops to maintain security and allow the country to rebuild -- and made clear he was ready to negotiate with Karzai.

"I am a friend and there are no personal or political barriers between us," he said. "Even if I do badly, I would have to form an alliance and just go back to the Cabinet."


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