Visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai was scheduled yesterday to wrap up his talks with US President George W. Bush on the deteriorating security situation in his country after raising eyebrows by describing US nemesis Iran as more friend than foe.
Karzai, one of Bush's key allies, also revealed that attempts to track down terror mastermind Osama bin Laden had shown no progress in years.
The drug trade, economic development and the fate of 21 South Korean hostages held by the Taliban were likely to be high on the agenda during discussions at the Camp David presidential retreat.
But Karzai, who rose to power in 2002 with US backing, introduced a potential wrinkle in the talks with some friendly public comments about Iran, considered by Washington a major threat to global stability.
In an interview broadcast on Sunday on CNN, Karzai appeared to turn back US allegations that Iranian arms were helping to erode the security situation in Afghanistan.
"So far, Iran has been a helper and a solution," he said of Afghanistan's powerful neighbor to the West.
"Iran has been a supporter of Afghanistan in the peace process that we have and the fight against terror and the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan," Karzai said in the interview that was conducted on Saturday.
He said Afghanistan and Iran had "very, very good, very, very close relations."
His remarks differed markedly from the US stance, which sees Iran as a major menace that bankrolls "terrorists," supplies arms to insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq and seeks to develop nuclear weapons.
The US position was reiterated on Sunday by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she defended the US decision to sell tens of billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to thwart Iranian ambitions.
"I don't think anybody doubts that Iran constitutes a major challenge, security challenge, to our friends, our allies and therefore to our interests in the Gulf region," Rice said on CBS television.
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who just returned from a Middle East swing with Rice, said in response to Karzai's comments that Iran was "playing both sides of the street in Afghanistan."
"I think they're doing some things to help the Afghan government," Gates told CNN. "I think they're also doing things to help the Taliban, including providing weapons."
The White House earlier said Bush and Karzai would discuss Washington's war on terror and "review their work together to enhance Afghanistan's long-term democracy, prosperity, and security."
Karzai also indicated that security forces were no closer than they were a few years ago to finding bin Laden, the elusive chief of the al-Qaeda network.
"We are not closer, we are not further away from it. We are where we were a few years ago," Karzai said.
"I definitely know he cannot be in Afghanistan," he said. "Where he is is a question I cannot answer at this point."
When asked by CNN about Karzai's downbeat assessment, Gates said: "We're working the problem ... We are dedicating significant resources to trying to find him."