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Newsline - February 28, 2006

Aleksandr Kalugin, who is Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's special envoy for the Middle East peace process, said in Moscow on 28 February that a delegation from Hamas will hold talks at the Russian Foreign Ministry on 3-4 March, Interfax reported. He added that "Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov is due to chair the negotiations.... I do not rule out that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet" with the visitors. "Everybody is telling Hamas that it should take a balanced approach because [its current] radical principles will not take it anywhere. We also will advocate changes in Hamas's approach at the meeting with its representatives," the diplomat said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 17 February 2006). PM

The Natural Resources Ministry and the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, or RosAtom, announced in Moscow on 27 February a $10 billion program for a 600 percent increase in the annual production of uranium by 2020, "The Moscow Times" reported. The plan involves expanding production at investment-starved existing mines, primarily in the Krasnokamensk region in Chita Oblast, as well as developing new fields at Elkonsky Gorsk in south Sakha, in Buryatia, and elsewhere in eastern Siberia. The Moscow daily quoted some Russian and foreign experts who suggested that the plan is too ambitious or wondered where the $10 billion will come from. The state nuclear fuel-exporter Tvel pays domestic producers only $17.30 per pound of yellowcake, although the world market price is about $27.30. Russia inherited about 80 percent of the nuclear industry of the Soviet Union but has only about half of the uranium ore it needs to make fuel to power it. It also has obligations to supply uranium to the military and to foreign partners. Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads RosAtom, recently announced a plan to greatly expand the construction of nuclear power facilities, which Russia also seeks to export (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 and 31 January and 2 February 2006). PM

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov announced in Moscow on 27 February that he is forming a liberal political and social movement with the backing of Irina Khakamada of Our Choice and several other veteran politicians, Russian media reported. He added that the movement will hold a congress within six weeks to choose a name and draft a program. In December 2005, he lost a bid to win the leadership of the small Democratic Party, which is Russia's oldest liberal party and was widely seen as his potential springboard for the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 December 2005). PM

Moscow prosecutors continued their investigation on 28 February into the killing of Ilya Zimin, an investigative reporter with the news channel NTV, who was found dead by a professional colleague two days earlier amid signs of violence in his apartment, RFE/RL's Russian Service and Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006). Prosecutor Anatoly Zuyev told that it is possible that Zimin knew his killer, since there were no signs of a forced entry to the flat. Zuyev added that he has placed his best detectives on the case and is supervising it personally. Zimin's colleagues at NTV refused to speculate about the killing but noted that he had told several people that he had saved much money to buy an apartment. The colleagues did not know of any death threats against him. RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed "source in the investigation team" as saying that "the investigators have reconstructed the crime and established the identity of an individual who may have killed...Zimin." The source added that the motive for the murder was probably personal and that a hunt for the suspect is under way. PM

Kyrgyzstan's Consul Tolon Turgunbaev told RFE/RL in St. Petersburg on 28 February that Russian prosecutors are investigating the recent killing of Kyrgyz migrant worker Ainur Bulekbaeva and the injuring of her colleague, Gilfuz Babaeva. Unidentified assailants reportedly attacked the two women with knives as they were returning home. PM

Aleksandr Koptsev, who is charged with attempted murder, causing premeditated bodily harm, and inciting racial or religious discord in conjunction with his stabbing of eight people at a Moscow synagogue on 11 January, pleaded not guilty in a Moscow court on 28 February, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 January 2006). He cited anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in his defense. If convicted, Koptsev could face life in prison. PM

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov told a press conference in Moscow on 28 February that Prime Minister Sergei Abramov, who was injured in a car crash three months ago, has submitted a letter of resignation, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2005). Alkhanov said Abramov's health does not allow him to resume his duties. Alkhanov declined to predict who might succeed Abramov, during whose absence First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov has acted for him. Kadyrov has rejected as misplaced media speculation that he is in line for the post should Abramov not return to Grozny, saying he does not aspire to the premiership. In an interview published on 3 February in "Rodnaya gazeta," No. 4, Abramov said that he is recovering from his injuries, and he declined to comment on reports of his impending resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). LF

