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.
The day of the riot began with a show of good faith between Islam's main branches. Sunnis and Shiites gathered for an Ashura holiday service in the blue-tiled, 800-year-old Friday Mosque. Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson, is observed by both branches but is especially holy to Shiites, who mark the day with ritual self-flagellation.
But toward the end of the service, the goodwill evaporated.
Outside the mosque, a cry went up that several Shiites had just destroyed a sacred Sunni banner. No one has verified whether this actually occurred, but reaction was swift. Seemingly out of nowhere, hundreds of young Sunni men appeared wielding sticks and carrying posters proclaiming, "Death to the Shiites."
In the past, residents said, there had been little violence between Sunnis, who make up a majority of the population, and Shiites, who have strong ties with nearby Iran. Tensions increased six months ago when Karzai appointed a Shiite governor. The city was already on edge after a march by more than 10,000 residents protesting the publication in Europe of cartoons depicting Muhammad.
Other Sunni groups materialized and made their way toward Shiite camps. At some sites, Shiites were ready with grenades and Kalashnikov assault rifles. Shiite soldiers and police lent their weapons to Shiite civilians, witnesses said. Sunni authorities did the same for Sunni civilians. Vicious street fights erupted across the city.
As ambulances roared through the streets picking up victims, groups of men chased them to the city hospital, where the men beat arriving patients. The hospital's dingy corridors echoed with shouts and cries, and the staff was overwhelmed trying to treat more than 100 injured.
"A surgeon's hands are not supposed to shake," said Raoufa Niazi, the hospital director. "But mine were shaking."
Three patients died at the hospital that day; a fourth later succumbed to massive head injuries.
Several days later, a dozen patients were still hospitalized. Yar Mohammed, 22, a laborer, said he joined an attack on a Shiite camp when a friend told him about the desecration of the holy Sunni banner.
"If this happens 100 times more in the future, I will participate," he said, his stomach bandaged where shrapnel from a grenade had pierced his intestines.
But authorities said Mohammed was probably a pawn in a game that had far more to do with politics than religion.
"Ismail Khan just wants to show to the government that if he's not here, the situation will be like this," said Molwi Khudaidad Saleh, a Sunni cleric who leads Herat's religious council. "He is thirsty for the job of governor. But if the government appoints him, the people will not accept him in Herat. He's a very cruel guy. He's a killer."
Khan, who is in his late fifties, still has many supporters, and it is easy to see why. Herat is Afghanistan's most affluent city and a renowned cultural center. Its buildings gleam with new glass, parks dot the landscape and beggars are scarce.
Most of that is the result of Khan's three-year rule following the fall of the Taliban, when he used customs duty revenue from the border trade with Iran to rebuild the city of about a quarter-million people. He is also revered as the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander who twice helped liberate Herat from repressive rule.
"He saved Herat. He saved the honor of the Herati people," said Abdullah Satari, 40, who sells cement.
Others see in Khan a ruler no less repressive than the Soviets or the Taliban. Human rights groups have frequently criticized him for abusive practices, and women's rights leaders say his reign was marked by restrictive religious edicts.
The current governor, Seyyed Hussein Anwari, was so disturbed by Karzai's appointment of Khan that he offered to resign. Meanwhile, Khan and the six other commissioners have been sifting through the facts and hearing from witnesses, though many Shiites said they were afraid to testify.
"He says he doesn't have any desire to be governor again," said Nader Ali Mehdavi, a Shiite cleric who is also on the commission. "But in the back of his mind, only God knows."