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Newsline - July 12, 2006

President Vladimir Putin told Western television broadcasters in Moscow on July 12 that he will listen to what he called "well-intentioned criticism" at the upcoming summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, international and Russian news agencies reported. Putin stressed, however, that he rejects any attempts to "interfere" in Russia's domestic affairs, by whatever means, and under whatever pretext, "including the idea that our society needs democratization...We consider this absolutely unacceptable." Putin characterized U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's criticism two months ago of several aspects of Russian policy "a failed hunting shot" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 5, and 10, 2006). Cheney accidentally shot and wounded a friend during a quail hunt in February. Putin also said that Cheney's concerns about Russia engaging in "energy blackmail do not seem sincere and hence are unconvincing." Putin likened Western criticism of Russian democracy to the colonialist mentality of a century ago. "There are differences between countries, and it could be very dangerous to ignore these," he added. Defending himself against Western critics who say that Russia does not meet the political or economic criteria for G8 membership, Putin said that he considers Russian membership in that body "natural." PM

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said in Berlin on July 11 that Russia is using energy policy as a form of "blackmail," dpa reported. Adamkus charged that Moscow responded to Lithuania's recent decision to sell a refinery to a Polish company instead of a Russian one with "hints that crude oil deliveries could be halted. This has nothing to do with world market prices. I call that political blackmail." He added: "Those who control your energy supply control you politically. This is unacceptable." Adamkus urged the Russian authorities to guarantee their pledges of gas and oil deliveries at the upcoming G8 summit. PM

A group of opposition leaders and activists launched the two-day Other Russia conference in Moscow on July 11 to raise and highlight opposition concerns on the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2006). Lyudmila Alekseeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, said that participants want "to show the scale of civil resistance to the bureaucracy's trampling of our constitutional rights and freedoms and to activate our potential. This is not a declaration of war of society against the authorities. This is a call for peace between them -- but on honorable conditions for civil society, on conditions of equal partnership." Opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov said the conference hopes to show the world that the Russia that President Vladimir Putin will display at the G8 summit differs from what he called "the real Russia." Kasparov stressed that "Putin's agenda [at the summit] is not Russia's agenda. It's an agenda of the ruling elite that wants to use our national resources, our national treasure to promote its own self-interests. And Putin, as the leader of this elite, in our view, will be selling our national interest to make sure that the West stops any criticism over human rights and democracy in Russia." PM

Several participants at the July 11 session of the Other Russia conference in Moscow said that the authorities used rough techniques to prevent many would-be participants from attending the gathering, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on July 12. The participants noted that unidentified people confiscated would-be attendees' documents, beat the travelers, detained them, took them off trains, and planted drugs or explosives on them. The participants added that the authorities are so sure of their total control that they did not bother to respond to complaints about such practices. Some U.S., U.K., and Canadian diplomats ignored Kremlin warnings and attended the gathering. U.K. Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton told the BBC on July 11 that one of several people who tried to disrupt the conference called him an "imperialist." Brenton defended official U.K. presence at the meeting by saying that he favors the "widest possible political debate in Russia." He also justified U.K. participation in the summit, noting that it is best to discuss important issues with Russian leaders rather than ignore them. PM

Some liberal groups such as Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces boycotted the Other Russia meeting in Moscow on July 11 to protest the presence of groups they dubbed nationalist or extremist, such as the National Bolsheviks, RFE/RL reported. Conference organizer Kasparov dismissed their complaints, saying that those who did not come are not in the opposition. Opposition activist Valeria Novodvorskaya told RFE/RL's Russian Service, however, that she wants nothing to do with the conference. She noted that four organizations participating are not democratic, but rather "Stalinists and neo-Nazis. This represents the downfall of the Russian democratic movement, because the G8 will draw the following conclusion: 'We are right to stand behind Putin. Let him control this bedlam.'" Outside the gathering, dozens of pro-Kremlin demonstrators stood clad in American Indian-style feather headdresses. One of them told RFE/RL's Russian Service that this outfit signaled their belief that the conference is bankrolled by foreign enemies of Russia, including the United States. The daily "Trud" wrote on July 12 that the conference is a "gathering of has-beens." PM