Alvaro Gil-Robles, who is the Council of Europe's outgoing Commissioner for Human Rights, visited the Chernokozovo prison colony in northern Chechnya on 25 February, where he met with Vakhit Murdashev, an aide to slain Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, ITAR-TASS reported. Gil-Robles said conditions at Chernokozovo have improved since his last visit there five years ago. Gil-Robles told journalists in Grozny on 25 February after meeting with Alkhanov that he considers "senseless" the decision to bar the Danish Refugee Council from continuing its aid program in Chechnya in retaliation for the publication in Danish newspapers of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). Acting Prime Minister Kadyrov told journalists in Grozny on 26 February that Gil-Robles raised the issue with him earlier that day and that the ban will be lifted; he added that he and Gil-Robles would meet with police and security officials to discuss protection for the aid workers, Interfax reported. On 27 February, Gil-Robles told a conference on human rights in Moscow that he conveyed to both Alkhanov and Kadyrov his impression that police and security officials in Chechnya are partly responsible for the continuing wave of abductions in Chechnya, and he called for measures to put an end to such crimes, Interfax reported. LF

Several dozen people, who have been evicted from houses in Yerevan's Buzand Street, congregated on 27 February outside the Armenian Parliament to protest the withdrawal by six parliamentarians of their signatures under an appeal to the Constitutional Court, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The street is being demolition to make way for a new multimillion dollar development. A total of 32 parliament deputies initially signed the appeal, more than the minimum required of 27, but six of them, including deputies representing the ruling coalition, withdrew their signatures on 20 February following criticism from Prime Minister Andranik Markarian. Some of the evicted families have filed suit against the Armenian government with the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights, claiming that they have not been offered adequate recompense for the loss of their homes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 June, 12 September, and 13 October 2005). LF

Former Health Minister Ali Insanov was transferred during the night of 25-26 February from a pre-trial detention facility to a village medical center, reported on 28 February quoting one of Insanov's lawyers. Insanov is reportedly suffering severe back pains. He was dismissed and arrested last October on suspicion of embezzlement and of plotting with exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership. His health has since deteriorated to the point that he can reportedly walk only with crutches; his bail request has been refused (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5, 17, and 30 January and 8 February 2006). LF

Djamil Gasanli, who is deputy chairman of the progressive wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (AHCP), has collected from the Central Election Commission his formal mandate as a member of parliament elected on 6 November, and reported on 28 February. Gasanli was one of three AHCP members elected from the opposition Azadliq bloc. Azadliq split earlier this month after four members of the Musavat party, who likewise won election, chose to participate in the work of the new parliament in violation of an agreement adopted jointly by all three Azadliq member parties to boycott the new legislature. The move was in protest against alleged falsification of the outcome of the 6 November vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006). LF

A poultry farm in Kilyaz has been quarantined following the discovery of an unspecified number of cases on avian influenza, reported on 27 February. It is not clear whether the fowl in question succumbed to the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, which was detected earlier among wild birds. LF

Georgia's parliament endorsed on 28 February the state of emergency imposed by President Mikheil Saakashvili two days earlier in the Khelvachauri district of Adjara in response to the discovery of bird flu there, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006). Also on 28 February, Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli told the cabinet that the outbreak has been contained, Caucasus Press reported. Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili similarly affirmed that the disease has not spread beyond the village of Adlia, and that 1,605 fowls have been culled in the vicinity. Finance Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili said the government has not yet debated the possibility of paying compensation for culled poultry; some farmers have reportedly refused to slaughter their chickens. LF

During talks in Sukhum on 25 February, Georgian and Abkhaz government representatives reached agreement on all issues related to the resumption of rail communication between Russia and Armenia via Abkhazia's Black Sea coast and Georgia, Caucasus Press reported on 27 February quoting Abkhaz Prime Minister Leonid Lakerbaya. Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin said on 25 February that a joint venture will be established to attract the investments required to finance repairs and renovation of the rail line, which has been in disuse since the outbreak of the 1992-1993 war. The cost of doing so has been estimated at between $100-150 million. LF

Georgian National Bank President Roman Gotsiridze has written to the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force (FATF) asking for an investigation into unnamed Russian commercial banks whose branches in Abkhazia he claims engage in money laundering, Caucasus Press reported on 23 February. But on 28 February, quoted Abkhaz National Bank Chairman Illarion Argun as rejecting Gotsiridze's accusations as "a political provocation." Argun said that there are no foreign banks, either Russian or from other countries, operating in Abkhazia. Gotsiridze's allegations that Russian banks in Abkhazia engage in money laundering date back to last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May, 3 June, and 19 December 2005). LF

Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov announced at a briefing in Astana on 27 February that Erzhan Utembaev, head of the administration of the Senate (upper chamber of parliament), ordered the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev out of "personal enmity," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Utembaev has been arrested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2006) in connection with the killing of Sarsenbaev, whose body was discovered on 13 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 February 2006). Mukhamedzhanov said that the kidnapping and actual killing was carried out by five rogue members of the National Security Committee's Arystan special-forces unit and that Rustam Ibragimov, a former law-enforcement officer, oversaw the whole operation, which included the killing of Sarsenbaev's bodyguard and his driver, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Mukhamedzhanov said that Utembaev took out a $60,000 loan from a bank to pay for the killing, Kazinform reported. All of the suspects are in custody and, according to Mukhamedzhanov, are testifying to their involvement in the crime, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. DK

Mukhamedzhanov also said that police have arrested two "informants" who were involved in Sarsenbaev's killing, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He said that Aslan Sadykov was arrested on the morning of 27 February, while Alimzhan Gadzhiev, an Interior Ministry employee, was arrested on 26 February. Mukhamedzhanov described the two men as "informants"; they presumably provided those responsible for the crime with information about the victims. DK

At the same 27 February briefing, Mukhamedzhanov called for an effort to clean up law-enforcement agencies in light of the involvement of members of a special-forces unit in Sarsenbaev's killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2006), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "After such a crime, we should take decisive steps to put things in order in the National Security Committee [KNB], the Interior Ministry, and other law-enforcement agencies," he said. KNB head Nurtai Dutbaev has already stepped down in the wake of the killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2006). DK

Mukhamedzhanov denied press reports that Rakhat Aliev, deputy minister of foreign affairs and President Nursultan Nazarbaev's son-in-law, was involved in the Sarsenbaev killing, reported. Responding to a question, Mukhamedzhanov said, "Information about the involvement of Rakhat Aliev in this crime is inaccurate." Several press reports in Kazakhstan have linked Aliev to the killing, citing anonymous sources. In an interview with "Ayna-Plyus" on 23 February, former KNB officer Arat Narmanbetov said that Aliev provided the "inspiration" for the killing. DK

Tolegan Zhukeev and Amirzhan Kosanov, representatives of the opposition group For a Just Kazakhstan, told a news conference in Almaty on 27 February that the organizers of an unsanctioned 26 February rally to commemorate Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006) have received orders to appear in court, Navigator reported. They said that several For a Just Kazakhstan activists received notices on the evening of 26 February. For a Just Kazakhstan activist Marzhan Aspandiyarova told Deutsche Welle that activists who have received similar notices in the past could face criminal charges and up to 15 days in jail. DK

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the leader of For a Just Kazakhstan, said on 27 February that he doubts the initial conclusions of the official investigation, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. "It's difficult to believe that Altynbek Sarsenbaev wrote something that Utembaev didn't like," Tuyakbai said. "The problem is, how were all those confessions made by those who allegedly now say that they were involved in the murder. Unfortunately, [in Kazakhstan], those who confess to murder, often have nothing to do with it. I am afraid we are seeing that practice in this case." DK

Omurbek Tekebaev officially resigned from his post as speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament on 27 February, reported. Parliament, which had previously failed to confirm his resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006), accepted Tekebaev's decision, with 53 legislators voting in favor, reported. Tekebaev initially offered his resignation after referring to President Kurmanbek Bakiev as a "dog" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). Tekebaev said that his final decision to resign came after two days of consultations with the heads of committees and voting blocs. Bakiev's office issued a statement on 27 February saying that the president will not interfere in parliament's efforts to elect a new speaker, reported. Deputy speaker Bolot Sherniyazov also resigned on 27 February. DK

Turkmen fisherman on the Caspian Sea have seen groups of 30-50 dead birds in the bay of Turkmenbashi harbor and Karabogazgol Gulf in recent days, Deutsche Welle reported on 26 February, citing a sailor on a Turkmen fishing boat. A source in the Turkmen veterinary services told Deutsche Welle that the Turkmen authorities are not taking any special measures to determine whether the birds died as a result of avian influenza. The report identified the birds as migratory fowl. On 24 February, reported that residents of Uzbekistan's Khorezm province, which borders on Turkmenistan, have heard from relatives living in nearby regions of Turkmenistan that a number of people there have recently died of unexplained causes. Those who died were reportedly involved in raising poultry. DK

