'War on terror' moves toward Iran
Iran bristles at the arrival of three dozen Green Berets hunting Al Qaeda on its border.
A secret new US Special Forces mission to hunt down Al Qaeda along Afghanistan's border with Iran is triggering cross-border accusations of espionage, amid persistent suspicions that Iran is harboring terrorists.Skip to next paragraph
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The Green Berets have based themselves in a desert compound three miles from the Iranian frontier.
Surrounded by a maze of barricades to thwart suicide bombing attacks, the new base is being seen as an affront by Iranian religious hard-liners, who oppose the US-led "war on terror."
Interviews in Zaranj with Afghans expelled and sometimes beaten by Iranian authorities suggest that Tehran is treating the new US presence as a threat to its national integrity. The Iranian military is blaming the threat on local Afghans, whom they accuse of spying for the Americans.
While the US soldiers have been probing border areas where Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan meet, it is unclear if the teams will cross over into Iran, Western military analysts say. They add that US special operations commanders in their home bases are still formulating rules and guidelines for new "snatch squads" to nab Al Qaeda suspects at large across the globe.
Meanwhile, Iranian border troops, their ranks bolstered since the arrival of the three dozen American soldiers, have been digging fresh trenches in the sands here and setting up new gun positions.
The tensions at the border form the latest chapter in two decades of bad relations between the US and Iran. Western analysts in Iran warn that Bush's categorization of Iraq as part of an "axis of evil" has strengthened the hand of hard-line Islamic forces which have supported terror in the past.
Over the past year, senior US officials, led by Secretary. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have repeatedly cast suspicion on Iran as harboring fugitive Al Qaeda members, but have given few details of the basis for their suspicions.
But top Afghan officials in Nimruz and Kabul say they have mounting evidence that elements in Iran's armed forces, as well as the religious police, loyal to the country's conservative clerics, are actively assisting Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Afghan officials, and Western diplomats in Kabul, contend that this collaboration is the real reason for the new US military base.
"This is an area where Al Qaeda has managed to maintain a foothold under the cover of smugglers," says Aman Khan, Afghanistan's acting military intelligence chief in Kabul. The new focus in the US war on terror "appears to be the west, rather than the east and Pakistan, where it has been going on now for most of a year," he says.
The remote Nimruz province of Afghanistan has long been the redoubt of well-armed heroin smugglers, who race through the parched flatlands in convoys of jacked-up jeeps, past camel carcasses and ancient adobe ruins, on the way to Iran, where they hand over the drugs to Iranian smugglers bound for Turkey. But the American soldiers here, straddling the beds of their pickups in civilian clothes and holding heavy machine guns, are not after the smugglers, who worked with the Taliban until last year and now patronize the new regime. Their prey are the terrorists reportedly plotting nearby.
Nimruz security chief Mohammed Naim Khan says he has passed along intelligence to the US forces that several key Al Qaeda figures, including Dr. Zawahiri, are attempting to buy new arms from local dealers, in addition to planning unspecified terrorist operations from just inside Iran.
But an Iranian diplomat in Kabul rejects the suspicions against his country: "Iran has never had any relations with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Indeed, we were the ones to inform the international community about the danger of these men several years ago, but no one listened to us at the time." Iranian authorities have detained some Al Qaeda members and sent them back to their homes in the Middle East, in particular, to Saudi Arabia.