U.S. officials have become increasingly concerned that Iran is providing a safe haven for al-Qaida fighters and may try to challenge the interim government in Kabul.
“If they in any way, shape or form try to destabilize the government, the coalition will deal with them, in diplomatic ways, initially, and we would very much like them to be active participants in a stable Afghanistan,” the president told reporters this morning.
U.S. special forces troops based in Herat — a northwestern Afghan city with a strong Iranian cultural influence — reported Iranian operatives had infiltrated Afghanistan and were threatening local tribal leaders and trying to bribe others to undermine the U.S.-backed efforts in Afghanistan, according to the Associate Press.
The reports also said Iran has been allowing some members of the al-Qaida terrorist network to escape across the border from Afghanistan. The U.S. has accused al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden of planning and executing the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington.
“We would hope that they would continue to be a positive force in helping us to bring people to justice,” Mr. Bush said of the Iranian government. “We would hope, for example, they wouldn’t allow al-Qaida murderers to hide in their country. We would hope that if that be the case, if someone tries to flee into Iran, that they would hand them over to us.”
In Tehran, government officials denied reports the government was sheltering al-Qaida members.
“Our borders are tightly closed and the Islamic Republic of Iran in no circumstances would let al-Qaida members, fighters and supporters of bin Laden enter the country,” said the foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi.
Asefi said Iran was not trying to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, or seeking to set up an Islamic system of government. “Afghan people should decide their own future,” Asefi said.
In the first weeks of the war, Iran joined the international coalition on terrorism and offered the U.S. use of its territory for any search-and-rescue missions into Afghanistan.
Iran also sent a delegation to participate in the Bonn conference on forming a post-Taliban Afghan government. However, as a government system based on Islamic law, Iran has shown signs of disapproval over the pro-West leanings in the interim Afghan government.
U.S. soldiers arrive in Philippines
Meanwhile, an advance team of U.S. soldiers has arrived in the Philippines to help train local fighters to combat local Muslim militants linked to al-Qaida. A group of about 100 more U.S. soldiers will follow later this month.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld today said U.S. forces were already at work in the Philippines to help with the fight against terrorism there.
“The Philippine government has been engaged in attempting to deal with that terrorist problem they have,” Rumsfeld said. “We have been involved in training and, to my knowledge, that’s what we’re currently doing.”
Rumsfeld did not specify whether U.S. forces would be involved in any front-lines fighting.
Gen. Diomedio Villanueva, head of the Philippine armed forces, told reporters U.S. troops would not serve on the front lines.
“They will be here to train, but not to go to the front lines,” Villanueva said. “This is to enhance the capability of our forces in combating terrorism.”
He was quoted in papers yesterday saying U.S. forces would be allowed on the front lines, but that did not necessarily mean U.S. soldiers would have contact with militant fighters.
President Bush offered to send troops to combat the guerrillas, but the offer was refused because the Philippines requires a vote in the legislature to allow foreign troops to operate in the country.
According to Villanueva, around 100 U.S. troops are expected to help local fighters plan an offensive against Abu Sayyaf, the local militant group notorious for recent kidnappings of foreigners. The guerillas, who are fighting for a separate Islamic state in the south, have been linked to al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden.
The U.S. has earmarked more than $100 million in military assistance to help the Philippine government combat terrorism.