December 18, 2017 / 6:53 PM / a year ago

Powerful Afghan regional leader ousted as political picture clouds

KABUL (Reuters) - One of Afghanistan’s most powerful regional politicians was ousted as governor of the northern province of Balkh on Monday, setting up a confrontation that adds to the uncertainty around President Ashraf Ghani’s Western-backed government.

FILE PHOTO: Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of the Balkh province, speaks during an interview in Kabul, Afghanistan January 25, 2017. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Atta Mohammad Noor is one of the leading figures in Jamiat-e-Islami, a party which mainly represents Afghanistan’s Tajik ethnic group, and has used his position in Balkh, on the northern border of the country, as a powerbase to push for a major role on the national stage.

His removal, at a time when tensions between Tajiks and Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s two biggest ethnic groups, have been rising, injects extra uncertainty to the already fractured political landscape ahead of presidential elections in 2019.

“My dismissal has no legal or legitimate basis,” Noor said on Afghan national television. “For now we are only resorting to civil action but if this atrocity continues, there are many other options.”

Atta Noor is one of a clutch of powerful regional and ethnic leaders whom Ghani has struggled to control since he came to office after the disputed election of 2014. Ghani, a Pashtun, has tried previously to remove him but also discussed a possible role in the government for him.

He submitted his resignation several months ago but the move never took effect until Ghani approved it on Monday, announcing at the same time that Mohammad Daoud, also from Jamiat, would become the next governor of Balkh province.

“The Afghan president has accepted Atta Mohammad Noor’s resignation and announced Engineer Mohammad Daoud as the new governor,” Shah Hussain Murtazawi a spokesman for Ghani said.

In his remarks on Monday, Atta Noor, who has demanded a number of senior positions in the government for some of his allies, said the resignation had been offered with conditions attached and said these had not been respected.

“Since they didn’t meet their responsibilities, I don’t accept it,” he said.

Ghani’s national unity government, formed after the 2014 election forced him into an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with his former rival Abdullah Abdullah from Jamiat, retains the support of the international community and the United States.

But it has faced mounting criticism from a growing array of opposition groups.

Parliamentary elections originally due to be held next year are in doubt and former President Hamid Karzai has called for a loya jirga, or traditional grand council of political leaders and elders to decide the future of the government.

The confrontation with Atta Noor comes several months after a standoff with Vice President Rashid Dostum over accusations of the sexual abuse of a political opponent. Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek leader and veteran of decades of Afghan politics, has been in Turkey since May, ostensibly for medical treatment.

Reporting by Matin Sahak and Hamid Shalizi; writing by James Mackenzie, Editing by Angus MacSwan

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