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Cheney: Al-Qaida preparing for more Afghan assaults

Taliban and al-Qaida fighters are regrouping in Afghanistan after the recent end of the biggest ground offensive of the war and are expected to try to mount attacks against U.S. troops there, Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday.

"We saw a coalescing of a group in the area where we launched Operation Anaconda a couple of weeks ago and very successfully eliminated a big chunk of the al-Qaida," Cheney said.

"There are still al-Qaida scattered around Afghanistan. There are, I'm sure, going to be efforts by them to try to organize themselves enough so that they can launch an attack at least on our forces in Afghanistan. We see intelligence to that effect," he said on CNN's Late Edition.

The war effort will continue "for some considerable period of time," the vice president said. "There's a temptation, I think, because there's not an active bombing campaign under way on any particular day, for people who want to run out and say, well, it's over with. It's not. This is a long-term commitment."

While Osama bin Laden has eluded capture, Cheney said he thinks the al-Qaida network leader is in Afghanistan or across the border in Pakistan _ if he is alive. "But we don't know," Cheney said.

The vice president said the United States would work to ensure that Afghanistan does not deteriorate into another "sanctuary for terrorists." Some parts of the country have again been carved up by warlords, as was the case before the Taliban took control.

For example, the governor of an eastern Afghan province demanded that U.S. Special Forces hand over several rival Afghan allies who allegedly opened fire Sunday on the region's security chief, killing a bodyguard and wounding two others before reportedly fleeing into an American compound.

Afghan authorities said the assailants were believed to have been allies of the United States and took refuge in the Americans' fortified airport compound. There was no U.S. confirmation.

The security chief of Khost province, Sur Gul, escaped injury in the attack, the latest in a series of violent incidents in the area involving rival Afghan groups, according to Hazratuddin, intelligence chief of Khost.

Khost, in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, is a volatile city, bristling with men with guns and carved into areas controlled by warlords. Most of the city is under the control of U.S.-backed warlord Bacha Khan Zardran, but within Zardran's group there are rival factions.

Many Afghans in Khost blame the rising tension there on the United States for having recruited warlords as allies in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida. The warlords are paid for their services _ something that has triggered clashes among Afghan groups eager to win support and patronage from the Americans.

"It's going to very difficult for us to view in the near term Afghanistan as a perfect spot," Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the U.S. war effort, said on NBC's Meet the Press.

"After the war between the Afghans and the Soviets, there was a general sense that the outside world walked away. We can't do that again," Cheney said on NBC.

President Bush has made it clear that U.S. forces would "stay as long as possible until we've wrapped up our mission of eliminating al-Qaida and making certain that we've dealt with the terrorist threat that emerged in Afghanistan," Cheney said.

In Tampa, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Navy Cmdr. Frank Merriman, said al-Qaida has suffered a series of defeats but is far from having been wiped out. Pockets of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are believed to be hiding in Afghanistan and Pakistan, waiting for the right moment to strike.

"They are a worldwide organization," Merriman said. "There very well may be other terrorist acts in the planning process, and our goal is to try to disturb and eliminate as many of those as we can."

In other developments:

+ The United States has moved Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack planes to the Bagram air base, the Washington Post reported on its Web site Sunday. The report said it was the first time fixed-wing aircraft have been stationed inside Afghanistan. The planes, used in combat this month, are designed to attack armored vehicles and provide close air support for ground missions.

+ Afghanistan's minority Shiite Muslims celebrated their holiest holiday Sunday for the first time since the Taliban's ouster _ free to openly practice their ritual of self-flagellation.

The Feast of Ashura commemorates the death in 680 of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. The killing led to the split in Islam between Shiites and Sunni Muslims.