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Newsline - February 6, 2004

An explosion in a Moscow subway car at about 8:30 a.m. local time on 6 February killed at least 30-50 people and injured about 150 more, Russian and international media reported. Conflicting reports on casualties and possible causes continued to emerge throughout the day. reported that the explosion occurred in a metro car carrying more than 100 people. Citing law-enforcement sources, the website reported that investigators believe the explosion was caused by a suicide bomber, perhaps a woman. A criminal investigation into charges of terrorism and murder has been opened, city prosecutors told reported that shortly before the blast, an unidentified man, aged 30-35, who appeared to be from the Caucasus approached a worker at the metro station nearest the explosion and said, "You'll get a holiday." NTV reported that the Federal Security Service (FSB) has taken over the investigation. RC

Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov on 6 February cut short a visit to the United States and returned to Moscow following the explosion that morning in the Moscow subway, and other Russian media reported. Security measures have been bolstered at airports, train stations, and other public places both in Moscow and throughout the country. In St. Petersburg, police patrols of the subway were redoubled, reported. RC

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's representative Akhmed Zakaev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on 6 February that neither Maskhadov nor the Chechen government (in which Zakaev is a deputy prime minister) bears any responsibility for the bombing. "Terrorism is not our method," Zakaev said. "There can be no justification for terror against the civilian population." He predicted that "Russian special services will very soon blame the Chechens for the Moscow metro explosion. But we are also convinced that sooner or later, as in the previous terror attacks, it will be discovered that the Russian special service were indirectly behind this appalling crime." Maskhadov has repeatedly ordered his fighters to observe the Geneva Conventions, not to target civilians, and not to launch any military activities outside Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2003). LF

Moscow's Meshchanskii Raion Court on 5 February convicted Vasilii Shakhnovskii, the former head of Yukos-Moskva and a key Yukos shareholder, of tax evasion and handed down a one-year prison sentence, Russian media reported. That sentence, however, was immediately suspended. Shakhnovskii was also acquitted of forging documents, Interfax reported. In handing down the sentence, Judge Irina Kolesnikova stated that Shakhnovskii no longer poses a danger to the public. Shakhnovskii, who was charged with failing to pay 29 million rubles ($1 million) in taxes in1998-2000, has consistently maintained his innocence. However, he paid off the tax bill, plus penalties, at the end of October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 January 2004). Paul Collison, an analyst with Brunswick UBS, said Shakhnovskii's relatively mild punishment offers a "glimmer of hope" that Yukos "is coming to some kind of agreement with the Kremlin," "The Moscow Times" reported on 6 February. Two other key Yukos shareholders, Menatep CEO Platon Lebed and former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii, are in prison awaiting trial on a variety of charges, and arrest warrants for several others have been issued. JB

Various Russian media expressed skepticism that the mild sentence for key Yukos shareholder Shakhnovskii means the authorities are easing up on the company. "Vremya novostei" noted on 6 February that while Shakhnovskii's jail term was suspended, people convicted of similar tax-evasion charges are generally only fined or given probation. The other accused Yukos shareholders, the paper wrote, face much more serious charges, and thus are much less likely to get off as easily. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 6 February quoted Interior Ministry sources as saying that the Prosecutor-General's Office on 2 February took over a criminal case involving the alleged embezzlement of assets from the Eastern Oil Company (VNK), for which Yukos manager Ramil Burganov has already been put on the international wanted list. According to the newspaper, the second main suspect in the case is Shakhnovskii, who got possession of 54 percent of VNK's shares in 1997 when he headed Menatep's Rosprom financial-industrial group. Investigators allege that shares in six VNK subsidiaries were transferred to offshore structures and then sold off. JB

Leonid Nevzlin, one of the Yukos core shareholders whom the Prosecutor-General's Office has put on the international wanted list, said in an interview published in "Novaya gazeta," No. 8, that he doubts the authorities will consider freeing Khodorkovskii. They "backed themselves into a blind alley the moment they took the political decision" to arrest Khodorkovskii, Nevzlin said. "They have no road back. What would a road back mean today? It would mean admitting that all of their actions to date have been illegal. Plus, you see, they are trying to widen the scale of this pogrom. Therefore I don't rate the chances of Khodorkovskii being freed, or the chances for a negotiation process or of [President Vladimir] Putin realizing his mistakes, as being high." After iterating his support for former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-Chairwoman Irina Khakamada's presidential bid, Nevzlin agreed with his interviewer's description that he has gone "on the warpath" against the Kremlin. He said, however, that he will use only legal and open methods. Nevzlin, who is currently in Israel, stands accused of tax evasion. JB

Viktor Cherkesov, chairman of the State Antidrug Committee (GNK), said on 5 February that he opposes criminal charges for drug abuse, Interfax reported. "I view that negatively," he told a press conference in Novosibirsk. "People who use narcotics often become a threat to society and commit crimes, [but] because of their condition they are not aware of their actions," Cherkesov said. "Drug addiction is an illness." Those who sell narcotics should be prosecuted, Cherkesov said, adding that drug abusers are responsible for 30 percent-40 percent of all thefts and robberies. GNK Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Fedorov told journalists in Moscow on 5 February that between 2.5 million and 4 million Russians, most of them under 30 years old, have used drugs, Interfax reported. There are fewer than 500,000 officially registered addicts in Russia, he added. Federov said the biggest problem areas are large cities in regions that are along trafficking routes from Afghanistan and areas where cannabis is grown, particularly in the Far East and Siberia. JB

A monument to former Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) General Secretary Yurii Andropov will be erected this year in Petrozavodsk, capital of the Republic of Karelia, to mark the former Soviet leader's 90th birthday, Interfax reported on 5 February. "For us, the figure of Andropov is doubly interesting, in as much as he was connected to our republic for more than 10 years," Karelian President Sergei Katanandov wrote in "Kurer karelii." Katanandov noted that Andropov was elected first secretary of the Karelian Komsomol's Central Committee in 1940 and became one of the organizers of the partisan movement during World War II. According to Katanandov, Andropov's later legacy, first as KGB chief and then as general secretary of the CPSU, is "complex, contradictory, and ambiguous, as was the period in which Yurii Andropov lived and worked." Still, "the contribution of this person is that he was the first to begin the fight against corruption and he tried to restore order and discipline in the country," Katanandov wrote. Andropov became CPSU general secretary in November 1982, and he died on 9 February 1984. JB

