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U.S. outreach extends to exiled Afghan king

By Ian Christopher McCaleb
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The ambitious diplomatic efforts of the United States in its struggle against international terrorism extended Tuesday to Afghanistan's exiled king.

U.S. officials said they hope the monarch, who has been living in Rome, Italy, since the mid-1970s, might provide valuable guidance as the international standing of Afghanistan's Taliban regime continues to diminish.

King Mohammed Zahir Shah, 86, met Tuesday in Rome with officials from the U.S. Embassy. Embassy officials would not disclose the nature of the meeting.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed that a meeting took place, saying only that the king "has a continuing interest in ending the bloodshed in his country."

CNN's Kasra Naji reports on the visit of British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to Tehran (September 25)

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"I know we have seen him from time to time," Boucher said when pressed to explain why the United States would be interested in a deposed monarch who hasn't had access to his homeland or throne in 28 years and who seems to have little interest in returning.

Zahir Shah was overthrown in a 1973 coup by his nephew. Six years later, Soviet troops stormed into Afghanistan, throwing the country into a cycle of conflict that lasts to this day.

When a confederation of mujahedeen fighters forced the last Soviet troops out in the late 1980s, Afghanistan's liberators turned on each other, creating a leadership void that the Taliban was able to fill by the mid-90s.

The Bush administration has fingered Afghanistan's ruling Islamic fundamentalist Taliban as one of the first targets in its anti-terror war for aiding Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network. Bin Laden, who is believed to be in Afghanistan, is a prime suspect in the September 11 airborne attacks on New York and Washington, according to the U.S. government.

By approaching the deposed Afghan king, the United States continued to broaden its contacts with those who might have influence on war-ravaged Afghanistan's weary population. Many Afghans resent that the Taliban are, for the most part, ethnic Pashtuns and so-called "Afghan Arabs," who have come into the country from elsewhere.

Bush: 'We're not into nation building'

President Bush, who met Tuesday with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, hinted that the United States would welcome the participation of Afghans as it seeks to capture bin Laden and his associates.

"We have no issue or anger toward the citizens of Afghanistan," Bush said. "We have serious problems with the Taliban government, an incredibly oppressive government. They have made the decision to harbor terrorists. We ask for the cooperation of the citizens in Afghanistan who are tired of having the Taliban in place."

Still, Bush said, the United States had no interest in toppling the Taliban regime, even while its already minor wellspring of international support dried up Tuesday. The aim of the campaign, still diplomatic and financial in nature, Bush said, was to snuff out al Qaeda operations inside Afghanistan.

"We're not into nation building," he said. "We're focusing on justice, and we are going to get justice."

Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic relations with the Taliban on Tuesday, following in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates. Those two nations and Pakistan -- perhaps the most vital cog in U.S. efforts to root out bin Laden and his organization -- were the only members of the international community to extend formal diplomatic status to the Taliban. While Pakistan is keeping diplomatic channels open, it has withdrawn its embassy staff from Kabul, the Afghan capital.

U.S. military and European Union delegations continued to work in Pakistan on Tuesday, assessing Pakistan's level of commitment to the anti-terrorism effort. The European Union also dispatched a delegation to meet in Rome with Zahir Shah after his meetings with U.S. officials.

Speculation also centered Tuesday on how the West, and Afghanistan's neighbors, would focus on the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban faction that controls 5 percent of the country, mostly in its northwest portion.

Russia announced Monday that it would provide arms and logistical aid to the alliance as it moves to push Taliban forces back toward the south.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, speaking at the Pentagon on Tuesday, said the factional situation in Afghanistan was complex. While he welcomed Russia's pledge, he said the United States would have to take the whole picture into account as it considers cooperative efforts and eventual military action.

"In Afghanistan, you have a mixed picture," he said. "You have the alliance in the north, the Taliban and tribes in the south." Some of those tribes, he added, support the Taliban, and some don't.

British efforts in Iran

On other diplomatic fronts, the United States kept a keen eye on talks held by British Foreign Minister Jack Straw in Tehran, Iran. Straw is the highest-ranking British official to set foot in Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution, and his trip there was seen by many as a high-profile bid to convince the Iranians to join the international coalition despite the fact that Iran remains at the top of the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism.

Iran shares a 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan and is desperately afraid of receiving thousands of Afghan refugees should the United States mount an attack. Though the two governments describe themselves as Islamic theocracies, Iran is dominated by Shiite Muslims, while the Taliban are Sunnis. The two governments are bitter rivals.

Iran refused to join the coalition, and Straw reported in a news conference in Tehran that Britain and Iran had agreed to disagree. Iran, which quickly condemned the attacks on the United States, has called for the United Nations to coordinate anti-terror efforts.

The Straw meeting with Iran was seen in the United States as a test of how Iran's relationship with the West may be improving after 20 years of sharp rhetoric. But at the State Department, Boucher said that Straw's inability to convince the Iranians did not deter the United States.

"We have other ways to communicate with the Iranians should that be necessary," he said.

He also reported that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was scheduled to meet Tuesday afternoon with India's national security adviser to discuss the developing situation in South Asia.

Meanwhile, Bush continued to receive the leaders of prominent U.S. allies at the White House. His meetings with Koizumi, he said, were fruitful.

"The prime minister and I had a wide-ranging discussion about ways we can cooperate with each other to fight global terrorism," he said. "We can work in a way to cut off their funding, and the prime minister also talked about ways that Japan would share intelligence."

This week, Koizumi pledged Japan's logistical support for the effort. Japan's Constitution bars it from participating in any military operations that do not involve self-defense.

Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell were scheduled later Tuesday to appear in closed session before U.S. House and Senate members to discuss ongoing military and diplomatic efforts.

Rumsfeld said Tuesday that the buildup of U.S. forces in South Asia and the Persian Gulf likely would have an immediate effect on the diplomatic strategy and may make life more difficult for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"As forces are deployed people who have reason to be frightened have to take steps to change their behavior in a way that adds cost and adds difficulty to them, and that is not a bad thing," Rumsfeld said.


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