Afghan Warlords Work to Defuse Fighting

Northern Afghanistan's two main militias worked Sunday to finalize an accord aimed at keeping clashes from spreading into the region's main city, a key mediator said Sunday.

The pact, being worked on by representatives of warlords Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammad, seeks to pre-empt a possible dangerous escalation of recent skirmishes. The fighting — so far confined to relatively remote villages — has claimed dozens of lives and increased demands for international peacekeepers around the country.

"If fighting ever reaches the streets of Mazar-e-Sharif, the whole region could erupt in violence," said Mohammad Sardor Sayeedi, political chief for the Shiite Muslim Hezb-e-Wahadat militia that mediated the framework of the agreement late Saturday. The group is directed by Muhammad Mohaqqeq, a member of the interim government cabinet and commander of more than 6,000 fighters across northern Afghanistan.

The pact, which offers no direct concessions, is essentially a formal promise to restrain from fighting in and around Mazar-e-Sharif, he said.

Mediators from Mohaqqeq's group also traveled to some of the regional flashpoints for direct meetings with rival militia leaders to seek separate truces, Sayeedi said.

Sayeedi estimated about 50 people have been killed this year in sporadic battles between the forces of Dostum and Atta Mohammad — both of whom are also part of the U.N.-brokered interim government in Kabul.

Reaching some compromise between the various militias in the north is a serious test for the credibility of the interim government. But even more serious unrest has flared elsewhere. Last week, two days of clashes in the eastern city of Gardez killed at least 61 people.

"This is what we fear for Mazar-e-Sharif if the two sides don't honor their promises," said Sayeedi.

The northern clashes — for control of territory or economic interests — continue despite promises by both leaders to support the interim administration and rein in the tens of thousands of militiamen under their banners. But there have been no serious moves to disarm, and there are questions whether all sub-commanders in the countryside still respect the chain of command following victory over the Taliban.

Convoys of heavily armed militiamen drove through Mazar-e-Sharif on Sunday and gathered outside an interim government compound, where the warlords' envoys held further talks. Atta Mohammad remained at his headquarters in Mazar-e-Sharif and Dostum was out of the country.

"This is a first step," he said. "But without an international force there is really no way to persuade the fighters to give up their arms."

Sayeedi's Hezb-e-Wahadat group also keeps its militiamen fully armed.

Last week, Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah backed suggestions of enlarging the peacekeeping force to 20,000 soldiers in key cities, including Mazar-e-Sharif. Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai, also urged the U.N. Security Council to expand the force, but was unable to secure any clear backing.

A British-led security force, based in the Kabul area, is expected to reach its full strength of about 5,000 later this month. The force's Security Council mandate expires in June.