WASHINGTON (AP) President Bush warned Iranian officials yesterday not to harbor al-Qaida fighters fleeing Afghanistan and not to try to destabilize the country”s new government. If the warning is ignored, Bush said, the U.S.-led coalition “will deal with them in diplomatic ways, initially.”

Paul Wong
Prior to signing a $318 billion bill on defense spending, President Bush waits yesterday to speak at the Pentagon. <br><br>AP PHOTO

Until now, the United States has quietly praised longtime foe Iran for its help in the war on international terror. Iranians and Americans have worked together to fight the Taliban and to create Afghanistan”s new government.

Now, however, Iran is moving to safeguard its traditional influence in western Afghanistan, apparently unnerved by growing U.S. military influence on almost all sides, analysts said.

Iran denied reports yesterday that some al-Qaida fighters were in Iran. An official called Bush”s warning “baseless” and said Iran wants neighboring Afghanistan to be stable and independent.

“Iran has never been on good terms with the Taliban and their supporters,” said Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. “It has been our policy not to allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in Iran.”

Indeed, many analysts believe Iran, which hated the Taliban and is suspicious of al-Qaida, merely is doing what Russia and Pakistan are doing: working with local warlords to guarantee their interests in Afghanistan don”t get swept aside.

“Iran regards Afghanistan like we regard Mexico,” said Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It is a vital, critical interest for them, and they have every right to be consulted and involved.”

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