The Duma Council decided on 5 February that the full State Duma will consider an amendment to the constitution that would extend the presidential term in office from four to seven years, Russian media reported. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party holds the majority of seats on the Duma Council, which sets the agenda for the chamber. Ekho Moskvy reported that the bill has a number of supporters, including several governors and Duma Deputy Speaker and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 January 2004). Zhirinovskii commented that "world practice" confirms that seven years is the ideal term for a president, and a six-year term would be desirable for Duma deputies. JAC

Official reaction from other deputies and the presidential administration was negative. President Putin has said in the past that "we must do our best to ensure the inviolability of the constitution," ITAR-TASS reported. Aleksandr Kotenkov, presidential envoy to the Duma, commented that the president does not favor extending his term, and "I have not heard of him changing his position," NTV reported. Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies told RosBalt that the issue is being raised in the run-up to the 14 March presidential election so that Putin can prove to voters that he does not want to become another Josef Stalin. JAC

The Central Election Commission (TsIK) on 5 February announced that President Putin will not participate in televised debates prior to the 14 March election, Russian media reported. The previous day, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov said the party's presidential candidate, Nikolai Kharitonov, might withdraw from the race if Putin does not participate in a debate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2004). "Kommersant-Daily" suggested that the Communist Party might withdraw Kharitonov from the race, but the real reason is more likely his abysmally low polling ratings -- about 2-3 percent: "Another fiasco, following the December [State Duma] elections, in which the Communist Party got 13 percent of the vote, might have disastrous consequences for the party and its leaders." JAC

As requested earlier by the TsIK, the office of the Moscow city prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation against would-be presidential candidate and Motherland faction leader Sergei Glazev into charges that his campaign workers paid voters to sign petitions supporting his candidacy, RIA-Novosti reported on 5 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2004). The TsIK request came immediately following news reports about the alleged payments broadcast on state-controlled ORT and RTR television. At a Moscow press conference the same day, Glazev called on President Putin to stop using "black public relations" against him, reported. "Today, when the authorities have an [approval] rating of 80 percent, why spend millions of dollars on black public relations?" Glazev said. "What are you afraid of? This isn't 1996, when the election was dog against dog, and it's not 2000, when talk was about a successor to power." commented that Glazev appears to be doing everything he can to keep himself from being registered as a candidate. According to RIA-Novosti, Glazev also declared at his press conference that "Russia can and must challenge the new architecture of the world financial system, notably by turning the ruble into a global financial-reserve currency." Glazev then went on to blame the U.S. dollar for "crushing" the economy of Europe. JAC

Speaking at a press conference in Smolensk on 3 February, Education Minister Vladimir Filippov said an elective course on the basics of Russian Orthodox culture will be introduced in regions that desire such a program, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 5 February. The newspaper noted that when Filippov first floated the idea of such a course in 2002, a scandal ensued, as representatives of other religions criticized the plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2002). Critics claimed that although schools are free to choose whether or not to teach the course, those that adopt it can compel students to take it. According to Filippov, the textbooks for the new course will be developed by the regions themselves, reported on 3 February. JAC

Meanwhile, the eighth council of the Russian Orthodox Church has adopted a new code of moral principles and rules for business, which it is offering to corporate executives, employees, and trade unions, "Vedomosti" reported on 5 February. According to the daily, church officials are planning meetings with business leaders and state officials to ask them to endorse the document. Yevgenii Yuriev of Business Russia declined to speculate whether companies will accept the church's recommendations, but he acknowledged the church is playing an increasingly active role in society. Former National Strategy Council head Stanislav Belkovskii agreed, saying that the role of the church will only grow, and that "numerous business leaders are coming to understand" that the church can play the role of a mediator between business and government. JAC

In an interview with "Argumenty i fakty," No. 5, Igor Malashenko, former first deputy chairman of Media-MOST, said the new Russian-language television channel RTV International (RTVi), which belongs to former oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii, "is a projection of the future of Russian television." "We're not just thinking of the Russian diaspora," he said. "As in the days of NTV, we are broadcasting uncensored news, which will make its way to viewers in Russia sooner or later." Malashenko, who currently lives abroad, told the weekly that he "will definitely return" to Russia at some point. Last year, former TVS journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza and "Kukly" creator Viktor Shenderovich began producing replicas of their TVS programs for RTVi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 August 2003). RTVi broadcasts via satellite television, which is currently not well developed within Russia. JAC

Nine would-be candidates have met the deadline for submitting documents to the republican election commission for 14 March presidential election in Udmurtia, Volgainform reported on 4 February, citing "Novyi region." The hopefuls include incumbent President Aleksandr Volkov, republican legislator Mikhail Korochkin, Economic Center Deputy Director Mikhail Afansev, Astra insurance company Deputy Director Yurii Odinyankov, two doctors, and two unemployed men. "Kommersant-Daily" on 9 January reported, without reference to sourcing, that Volkov met with President Putin in December and has secured Putin's support in his bid for a second term. Also last month, presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko told reporters in Izhevsk that "in my opinion, the federal authorities properly appreciate Volkov, and I think the voters in the republic will appreciate him the same way" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2004). JAC

Mkrtich Minassian, a member of the 17-member People's Deputy parliament faction, offered at a 5 February press conference to mediate between the pro-government parliament majority and the opposition Ardarutiun and National Unity Party (AMK) factions that on 3 February announced a boycott of future parliament proceedings, Noyan Tapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 5 February 2004). Minassian defended the opposition's right to declare such a boycott, but at the same time stressed that opposition deputies have obligations to their voters. He also suggested that the majority should be more "flexible," and that all political forces should put domestic political stability above their own interests. Minassian rejected media speculation that members of his faction might be invited to join the three-party coalition government, commenting that "we don't need this feeding trough." LF

The Armenian government approved on 5 February a draft bill on compulsory military service that would abolish the existing system under which male graduate students may postpone their compulsory military service until they have completed their course of graduate study, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The rationale for abolishing the deferments is to crack down on corruption in higher education, as some prospective students are believed to pay bribes in order to enter graduate courses as a way of avoiding military service. LF

