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KABUL (Reuters) - One of the main parties behind Afghanistan's Western-backed government warned President Ashraf Ghani that it could withdraw its support unless he reversed the dismissal of one of its most powerful regional governors this week.
The warning from the Jamiat-e Islami party came after Ghani removed Atta Mohammad Noor as governor of Balkh, a strategic northern province bordering Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbours Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Describing the dismissal as a "unilateral decision" by Ghani, Jamiat's leadership called into question the legitimacy of the unity government formed after a disputed presidential election of 2014.
"If the presidential palace does not reconsider its one-sided action which is misusing the presence of the international community, Jamiat-e Islami will nullify the national unity government agreement and will employ all options to defend the legitimate rights of the people," the party leadership said in a statement.
The man named as Atta Noor's replacement, Mohammad Daoud, also from Jamiat, said he would not take up the position until the situation had been resolved. "I want to stay out of it for now," he told Reuters.
The standoff adds to an already clouded political climate in Afghanistan, where the United States has announced a stepped-up military effort to break a stalemate with the Taliban and force a settlement to 16 years of conflict.
Long-delayed parliamentary elections, officially scheduled for next year, are now in doubt and an array of political leaders both inside and outside the government are positioning themselves ahead of a presidential election in 2019.
Ghani's government retains strong international backing but has faced increasing pressure from opposition groups and debilitating tension within its ranks between allies of Ghani and government Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, a senior Jamiat leader.
However, Jamiat is itself divided and it remains unclear what approach will be taken by Abdullah, who was Ghani's rival in 2014 before taking the specially created post of chief executive in a U.S.-brokered power-sharing deal.
Abdullah, who has regularly clashed with Atta Noor, has made no public comment on his dismissal.
The move to oust Atta Noor, one of a group of powerful regional strongmen, followed calls from politicians including former President Hamid Karzai for a loya jirga, or grand assembly of elders and political leaders to discuss the future of the government.
This month, Atta Noor was prevented from attending a meeting in the southern city of Khandahar to discuss the loya jirga proposal.
As the political uncertainty has deepened, tension between Pashtuns and ethnic Tajiks, Afghanistan's two largest ethnic groups, as well as others including ethnic Uzbeks and the mainly Shi'ite Hazara minority, have worsened.
Many in Jamiat, a mainly northern, ethnic Tajik party, see Ghani as a Pashtun nationalist bent on concentrating power in his own office while Jamiat's own opponents see the party as a base for old-style warlords who undermine national unity.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and James Mackenzie; Editing by Robert Birsel)