U.S. Envoy - Iran may be interfering against Afghan government

Associated Press WriterKABUL, Afghanistan (AP) ---- The United States is worried that Iran may be backing Afghan fighters in an attempt to unsettle the U.N.-brokered government in Afghanistan, the U.S. envoy here said Friday.

Zalmay Khalilzad's comments echoed a warning last week by President Bush, who accused Iran of interfering in neighboring Afghanistan and harboring fighters from Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network. Iran denied Bush's allegations.

Khalilzad cited reported that Iran may be sending pro-Iranian Afghan fighters and money into Afghanistan and encouraging opposition to the administration of Hamid Karzai, which was inaugurated in December after the fall of the Taliban militia and mandated to rule for six months.

"All of those things would be regarded as interference," Khalilzad said. He stopped short of saying Iran's involvement was a certainty, but said it was a "fair assumption."

The criticism of Iran -- which denies trying to destabilize the Afghan government -- came as Karzai left Afghanistan on his first trip abroad since his inauguration, aiming to drum up money for a government that is flat broke and faced with rebuilding the war-torn nation.

After a stop in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform a Muslim pilgrimage, Karzai heads to Tokyo for a conference of donor nations aimed at raising an initial $5 billion in aid. Karzai will return home, then head off again to Washington for a Jan. 28 meeting with President Bush, said an aide, known by the single name Humayan.

Meanwhile, U.S. Marines prepared to hand over command of their main base in Afghanistan, located at the airport of the southern city of Kandahar. The Army's 101st Airborne Division is to take formal command of the base Saturday. The handover frees the Marines, who arrived in Afghanistan in late November, for the quick assault operations they are trained for.

Marines on Friday climbed out of the foxholes along the perimeter of the base, where they have been on watch for gunmen who have occasionally opened fire on the base. Army Sgt. Shawn Coulter of Honesdale, Pa., was among those taking their place. The Marines had told him he'd "learn to love it," he said -- but when asked if he believed that, he said, "Probably not."

Until recently, the United States had quietly praised longtime foe Iran for its help in the war on international terror. But on Jan. 10, Bush accused Iran of harboring al-Qaida fighter and warned Tehran not to try to destabilize Karzai's government. Khalilzad did not mention the al-Qaida allegations.

Iran -- which was an opponent of the Taliban regime that harbored al-Qaida -- denied Bush's claims. "It has been our policy not to allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in Iran," Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi said.

Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Mohammed Fahim was quoted Wednesday by Iranian state radio saying there was no sign of Iran "creating insecurity" in Afghanistan.

Iran has long had influence in western Afghanistan. Some analysts have said it may be working with local warlords to safeguard its interests -- something Pakistan and Russia have also done.

Meanwhile, a planeload of 30 Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners was flown from the Marine base at Kandahar to Pakistan late Thursday. Military spokesmen declined to comment on the flight, but the detainees were presumed to be Pakistani nationals.

The U.S. military has in the past few days flown 110 prisoners from the Kandahar base to a U.S. Naval detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for interrogation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross began interviewing some of the prisoners at Guantanamo in an assessment of conditions at the camp. Human rights groups have said the strict security measures violate the prisoners' rights, a charge the United States denies.

The Pentagon has not publicly identified any of detainees held in Kandahar or Guantanamo. But defense officials said that among those at the Cuba base is the former Taliban army chief of staff, Mullah Fazel Mazloom.

As Karzai departed from the Afghan capital, Kabul, his interim government said it needed the world's help.

"We pledged to the international community ... that we would bring change in our country," Interior Minister Younus Qanooni said. "Now it is their turn to pledge their help ... If they will not help and assist us, we will face many problems."

The Tokyo conference, taking place on Monday and Tuesday with some 50 nations attending, aims to raise $5 billion dollars for the first 2 1/2 years of reconstruction.

In Britain, two Algerian men suspected of being involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Paris were charged Thursday with membership in al-Qaida, blamed by the United States for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Bosnian authorities turned over six Algerians suspected of terrorist links to U.S. military authorities. A U.S. official in Europe said the six would be taken to Guantanamo.

In other developments:

--In Geneva, the United Nations refugee agency said it had relocated some 2,600 Afghan refugees from the Killi Faizo camp at Pakistan's border to camps farther inside Pakistan.

--Afghanistan's new ban on cultivating the opium poppy will take a bite out of the global narcotics trade, but only if farmers get aid as an incentive not to grow it, the Vienna-based U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention said Thursday.

--Twenty Turkish troops left for Kabul as part of an advance party of peacekeepers, a military official said.