Ilham Aliyev met informally late on 5 February, the first day of his official visit to Moscow, with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the latter's Novo-Ogarevo residence, ITAR-TASS and reported. On 6 February, Aliyev held unscheduled talks with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Turan reported. Ivanov said the talks focused on military and military-technical cooperation and on measures "to improve the situation in the military field." Aliyev declined to comment. LF

Meeting in emergency session on 5 February, parliament approved in the first reading by a vote of 160 to nine constitutional amendments proposed by President Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgian and Russian media reported. The amendments reinstate the post of prime minister and empower the parliament to vote no confidence in the government, which must resign if two such votes are passed within a three-month period. The president in turn acquires the right to dissolve parliament if it fails to approve the draft budget, or in the event of a government crisis. Addressing deputies on 5 February, Saakashvili said the new model is based on those of Western Europe, especially France, according to Interfax. Saakashvili argued that "strong authority" is needed to extract Georgia from its present crisis, but denied that such authority is tantamount to dictatorship. Deputies from the Socialist, New Rightist, and Traditionalist factions condemned the proposed amendments, arguing that they pave the way for a dictatorship. LF

Koba Davitashvili, who resigned earlier this week from a leading position in President Saakashvili's National Movement, told journalists on 5 February that the proposed amendments are intended exclusively to strengthen the position of current Minister of State Zurab Zhvania, whom Saakashvili has said he will propose as prime minister, Georgian media reported. Davitashvili too predicted that the constitutional amendments will lead to authoritarianism and restrictions on freedom of speech, Interfax reported. He also told journalists that Saakashvili offered him the post of defense minister in return for dropping his objections to the proposed amendments, Georgian media reported. Davitashvili said that although he would have considered it an honor to serve in that post, he rejected Saakashvili's offer as he does not wish to be a minister in an "authoritarian regime." LF

At the weekly meeting of Georgian and Abkhaz government representatives and officers of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia and the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone, Russian peacekeeping commander Lieutenant General Aleksandr Yevteev formally protested the landing by helicopter in the conflict zone late on 3 February of Georgian Interior Ministry troops, ITAR-TASS reported. He pointed out that under an earlier agreement signed in Moscow, heavy weaponry is not permitted in the conflict zone. Yevteev said Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze's accusation that the Russian peacekeepers engage in smuggling is no more than attempt to discredit the peacekeeping force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004). Interfax on 5 February quoted U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi Richard Miles as praising the "positive role" played by the Russian peacekeepers in the Abkhaz conflict zone. LF

Abkhaz Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba met in Sukhum on 5 February with representatives of political parties, movements, and NGOs in a bid to end the political crisis triggered by demands by the opposition movement Amtsakhara for ailing President Vladislav Ardzinba's resignation, Apsnipress reported the following day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 January 2004). Khadjimba described the crisis as a struggle for power that could prove destructive for the unrecognized republic and its people. He expressed support for the idea of establishing a permanent consultative council on which political parties and movements are represented. The Abkhaz parliament is dominated by supporters of the present leadership. On 3 February, the Forum of National Accord, an umbrella organization encompassing the political movement Aitaira, the People's Party of Abkhazia, and several other organizations, issued a statement offering to work with the leadership to seek a solution to the present crisis, Caucasus Press reported on 4 February. LF

Jack Straw, who arrived in Kazakhstan on 5 February, told a news conference after his meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Astana that Britain will help Kazakhstan develop its small- and medium-sized-business sector so the country's economy will not be centered exclusively on the raw-materials sector, Interfax-Kazakhstan and reported. Straw noted that British firms have already invested heavily in the Kazakh oil-and-gas sector. As part of his 5 February program in Astana, Straw opened a representative office of the British Embassy and the British Council, and announced that the embassy itself will move from Almaty to Astana in the near future. BB

Having made seven changes to the text of the controversial draft law on the media, the Kazakh Senate sent the bill back to the Mazhilis (lower house) on 5 February for approval of the changes, reported. Information Minister Sauytbek Abdrakhmanov -- whose ministry drafted the bill, which has been sharply criticized by journalists and human rights activists on the grounds that it hands control of the media to the government -- told senators that the bill will not worsen the situation of the mass media in Kazakhstan, but merely regulate their activities. BB

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev issued a decree on 5 February removing Kurmanbek Osmonov from the post of justice minister, which he has held since January 2003, and reported. Osmonov retains the post of first deputy prime minister. BB

The representative of the European Union to the OSCE told the weekly meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Permanent Council on 29 January that the EU remains unhappy with the Kyrgyz Election Code, even after the recent adoption of changes by the parliament, Kyrgyzinfo reported on 5 February. In the view of the EU, the revised version does not meet international standards for free and fair elections, nor does it fulfill the country's OSCE commitments. The EU criticism noted that there are still some points in the legislation that could be used to limit the rights of citizens, candidates, and political parties to participate fully in the political process. BB

Maken Turdugulov, head of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry's investigations department, told journalists in Bishkek on 4 February that there has been enormous growth in the amount of drugs trafficked through Kyrgyzstan in the last five years, Kyrgyz-Press reported. More than 3.5 tons of narcotics were seized by law enforcement agencies in 2003 -- a seven-fold increase over 1999. Turdugulov said this is only 1 percent-2 percent of the actual drug flow via Kyrgyzstan. Turdugulov's remarks were part of his assessment of a 1999 law on fighting corruption and organized crime. He said the law is a failure not only because the drug trade is flourishing, but also because only one case has ever been filed under the law -- and that case was soon dropped. BB

Some 30 vendors launched hunger strikes in Vitsebsk earlier this week to demand that the city government put an end to what they consider to be unfounded seizures of merchandise, annul an ordinance prescribing that all stalls be equipped with cash registers, and shorten the list of goods subject to mandatory certification and registration with sanitation and hygiene authorities, Belapan reported. A meeting of small-business leaders in Minsk on 5 February decided that market vendors across Belarus will stage a one-day walkout next week to show their solidarity with the protesters in Vitsebsk. JM

