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Afghanistan: Northern Leaders Deny Fight Indicates Political Fissures

Clashes across Afghanistan between rival ethnic and tribal groups continue to threaten the authority of the interim administration in Kabul. Earlier this month, near the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, at least 40 people were killed in a battle between fighters loyal to the ethnic Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami party and troops from Deputy Defense Minister Abdul Rashid Dostum's ethnic Uzbek party, Junbish-i-Millie. But factional leaders now say the violence was the result of insubordination by their lower-ranking officers.

Kabul, 12 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Recent fighting in and around the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif has highlighted the tense relationship between the rival factions in the city -- factions that also have a share of power in the country's interim administration.

As with growing tension in the southeastern Afghan provinces of Paktia, Khost, Vardak, and Ghazni, the fighting in northern Afghanistan illustrates the problems faced by the interim government as it tries to bring stability to areas outside of Kabul.

But leaders of the rival factions in Mazar-i-Sharif are denying that the recent battle was an indication of political fissures within the interim administration.

General Assad, a senior official at the interim Defense Ministry in Kabul, told RFE/RL the violence was the result of insubordination on the part of low-level officers and an indication of the general chaos that erupts periodically in a country where rivalries have historically been resolved on the battlefield.

"The disorder [in Mazar-i-Sharif] is taking place because some of the armed forces are not aware of the criminal code. They have been trained and have behaved for a long time in seditious and riotous ways. For this reason, they can discredit some of the leaders who are in favor of peace and stability."

The most powerful of the three main factions in Mazar-i-Sharif is the Junbish-i-Millie movement -- or National Islamic Movement. It is led by the veteran ethnic Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is also deputy defense minister with the interim administration.

Dostum's main rival in Mazar-i-Sharif is Mohammed Atta, who heads the mainly ethnic Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami.

A third smaller faction in the city is the ethnic Hazara Hizb-i-Wahadat. It is led by Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, who also serves as the interim government's planning minister.

Although Dostum had been a member of the Northern Alliance in the final days of the Taliban regime, he also was a famous communist commander. At some point during the last two decades, Dostum's forces have fought against all the other main factions of the Northern Alliance.

Dostum created the Junbish-i-Millie in 1991 when non-Pashtun militias in the north formed a new alliance following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The party is supported mainly by Sunni Muslim Uzbeks. Dostum's fighters have the reputation of being the best-equipped and mostly highly trained fighters in Afghanistan.

When the interim government in Kabul was being formed in December under the Bonn agreement, Dostum initially was to be left out of the administration.

He was given the post of deputy defense minister only after he reportedly threatened that his troops would continue to do battle in northern Afghanistan unless he received a share of post-Taliban power.

But Dostum is largely absent from the corridors of power in Kabul. Instead, he spends most of his time in Mazar-i-Sharif or abroad. There are few other representatives from his movement in the capital.

One senior member in the leadership of Dostum's movement in Kabul is Mahmood Rafiq, who has a post in the Ministry of Mines and Industry. Rafiq told RFE/RL today he thinks the factional fighting near Mazar-i-Sharif has been resolved.

"Definitely [there will be peace and stability in Mazar-i-Sharif]. It has returned and it continues to return. Quite possibly, the peace and stability is strengthening [at this very moment in Mazar-i-Sharif]."

The Jamiat-i-Islami party is older than Dostum's movement. It was formed in 1973 by Burhanuddin Rabbani, who served as president in Afghanistan from 1992 until 1996, when he was driven from Kabul by the Taliban.

His Jamiat-i-Islami is an Islamic party made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks who speak Persian. But it also includes Turkic-speaking ethnic Uzbeks. Party members resent the domination of Afghanistan by the majority Pashtuns from the south of the country -- a group that also had made up the bulk of the Taliban leadership.

General Assad says that a plan for a new joint security force is being implemented in a bid to keep the peace in Mazar-i-Sharif by arresting any renegade gunmen who cause problems.

"The proposal of Mr. Dostum is that the duty of conducting security patrols [in Mazar-i-Sharif] should be given to the [new security force] -- and these gunmen that are so hated by the people of Afghanistan should be prevented from walking on the streets."

Rafiq describes the new security force in Mazar-i-Sharif as one that has a chance of working because it includes representatives of all three main factions there.

"The new security force consists of three branches. One branch is composed of the forces of Mr. Dostum. Another is made up from the forces of Commander Mohammad Atta and [the third branch] includes the forces of the [ethnic Hazara] Wahdat Islamic faction. All of the three branches of this security force are located in their own strategic positions."

Although questions remain as to whether the security arrangement in the north will, in fact, keep the rival factions from fighting once again, interim Planning Minister Mohaqiq says he will try to negotiate a resolution to any future fighting that may occur.

Mohaqiq says he doesn't expect more trouble. But he warns that it will take time for Afghan fighters to get used to the idea of not using guns to resolve their disputes.