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Powerful Afghan Governor Vows To Fight His Disputed Ouster

Atta Mohammad Noor, former governor of Balkh Province
Atta Mohammad Noor, former governor of Balkh Province

One of Afghanistan's most powerful regional politicians has vowed to fight his ouster as governor of the northern province of Balkh, posing a potential threat to the shaky, Western-backed governing coalition of President Ashraf Ghani.

The presidential palace said on December 18 that it had approved the resignation of Atta Mohammad Noor, who goes by the nickname "King of the North" and is a leading figure in Jamiat-e Islami, a party which represents Afghanistan's Tajik ethnic group.

Noor had used his position in Balkh, on the northern border of the country, as a power base to push for a major role on the national stage and was seen as a top rival of Ghani.

While Kabul portrayed Noor's departure as a "resignation," he called it a "dismissal" and said he will fight the move.

"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."

Noor's Jamiat-e Islami party in a statement on social media strongly condemned what it called a "one-sided decision," saying it was "hasty, irresponsible, against the security ... and in contradiction of the principles of the national unity government."

A Jamiat spokesman in an interview with the German news agency dpa said it is possible party members will withdraw from their posts in the unity government, potentially destabilizing the government. He said the party would decide at a meeting on December 19.

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

Ghani's office said Noor submitted his resignation several months ago, but the move did not take effect until Ghani approved it on December 18, when he announced that Mohammad Daoud, also from Jamiat, will become the next governor of Balkh Province.

Noor, who has demanded senior positions in the government for some of his allies, said his resignation had been offered with conditions attached, but those conditions were not 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 United States and other Western nations.

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.

Noor's removal also comes at a time when tensions between Tajiks and Pashtuns, Afghanistan's two biggest ethnic groups, have been rising.

It heightens uncertainty ahead of a presidential election in 2019. Noor has previously hinted that he may run for the presidency, while Ghani has not yet said whether he will run again.

The confrontation with Noor comes several months after Vice President Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, fled to Turkey after he was accused of arranging the rape and torture of a political rival in 2016.

Noor recently called for Dostum's return. Earlier this year, he met in Turkey with Dostum as well as Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq, a senior figure in the mainly Shi'ite Hazara ethnic community, to form what they called the "Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan."

With reporting by AFP, dpa, RFE/RL's Afghan Service, and Reuters