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Botlikh in Daghestan on July 11 that the Russian leadership "reserves the right to launch a preventive strike" against terrorists abroad if it knows exactly where they are, RIA Novosti reported. Ivanov added that "the methods and measures are naturally not a subject for discussion. Anything could be used, except nuclear weapons, as long as it is effective." The news agency noted that "the idea of a preventive strike was first voiced when Russia accused Georgia of harboring terrorist groups in the Pankisi Gorge, which borders on Chechnya" (see also Basayev story below). PM

Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), said in Ozersk in the Urals on July 11 that Russia "has never imported spent nuclear fuel and never will," RIA Novosti reported. "Any talk about Russia's plans to import and store spent fuel represents either a provocation, or a pure lack of professionalism." He was referring to recent international and Russian media reports about a possible U.S.-Russian deal for Russia to store spent U.S. nuclear fuel on its territory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10 and 11, 2006). PM

The Spanish Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 12 that police have detained two men "at Russia's request" in connection with the 2002 murder of Valentin Tsvetkov, the governor of Magadan Oblast, reported (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," December 19, 2002). Gold-rich Magadan is in the Far East and was the site of one of the most infamous outposts of Stalin's GULAG. PM

Two days after the death in Ingushetia of radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, the chain of events leading to his death remains unclear. The Chechen resistance website kavkaz-center on July 11 quoted Ingush opposition sources as saying the truckload of explosives that Basayev was accompanying was traveling at high speed and that the explosives detonated spontaneously after the truck hit a pothole. Russian FSB sources, however, insist that the explosion was the culmination of a special operation in which Basayev was betrayed by an unnamed close associate, "Izvestiya" reported. According to that version, Basayev was sold a consignment of explosives that were primed to be detonated before he reached his intended target. Interfax on July 11 quoted an unnamed Russian weapons expert as dismissing as logistically impossible the suggestion that the truck could have been hit by a precision missile. That expert did not, however, rule out the possibility it was destroyed by a remote-controlled bomb. Regardless of the circumstances of Basayev's death, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov's warning in Botlikh, western Daghestan, on July 11 that Russia has the right to launch preventive strikes against international terrorists anywhere in the world raises the question whether Moscow might launch such an attack on Georgia's Pankisi Gorge on the pretext that the remaining Chechen resistances forces under Doku Umarov have taken refuge there. Ivanov noted on July 11 that Chechen field commander Ruslan Gelayev was returning from Georgia to Chechnya at the time he was killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2004). LF

The Interior Ministry of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia republic has launched a nine-day operation to prevent any possible reprisals by militants for Basayev's death, reported on July 11. In particular, police will stop and check vehicles and drivers' identification documents, and will systematically search remote or abandoned buildings that could be used to store weapons. A similar operation is under way in Kabardino-Balkaria, according to on July 11 as reposted by LF

The Armenian government is making "active efforts" to persuade Russia to reopen its main border crossing with Georgia and hopes that "solutions will be found," Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on July 11, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He did not elaborate. Russia closed the Verkny Lars border post without prior warning on July 8 for repairs and modernization, reportedly leaving dozens of Armenian lorries transporting agricultural produce stranded in Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2006). Speaking in Moscow on July 11, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said the Verkhny Lars post needs to be rebuilt as it has been used repeatedly until very recently to smuggle drugs, militants, and weaponry into the Russian Federation, sometimes for terrorist ends, according to a transcript of his comments posted on Kamynin acknowledged the problems the closure has created for Armenia. LF

