Some See Hand of Former Governor Behind Muslim Clash in Afghanistan

During rioting, pictures of the region's war dead were smashed at a mosque. Local officials suggested the violence was orchestrated.
During rioting, pictures of the region's war dead were smashed at a mosque. Local officials suggested the violence was orchestrated. (Griff Witte - Twp)

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

HERAT, Afghanistan -- It was one of Islam's holiest and most emotional days, especially for Shiite Muslims. At the Mehdi Buzerk Mosque, about 250 men stood in the courtyard, beating their chests in ritual rhythm, when a crowd was heard outside chanting: "God is great! Down with the Shiites! Down with the governor!"

Most of the worshipers fled, but some climbed onto the mosque's roof and watched in horror as a mob of Sunni Muslim rioters swarmed into the compound, torching a room where Korans were stored, overturning caldrons of food being cooked for the poor and desecrating a shrine to the region's war dead.

"If I hadn't run away," said Ataullah Najafi, 55, the mosque's caretaker, "they would have definitely killed me."

The riot that consumed this normally peaceful city near the Iranian border on Feb. 9, leaving four people dead and at least 120 injured, appeared at first to be a sectarian religious conflict. But residents said there was much more to it than that.

"This is not the work of Sunnis or Shias," said Ghulam Hussain, 35, a car dealer, as he surveyed the damaged Shiite mosque. "This is the work of people who have lost power and want to get it back."

Many fingers pointed to Ismail Khan, the former provincial governor and militia commander who once ruled Herat as his private fiefdom. Local officials and international observers said the violence was probably orchestrated by Khan in a possible move to return to power -- less than 18 months after he agreed to leave office in a well-publicized deal brokered by U.S. diplomats.

Equally worrisome, observers said, is the apparent unwillingness of the U.S.-backed president, Hamid Karzai, to challenge Khan. When Khan was forced from Herat and given a second-tier cabinet post in late 2004, the move was touted as proof of the democratic government's ability to stand up to regional strongmen. Since then, Karzai has sidelined a number of local militia leaders.

But now, Karzai seems to be ceding control back to one of Afghanistan's most formidable warlords, asking him to head a commission investigating the Feb. 9 incident. After rushing here from Kabul, Khan -- a Sunni with a majestic white beard -- spent a week in an ornate hilltop mansion, receiving delegations of notables and informants.

"Ismail Khan still has power in Herat," said Col. Dario Ranieri, who commands NATO-led reconstruction efforts in the city. "President Karzai knows that he has power."

Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for Karzai in Kabul, defended the choice of Khan to lead the riot probe. "He is an elder of Herat, and it was the president's judgment that he can be helpful to the situation," Rahimi said.

But Khan's return could be anything but helpful. Many Shiites here said they still feared for their lives, and local Sunnis have threatened further sectarian violence. The current governor, a Shiite, has offered to resign. Khan's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Accounts by local security officials, religious leaders, international aid workers and witnesses to the recent violence suggested that it was highly coordinated and intended to precipitate a crisis that would put Khan, or one of his supporters, back in office. The ringleaders were described as some of the same loyalists who organized violent protests when Khan was removed from power.

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