Afghanistan's foreign minister broke with the country's interim president, Hamid Karzai, on Wednesday and said he would back a fellow member of the government who is challenging Karzai in the election on Oct. 9.
In his first public comments since a government rift developed this week, Foreign Minister Abdullah said he would support the candidacy of Education Minister Yonus Qanooni. On Monday, Karzai said Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim would not remain on the ballot as his running mate for first vice president. Opposing the move against Fahim, Qanooni resigned, allowing him to run against Karzai.
"I was part of that decision for the nomination of Minister Qanooni," Abdullah said in an interview. "I will support Mr. Qanooni." Abdullah said he would remain as foreign minister until the election, just as Fahim will continue at defense.
Fahim, Qanooni and Abdullah formed the core leadership of the Northern Alliance militia and played a key role in Afghanistan's first post-Taliban interim government. The Northern Alliance was composed largely of ethnic Tajiks, and it helped U.S. forces oust the Taliban in late 2001.
Karzai, who is backed by the Bush administration, was chosen as president by an Afghan assembly in December 2001. A member of the Pashtun ethnic group, Karzai has increasingly relied on support from Afghans returning from the United States and protection by American advisers and security guards. At the same time, he has tried to limit the political influence of Northern Alliance members and neutralize the power of its leaders.
The political split led to fears of a backlash from Fahim's armed supporters. Fahim commands the Afghan army's 8th Division, with an estimated 5,000 loyal troops stationed in the Shomali Plain -- the fertile land just north of Kabul -- and in the capital itself.
Abdullah said concerns of violence were unfounded. "There wasn't any danger whatsoever," he said. "It shows that we are at another stage in Afghanistan. In the past, when things came to that point, there would have been military tensions. I don't think whatsoever there will be any military matter as a consequence. There will be a political consequence."
Abdullah noted that key Northern Alliance veterans, including the Shura-i-Nazar faction once led by the slain resistance fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud, registered a new political party, the National Movement of Afghanistan, on Wednesday.
Canadian Lt. Gen. Rick Hillier, who commands NATO forces in Kabul, said in an interview on Tuesday that the reaction to Karzai's decision showed Afghan factions were willing to fight with ballots, not bullets.
"This demonstrates . . . an amount of maturity that one would not have dreamt possible even six months ago," Hillier said. "I think it's an enormous turning point."
Despite reports of violence around the country in recent days, NATO and Afghan officials said they did not believe the violence was related to the political feud between Karzai and his ministers.
Tensions were heightened, however, after two rocket attacks in the capital late Tuesday night. One rocket just missed the Chinese Embassy, and the other struck an ammunition dump, setting off a huge explosion, authorities said. It was the third such rocket attack in Kabul in less than two weeks, and officials of NATO, which commands the 6,500-member international peacekeeping force in the city, said they suspected either remnants of the Taliban militia, al Qaeda fighters or militiamen loyal to an Afghan resistance leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
There were reports of violence aimed at preparations for the elections. In the southern province of Ghazni, a bomb at a mosque being used as a voter registration site killed two people and wounded two others, U.N. and Afghan officials said. One of those killed was a U.N. election worker, the officials said.
The attack in Ghazni was the latest in a string of assaults on election workers and newly registered voters. The attacks have been blamed on Taliban loyalists who have pledged to disrupt the elections, which they reject as engineered by the United States.
In other violence, two U.S. soldiers were reported wounded in fighting Tuesday in Zabol province, in turbulent southeastern Afghanistan, when their convoy was ambushed by assailants wielding assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. The attack came a day after three other U.S. soldiers and an Afghan translator were wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Zabol.
Suspected Taliban fighters in Kandahar and Zabol have increasingly struck American patrols and convoys in recent days with roadside bombs, or what the military calls IEDs, improvised explosive devices.
The French medical aid group Doctors Without Borders announced on Wednesday it was shutting down operations in Afghanistan and withdrawing non-Afghan staff members because of security concerns after the killing of five of its employees in June.
The group issued a statement accusing U.S. and international troops in Afghanistan of blurring the line between relief work and military operations against Taliban loyalists and al Qaeda.