Iranian army confronts the Taliban

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The Independent Online
IRAN MOVED closer to full-scale war with Afghanistan's Taliban government yesterday. In Pakistan it was reported that Mohammad Khatami, the Iranian President, had told his troops to prepare an imminent attack, while Taliban sources in Pakistan said they believed Iranian military action was now inevitable.

More than 200,000 Iranian troops, including armoured divisions and elite commandos, have been drawn up against 25,000 of the Taliban Islamic militia along the frontier. Iran said its forces were "on full alert". The Taliban have moved Scud-like and stinger missiles into position to meet the Iranian threat. They have also armed thousands of villagers with small arms and hand-held grenade launchers.

Their forces still appear ill-equipped to repel an assault by the Iranians, who have hundreds of modern T-72 and T-69 tanks, and enjoy massive air and artillery superiority.

The bodies of seven of the nine Iranian diplomats shot dead by Taliban troops last month arrived back in Iran early on Sunday amid emotional scenes. Two other bodies, identified by the Taliban as those of the diplomats, were not accepted by Iranian officials.

The admission that Taliban troops killed the diplomats when Mazar-e- Sharif was captured in August has fuelled the crisis. But Iran and the Taliban have long been enemies and Tehran has funded the opposition alliance fighting the Taliban. One of the factions receiving Iranian support was expelled from its stronghold in the central province of Bamiyan at the weekend. The Taliban made further gains yesterday against fighters from the Hezb-i-Wahdat group.

Taliban officials said earlier this week that Iran was less concerned with the fate of its diplomats than with avenging their faction's "humiliating defeat" in the Afghan conflict.

In the face of increasingly aggressive statements from Tehran, Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, called on the United Nations to mediate in talks between the two neighbours.

Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Iran's supreme leader, called the Taliban "a heartless and oppressive tribe" on Sunday. In a broadcast he said that although he had so far "prevented the raging of a fire in the region ... all should know the threat is very huge and widespread, and very near."

In a move that will worry the West, Khameini broadened his threat to include Afghanistan's neighbour Pakistan - the world's second largest Islamic state - which supports the Taliban and is believed to have been involved in the militia's recent advances, which have left only north- east Afghanistan in opposition hands.

War could be averted, Khameini said, only by "forcing the Pakistani army to stop interfering in Afghanistan".

The fear is that any conflict could spark a wider conflagration. Since the Soviet-backed regime collapsed in 1992, various outside powers, through a complex system of alliances, have been attempting to further their own interests in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims, have received military aid from Pakistan and financial support from Saudi Arabia - both Sunni countries. The opposition forces have been helped by Iran, which is run by Shia Muslim clerics.

The New York Times reported that a New Jersey telephone company has signed a deal to build a cellular phone system for the Taliban. The White House is said to look on it favourably as a means to improve Western access to the country. Under the deal, the Taliban will acquire the use of software to block "anti-Taliban Web sites".