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Karzai calls Iran a 'very close friend'

He makes the remark after a visit by Gates

KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan gave Iran his full embrace yesterday, saying it has been his country's "very close friend," even as US officials meeting with him here repeated their accusation that Iranian-made weapons were flowing to Taliban fighters.

Karzai made the remarks at a joint news conference following a meeting with US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was in Afghanistan for nearly 24 hours to meet with US commanders and Afghan officials. Gates said he raised the issue of the Iranian munitions in his meeting with Karzai, but acknowledged that there was no evidence the Iranian government was behind the alleged shipments.

When asked whether he believed Tehran, which has been mostly a benign presence in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, had decided to change course and support its former foes, Karzai gave an impassioned backing for the Iranian government. He called it a force for good inside Afghanistan.

"Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today," Karzai said. "In the past five years, Iran has been contributing to Afghanistan's reconstruction, and in the past five years, Afghanistan has been Iran's very close friend."

Pentagon officials in recent weeks have made repeated reference to the Iranian-made weapons the Americans say they have found in Afghanistan, which include roadside bombs that have been used so effectively against US forces in Iraq.

Gates repeated the charge at yesterday's news conference, but said that the United States has not determined why they have made a recent appearance. He said the weapons, which began turning up in "the past few months," might be part of the anti coalition campaign being waged by Taliban fighters, but as easily could be needed for rising violence related to the narcotics trade.

"We do not have any information about whether the government of Iran is supporting this, is behind it, or whether it's smuggling, or exactly what's behind it," Gates acknowledged. "But there clearly is evidence that some weapons are coming into Afghanistan destined for the Taliban."

Karzai went out of his way to emphasize Iran's growing economic ties to Afghanistan, saying Iranian exports over the last five years have grown from less than $10 million a year to more than $500 million. He said the close ties between his government and that of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran have been supported by the US government.

"It has been possible for Afghanistan to be so close with Iran because our partners in the international community, especially the United States, understood and supported this relationship," Karzai said, adding Tehran also has understood the need for Afghanistan to form a "strategic partnership" with the United States.

The meeting with Karzai was part of a tour of Afghanistan by Gates, which included a stop in the city of Kandahar for meetings with NATO commanders in the restive region and for a tour of an Afghan commando training center southwest of Kabul.

At the commando facility, Gates was given a tour by the Afghan National Army's chief of staff, General Bismullah Khan, a former mujahideen fighter who was part of the anti-Soviet resistance when Gates was working on Russian issues for the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s.

Gates noted that, "Twenty years ago, I was on the other side of the border [with Pakistan] funneling arms and money to this man and his colleagues."