Afghan Hazaras look to polls, Iran

Parliamentary elections in September may reveal the frustrations of Afghanistan's most oppressed group.

After a 40-minute climb to this farming village in central Bamiyan Province, a young candidate in Afghanistan's upcoming elections explains the nuts and bolts of parliamentary politics, and why she deserves the villagers' votes.

"There are no good roads in Bamiyan, no electricity, no water," Fatima Kazemian tells a cramped classroom full of men and women. "The important thing when you select a representative is this: You shouldn't ask, 'What will you do?' We should take our officials by the collar and say, 'What are you doing now?' Your leaders should listen to you, and not hide themselves like a mouse in a hole."

Men murmur appreciatively at the tough words. Women smile silently.

When American troops helped oust the Taliban regime, it was the Hazaras of Bamiyan who may have cheered the loudest. As the homeland of Afghanistan's most oppressed group - Hazaras are Shiite Muslims in a Sunni majority nation - Bamiyan is a province that stood to benefit the most from a modern, secular, Western-supported democracy that boosted minority rights.

But in three years, Bamiyan's citizens have received very little development aid, and next month's parliamentary elections could become a referendum of sorts for a well-behaved minority whose patience with the government of President Hamid Karzai is wearing thin. Out of frustration, some Hazaras may look to Iran for support, an unwelcome possibility in a country recovering from decades of conflict fueled by neighboring nations.

"Discrimination against the Hazaras continues even now," says Mohammad Musa Mahmudi, a senior political analyst for the National Democratic Institute, an American democracy-building organization in Kabul.

'Kite Runner' publicity

Hazaras have Mongoloid features that visibly set them apart and have led to the belief that they are descendants of Genghis Khan's invading armies. For centuries, Hazaras have been limited by low wage jobs and isolated in the mountainous center of Afghanistan. Their struggles have become more familiar in the West due to the recent best-selling novel, "The Kite Runner."

Despite the Karzai government's official policy of promoting minority rights - and the presence of six Hazaras on his cabinet - much of the government's and international community's funding is diverted toward more powerful ethnic groups, such as the Pashtuns and Tajiks, or to more accessible cities like Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, and Herat.

"Hazaras are not able to make a noise," says Mahmudi, himself a Hazara and a former human rights activist in Bamiyan. "They can't create conflict. They are not geopolitically located to be important to the government, so they will be neglected." But if Hazaras continue to be ignored, he warns, they may turn to the Shiite-cleric run nation of Iran. "They'll say, 'We went to the US and the West, but they didn't help us. You were right.' "

Bamiyan's first-ever female governor, Habeeba Sarabi - an ethnic Hazara and Shiite - insists that Iran's influence is slight in her province.

"Most Hazara people know that Iran supported other people - the Aryan groups, mostly the Tajiks - during the jihad," she says. So while some clerics and politicians are spouting a pro-Iranian line, most Hazaras remain loyal to the government in Kabul. "We haven't forgotten that Iran wants to have a lot of influence here, so I think it will take a little time. We have to raise awareness and not be used by other people."

Refugee bitterness

Kazemian, one of 68 candidates for parliament from Bamiyan, spent most of her life in Iran as a refugee. Few Hazara refugees, she says, have fond memories of their Shiite brethren in Iran.

"If the Iranians had treated the Afghan refugees better in Iran - if they had let Hazaras go on to get university educations like the Afghans do in Pakistan - then the Afghans would leave Iran with better memories of the kindness of Iran," says Kazemian. "But the Iranians don't do this. They like the Aryan people, like the Tajiks or the Pashtuns, better than they like us. We have the same religion, but we have a problem with our eyes and our nose."

Yet during the anti-Soviet war of resistance - or jihad, as many Afghans call it - Iran provided strong and reliable support for Hazara political parties. Hazara leaders such as Karim Khalili, head of Bamiyan's ruling Hizb-e Wahadat party, made their homes in the Iranian border city of Meshhad, and maintained close ties with Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security.

These past ties lead many Afghan politicians to suspect that Iran's influence in Afghanistan may be expanding, just as it has expanded in that other American war zone, Iraq.

"The Iranians are using the lack of confidence between Tajiks and Pashtuns and they want Hazaras to take more power in government," says Najib Fahim, a deputy minister of veteran's affairs, who recently returned from a two-year stint as head of Afghanistan's consulate in Meshhad, Iran.

"We Sunnis are a dispersed majority; they are an organized minority," says Mr. Fahim, himself a Tajik. "Most of the directors of new aid agencies are Shias. Most of the top students at Kabul University are Shias." He points to a possible "Iraq scenario" where Shiites dominate the political process.

Where's our road?

In the towns and villages of the Hazarajat, all this talk of Shiite power sounds a bit far-fetched. After all, there isn't a single paved road in Bamiyan, no reliable electricity, and no factories to create jobs. If this is power, Hazaras say, we don't want it.

"We don't want a parliament that is aligned with any faction," says Hayatullah Ahmedi, a tailor in the capital city of Bamiyan.

"We have people from Bamiyan in Karzai's cabinet, those are people who took part in the civil war. They have guns. We don't expect them to fulfill any promises," says Mr. Ahmedi. "But still, we think they should do something for people."

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