Repeating earlier comments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 30 and July 7, 2006), Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on July 11 that the Armenian leadership considers the most recent framework agreement for resolving the Karabakh conflict proposed by the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group as an "all-embracing, balanced document envisaging mutual concessions," Noyan Tapan reported. At the same time, Oskanian acknowledged that "it is not ideal for any side." He expressed the hope that Azerbaijan will "return to reconsider" the draft in question. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on July 11 that the recent large-scale war games undertaken by the Georgian armed forces at Orfolo in southern Georgia are not intended as the preliminary to an offensive against South Ossetia, Caucasus Press and reported. At the same time, Saakashvili stressed that Georgia reserves the right to respond to "provocations" without first consulting with its allies, including the United States. Some Russian commentators have suggested that the rationale for Saakashvili's visit to Washington last week was to seek U.S. President George W. Bush's blessing for an attack on South Ossetia. LF

At the same press conference on July 11, President Saakashvili said he plans no "major changes" in the composition of the cabinet, Caucasus Press reported. He said he will "consider" appointing Environment Minister Giorgi Papuashvili or parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze to head the Constitutional Court. The Georgian opposition has demanded the replacement of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili in light of the suspected complicity of Marabishvili's wife and senior members of the Interior Ministry in the January murder of banker Sandro Girgvliani. The resignation or replacement of a government minister at this juncture would bring the total number of such personnel changes to six, or one-third of the total number of ministers, and thus necessitate the resignation of the entire cabinet. LF

Representatives of state-owned oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz and Germany's RWE Dea, Erdgas Erdol (a subsidiary of Gaz de France), and International Finance Company signed an agreement on July 11 for KazMunaiGaz to acquire 50 percent of the KazGerMunai consortium, Khabar and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The size of the deal, which will be completed on July 18, was not announced, but KazMunaiGaz Deputy Director Zhaksybek Kulekeev called it "very significant." Interfax-Kazakhstan quoted Kulekeev as having earlier said that Kulekeev had previously said the deal would total approximately $1 billion. The other 50 percent of KazGerMunai belongs to Chinese-owned PetroKazakhstan. Created in 1993, KazGerMunai is engaged in production at oil fields with a combined reserve total of 43 million tons of crude, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. DK

The Kyrgyz government has expelled two U.S. diplomats for "interference in the internal affairs of Kyrgyzstan," reported on July 11 citing an anonymous source in the Kyrgyz security services. Kyrgyzstan's Foreign Ministry said on July 12 that the decision "was taken based on acts presented by Kyrgyzstan's special services about their (the diplomats) repeated involvement in the country's domestic affairs." The U.S. Embassy in Kyrgyzstan issued a statement on July 11 saying that it is "disturbed" at reports of the expulsion, adding that the allegations "are simply not true." The statement noted that "U.S. diplomats have been accused of having inappropriate contact with the leaders of non-governmental organizations." The BBC and AP reported that the expulsion came on the eve of a final round of talks between Kyrgyzstan and the United States on a new agreement for the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan is seeking to increase annual lease payments from a current $2.7 million to as high as $207 million, although reports at the end of the first round of talks suggested a softening of the Kyrgyz position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2006). DK

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov attended a ceremony in Varzob, 15 kilometers outside of Dushanbe, on July 11 to mark the start of construction on the Dushanbe-Khujand-Chanoq highway, Tajik Television and Interfax reported. Rakhmonov said that the two-year project will cost 977 million somonis ($300 million), with China investing 928 million somonis and the Tajik government 49 million somonis. The China Road and Bridge Corporation will carry out the project, which Rakhmonov described as being "of great importance." He said that the new road will "create favorable conditions for transport services via Tajik territory with its southern and eastern neighbors." The road will link Tajikistan's capital to the country's north and the border with Uzbekistan. DK

Saparmurat Niyazov told a cabinet meeting on July 10 that Turkmenistan needs a new energy policy, ITAR-TASS reported. Noting that energy disputes are a "big problem," Niyazov stated that, "There are some people who say that difficulties emerged because Turkmenistan raised somewhat the price for gas." He continued, "In order to remove this misunderstanding and empty talk, we should work out and debate a state policy in this sphere at the People's Council to be held in Ashgabat on October 25." Turkmenistan recently attempted to raise the price of gas it sells to Russia and Ukraine from $65 per 1,000 cubic meters to $100, but talks have failed to secure a new agreement with either country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 30 and July 3, 2006). DK

