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Powerful Afghan Governor Defies Government, Refuses To Leave Post

Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh Province, speaks during an interview in Kabul in January.
Atta Mohammad Noor, governor of Balkh Province, speaks during an interview in Kabul in January.

One of Afghanistan's most powerful regional politicians has vowed to defy 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 minority.

But Noor, addressing several thousand people on December 23 at a gathering in the provincial capital, Mazar-e Sharif, said he would continue to serve as governor.

"I have said many times that no one can remove me with a decree," he said.

Noor also criticized his former ally, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who is also a leader of Jamiat-e Islami.

Noor called Abdullah "a snake up everyone's sleeve," accusing him of weakening his own party.

"Your teeth will not sink into us," Noor said, referring to Abdullah. "We will break your teeth."

Noor has 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.

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 national-unity government, formed after the 2014 election forced him into an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with Abdullah, retains the support of the United States and other Western 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.

Noor's showdown with Kabul 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 presidential elections 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 ToloNews and Khaama

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