- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 5, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan said yesterday that al Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors have found shelter in neighboring countries, especially Iran.

"We have in Afghanistan al Qaeda on the run. Afghanistan is no longer the headquarters," envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said.

Mr. Khalilzad cited Iran as the primary safe haven for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"In Iran, there is both an elected and un-elected government. And the un-elected have been giving shelter to some al Qaeda and some Taliban people," he said.

His concerns come as Afghanistan prepares for a loya jirga, or grand tribal council, that will determine the nation's next government to replace the one now led by Hamid Karzai.

The fear in Kabul is that the Taliban and the al Qaeda will attempt a terrorist attack in order to disrupt the assembly.

Some gunshots and explosions have been heard in the past few nights, though no official reports of violence have been disclosed to the media.

Internal Afghan political pressures also threaten the process.

A pro-democracy group in Afghanistan, the Kami Shura, reports that forces controlled by warlords Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdurrashid Dostum and others have attempted to subvert the democratic process with gunmen.

Aziz Ahmad, secretary for the commission convening the loya jirga, confirmed that Ismael Khan, a warlord controlling the western Afghan city of Herat, had several candidates arrested and held in custody prior to the local elections in that province.

Helicopter gunships of the 5,000-strong international peacekeeping force have begun to orbit key parts of Afghanistan's capital city, and armored personnel carriers and light-armored cars are stationed outside the loya jirga commission's office.

More than 1,500 delegates from across the country will arrive in Kabul over the next five days to participate in the assembly, which is to choose a new government by June 22.

The delegates include members of all Afghanistan's ethnic groups, including women.

Mr. Khalilzad spoke to reporters from the front steps of the U.S. Embassy as Marines stood guard along the walls and inside sandbag bunkers on the building's roof.

U.S. Diplomatic Security Service agents looked beyond the compound's razor wire to scan for attackers hiding in trees.

Mr. Khalilzad characterized the overall security situation as "positive."

He said military operations were in the "manhunt" phase. He said Pakistan could not be allowed to be a refuge for the al Qaeda or its Taliban partners.

Comparing Afghanistan to the democratic transitions of Chile, El Salvador and South Africa, the special envoy said: "Clearly there are law-and-order issues here. This is a country that has been through a lot, 23 years of war, fragmented, with multiple security forces, it would not be realistic to expect that in a short order all those problems would go away."

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