TAJIKISTAN'S civil war is being fought mostly on the southern arid plains of this former Soviet Central Asian republic.
But at the heart of the conflict is an air-conditioned office in the Tajik capital, complete with a fax machine, cordless phones, and plush sofas.
The office at Dushanbe's central mosque belongs to Haji Akbar Turajonzoda, the spiritual leader of the predominantly Muslim republic. Sitting behind a massive wooden desk, Mr. Turajonzoda described the fighting in the southern Kurgan-Tyube region of Tajikistan as a struggle between communism and Islam.
"The Communists want to close mosques ... and persecute mullahs," he said in an interview. "This kind of war has to be classified as a jihad [holy war]."
Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in December, the pro-Communist forces have been battling a democratic-Islamic coalition to determine the political future of Tajikistan. Early in September the coalition gained the upper hand by forcing the resignation of President Rakhman Nabiyev, a former Communist Party boss. Mr. Nabiyev was replaced by an interim government under Parliament Speaker Akbarsho Iskandarov.
Despite the recent setbacks, the conservative forces continue to fight, fearing the Islamic-dominated coalition could overpower Mr. Iskandarov's fragile government and establish a fundamentalist regime.
Turajonzoda, who is not technically a leader in the coalition, played down speculation about fundamentalism, calling it "scare-tactics" designed to get Russia and other states to prop up the flagging Tajik Communist partisans.
Islamic forces, Turajonzoda insisted, are fighting to establish a secular, democratic government. The ultimate goal is the revival of Islam, he said, but added that will take time because more than 70 years of Communist rule in Tajikistan has destroyed the people's religious awareness.
"Our society isn't prepared to live according to Islamic law," he said. "We've strayed far from Islam over the past 70 years.
"We will become an Islamic state, but it will take 40 to 50 years. We have to train a new generation," he continued. "Introducing any ideology by force is a mistake."
Foreign political observers in Dushanbe echo Turajonzoda's view that fundamentalism will have a difficult time taking root in Tajikistan. Nevertheless, they add, the nation's domestic instability leaves it open to meddling by radical Islamic elements in Afghanistan and Iran - countries with close cultural links to Tajikistan.
"Tajikistan is troubled waters in which they can fish," says one Dushanbe-based diplomat, referring to Afghanistan and Iran. He says that radical Afghan leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is the most prominent figure promoting the fundamentalist cause in Tajikistan, providing weapons and military training to the coalition forces.
Mr. Hekmatyar is getting involved in Tajikistan not only to spread fundamentalism but also to help him in the domestic political struggle raging in Afghanistan, suggests Fazel Akhmed Tugyon, political adviser to Gen. Rashid Dostum. The general is the leader of the Uzbek militia in Afghanistan and Hekmatyar's bitter political foe.
A loose coalition in Afghanistan, including General Dostum's Uzbek militia and the predominantly Tajik group under Afghan Defense Minister Ahmed Shah Masood, have repeatedly blocked Hekmatyar's attempts to grab power since Islamic mujahideen forces overthrew the Communist regime in Kabul last April.
Hekmatyar is attempting to stir up hatred between Tajiks and the large Uzbek minority in Tajikistan, hoping the hostility will spill over into Afghanistan and shatter the coalition opposing him, Mr. Tugyon says.
At the same time, Iran is also trying to expand its fundamentalist influence in Tajikistan, aiming to "find an ally, or get a foothold in Central Asia," the diplomat says. Iran already wields significant influence over Turajonzoda and the rest of Tajikistan's Islamic leadership, he claims.
Turajonzoda denies that Afghan and Iranian officials are influencing events in Tajikistan. In addition, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Maleki dismisses the notion that Tehran is encouraging fundamentalism in Dushanbe, adding that it is natural for Iran to provide assistance to Tajikistan because of the two nations' similar traditions and language.
"Tajikistan needs a strong government now, and that will take the participation of all groups [in the democratic-Islamic coalition]," Mr. Maleki says.
The alleged involvement of Afghanistan and Iran in the conflict in Tajikistan has prompted other Central Asian leaders, such as Uzbekistan's hard-line president, Islam Karimov, to call for United Nations peacekeepers to be deployed in the region.
Russia, which has military units in Tajikistan, also has voiced concern about the possibility of a fundamentalist government in Dushanbe.
Even if radical Iranians or Afghans, were able to bring fundamentalism to Tajikistan, however, it would be difficult for them to spread it to other Central Asian nations, foreign observers say. The cultures of the other Central Asian nations - Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - have Turkish origins; Tajikistan's roots are Persian.
"Turkmenistan possibly could accept fundamentalism, but in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan ... the fundamentalists would have a hard time," the diplomat says.
"What [Uzbek President] Karimov is really afraid of is penetration of Gulbuddin [Hekmatyar] into his republic," the diplomat added. -PATHNAME- /usr/local/etc/httpd/plweb/DBGROUPS/paper/database/tape/92/sep/day30/30101.