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Leading Afghan Governor Vows Unity

Politics: At large rally, Kandahar official pledges to cooperate with Kabul, easing fears that he might challenge the interim federal government.


KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Easing concerns about a possible challenge to central government rule, the leading political force in southern Afghanistan told a large rally here Thursday that he will work to resolve regional differences peacefully and in close consultation with leaders in Kabul.

At the first major public event in the birthplace of the Taliban since the regime's demise last month, Kandahar provincial Gov. Gul Agha Shirzai made a very public pledge of loyalty to interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai.

His remarks were made to several thousand residents who had crowded their way into Kandahar's main sports stadium for a series of rousing political speeches, mainly in support of national unity and the return of the former king, Mohammad Zaher Shah, as a symbol of that unity.

Shirzai and Karzai joined forces against the Taliban in the battle to capture Kandahar late last year, but they were generally viewed as uneasy allies, with both men maneuvering for U.S. support in the weeks that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Since Karzai's appointment as interim prime minister, there has been uncertainty about how Shirzai would respond. On Thursday, he appeared eager to erase worries that he is trying to consolidate his power.

"We are always ready to accept the decisions of Hamid Karzai's government on all issues," he told the crowd. He also dismissed as "propaganda" reports that he is preparing to dispatch a force of 20,000 troops west to take on Ismail Khan, the leader in Herat province, following allegations that ethnic Pushtuns in the area are being harassed.

Khan is an ethnic Tajik; Kandahar's population is mainly ethnic Pushtun.

"We won't take a single step against anyone without our [national] leader's decision," Shirzai told the crowd. "We'll talk with Ismail Khan to solve the problem of Pushtun treatment. We have come to power for peace, not to fight."

After the rally, Shirzai told reporters that he had spoken by telephone to Khan four times about reports of Pushtun harassment in Herat and that he had contacted officials in Kabul, the capital, about the issue.

Shirzai's comments came as a welcome counterpoint to reports of heavy fighting this week in the northern province of Kunduz, where troops loyal to ethnic Uzbek commander Abdul Rashid Dostum are said to have wrested one district from forces loyal to Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president and head of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Dostum was recently named deputy defense minister.

There have also been reports of clashes between rival groups in eastern Paktia province.

The rally was the brainchild of eight wealthy expatriates from Kandahar who now live in the United States and Europe. One of the sponsors, a San Francisco day trader named Ayub Rafiqi, said the eight decided to sponsor the rally as a way to reinforce their belief that a loya jirga, or grand council, under the auspices of the former king would give Afghanistan the best chance of maintaining unity.

"We decided this was an important way to get this message out," he said.

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