- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 10, 2002

HERAT, Afghanistan Ghari Ahmad Ali nominally leads the 4th Armored Division of the U.S.-backed Afghan army, but he looks to the late Ayatollah Khomeini for "spiritual" support and recently led the Afghan chapter of a terrorist group active in southern Lebanon.
Many suspect the warlord and his armed Shi'ite warriors, holed up at an old military base outside of this western Afghan city, await orders from Iran, just 75 miles away.
"We are disciples of [the Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini," the 45-year-old warlord said. The rabidly anti-American ayatollah, who led Iran after the fall of the shah, "is our spiritual leader."
Mr. Ali arrived here from the Iranian city of Mashad just after the Taliban fell in the fall.
Though there is no direct evidence linking him financially or militarily to Iran, his presence feeds fears among government officials, aid workers and residents about growing Iranian influence in this area an ancient terminal on the Silk Road and now a vital overland trade route linking Iran and Central Asia to South Asia.
"Herat has become another state in Iran," said a Western official of an international organization here. "Culturally, economically, and increasingly politically, it's just a far eastern province of the Islamic Republic."
Though Iran was denied a seat at international discussions on the rebuilding of Afghanistan, Western officials acknowledge that it is impossible to keep Iranian influence out of the region.
As many as 3 million Afghans live in the Islamic Republic. World Vision, an aid group here, says half of all income reaching villages in the western provinces comes from Afghan relatives working in Iran, which has linguistic and ethnic ties with Afghanistan as well as a 550-mile-long border.
"The links are historical and geographic," said a Western military official. "They may or may not have a political presence here."
If Iranian operatives are in place in Herat, they keep a very low profile. Few believe that Iran's consulate here, controlled by Iran's reformist-leaning Foreign Ministry, is being used as a base for covert operations or for supporting militant elements such as Mr. Ali.
But Iran's political influence is palpable. Its Dari-language radio station, under the firm control of Iran's hard-line faction, constantly spews hatred against the United States and the "Zionist regime" in Israel.
It broadcasts 24 hours a day and in most parts of western Afghanistan is the only radio station available. Even where other stations exist, it is about the only one listened to.
"They play songs by Afghani singers," said 22-year-old Massoud Tajik, a taxi driver.
Some here say Iran has exported to Afghanistan its internal political split between outward-looking reformists under President Mohammed Khatami and a hard-line conservative faction still dedicated to exporting Islamic revolution.
"On the one hand Iran supports the government in Kabul, and there are people like Hezbollah here," said an official of an international human rights organization.
Until recently, Mr. Ali headed the Afghan chapter of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed group that battled Israeli troops in southern Lebanon for nearly two decades and is listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. government.
Rusting Russian tanks litter Mr. Ali's camp, owned by the Afghan government.
Mr. Ali and his men say 500 soldiers and 200 civilians work at the base. He spent the Taliban years in the Iranian city of Mashad and says some of his family members continue to reside there.
Mr. Ali, sitting on a rug and eating a lunch of rice and stew while surrounded by uniformed men, says he and his men are free to leave the camp whenever they want, albeit without their guns.
He said he's put militant Shi'ite politics aside for now and considers himself commandant of the 4th Armored Brigade. He just wants a role in the new government, he said, and met with interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai during his last visit here.
"I wouldn't have struggled and fought all these years without a political goal," said Mr. Ali.

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