George W. Bush met in the White House on 27 February with Iryna Krasouskaya and Svyatlana Zavadskaya, whose husbands disappeared in Belarus in 1999 and 2000, respectively, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "This intended to underscore our concern about the Belarusian government's conduct leading up to the [presidential] election [on 19 March], harassment of civil society and the political opposition, and failure to investigate seriously the cases of the disappeared," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "We realize perfectly well that this election will not be free or fair, that we will be faced with yet another so-called 'elegant' victory [of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka], but today we need support and help from the outside like air. We should continue working for the future," Zavadskaya said at a news conference immediately after the meeting in the White House. JM

"Gazeta Wyborcza" in Poland, "Lidove noviny" in the Czech Republic, "SME" in Slovakia, and "Magyar Hirlap" in Hungary on 27 February published cartoons lampooning Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a move of solidarity with satirists in Belarus who have been banned and harassed by authorities. "We'll show the president of Belarus that laughter is the weapon of democracy," "Gazeta Wyborcza's" headline said. Last year Belarusian prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into a series of satirical Internet cartoons created by activists of an association called Tretsi Shlyakh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2005). Fearing arrest, some of those activists have fled abroad. JM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous political bloc, said on a television channel on 27 February that she harbors no "presidential ambitions," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. "Under the new constitution [that came into effect on 1 January], the president has practically lost all of his powers," Tymoshenko added. She stressed that she would like to return to the post of prime minister, from which she was dismissed by President Viktor Yushchenko in September 2005. Speaking about her attitude to the current cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, Tymoshenko said she is "close to being in opposition" to it. "I cannot say that I am in opposition, but I don't approve of much of what the government is doing," she said. According to a poll held by the Sotsiovymir Sociological and Political Research Center from 19-24 February, Tymoshenko is the most trusted politician in Ukraine, with 22.4 percent of respondents declaring confidence in her and 22.1 percent distrusting her. JM

The European Union on 27 February gave Belgrade until the end of March to arrest and extradite war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic or face "disruption" in its cooperation with Brussels, international news agencies reported the same day. "It is high time Serbia reached full cooperation with ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] that should lead to the arrest and transfer of Ratko Mladic," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said, according to Reuters. "That is the way to avoid a disruption of negotiations, to avoid them being put on hold." Rehn added that if Mladic is not arrested by the end of March, a planned EU meeting with Serbian officials scheduled for April could be "put on hold," dpa reported. BW

Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said on 27 February that there is no excuse for the delay in arresting top war crimes fugitives, Hina reported the same day. Speaking in Brussels, Draskovic said that while he does not know where Mladic is, he is certain he is being protected by members of former President Slobodan Milosevic's deposed regime. "Those are the forces of the former regime who fear the European future of Serbia and who can rule only in an isolated Serbia," Draskovic said. He added that there is no justification for "the dramatic delay" in arresting Mladic. "Today we got the message that we must fulfill that obligation immediately, and I hope we will do it soon," he said. BW

The Serbian parliament on 27 February unanimously adopted a government report calling for Kosova to remain part of Serbia, Hina reported the same day. Addressing lawmakers, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said Belgrade's negotiating team for UN-backed talks on Kosova's final status has two goals: to keep Kosova in Serbia and to help Serbs remain in Kosova. "We cannot and must not do one thing and that is to allow the establishment of another state within our state that would break away a part of our territory," Kostunica said. He added that Belgrade is prepared to negotiate with Kosovar Albanians over "substantial autonomy" for the province. The next round of final-status talks for Kosova is scheduled for 17 March. BW

Kosova's ruling coalition on 27 February reached an agreement on who will have the right to name the province's first interior and justice ministers, dpa reported the same day. The largest party, the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), will name the interior minister while the Alliance for the Future of Kosova (AAK) will name the justice minister. The LDK will name its candidate for interior minister next week, the party's deputy head Ekrem Kryeziu said. AAK spokesman Ernest Luma said his party will name Prishtina University law professor Jonuz Salihaj as justice minister. In December, the UN Mission in Kosova allowed the Kosovar government to take over the interior and justice portfolios (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2005). BW