Ukraine has bested Russian suppliers in bidding to supply Belarus with electricity this year, proposing a price of 1.60 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour versus a Russian bid of 2.15 U.S. cents, Belapan reported on 5 February. Belenerha, the government agency that controls Belarus's power grid, did not sign an electricity-supply contract for February with Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES) after the latter raised its price by about 30 percent (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 3 February 2004). "We lost that Belarusian deal," Oleg Saraev, general director of Russian state-run Rosenergoatom, which controls all nuclear-power plants in the country, told journalists in Moscow on 4 February. JM

Former Prime Minister Anatoliy Kinakh, head of the Ukrainian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, said on 5 February that the government's decision to use the Odesa-Brody pipeline to pump Caspian oil to Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004) and reject a temporary reversal of the flow, as suggested by Russia, was not based on any feasibility study, Interfax reported. Kinakh also claimed the government made its decision on Odesa-Brody without the relevant contracts with oil providers or oil consumers. Oleksandr Horodetskyy, the president of the TNK-Ukraine oil company, meanwhile called Russian-British joint venture TNK-BP's proposal to ship 9 million tons of crude annually in the pipeline's "reverse mode" -- from Brody to Odesa -- the only realistic offer on the immediate use of the pipeline, which has been idle since 2002. JM

The leaders of Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc filed a complaint against parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn with a Kyiv district court on 5 February, charging that Lytvyn approved an illegitimate vote on a constitutional-reform bill in the Verkhovna Rada on 24 December (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 January 2004), Interfax reported. Yuliya Tymoshenko told journalists that videotape of the 24 December session shows that the bill was supported by just 154 deputies, not the 276 deputies written in the official records. Moreover, Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have petitioned the same court to bring another case against Lytvyn for calling what they believe to be an illegal "extraordinary" parliamentary session on 3 February to vote on amendments to the same bill (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004), the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. Related petitions regarding the 24 December and 3 February votes have also been filed by Tymoshenko and Yushchenko with the Ukrainian Constitutional Court. JM

Juhan Parts and his Slovak counterpart Mikulas Dzurinda expressed their joint view in Brussels on 5 February that there should be no new EU-wide taxes imposed on member states, BNS reported. Parts and Dzurinda were speaking at a two-day congress of the European People's Party (EPP) as the chairmen of Estonia's Res Publica party and the Slovak Christian-Democratic Party, respectively. The European Commission is currently discussing three possible versions of a common EU tax, ranging from a component of value-added taxes across the EU to levying a fuel excise or corporate tax. Parts and former Hungarian Prime Minister and FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban, who is also a deputy chairman of the EPP, announced jointly that they will cooperate to ensure the rights and cultural development of Finno-Ugric people in Europe and Russia. SG

Prime Minister Einars Repse announced the resignation of his cabinet on 5 February, just one week after a junior member of the four-party coalition government withdrew to protest a high-profile dismissal, BNS reported. Repse added that his center-right coalition, reduced to a minority of 45 deputies in the 100-seat parliament when the Latvia's First Party (LPP) pulled out (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2004), will continue to work until a new government is formed. Repse said his New Era party made the decision unanimously and he has already informed President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and his ruling coalition partners about the decision. He noted that parliament's passage earlier that day of several bills, including a pay raise for teachers despite a lack of funds in the budget, made it clear that a minority government was unworkable. The parliamentary opposition had also announced that it would move no-confidence votes against Education and Science Minister Karlis Sadurskis and Interior Minister Maris Gulbis. SG

President Vike-Freiberga vowed on 5 February to begin the search for a new government immediately and stressed that the country will maintain its path toward EU and NATO membership, Reuters and local media reported the same day. "I will start looking for a new candidate already tonight," Vike-Freiberga told state television, according to Reuters. "The most important thing with a new government is that it is stable and can make sure Latvia will be ready to join the EU and NATO." Many commentators expect initial efforts to be aimed at a new center-right coalition. New Era's parliamentary leader, Krisjanis Karins, said Repse maintains party support and hopes to be asked to form a new government, Reuters reported. Repse, whose New Era pledged to stamp out corruption and inefficiency in the campaign that ushered it into power in 2002, narrowly averted an ouster by his coalition partners in September. Aside from New Era and the LPP, that coalition originally included the Union of Farmers and Greens and the conservative For Fatherland and Freedom. AH

Latvian lawmakers approved controversial amendments to the country's education law requiring that 60 percent of subjects in minority schools be taught in the Latvian language from 1 September, BNS reported. The vote came as an estimated 5,000 opponents of the reform, including many students of Russian schools, staged protests in front of the parliament building and presidential residence chanting slogans such as "No to reform!" and "Hands off Russian schools!" Under the new legislation, minority schools will have the right to choose the 40 percent of their curriculum that is taught in minority languages. In the second reading of the amendments, the parliament had backed even greater restrictions that allowed schools to teach only subjects pertaining to minority identities, culture, and language in minority languages (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2004). The planned reforms have led to sharp public exchanges between Russia and Estonia, roughly one-third of whose 2.3 million inhabitants are ethnic Russians. SG

Parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas told reporters upon his return from Budapest on 5 February that European Parliament President Patrick Cox expressed the hope that the issue of the possible impeachment proceedings against President Rolandas Paksas will be resolved by 1 May, when Lithuania and nine other countries are scheduled to join the EU, ELTA reported. Paulauskas was in Budapest for a meeting between Cox and the parliamentary leaders of the these 10 countries. Paulauskas said those parliamentary representatives were well informed about the political crisis in Lithuania and inquired when it is likely to end. SG

Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on 5 February that his ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) will support a motion to dissolve the lower house and call for early parliamentary elections if the Sejm fails to approve the fiscal austerity package known as the Hausner plan (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 27 January 2004), PAP reported. The SLD, which leads a minority coalition government, is seeking to ensure support for the Hausner plan from the Civic Platform, the largest opposition party in the Sejm. The "Gazeta Wyborcza" website ( reported on 6 February that Miller was scheduled to discuss the Hausner plan with Civic Platform leader Jan Maria Rokita later the same day. The Civic Platform reportedly wants the SLD to support the introduction of a 15 percent flat tax in exchange for the Civic Platform's backing. "Gazeta Wyborcza" predicted that the Civic Platform will not oppose the Hausner plan even if the SLD rejects the flat-tax idea. JM

