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THE WORLD

Afghan leader backs Iran amid U.S. allegation about weapons

June 05, 2007|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave Iran his full embrace Monday, saying it has been his country's "very close friend," even as U.S. officials meeting with him here repeated their accusation that Iranian-made weapons were flowing to Taliban fighters.

Karzai made the remarks at a joint news conference after a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was in Afghanistan for nearly 24 hours to meet with American commanders and Afghan officials. Gates said that he raised the issue of the Iranian munitions in his meeting with Karzai, but acknowledged that there was no evidence the Iranian government was behind the alleged shipments.

When asked whether he believed Tehran, which has largely been a benign presence in Afghanistan since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, had decided to change course and support its former foes, Karzai gave an impassioned backing for the Iranian government. He called it a force for good in Afghanistan.

"Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today," Karzai said. "In the past five years Iran has been contributing to Afghanistan's reconstruction, and in the past five years Afghanistan has been Iran's very close friend."

Pentagon officials have in recent weeks made repeated reference to the Iranian-made weapons the Americans say they have found in Afghanistan, which include roadside bombs that have been used so effectively against U.S. forces in Iraq. Iran borders both nations, where the U.S. has military operations.

Gates repeated the allegation at Monday's news conference and said the U.S. had yet to determine the reason for the weapons' appearance. He said the arms, which began turning up in "the past few months," may be part of the anti-coalition campaign being waged by Taliban fighters, but could as easily be tied to rising violence caused by the narcotics trade.

"We do not have any information about whether the government of Iran is supporting this, is behind it, or whether it's [related to] smuggling or exactly what's behind it," Gates acknowledged. "But there clearly is evidence that some weapons are coming into Afghanistan destined for the Taliban."

Karzai went out of his way to emphasize Iran's growing economic ties to Afghanistan, saying Iranian exports over the last five years have grown to more than $500 million annually from less than $10 million. He said the close ties between his government and that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had the support of the U.S. government.

"It has been possible for Afghanistan to be so close with Iran because our partners in the international community, especially the United States, understood and supported this relationship," Karzai said, adding that Tehran also understands the need for Afghanistan to form a "strategic partnership" with the U.S.

"It is in the interest of our brothers in Iran to have a stable, prosperous Afghanistan," Karzai said. "Afghanistan today is good news for our neighbors, and I hope this good news for them will continue by engaging constructively with each other."

The meeting with Karzai was part of a whirlwind tour of Afghanistan by Gates, which included a stop in the southern city of Kandahar for meetings with North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders in the restive region and for a tour of an Afghan commando training center southwest of Kabul, the nation's capital.

At the commando facility, Gates was given a tour by the Afghan army's chief of staff, Gen. Bismullah Khan, a former mujahedin fighter who was part of the anti-Soviet resistance when Gates was working on Russian issues for the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s.

Gates noted that "20 years ago, I was on the other side of the border [with Pakistan] funneling arms and money to this man and his colleagues."

Karzai expressed appreciation for the war funding bill recently passed by Congress, which provides billions of dollars for the Afghan army and police. But Khan said he believed that the army, which is scheduled to grow to 70,000 troops by the end of next year, would have to be significantly bigger to deal with both internal and external threats.

Khan added that the Afghan military was in desperate need of cargo planes and other aircraft to be able to support the fledgling army.

"The problem right now is we're not able to conduct operations independently," Khan, speaking through an interpreter, told reporters traveling with Gates.

"If we want to deploy our companies to fight, we don't have the air support or the direct fire support," he added, using the military term for artillery and tanks.

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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