KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — In his first visit to Afghanistan as Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani called for regional unity Thursday as regional leaders celebrated the Persian New Year in Kabul.
Rouhani is visiting at a crucial time for Afghanistan, with national elections being held in just over a week and most U.S. and allied troops withdrawing by year's end. With Western influence diminishing in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and other countries are vying to fill the vacuum.
The Iranian leader, accompanied by his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also met separately with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon for a summit of Farsi-speaking countries to discuss ways to increase cooperation between their three countries, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency. Dari, a dialect of Farsi, and Pashto are the official languages of Afghanistan.
Rouhani said in his Nowruz address that Afghanistan has been occupied twice by foreign countries — a reference to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and the U.S. and allied troops who ousted the Taliban. He said "they brought violence and extremists to this country."
These occupations have "brought the unfortunate seed of violence in this country, which has damaged the lives of people and this country. My country the Islamic Republic of Iran has condemned both occupations and has helped the people of Afghanistan in both periods of time," Rouhani said.
Despite improving ties with Washington, Iran sees the U.S. presence on its doorstep as a threat and opposes a security agreement that would allow thousands of foreign forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014.
Karzai has refused to sign the pact, but the main three contenders in the April 5 elections to replace him have said they would.
The Nowruz ceremony, which included Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, was held in the heavily barricaded presidential palace instead of a specially built multimillion-dollar building west of Kabul that had been designed for the occasion. The abrupt change in venue, announced last week, has drawn criticism, with many saying it was a waste of money.
The governor of Kabul province, which includes the capital, said construction of the so-called Pagman Hill Castle had finished, but there was a problem with mold and authorities decided it was not ready to host hundreds of dignitaries. He denied security was a concern, saying Afghan forces had been prepared to protect the venue.
Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said construction had begun in September and cost some $14 million.
Also Thursday, authorities said Afghan security forces killed 20 Taliban militants the day before in the western province of Herat, alleging the insurgents were planning attacks aimed at disrupting next week's elections in the Ghoryan district. Provincial police spokesman Raouf Ahmadi said three of those killed were senior commanders.
The Taliban have warned voters to stay away from the polls, promising a campaign of violence to undermine the vote.
Eight candidates are running in the presidential race, which is the first in which Karzai won't be a contender since the 2001 U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban.
The three front-runners are Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai's main rival in the disputed 2009 election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a well-known academic and former World Bank employee; and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul.