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Iranian, Pakistani Groups Supply Weapons, Cash to Afghan Fighters

Iranian, Pakistani Groups Supply Weapons, Cash to Afghan Fighters

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BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- Renegade groups in Iran and Pakistan are providing a lifeline to rebels who continue to menace U.S. forces in Afghanistan's lawless border regions, a top U.S. commander warned Tuesday.

Despite international efforts to choke off terrorists' funding, supporters in neighboring countries are succeeding in getting cash and weapons over Afghanistan's rugged mountains, Maj. Gen. John R. Vines told reporters.

"I think there are renegade elements in Iran who have an interest in controlling a portion of Afghanistan," Vines said. "I think there are elements in Pakistan -- not the government -- that have an interest in creating instability."

Vines spoke after a ceremony which for the first time brought combat operations by U.S. forces and its allies under the same command as all other coalition activities.

Vines, commander of 82nd Airborne Division forces in Afghanistan, handed control of combat missions to Lt. Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the overall commander of coalition troops in the country.

As commander in charge of the coalition combat missions over the past nine months, Vines has studied Afghanistan and its terrain. He knows well what dangers lurk in its mountains and valleys.

A firefight on Friday killed two U.S. soldiers under his command. Another two U.S. Special Forces soldiers died last month in an ambush by rebel fighters.

Vines, who is staying on as McNeill's deputy, said streamlining the command did not mean fewer combat missions. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said last weekend he would discuss declaring an end to Afghanistan as a combat zone with Afghan leaders and U.S. military officials.

Rumsfeld was due in the Afghan capital Kabul on Sunday, but was delayed. Currently on a trip to the Persian Gulf, he is now expected in Afghanistan later this week.

Whatever declarations are made, Vines said rebels in parts of Afghanistan would remain a serious threat.

"In certain parts, the country is stable. In other parts, it's terribly dangerous," Vines said. "That has not changed and that probably won't change in the foreseeable future."

Holdouts from the Taliban regime, fugitives from the al-Qaida terrorist network and followers of renegade rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar can assemble small groups of fighters who can kill or injure coalition troops and civilians, he said.

He insisted his appraisal didn't run counter to Washington's moves toward changing the status of its Afghan mission. "It's not a disconnect at all," he said. Militants in any country may occasionally succeed in overpowering authorities in isolated cases, he said.

Terrorists' support from allies in neighboring countries was one of the major obstacles that has kept coalition forces from eliminating the rebels, he said.

The shadowy benefactors are motivated by a combination of tribalism, religious zealotry, a share of Afghanistan's lucrative opium crop and -- in some cases -- raw power, Vines said.

"The one thing that makes this extraordinarily complicated is all of those factors are in play here," he said.

Unfortunately for the coalition and the country's fragile interim government, if there was ever an ideal country for fomenting unrest it's Afghanistan, he said.

"If you had to design an area to support an anti-government movement, you might describe an area like this," Vines said. "Multiple borders, extreme distances, lack of road infrastructure, high mountains, weak central government, areas where there are religious or tribal (conflicts) ... it applies absolutely right here."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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