President Vaclav Klaus decreed on 5 February that the Czech Republic will conduct its first-ever elections to the European Parliament on 11-12 June, CTK and dpa reported. The Czech Republic and nine other countries are expected to join the EU on 1 May. Political parties running in the elections must present candidate lists to the Interior Ministry by 6 April. MS

Far-right leader Miroslav Sladek announced on 5 February that he intends to run for a seat in the European Parliament, CTK reported. Sladek said his eponymous party intends to work in Strasbourg to defend Czech national interests and for the gradual abolition of the European Union. Sladek led the far-right Assembly for the Republic-Republican Party of Czechoslovakia (SPR-RSC) for nearly 11 years and prompted a number of scandals, including one in which he received a suspended prison sentence after attacking a public official. The SPR-RSC was dissolved after it went bankrupt, and Sladek later founded the Republicans of Miroslav Sladek. Sladek was deposed last week as mayor of Utechov, a district in the Czech second city of Brno. MS

The Austrian branch of the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft said in a statement released on 5 February that the recent move by President Klaus into an official residence confiscated from a German family under the Benes Decrees is proof that the Czech Republic has yet to come to terms with the injustices committed after World War II, CTK reported. The villa belonged to the Lippert family, owners of a successful Prague delicatessen. The family left Czechoslovakia after the war. Czech Television recently reported that the owners of the house were active members in the Nazi party. The villa is now owned by the Defense Ministry, which leased it to Klaus to use as his official presidential residence. MS

Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy told an informal cabinet meeting on 4 February that ministers who disagree with Finance Minister-designate Tibor Draskovics's austerity package (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004) should submit their resignation, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 6 February. At the meeting, ministers heard strategic ideas on the government's modernization program from two recently retained U.S. political-consultancy and strategic-research companies, Greenberg Carville Shrum and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. According to the daily, the cabinet also agreed that its new slogan be "We are building a modern republic." Medgyessy reportedly told his ministers that he expects a firmer government and a clearer political direction as Hungary prepares to join the European Union. MSZ

The European People's Party (EPP) on 5 February called on communist-era apparatchiks in acceding postcommunist countries to voluntarily withdraw their candidacies for EU political posts, the Hungarian daily "Nepszabadsag" reported. The initial proposal, which was drafted with the participation of Hungarian opposition deputy Jozsef Szajer (FIDESZ), proposed an outright ban on members of communist regimes holding EU office after their countries join the union in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004). Szajer told "Nepszabadsag" that his proposals to establish a European research and documentation center, as well as an independent experts committee that would gather evidences of illegal acts committed under communism, were included in the EPP resolution. FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban, who is an EPP deputy chairman, remarked at the same party meeting in Brussels that "there are sentences in the resolution which, if I were to read them out, I would qualify at home [in Hungary] as a far-right radical," the daily reported. MSZ

A public-opinion poll on Holocaust awareness in Hungary suggested that just 2 percent of the adult population in that country is well informed about the Holocaust and 16 percent is totally uninformed, "Nepszabadsag" and "Magyar Hirlap" reported on 6 February. The survey was commissioned by the Holocaust Documentation Center and conducted by private polling agency Szonda Ipsos. Some 26 percent of respondents were unable to attribute any specific meaning to the notion of the Holocaust. While 90 percent had heard of Auschwitz, just 40 percent had heard of the Dachau concentration camp. The best-informed respondents are in the 26-35 and 36-45 age groups, while those aged over 45 and those in the 18-25-year-old bracket know least about the Holocaust. The survey was conducted on a representative sample of 1,000. MS

The U.S. State Department said in a statement on 5 February that it is concerned that a new Serbian government supported by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) will be unstable and unable to lead Serbia toward reform and Euro-Atlantic integration, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). The statement noted that "the Socialist Party is officially still led by...Milosevic, who brought untold suffering to the Balkan region and who currently is in prison in The Hague on charges of genocide and other war crimes." Washington expects Belgrade to carry out internal reforms and cooperate fully with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, the State Department added. The statement stressed that U.S. "relations with the new Serbian government will depend on the actions it takes. We want to see Serbia succeed. We want to help Serbia integrate into Euro-Atlantic structures to create a Europe whole, free, and at peace." PM

"The New York Times" reported on 6 February that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters traveling with him to Munich, Germany, that he and other NATO defense chiefs will soon "discuss a timetable for withdrawing all NATO troops except a small headquarters unit from Bosnia and replacing them with forces from the European Union." The report added that unnamed "Pentagon officials said that could happen later this year, leaving a total of about 1,500 American troops in Bosnia and Kosovo" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January, and 4 and 5 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September and 19 December 2003). Munich's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" reported that unnamed French, German, and other European officials are unhappy that the United States wants to keep a NATO headquarters in Bosnia to apprehend indicted war criminals and combat terrorism. According to the German daily, Paris and Berlin want the EU to be in complete control of the Western security presence in Bosnia and not subject to any U.S. control. PM

Beginning on 1 May, the Macedonian Interior Ministry will take over several aspects of frontier security from the Defense Ministry, officials of the two ministries announced on 5 February, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. The newly formed border police will first take control of Macedonia's borders with Bulgaria and Greece, while the army will hand over control of the borders with Serbia and Montenegro and Albania at an unspecified later date. The transfer of authority will be completed by December 2005, according to General Zoran Jovanovski of the Interior Ministry, who was speaking at the start of a training course for 250 members of the border police at the Idrizovo police academy. Advisers from the OSCE will help conduct the training course. UB

The cabinet on 5 January debated in draft form two legislative initiatives prompted by recent calls by Europarliamentarians to suspend accession talks with Romania, the daily "Ziua" and Mediafax reported. International adoptions are to be allowed only as a "last option" in the event no adoptive parents can be found in Romania, according to one of the bills. Adoption agencies would be denied any role in the process of international adoptions and no exceptions to the law's provisions would be allowed once it comes into force. The moratorium imposed on adoptions in 2001 allows for exceptions under extraordinary circumstances. AP reported on 5 February that once the moratorium is lifted, parliament will establish a special committee to approve any international adoptions. The government also debated a bill on the protection of children's rights. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase meanwhile ordered the National Anticorruption Prosecution (PNA) to launch an investigation into all international adoptions approved in the last 10 years. MS

