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Afghanistan: Karzai, In Tehran, Praises Iranian Support

Hamid Karzai, the head of Afghanistan's interim government, is in Iran seeking to strengthen ties with the neighboring country and secure badly needed financial aid. The visit is Karzai's most complicated since he took office in December, as he must court better relations with Tehran while not jeopardizing the interim government's ties to the United States.

Prague, 25 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Karzai visited the Iranian parliament today to express thanks for Tehran's help during the past decades.

He told Iran's Majlis, or parliament, that he and his delegation had "come to the house of a brother." Karzai said Iran, for nearly two decades, had considered itself a partner in Afghanistan's hardship and suffering.

Karzai arrived in Tehran yesterday to start a three-day official visit.

The interim leader is hoping to strengthen ties with Iran to hasten the return of Afghan refugees still in Iran and to obtain financial support. More than 2 million Afghans fled to Iran during more than two decades of conflict. More than 1 million are estimated to remain.

Karzai's remarks to the Iranian parliament were similar to his words yesterday when he met with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Karzai praised Iran's efforts in Afghanistan.

"Regarding the reconstruction and stability of Afghanistan, Iran has played a very important and effective role and assisted us a lot to save Afghanistan," Karzai said. "We have told America that Iran has been helpful and that Iran is our friend and brother country and we ask all the other countries to help us and to be just like Iran who has helped us to save Afghanistan."

Khatami, for his part, vowed support for Afghanistan based on the countries' history and proximity. "The Islamic Republic of Iran has recognized the Afghan government from the beginning and has considered supporting Afghanistan as a duty. We, as two governments, will have clear cooperation with each other," Khatami said. "It's natural that Iran, with respect to religion, geography, and history, has had and has an important role in Afghanistan. We always see ourselves beside Afghan people for the aggressions against their right as before."

Iran pledged more than $500 million in aid for Afghanistan over the next five years at the donors' conference in Tokyo in late January.

The timing of Karzai's visit coincided with renewed criticism of Iran by the United States.

As Karzai was starting his visit to Iran, the U.S. special envoy Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, repeated U.S. allegations that Tehran had helped to arm various groups inside Afghanistan and to allow the escape of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

"What we want is a normal relationship between Afghanistan and Iran. They are neighbors. We want that relationship to be based on non-interference," Khalilzad said. "We do not want Iran to allow Al-Qaeda types to cross from Afghanistan into Iran, or the Taliban people to be supported or be allowed to cross into Iran, or for Iran to send [paramilitary Islamic] Al Quds forces here or to supply [Iranian paramilitary] Sepah-i-Mohammad forces in here or to assist some warlord or local leader."

The U.S. was largely responsible for clearing Afghanistan of the Taliban militia and paving the way for Karzai's interim government to take power.

In Tehran, Karzai appeared to make a point of addressing U.S. allegations. The Afghan leader was quoted by Iranian radio as saying that, "with regard to the statements made by American newspapers or American officials, we have said before that Iran is a friend of Afghanistan and saved Afghanistan from great problems."

Some Iranian media criticized Karzai for not visiting Iran sooner. Karzai's interim government took power on 22 December, and Karzai has already visited the U.S., Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries.

(Azam Gorgin contributed to this report.)