Iran masses troops for `devastating' war

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The Independent Online
THE TALIBAN of Afghanistan are warning the world that they face a "devastating war" with Iran, which has massed 200,000 troops on the other side of the border near this frontier city, but it is still literally all quiet on the Western front.

The Iranian troops are due to start exercises within days, but there is no sense of alarm in Herat, a pretty desert town, with its dozens of shrines and broad tree-lined streets. "There is no point in worrying," said Jamaal, sitting drinking tea in his textile shop 100 yards from the blue-tiled walls of Herat's great 700-year-old mosque. "If the Iranians come, it will just be like with the British and the Soviets. We will fight, and they will leave eventually."

In the bustling money market business was good. At the beginning of the stand-off between Afghanistan's Taliban government and the Iranians, the local currency dropped to 48,000 to the dollar. Now it has strengthened to 35,000 and prices, which rose sharply a few weeks ago as people started stockpiling, have stabilised.

The increasing hostility between the two powers was brought to a head last month when the Taliban admitted that its troops had killed several Iranian diplomats during the capture of the key northern city of Mazar- e-Sharif from opposition forces in August. Iran demanded that the Taliban apologise, find the killers, and send them to Iran for trial. The Taliban have said the men were acting without orders, but have refused the Iranian demands.

Over the past three weeks the Iranians have moved up to the border about 200,00 soldiers, with several hundred tanks, armoured personnel carriers, rocket launchers and artillery pieces. Though they claim the troops are merely conducting a military exercise the aim is clearly to intimidate the Taliban who have 20,000 troops deployed opposite them.

Iran's efforts to relieve its beleaguered Shia allies within Afghanistan appear to have failed. In recent weeks a series of Taliban offensives have almost entirely expelled the Shia muslim Hezb-i-Wahdat faction - long supported by Iran, a largely Shia nation - from its mountain stronghold in the central Bamiyan region.

Their defeat, especially by the largely Sunni muslim Taliban, is a serious blow to Iranian interests in the region. The Taliban, supported by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are now only opposed by the forces of the veteran commander Ahmed Shah Masood, backed by the central Asian republic of Tajikistan.

The Iranians are also concerned that, despite the historic enmity between Shias and Sunnis, their build-up on the border appears to have provoked a surge of popular support for the Taliban among Afghans, whatever their religious loyalties.

Thousands of recruits from across the country appear to be rushing to join up and, Taliban officials claim, a number of Shia units have been formed.

The wave of recruitment will be welcome to the Taliban. Following heavy fighting in recent months and after four years of sustained campaigning they are short of manpower. The Iranian threat has also allowed the Taliban to depict the remaining opposition forces inside Afghanistan as traitors.

Even in Herat, a strongly Shia city within 60 miles of Iran's border, community elders, who might have been expected to support the Shias in Iran, have backed the Taliban.

A UN special envoy, Algeria's Foreign Minister, Lakhdar Brahimi, arrived in Teheran yesterday saying his first priority was to stop any human rights abuses in Afghanistan.