In opening arguments in a landmark civil suit, Bosnia-Herzegovina accused Serbia and Montenegro on 27 February of state-sponsored genocide, saying Belgrade put non-Serbs on a "path to hell," Reuters reported the same day. "The armed violence which hit our country like a manmade tsunami in 1992...destroyed the character of Bosnia and Herzegovina and certainly destroyed a substantial part of its non-Serb population," Bosnia's lawyer Sakib Softic told the International Court of Justice in The Hague. "The Belgrade authorities have knowingly taken the non-Serbs of Bosnia and Herzegovina on a path to hell, a path littered with dead bodies, broken families, lost youths, lost future, destroyed places of cultural and religious worship," he added. The case is scheduled to run until 9 May and a binding ruling is expected by the end of the year. Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus accused Bosnia of seeking a financial windfall from the case. "This is not about the truth, this is about $100 billion of war reparations. I think that this is all playing with fire," B92 quoted Labus as saying. BW

Bosnia's Veterinary Administration said on 27 February that two of the four swans found dead in Bosnia-Herzegovina have tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian-influenza virus, dpa reported the same day. The birds were found at Malo Plivsko Lake near the western Bosnian town of Jajce on 17 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). An EU laboratory in Weybridge, England, confirmed the presence of the lethal H5N1 strain in tissue samples from two of the swans. Jozo Bagaric, the head of Bosnia's Veterinary Administration, said that 4,500 poultry within a radius of 3 kilometers around the lake were culled, as were a flock of swans that authorities believed brought the disease into the country. The area around the Malo Plivsko lake was also disinfected, Bagaric said. BW

Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha said on 27 February that Tirana supports Croatia's efforts to expand the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), Hina reported the same day. Berisha made his comments after talks in Tirana with his Croatian counterpart Ivo Sanader, who is in Albania for a two-day visit. "CEFTA member states are Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, and as of today, Macedonia," Sanader said. "And I hope that Albania, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Moldova will be admitted to the organization soon," he said, adding that a summit meeting on CEFTA's enlargement could be held this spring. BW

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been widely praised for his role in staving off a major sectarian split in Iraq since the 22 February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. While the cleric has taken a leading role in calling for unity and calm, he has at the same time rallied Iraqis to demonstrate against the presence of multinational forces in Iraq.

Al-Sadr has spent much of the past two months on a regional tour aimed at reshaping his image into that of a peacemaker, visiting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. He cut his stay in Lebanon short to return to Iraq following the Samarra bombing.

Throughout his regional tour, al-Sadr portrayed himself as a defender -- saying his militiamen would fight to defend Iran if it were attacked by the United States -- and mediator -- volunteering to broker peace between Syria and Lebanon.

The cleric, who by all accounts is not seeking a position for himself in the incoming Iraqi government, has argued that relations between Iraq and its neighbors have been damaged by the war in his country. At home, al-Sadr supporters, who ran as part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list in the December legislative elections, are moving to the fore of politics. Thirty-two of them will sit in the new parliament.

Al-Sadr's men in parliament will push for a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq. And it is likely they will elicit the UIA's support for their cause. The UIA will have 128 seats (including al-Sadr's 32 supporters) in the 275-seat chamber.

The recent increasing tensions between U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the UIA could lead to strong support within the alliance for the initiative. The tensions with Khalilzad arose after al-Sadr supporters helped push through the nomination of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to be the faction's candidate as prime minister after the new legislature convenes. The Kurds and Sunni Arabs -- and according to some accounts the United States -- preferred another Shi'ite contender, Adil Abd al-Mahdi. Al-Mahdi lost an internal UIA poll to al-Ja'fari by just one vote.

Al-Sadr has worked hard to align his movement with some Sunni Arab groups -- in particular the Muslim Scholars Association -- over the past three years as part of his goal of driving multinational forces from Iraq and establishing an Islamic state there. But time and again, he has proven that his alliances only last as long as they suit his needs.

The behavior of his militiamen in recent days leaves little question about their true intentions. According to media reports, militiamen from al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army hurried to protect Sunni Arab mosques in Baghdad and other cities following the retaliatory attacks last week. But as the days wore on, militiamen informed Sunnis that they were seizing many of the mosques, claiming that they were originally Shi'ite mosques that were handed over to Sunnis by former President Saddam Hussein.

Al-Sadr militiamen did the same in 2003, which the cleric defended. When questioned about such seizures in September 2003, he said: "They [the mosques] were ours. Saddam Hussein stole them from us and we have taken them back. If the Sunnis want to come and pray here, they can do so on [the] condition that they will follow a Shi'ite imam in prayers. We are the majority and the majority must be respected." According to media reports, at least some, but likely not all, of the mosques have been returned to Sunnis since then.

