By Sanjeev Miglani and Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - - Interred a quarter century ago in Pakistan, the remains of Afghan poet Ustad Khalilullah Khalili now lie in a forlorn corner of Kabul University, brought here to be reburied so that no one else can lay claim to the revered poet-philosopher.
He has no epitaph; only a few wilted bouquets lie at the grave of Afghanistan's most prominent 20th century poet. Three policemen guard the site.
But if President Hamid Karzai - who ordered the remains be disinterred from a grave in the Pakistani city of Peshawar last month - has his way, the reburial will become an assertion of Afghan culture over encroachment by Pakistan and Iran.
"We brought him back from Pakistan because he was our poet and scholar," said Mohammad Hussain Yamin, head of the Persian and Dari department at Kabul University.
"We don't want someone in future to say that he belonged to Pakistan just because he lived the final years of his life there."
The assertion of cultural sovereignty is part of an effort to unite Afghanistan and prove it can stand on its own after most foreign troops leave at the end of 2014.
The government says it wants an end to "foreign interference", usually a reference to Pakistan, but also Iran with which it is locked in a fierce debate over ownership of some of the greatest poets and philosophers in the region.
Poetry is big in Afghanistan, from the time of the kings of the 10th century to the present day, permeating every level of society from children in school to warlords and even the austere Taliban who study long works of classical Persian poetry as part of their education in religious schools.
It's the thread that runs between Afghanistan's often warring ethnic groups whether Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun, Uzbek, Turkmen, Nuristani, Baluch, or any of the many other sub-groups and clans.
But along with the death and destruction of the past three decades, Afghans say they also lost a chunk of their rich cultural heritage with Iran, Pakistan and even Turkey claiming parts of it.
Many, like Khalili, left the country to escape the wars and died in faraway lands which slowly began to claim them as their own, Afghanistan says.
Now it aims to get its heritage back.
"Iran wants to show the world it had a glorious past. This has been going on for years, they have been claiming many of our literary figures as their own. We cannot remain silent," said Jalal Noorani, an adviser at the Information and Culture Ministry.
Debate has long raged over Rumi, arguably the greatest Persian poet, but now as Afghanistan begins to stand on its feet, the claims and counter-claims have intensified not only over him but also others.
Rumi, known as Mawlana Jalal-ud-Din Balkhi in Afghanistan and Mevlevi in Iran, was born in the 13th century in Balkh which was at the time an eastern part of the Persian empire of Khorasan but is now a province in northern Afghanistan.
His family moved and they eventually settled in present-day Turkey where he wrote some of the greatest mystic Sufi poetry in Persian.
Today, all three countries regard him as their national poet even though his poetry itself transcends borders, religion and ethnic divides.
Rumi's poetry is displayed on the walls of Tehran, sung in Iranian music and read in Iranian school books. Iranians are known to live with his poetry.
But Yamin says what is indisputable is that his origins were in Afghanistan. Rumi's occupies pride of place on a billboard in Yamin's room that gives details of the birth dates and place of birth of poets that others have laid claim to.
"We have repeatedly given evidence that these figures belong to Afghanistan, not Iran. When we sit down with the Iranians and discuss these issues, they don't offer any evidence. They say in the past both countries were one, so they call all these poets, philosophers Iranian," said Yasmin.
Iranian embassy officials could not be reached for comment and did not respond to an email.
In the past, Iranians have challenged Afghanistan to a test of history, suggesting they were waking up a bit late to claim inheritance.
At a concert in Kabul a few years ago, an Iranian singer challenged any member of the audience to speak for two minutes on Rumi since they claimed he was their own. Afghan authorities took offence and the concert had to end hastily.
"Afghans are a bit late at this. Iran and Turkey have stolen their thunder," said Mohammad Taqi, a U.S.-based columnist for Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper who has written extensively on the Pashtun heartland straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Iran, he said, had milked Rumi and the whirling dervishes that his poetry inspired by setting up cultural centers on the pattern of Germany's Goethe Institute.
Still, this new burst of cultural revivalism in Afghanistan can help bridge the distance between the Tajiks and the Hazaras, and to a certain extent the Pashtuns, he said.
"A supra-ethnic Afghan identity needs non-violent icons."
(Editing by Rob Taylor and Robert Birsel)