The British daily "Financial Times" reported on 5 February that the European Commission is investigating Romania's awarding of a $2.5 billion contract to U.S.-based Bechtel to build a 450-kilometer highway between Brasov and Oradea. The "Financial Times" reported that Bucharest-based EU diplomats have complained that no tender was offered for the contract and the selection process lacked transparency. It quoted a senior European Commission official in Bucharest as saying that "the whole affair stinks." The diplomat warned that the case threatens Romania's chances of being granted the status of a "functioning market economy" by the EU, and that Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen is reportedly examining the case. A spokeswoman for the Transportation Ministry and Bechtel representatives have denied that the process lacked transparency, Mediafax reported. The spokeswoman said the contract was awarded under a emergency government ordinance, following an agreement signed in Bucharest between the United States and Romania. MS

The National Liberal Party (PNL) on 5 February officially designated former Prime Minister Theodor Stolojan as its candidate for the fall presidential elections, Mediafax reported. Stolojan said the PNL-Democratic Party alliance must win the parliamentary and presidential elections "in order to demonstrate that Romania is capable of having moral leaders who do not act for the benefit of [their own] political parties." He said that, if elected, he will "not endanger Romania's chances of being admitted to the EU, as is now the case," and that he intends to "represent [as president] all Romanians and restitute their self-confidence and pride in being Romanian." MS

Romania posted a trade deficit of 5.9 billion euros ($7 billion) in 2003, overshooting the government's 4.6 billion euro target by a wide margin, AFP reported on 4 February. The deficit marked a 40 percent leap from the 2002 deficit of 3.98 billion euros. Concern over the trend recently led the National Bank to impose measures designed to curb consumer credit, which is seen as a major reason for the 34.4 percent rise in imports last year. In measures announced last week, consumers must prove that they can provide down payment of 30 percent for products they wish to purchase on credit. MS

Prosecutor-General Valeriu Balaban asked parliament on 5 February to lift the political immunity of Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca, his deputies Vlad Cubreacov and Stefan Secareanu, and PPCD parliamentary deputy Valentin Chilat, Flux reported. In his request, Balaban accuses the four lawmakers of "organizing [in late 2003 and early 2004] unauthorized demonstrations and the illegal picketing of the Russian Embassy and of Moldovan television." Cubreacov countered that the accusations are "additional proof of the authorities' subservience to the Russian Federation." He said the rallies near the Russian Embassy resulted from Moscow's failure to abide by its obligation to withdraw troops from Transdniester as well as the planned federalization of Moldova. "We realize that the move comes in the wake of demands raised by the Russian Embassy and by the Foreign Ministry in Moscow," Cubreacov said. MS

In response to PPCD Chairman Rosca's latest appeal for Moldova's anticommunist forces to unite, Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean said on 5 February that Rosca is the last person who has a right to speak about morality in politics, Infotag reported. Rosca recently said the unification of the country's anticommunist forces is not only a political, but a moral necessity. Urechean said he wished to remind the PPCD chairman that it was he who had betrayed the trust of former President Mircea Snegur, with whom Rosca formed the Democratic Convention of Moldova (CDM) in 1996. Urechean said Rosca personally precipitated the breakup of the CDM by joining the Party of Moldovan Communsits (PCM) on key votes, including the antidemocratic amendment to electoral laws, and is ultimately responsible for the PCM's sweeping victory in the 2001 parliamentary elections. MS

Moldova recorded year-on-year GDP growth of 6.3 percent in 2003, Infotag and dpa reported. The strong performance was nonetheless lower than the 7.8 percent the government projected for 2003. MS

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai signed the new Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan into law on 26 January. Present at the signing ceremonies and sitting next to Karzai was the frail former monarch of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zaher, who in 1964 signed his own constitution for the country.

Those members of the international community that have backed the process of Afghanistan's emergence from years of foreign intervention, civil war, and despotic rulers have rightfully welcomed the new Afghan Constitution as a guideline with which the country can reemerge as a nation-state.

Strictly from a textual point of view, the new Afghan Constitution represents a good starting point for the country on its path of forming a pluralistic, inclusive society in which, in due time, true democracy can be fostered. However, as the history of constitutionalism in Afghanistan sadly illustrates, the texts of most of the six previous constitutions that have been promulgated did not truly reflect the aspirations of the majority of the people of Afghanistan.

It can be argued that most of the previous constitutions, to varying degrees, were drafted and passed without much input from the Afghan masses. Thus, past constitutions fell victim to intrigues and manipulations of various centers of power that viewed them as threats to their status.

Two days after the adoption of the new constitution, a group of about 20 Loya Jirga delegates headed by Abdul Hafez Mansur claimed that the document signed into law by Karzai does not exactly conform to the draft agreed upon by the Loya Jirga. Mansur, a member of the religiously conservative Jamiat-e Islami and one of the staunchest supporters of a parliamentary system, said that "the constitution which was signed by [Karzai], if it is carefully read...compared to the constitution approved and ratified by delegates to the Loya Jirga has changes." Mansur claimed to have personally "discovered more than 15 changes."

The Constitutional Commission rejected Mansur's charges, stating that some misunderstandings might have occurred because delegates to the Loya Jirga were handed a draft of the constitution on the night of 3 January before the assembly made final changes to the document. Kabir Ranjbar, head of Afghan Lawyers Association, said on 29 January that while the draft of the constitution approved by the Loya Jirga, has indeed been altered, these "changes do not affect the content of the constitution and are not something to be taken seriously." Ranjbar suggested that people "should not discredit the document or lessen the interest of the people regarding the document and regarding its enforcement."

While Ranjbar's suggestion that people ought to regard the new Afghan Constitution as a whole as a good framework for Afghanistan to move ahead is valid and ought to be heeded, the history of the country has illustrated that even constitutions that were formulated with the good of the nation in mind, were forward-looking, and were approved in appropriate fashion became tools for the dissenters, who sought to derail the overall process of state building. As such, the wording of the new Afghan Constitution should leave no room for misunderstanding, and the process through which it was adopted should have been very transparent. Any lingering opacity or perception of foul play about the constitution will make the already difficult task of implementation an even thornier undertaking.