This time, al-Sadr reportedly scolded his followers for trying to seize mosques. Parliamentarian and al-Sadr supporter Qusay al-Suhail told RFE/RL on 27 February that reports of mosques being seized were grossly exaggerated.

According to Western media, al-Sadr militiamen have also engaged in other acts of violence against Sunni Arabs in recent days, including the burning of mosques, the killings of clergy, and attacks on civilians. There are also reports that Shi'ite militiamen -- some of them aligned with al-Sadr -- have driven Sunnis from some mixed Muslim communities.

One al-Sadr aide claimed that the militiamen have even "arrested" some Sunnis, reported on 26 February. Sahib al-Amiri claimed the detainees will be handed over to the government. In 2004 al-Sadr was found to be operating a makeshift court in Al-Najaf, with mutilated bodies and torture machines allegedly discovered.

Militiamen from the Al-Mahdi Army reportedly freely patrolled the streets of Baghdad over the past several days while the rest of the city remained under tight curfew, which in itself demonstrates the power of the militia. Shi'ite-dominated government forces apparently made no attempt to control the movements of the militiamen, either out of fear or loyalty -- perhaps a little of both.

On the street level, al-Sadr is using the tensions to generate a mass campaign for the withdrawal of multinational forces, a movement he hopes the government will be unable to ignore. Building on statements made by Sunni and Shi'ite leaders in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, al-Sadr told his followers on 26 February that terrorism in Iraq is rooted in the presence of foreign troops there.

The cleric's calls for national unity are directed at binding Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs together against the United States and the international coalition. The first step in this will be the holding of a joint Sunni-Shi'ite demonstration against multinational forces in Baghdad in the coming days. By rallying the two sects, al-Sadr hopes to force Iraq's political leaders to call for an accelerated withdrawal of multinational forces.

Speaking to supporters in Al-Basrah on 26 February, al-Sadr blamed the United States for the 22 February bombing of Shi'ite shrines in Samarra, saying Washington's goal in Iraq is to turn Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs against one another. He claimed the United States has turned Ba'athist and Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents "into a weapon for the annihilation of the Iraqi people, [a weapon against] stability and independence."

"The U.S. troops withdrew from the site [of the Golden Mosque] so that it could be blown up," al-Sadr alleged. Saying that Iraq's enemy is trying to stir up sedition, he asked his followers: "Do you want to back the enemy...? Do you want to back the occupier who is dismembering our homeland and killing our sons?"

"At first it was an Islamic war on the crusaders [multinational forces], but the war went from being waged on the crusaders to being waged among Muslims themselves," al-Sadr claimed. Referring to Shi'ite criticisms of calls by U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad for a national-unity government, al-Sadr told his followers: "Whether the U.S. ambassador leaves [Iraq] or not, what will that do if the head of the snake remains here? Cut off the head of the snake, then the entire evil will go away." He demanded that multinational forces leave Iraq, saying "the evacuation of the occupiers is the most important prerequisite for achieving security in Iraq."

Addressing reports of British soldiers torturing Iraqis in Al-Basrah, the cleric said, "We got rid of Saddam only to have it be replaced by another dictatorship, the dictatorship of Britain, America, and Israel."

Al-Sadr last attempted to incite resistance to the international coalition through his newspaper, "Al-Hawzah," in 2004. That move prompted the Coalition Provisional Authority to shut the publication down. The situation in Iraq is very different today, and it is unlikely the Shi'ite-led government would have the power or the resolve to take action against al-Sadr for inciting violence. Most likely, the cleric will continue to operate with impunity.

As Iraq straddles the line between unrest and civil war, the actions of al-Sadr in the coming days will have a major influence on the direction the country takes. A call to arms by the cleric would be nearly impossible for the Iraqi government to contain. For multinational forces already battling a thriving insurgency, it would prove an unwelcome challenge.

The situation is calming in a siege at the Pol-e Charkhi Prison on the outskirts of the Afghan capital following riots on 26 February, RFE/RL's Afghan Service reported. At least four people were killed and many injured, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006). Responding to a prisoners' demand, the National Assembly's Council of Elders speaker Sebghatullah Mojaddedi negotiated with the prisoners to allow the wounded and dead to be evacuated from the prison. "I have held detailed talks with the prisoners. Their demands are reasonable. For example, they have complaints against prosecutors, judges, and the prison officials and about being jailed for no reason," Mojaddedi said after visiting the prisoners, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on 27 February. But Mojaddedi described some of the prisoners' demands as "inappropriate," without providing details. According to Mojaddedi, the prisoners have ended their hunger strike and "will soon end their revolt." Among the four bodies handed over to officials were two foreigners, from Pakistan and Tajikistan. Food and water was given to the prisoners. In addition to his speaker position, Mojaddedi also serves as the chairman of the Commission for National Reconciliation, which is trying to end the neo-Taliban insurgency by inviting militants to make peace with the Afghan government. The riot in Pol-e Charkhi was reportedly initiated by neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners. AT

