HERAT, Afghanistan – About 200 supporters of Afghanistan's former King Mohammad Zaher Shah gathered at a mosque Wednesday, shouting pro-royal slogans and waving Zaher Shah's portrait until the local warlord shut down the demonstration.
Ismail Khan and a group of armed militiamen, nearly as large as the group of demonstrators, dispersed the crowd after some pushing and shoving. Khan referred to the demonstrators as "mercenaries of foreign powers."
Khan is a leader in the Northern Alliance, which over the last two weeks has taken control of most of Afghanistan from the Taliban. The U.S. bombing campaign helped the Northern Alliance advance, but the U.S. backs a broad-based government, perhaps with the king as a unifying symbol, rather than Northern Alliance rule for Afghanistan.
Khan has said Zaher Shah is welcome to return as an ordinary citizen.
"As an Afghan, he can come back. [Zaher Shah] is part of Afghanistan's community," Khan said. But "the future leader of Afghanistan should be elected by the Afghan people."
Zaher Shah, 87, ruled for 40 years before being ousted in a 1973 coup. He now lives in Rome and says he does not want to return to the throne, but hopes to unite the Afghan people and help them establish a representative government.
The Northern Alliance is claiming victory in the Afghan war and may see the right to rule as its due. But its leaders have agreed to attend power-sharing talks in Germany next week.
Khan, Herat's governor until the Taliban forced him out seven years ago, was welcomed as a returning hero after this western city fell last week. He and his heavily armed militia wield most of the power here, creating some resentment among rivals, particularly minority Shiite Muslim groups.
It was not clear whether neighboring and predominantly Shiite Iran was backing any of the Shiite groups in Herat — there are at least five. But Iran's interest in the region is evident.
Iranian diplomats are in Herat preparing to reopen their consulate, which was torched by a mob of several hundred in May after the mysterious bombing of a local mosque. The Taliban, a Sunni group, had blamed the bombing on "terrorists within Iran."