Analysts have consistently drawn attention to the potential dangers of the constitution's Article 3. Article 3 of the draft constitution stipulated that "no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam," and the values enshrined in the constitution. In the approved version of the constitution, Article 3 was amended to read, "In Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." Omitted in the final text is the reference to the values enshrined in the constitution.

Even before Karzai signed the new constitution into law, controversy over the vagueness of Article 3 sparked controversy between the conservative Islamists and the more moderate, secular-oriented forces in Afghanistan.

The controversy began when the state-owned Afghanistan Television surprised its prime-time viewers on 12 January by showing a decades-old film clip of a poplar female Afghan singer. The broadcast marked the first time since the mujahedin took control of Kabul in 1992 that a female singer was displayed on official Afghan television. Immediately, conservative Islamists cried out that this presentation was against the code of Islam.

Nevertheless, Information and Culture Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin said that songs by female Afghan singers would continue to be broadcast on Afghanistan Television, adding that the new constitution affords men and women equal rights, including in the arts. However, another member of Karzai's government, Deputy Chief Justice Fazl Ahmad Manawi, called the broadcast of female singers an act against the provision of the new Afghan Constitution. Karzai, while supporting the broadcast of female singers, rather ambiguously allowed room for more debate on the matter. He stated that "Afghanistan has had women singing in the Afghan radio and television for now over 50-60 years," and people have welcomed the broadcasting of women singers on television. However, Karzai gave the Islamists room to maneuver by adding that all sides "have to work in the context of today's cultural and social environment and do whatever is suited for that."

Commenting on the issue of the broadcasting of female singers, a Herat-based publication wrote that "as the guardian of Islamic values and the constitution," the Afghan leader "should use his power to prevent any action that contravenes Islamic laws and values and, as a consequence, fulfill his responsibility for Islam, religion, and society."

The problem of Article 3 stems from the fact that those who pushed for a presidential system were forced to concede something to the political camp led by the former mujahedin leaders, who initially favored a parliamentary system. The role of Islam in the Afghan Constitution, which many observers predicted would cause much controversy, did not cause significant open debate at the Loya Jirga. This could partly be due to the fact that as a compromise for accepting a strong presidential system, the mujahedin leaders won concessions on various matters related to the role of Islam in the new constitution. This trade-off resulted in the added provision that no law in Afghanistan could be "contrary to the beliefs and provisions" of Islam.

This very significant clause basically gives the official and nonofficial religious leaders in Afghanistan the right to question every action that they might deem contrary to their beliefs, which by extension and within the Afghan cultural context, could be regarded as "beliefs" of Islam. The use of preemptive symbolic language to secure a relatively smooth approval of the new Afghan Constitution may create problems in the future.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai appointed Amrullah Saleh on 5 February to head the country's intelligence service, known as the National Security Directorate, Afghanistan Television reported. Saleh's appointment came one day after Karzai dismissed Mohammad Aref Sarwari from that post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004). AT

Deputy Interior Minister Hilalludin Hilal questioned the validity of a claim made by Karzai that 10 or so civilians were killed in a U.S. air strike on 18 January in the central Afghan province of Oruzgan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January and 2 and 4 February 2004), AP reported on 6 February. Hilal said members of his ministry who traveled to the area where the air strike occurred saw six graves, not 11, as has been claimed. The villagers told the investigating team that five other victims "fell into the river and were swept away," Hilal told AP. Hilal claimed that Karzai was told "all of this." "The Taliban want to make propaganda against the Americans," Hilal said, adding that militants have been active in the area and "are coming and going in this region, and the people are afraid of them." The commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Lieutenant General David Barno, on 3 February rejected the Afghan report cited by Karzai, maintaining the initial U.S. claim that five militants were the only people killed. AT

The director-general of Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Department, Mirwais Yasini, warned that the international community needs to recognize that Afghanistan cannot tackle the increase in opium production alone, AFP reported on 6 February. Yasini estimated that Afghanistan -- the world's largest producer of opium poppies -- requires around $300 million to stem poppy growth. Currently the United Kingdom, as the international community's lead country in combating narcotics in Afghanistan, has pledged to contribute $128 million over the next three years for the effort, AFP noted. "This is not an issue one country can do on its own," Yasini said. "We would like the whole international community to help us." Yasini warned that militants, such as neo-Taliban, earn an estimated $100 million-$200 million a year from the drug production. Moreover, "heroin addiction is increasing day by day in Afghanistan," Yasini said. AT

Afghan Deputy Minister of Agriculture Mohammad Sharif met with Israeli Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Mikhael Ratzon on the sidelines of an economic conference in New Delhi on 4 February and asked for Israel's help in boosting Afghan know-how in the agricultural sector, Tel Aviv daily "Ma'ariv" reported the next day. Sharif reportedly told Ratzon that Afghans have heard about Israel's technological innovations in the sector and would like to invite a team of Israeli experts to visit Afghanistan and send an Afghan delegation to Israel to learn new techniques. If the plans materialize, it will mark the first time "that Israeli official elements openly visit Afghanistan," "Ma'ariv" commented. The report added that the two countries have no diplomatic relations, adding that Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom received a letter from his Afghan counterpart Abdullah Abdullah in 2003 requesting support for his country's bid for membership in UNESCO and signaling Afghanistan's desire to tighten relations and cooperation with Israel. However, no noticeable progress in bilateral relations has followed, "Ma'ariv" added. AT

Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati told a 30,000-person meeting of members of election supervisory boards on 6 February that subsequent to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's 4 February decree, a number of previously disqualified prospective candidates for the 20 February parliamentary election were reinstated, ISNA reported. "The supreme leader asked the Guardians Council to approve a number of [the candidates] to serve the expedience [of the system] and, as usual, we followed his order," Jannati said. "As far as the expedience allowed us, we approved a number of the candidates." Jannati said the review ended "last night" but did not reveal how many people were reinstated. Parliamentarian Mohammad Jahromi said on 6 February that the Guardians Council has reinstated 200 candidates, including 12 incumbent parliamentarians, Fars News Agency reported. As of 5 February, the Guardians Council had approved only 51 of 600 candidates who were cleared by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), ISNA reported. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and parliament speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi reportedly followed up on the situation regarding the remaining 549, because Jannati was reportedly supposed to reinstate all of them. BS