In an editorial titled "Judiciary, A Hope For The Oppressed" published on 25 February, "Outlook" wrote that "the whole Afghan nation...commended" the judiciary for handing down a death sentence to Asadullah Sarwari on 25 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006). Sarwari oversaw the AGSA, the intelligence service of Afghanistan's communist ruler Nur Mohammad Taraki in 1978-79. Writing that an "efficient judiciary" is the backbone of a country, "Outlook" adds that one "of the captivating verdicts" of Afghanistan's judicial system was sentencing Sarwari to death on the "charge of mass killing." According to "Outlook," Afghans are now "looking forward for some more trials of this type," as there are many others "who should be held accountable for their" crimes against humanity. The commentary suggests that no one should be "treated with discrimination" when it comes to enforcement of "law and order in the country." Sarwari's case may have opened a Pandora's box for Afghanistan in which people who were in positions higher than Sarwari are accused of committing grave crimes and some of these people are currently in high positions, including in the National Assembly (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 28 November 2005 and 16 January 2006). AT

A Moroccan national identified only by the initials "B.A." has reportedly told Moroccan investigators that he received funds from Iranian officials for his attempt to cross into Afghanistan, the Casablanca daily "Al-Sabah" reported on 27 February. B.A., who is suspected of having links with a Moroccan organization called Al-Tawhid wa'l Jihad, was deported from Syria to Morocco where he is awaiting trial on criminal and terrorism charges. B.A. has said that after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States he traveled to Iran in order to cross into Afghanistan, where he had hoped to join Al-Qaeda terrorists. However, in compliance with an order by Osama bin Laden that foreign fighters should return to their home countries, he tried to go back to Morocco through Syria, where he was arrested and deported to Morocco. B.A. claims that during his stay in Iran he received $1,000 from Iranian officials managing a guest house in Mashhad for volunteers intending to cross into Afghanistan. AT

A series of bombs struck the southwestern province of Khuzestan on 27 February, Iranian news agencies reported. IRNA reported two bombings, in Abadan and Dezful. In both cases, the bombs were placed in the restrooms of government offices. Fars News Agency reported a third, in Molashieh, near the city of Ahvaz. There are conflicting reports on casualties. Abadan parliamentarian Abdullah Kabi said that the incident in Abadan injured one person, ISNA reported. IRNA reported that four people were wounded in the attacks. However, IRNA also quoted Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Purmohammadi as saying on 27 February that the blasts did not cause any casualties. Purmohammadi said the bombers were connected with the persons behind deadly bombings in Ahvaz in January, and he cited claims by the Ministry of Intelligence and Security that foreign governments were linked to those bombings. Abadan legislator Kabi said the United States and Britain are involved, ISNA reported. There have been a number of violent incidents in the province since spring 2005. According to the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, local prisons are "overflowing" due to a crackdown on local opposition activists and tribal leaders. BS

Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, secretary-general of the International Conference to Support the Palestinian Uprising (Intifada) series, confirmed on 27 February that the next conference will be held on 14-16 April, Mehr News Agency reported. Tehran hosted the conference in 2001 and 2002. He also said, according to IRNA, that Iran will provide financial support for the Palestinian Authority. The United States and Israel have asserted, since Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in late January, that they will not fund a Hamas-led government until the organization renounces the use of violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. BS

An anonymous member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team said on 27 February that Tehran expects a positive report from International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei, IRNA reported. In a confidential report on Iran's nuclear program obtained by AFP, the IAEA reportedly says that Tehran has been less than cooperative and that the agency is not ready to conclude that undeclared nuclear activities are not taking place in Iran. "It is regrettable and a matter of concern that the...uncertainties related to the scope and nature of Iran's nuclear program have not been clarified after three years of intensive agency verifications," AFP quoted the report as saying. However, the report gives Iran an opportunity to provide more information The report was produced for the IAEA's board of governors and will be forwarded to the UN Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions on Iran. The report also says that Iran plans to build 3,000 centrifuges and is setting up "process tanks and an autoclave" to feed gas into the centrifuges, a process that would enable Iran to go beyond small-scale uranium enrichment. The report said Iran plans to start installing the centrifuges in the last three months of 2006. BS

