- The Washington Times - Monday, October 15, 2001

ZAHEDAN, Iran Despite unusually tight security, officials worry that growing anger over the U.S.-led air strikes against the Taliban may overwhelm the police and military in this region neighboring the Afghan border.
Authorities were startled by the surge of fury in this provincial capital just 20 miles from the border on Friday, when Iran for the first time allowed its public to vent its anger at the air campaign.
Crowds of angry youths screamed their opposition to the attacks and many proclaimed their willingness to fight a holy war against America.
"If the [clergy] give us the order for jihad, we will take up arms against the enemy," said Gholam Reza Yacubi, a volunteer mosque worker in Zahedan. "If there is a war against Islam, we are ready to fight."
Residents fear that civil unrest could grow as militants from the Baluchi tribe, which sprawls across Iran's borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, protest against the military strikes.
"There is great danger for the Islamic Republic of Iran," said one resident. "There is so much sympathy for the Taliban here."
Even before the Afghan crisis, this was the most sensitive of Iran's difficult border regions. In addition to its Sunni Baluchi population, the province hosts thousands of Afghan refugees who have lived here for up to 20 years.
Both Baluchis and Afghans poured onto the sun-baked streets Friday morning to protest the deaths of their kin across the border. Their first target was the Pakistani consulate, bombarded with a hail of stones and abuse toward Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.
"Musharraf is a traitor. Hang him," screamed the crowd that also carried anti-U.S. banners and burned effigies of President Bush.
Elaborate headdresses identified the Afghans in the crowd as ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Pashtuns, representing all parts of their homeland.
By noon, a crowd of some 20,000 had gathered at the Jameh Maqqi mosque, the largest Sunni mosque in town.
Fired up by an inflammatory sermon blaring from the mosque's 48 speakers, the crowd spotted two Western journalists and quickly grew angry.
Explanation turned to accusation, hospitality to hostility. It was only a matter of time before the first stone fell.
The mob began to chant the slogans of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution: "Death to America, death to Israel." Only the timely intervention of security police, who waded into the crowds with batons and shields, saved the foreigners from injury.
This rugged corner of Iran has long been a security problem for Iran's Shi'ite clerical regime. Militant Sunni extremists have clashed with the armed forces in the past, and stand accused of orchestrating bomb attacks on prominent Shi'ite targets.
Baluchi drug traffickers, who transport much of the world's opium, heroin and hashish through Iran to Europe and North America, frequently fight pitched battles with the military in the desolate stretches of desert surrounding Zahedan. Smugglers' vehicles, packed with opium and heroin, are driven across remote border areas at night.
"The drivers travel only in darkness, using night-vision goggles to see their way," said Mohammad Fallah, the head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, the country's national anti-narcotics bureau.
Iranian narcotics officials say the gangs are highly organized and armed with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. Heavy machine guns, mounted on all-terrain vehicles, protect drug convoys.
Iranian officers say the gangs have even shot down helicopters and warplanes with surface-to-air weapons. At Iran's drug control headquarters in Tehran, a condolence book names some 2,700 law enforcement personnel who have died fighting the traffickers since 1979.
Under international pressure, Iran has stepped up its battle against the smugglers. But the Baluchi gangs, given virtual carte blanche by the Taliban in the late 1990s, have fought back.
Over the past month, Iran has drafted some 30,000 extra police and troops to its eastern provinces, ostensibly to help seal the border with Afghanistan against an expected influx of new refugees.
In key towns like Zahedan, however, riot police and Islamic Revolutionary Guards are now deployed as much to maintain domestic security as to guard against a refugee influx from the east.
If the aerial attacks on Afghanistan continue much longer, police fear they will have much more than a refugee influx on their mind.

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