The Armed Forces General Command Headquarters on 5 February issued a communique supporting Supreme Leader Khamenei's 4 February speech about the upcoming elections, ISNA reported. It termed his remarks about the elections "the final word on all the evil doubts and murmurs that have been calling for a delay in, or the suspension of, the elections. It was an ultimatum to all officials in charge of political and administrative affairs in the country as well as those responsible for the administration of the elections." The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) on 5 February called on people to vote and thereby display the system's "power, stability, and unity," state television reported. The supreme leader's speech, according to the IRGC, crushed both the system's enemies and those affiliated with "foreign circles." The Basij Resistance Force also encouraged voters, state television reported. IRGC deputy commander Brigadier General Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr told a memorial ceremony in Karaj that "the 22 Bahman rally [commemoration of the revolution's annniversary] and the [20 February] elections are a form of jihad and struggle," ISNA reported. "Through their extensive participation in the election, as in the past 25 years, people will prove their loyalty to the system and the Guardian Jurisconsult [Vilayat-i Faqih]," he added. BS

Iranian government officials will participate in the 40th Munich Conference on Security Policy ( on 7-8 February, IRNA reported on 5 February. Developments in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East will be discussed during the conference, Deutsche-Welle reported on 5 February. All NATO defense ministers will be in attendance, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Iranian participation in last year's conference and the possibility of Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's attendance led to speculation that he and Rumsfeld might discuss Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 February 2003). Kharrazi did not attend the event, however, and U.S. officials acknowledged at the time of the February 2003 conference that they met with their Iranian counterparts in Geneva in January of that year to discuss Iraq and to reassure them that Iran would not be targeted. BS

The families of three Iranian diplomats and a photojournalist who have been missing since 1982 have accompanied Foreign Minister Kharrazi on his current trip to Lebanon (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 5 February 2004), and the families' official spokesman expressed confidence that their fate will finally be revealed, "The Daily Star" reported on 6 February. Spokesman Raed Musavi, the son of Charge d'Affaires Seyyed Mohsen Musavi, said, "I strongly believe my father will return alive very soon." Musavi, diplomats Ahmad Motevaselian and Taqi Rastegar-Moghaddam, and IRNA photojournalist Kazem Akhavan disappeared after they were stopped at a Lebanese Forces roadblock. Raed Musavi said he received a piece of his father's shirt from the Lebanese Forces with his father's writing on it in 1985, and in 1992 he spoke with a Palestinian human rights activist who claimed to have spoken with Musavi several times in Israeli jails. Musavi added that in 1992 former Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea confirmed his organization kidnapped the Iranians but said that only security official Elie Hobeika knows what happened to them. Hobeika said before his death in January 2002 that the Iranians were killed a few days after being captured, "The Daily Star" reported on 5 February. BS

International media reported on 5 February that Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani survived an assassination attempt in the holy city of Al-Najaf earlier the same day. A security aide to al-Sistani reportedly told Reuters on 5 February that "at 10 o'clock this morning, gunmen opened fire on Ayatollah al-Sistani as he greeted people in Al-Najaf, but he was not hurt." Iraqi Governing Council member Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i of the Shi'ite Al-Da'wah Party visited al-Sistani later the same day, and told Al-Jazeera television afterward that al-Sistani was in good health. Al-Rubay'i declined to answer questions regarding the reported incident. There was no confirmation of the purported attack on al-Sistani's website (, only a note reassuring the public that al-Sistani "is well and in very good health." KR

A number of individuals as well as the most powerful Shi'ite political party in Iraq have dismissed reports of an assassination attempt on al-Sistani, according to 5 February media reports. In a 5 February statement, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) claimed: "We have contacted the office of [al-Sistani] in Al-Najaf and it transpired that the report is a lie and the whole issue is fabricated and baseless," AP reported. Meanwhile, al-Sistani's representative in Karbala, Shaykh Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i, called the reports unfounded, Beirut's Al-Manar television reported on 6 February. "I personally called al-Sistani's office in Al-Najaf, which categorically denied such reports," he said. Asked about a report that an individual was arrested on 5 February at al-Sistani's office after attempting to carry out an undisclosed act, al-Karbala'i said he could not confirm the report. However, he added, "arresting someone does not mean that there was an assassination attempt." KR

U.S. and Iraqi forces have reportedly captured more than 100 anti-coalition militants in Iraq during raids on 4 and 5 February, AP cited U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt as saying on 5 February. Among those captured in the raids were former Iraqi Brigadier General Abu Aymad al-Tikriti, who headed military intelligence in northern Iraq for the Hussein regime, and Majid Ali Abbas al-Dazi, who is suspected of coordinating a suicide truck bombing in Samarra on 24 January that killed four Iraqi civilians and wounded some 40 others. Kimmitt said the number of daily attacks against coalition forces has risen this week to 24 per day, compared with 18 per day during the previous week. KR

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director George Tenet in a 5 February statement at Washington's Georgetown University defended his agency's prewar assessment of Iraq's proscribed weapons capabilities, international media and the CIA website ( reported. Tenet said his analysts "never said there was an 'imminent' threat" from Iraq's suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs. "Rather, they painted an objective assessment for our policymakers of a brutal dictator who was continuing his efforts to deceive and build programs that might constantly surprise us and threaten our interests," he said. "No one told us what to say or how to say it," he added, dispelling media reports that the agency was under pressure to conclude that Iraq constituted a threat in its prewar assessment. Tenet added that his analysts reached their conclusions on Iraq through three "streams of information": Iraq's history of building and procuring WMD programs; the UN's inability -- and the Hussein regime's refusal -- to account for all of Iraq's weapons; and post-1998 intelligence gathered through human agents, satellite photos, and communications intercepts. He said that the Iraq Survey Group is "nowhere near the end of our work in Iraq," adding, "we need more time." KR