Saddam Hussein and his defense attorneys returned to the courtroom on 28 February as the Al-Dujayl trial resumed, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Hussein remained calm as he entered the courtroom. As the proceedings got under way, his attorney Khalil al-Dulaymi presented a motion to the court calling for the replacement of chief Judge Ra'uf Rashid Abd al-Rahman. The court refused and al-Dulaymi appealed. The court said the proceedings will continue while the Court of Cassation reviews the request, prompting al-Dulaymi and another defense lawyer to walk out of the courtroom, which left Hussein to be defended by a court-appointed lawyer. Hussein appeared in good health despite reports that he recently ended an 11-day hunger strike (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2006). KR

A suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest at a gas station in New Baghdad, killing 23 and wounding more than 50, Reuters reported. A second car bomb targeted a police patrol in New Baghdad, killing eight and wounding 10, all apparently civilians, AP reported, citing police. A car bomb also exploded near a Shi'ite mosque, killing four and injuring 16, in the Karrada neighborhood of the capital, AP reported, citing Interior Ministry Major Falah al-Muhammadawi. The mosque was closed for repairs at the time of the incident, police said. Meanwhile, a fourth blast rocked an open area near the national theater; there were no immediate reports of casualties in that incident. In Tikrit, militants bombed a Sunni mosque where the remains of former President Saddam Hussein's father are buried, badly damaging the building. In Ba'qubah, an Iraqi army patrol discovered the bodies of nine people, including a tribal leader and two of his nephews, international media reported. KR

More than 300 Iraqis have been killed around the capital since sectarian violence broke out following the 22 February Samarra Golden Mosque bombing, Reuters reported on 28 February. Citing senior officials from Baghdad's central morgue, the news agency reported that 240 bodies of victims of violence were delivered to the morgue between 22 and 26 February. A deputy manager for the morgue, Qais Hassan, said 85 additional bodies were delivered in the last 24 hours, raising the total to 309. Hassan denied a 28 February report by "The Washington Post," citing the morgue, that 1,300 bodies had arrived since 22 February. KR

Adnan al-Dulaymi, head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, told Al-Jazeera television in a 27 February interview that the front has severed relations with the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance, but remains an active participant in government. He said that the front met with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari on 26 February despite the front's position, in order to reach a collective agreement over how to address the security situation in Iraq following the 22 February Samarra bombing. "We agreed to achieve calm and to form a committee to conduct an investigation into what happened. We have also agreed to form a consultative council, which includes members of the government and the Sunni, Shi'ite, Kurdish, and Turkoman political entities," along with representatives of the Christian community, al-Dulaymi said. "We will do all that we can for the sake of the unity of Iraq and to avoid this sedition," he added. KR

Some 390 male detainees were released from "Theater Internment Facilities" on 27 February in Iraq according to a same-day press release on the Multinational Forces in Iraq website. The statement gave no details about the detainees, except to say that their cases were reviewed and recommended for release. Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 27 February, citing Iraqi authorities, that 96 Iraqi detainees were released. According to the Multinational Forces, more than 29,500 detainee cases have been reviewed and more than 15,300 individuals have been recommended for release. The Iraqi figure for cases reviewed stands at 1,000 fewer, according to Al-Sharqiyah. The Iraqi-led Combined Review and Release Board is comprised of members of the ministries of Interior, Justice, and Human Rights, as well as representatives from the Multinational Forces. KR

Kamal Sayyid Qadir, an Austrian national of Kurdish descent, claimed in an interview with a Kurdish radio station that he was tortured by Kurdish authorities while in custody, reported on 26 February. Qadir claimed he was also abused both physically and verbally during an investigation, telling Nawa radio that when he refused to sign the witness statement, he was confined to a room without food or water for three days until he signed. Qadir contended that he informed the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) human rights minister of his claims, but that the minister did nothing. Qadir told the radio that his arrest had nothing to do with the KRG, claiming he was arrested by the Barzani clan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party leadership. He criticized the Austrian government and Kurdish media and intellectuals for not doing enough to support his case, telling Nawa, "If I am under attack today, tomorrow it will be you or someone else." Qadir is due to appear in a Kurdish court on 2 March on charges of threatening national security (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 6 February 2006). KR