- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 10, 2009

KABUL (AP) — The U.S. military on Wednesday said an airstrike in western Afghanistan killed a militant commander with reported links to Iran’s elite military Quds Force. An Afghan official said fighting elsewhere killed 30 Taliban.

The airstrike Tuesday in the western province of Ghor targeted a warlord named Mullah Mustafa, whom the U.S. military said was responsible for attacks on a nearby highway. The military said 16 of Mustafa’s men were also killed.

The U.S. said Mustafa commanded about 100 fighters and “reportedly had connections to” the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, which is known to train Shiite militants from Middle Eastern countries.

A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, said that the military was not implying that Mustafa had links with Iran’s government, but that individual militants in Afghanistan may have links with individual militants in Iran.

“We’re not implying with this release that Iran the state is supporting the Taliban,” Sidenstricker said. “Our intelligence suggests that Mustafa has relations with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force.”

Sidenstricker said she could not provide any more details for security reasons, including whether Mustafa had gotten weapons, training or fighters from the Quds Force.

The strike was likely carried out by an American Special Operations Forces team, although Sidenstricker said she didn’t know what force carried out the strike and could not say.

An official in Ghor, deputy Gov. Karimuddin Rezazada, said Mustafa had links with the Taliban and was behind a string of attacks on the highway.

Taliban extremists are Sunni and have in the past been opposed to Iran’s government.

Rezazada said that Mustafa was a Sunni Muslim, not a Shiite Muslim like most Iranians. Asked whether Mustafa had links with the Quds Brigade, Rezazada said: “Maybe yes, maybe no. We’re not aware of that.”

Western officials have previously accused militants in Iran of supplying militants in Afghanistan with weapons, but no top U.S. official has accused Iran’s government of supporting the Taliban.

In other violence, a three-day operation against Taliban fighters in southern Uruzgan province killed 30 militants, said provincial police chief Juma Gul Himat. Himat said officials found 5,070 pounds (2,300 kilograms) of explosives during the operation. Two police were killed, he said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military released a grainy video of a grenade explosion Tuesday that killed two Afghans and wounded more than 50, while President Hamid Karzai ordered a government investigation into the incident.

The video shows about half a dozen soldiers working to free a large military vehicle that had run into a small median in the town of Asadabad in the northeastern province of Kunar.

A crowd of several dozen Afghans had gathered to watch the soldiers work. Then a bright flash can be seen. The camera zooms out and the Afghans hurriedly flee the crowded marketplace.

Some Afghan witnesses and officials, including Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, accused a U.S. soldier on Tuesday of throwing the grenade. But U.S. military officials and the Ministry of Interior said fragments from a Russian-made grenade were found at the site, and blamed an insurgent in the crowd for throwing the weapon.

None of the half dozen U.S. soldiers in the video can be seen throwing a grenade. However, the video does not make clear who may have thrown it.

The U.S. military said the video was taken by a stationary aerial balloon with a camera attached to it. The military, which has increased its use of social networking sites in recent weeks, released the video on Facebook and YouTube.

Karzai ordered his Ministry of Interior and local government officials to dispatch a “high-ranking delegation” to investigate. The statement from Karzai did not explicitly blame U.S. forces for causing the deaths and injuries, but he still used the occasion to chide American forces to be careful around civilians.

“Stressing the need to protect the lives and property of civilians, President Karzai once again reminded the international forces to make every effort to avoid incidents that lead to civilian casualties,” the statement said.

Karzai has long pleaded with U.S. forces to reduce the number of civilian casualties that occur during military operations. However, U.S. officials say Taliban militants often try to cause civilian deaths in the hopes that the negative publicity will harm the U.S. effort in Afghanistan.

Associated Press reporter Noor Khan contributed to this report from Kandahar.

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