A power struggle between two diplomats over which flag should fly over the Embassy of Afghanistan in Northwest Washington grew hostile yesterday, drawing the attention of more than 20 law enforcement officers and the State Department.
The dispute, which pitted the embassy's top two officials, included a telephoned death threat and dueling broadcasts over the Voice of America radio network. It underscored the tensions caused by the battle unfolding in the diplomats' homeland, 6,900 miles from the embassy in the District's Kalorama neighborhood.
The trouble began Monday, when Seraj Wardak Jamal, 37, the embassy's second secretary, switched the green, white and black Afghan flag with a white banner supporting the Taliban militia. The Taliban has control of most of the country, including the capital city of Kabul, and has been engaged in an intensive fight for the last several days over northern territory. It has imposed a strict brand of Islamic rule.
Jamal followed up on Tuesday by calling the Voice of America Pashto Service, which broadcasts to Afghanistan, announcing that he was now in charge of the embassy. Jamal told the radio audience that the embassy would follow the Islamic movement of Taliban.
Those actions drew a swift response from Jamal's boss, Yar M. Mohabbat, the embassy's charge d'affaires. Mohabbat represents the government whose president was driven out of the capital in September and hanged by Taliban forces. Although it has little land, that government contends that it remains the rightful leader of the Asian country.
Mohabbat's allies called Voice of America, saying that Mohabbat remained the embassy's top leader. Mohabbat weighed in with his own response, broadcast yesterday.
The police and State Department got involved after Mohabbat reported receiving an anonymous threatening phone call at his Maryland home late Tuesday.
"They told me that if I touched the flag, they would shoot me on the spot," Mohabbat said. "I'm concerned about my security and the security of my family."
Mohabbat said he did not even notice the flag switch until yesterday, when he arrived for work. Once Mohabbat got inside, Jamal asked him to leave, but he refused, according to an embassy employee who asked not to be identified.
Instead, Mohabbat was joined by agents from the Secret Service and FBI, who helped him replace the white Taliban banner with the Afghan flag. Jamal, meanwhile, stayed at the embassy throughout the day.
Police and security officers remained at the scene late yesterday, although by day's end both sides seemed to be on friendlier terms. No action will be taken against Jamal for raising the Taliban flag, Mohabbat said.
Jamal likewise said he and Mohabbat remained "very good friends." "My boss told me that the white flag is the problem," Jamal said.
John Dinger, a State Department spokesman, said it is up to the Afghan foreign ministry in Kabul to inform the department of any changes in embassy staffing.
Dinger said that no official communication had been received and added that "we are advising Mr. Mohabbat and Mr. Jamal to avoid any confrontation over this issue that might threaten either of the diplomats' status in the United States." CAPTION: Charge d'affaires Yar M. Mohabbat raises the Afghanistan flag at the Afghan Embassy after removing the white flag of the Taliban movement. He says he received a threatening phone call regarding the flag swap.