The presidential press service and the Committee for State Security (KGB) have dismissed as "a hoax" and "provocation" an e-mail sent on July 10 to several media outlets in which its authors, describing themselves as KGB officers and "Belarusian patriots," claimed that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has suffered two strokes following the March presidential election, Belapan reported on July 11. The e-mail claimed that Lukashenka suffered the first stroke just hours after a crowd of some 15,000 opposition supporters gathered in downtown Minsk. The second allegedly came after unsuccessful gas price talks that Lukashenka secretly held with Gazprom executives in mid-June. The authors of the e-mail noted that the president has rarely appeared in public since his reelection. "No holds are barred in the information war that is being waged now. That is why such provocations appear," KGB spokesman Valery Nadtachayeu told Belapan. AM

Members of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc successfully disrupted the July 11 session of the Verkhovna Rada, using megaphones equipped with sirens to drown out speaker Oleksandr Moroz, international news agencies reported. Scuffles broke out when members of the Socialist Party attempted to seize the megaphones, and when members of the Party of Regions and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc jostled in their efforts to control the rostrum. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc was protesting the recent formation of an "anti-crisis" coalition, comprising the Socialist Party, the Party of Regions, and the Communist Party. During the session, Socialist Party leader Moroz officially announced the alliance. Two weeks earlier, the Socialist Party joined an "Orange" coalition with Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2006). Moroz reportedly sent the new coalition's nomination for prime minister -- Party of Regions head Viktor Yanukovych -- to President Viktor Yushchenko. Outside the parliament building, more than 1,000 supporters of the Party of Regions gathered to support the new coalition and Yanukovych's candidacy for the premiership. They held placards such as: "Broad Coalition -- Guarantor of State Stability," "Yuliya, Calm Down," "Viktors, Unite Ukraine." AM

President Yushchenko has questioned the legitimacy of the coalition created by the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, Interfax reported on July 11, quoting presidential administration head Oleh Rybachuk. Rybachuk said that the formation of the new "anti-crisis" coalition violates the constitution and the parliament's regulations. Under the regulations, any participant that wants to leave a coalition is required to inform its partners about the move 10 days in advance. Rybachuk also noted that the president will on July 25 have the right to dissolve parliament if a government is not formed by that time. AM

Yuliya Tymoshenko announced on July 11 that her bloc does not intend to participate in future parliament sessions and is preparing for new elections, Interfax reported. "If fresh elections take place, our party will definitely participate in them in a union with Our Ukraine," she said, adding that the Socialist Party and the Communist Party could find themselves left out of parliament following new elections. "I believe that if early elections are held, a transition to a two-party system will take place," Tymoshenko said. AM

Yevhen Kushnariov, the leader of the Party of Regions caucus in the Verkhovna Rada, has urged President Yushchenko to call on the Our Ukraine faction to abandon what he described as its policy of confrontation, Interfax reported on July 11. "The people of Ukraine are witnessing an aggressive and meaningless position assumed by two 'Orange' factions -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine. They are demonstrating their cynicism and their profound disrespect for the Ukrainian parliament and the Ukrainian people," Kushnariov said. He admitted that the Party of Regions has blocked the work of the Verkhovna Rada, but said it did so to protest attempts by the Orange coalition to violate the country's constitution and to usurp power. AM

Hilmi Jashari, acting Kosova ombudsman, has criticized the province's judicial system, pointing to negligence and charges of corruption in the courts, Albanian KohaVision television reported on July 11. Such charges have led to a loss of trust among Kosova residents in the country's judicial system, he said. Presenting a six-month report, Jashari said the institution has seen some improvements, in particular pertaining to the freedom of movement of minorities. He added that he hopes that the recommendations included in the report will help to improve the protection of human rights. "I must have confidence in the determination of the decision makers, the institutional leaders, and that these recommendations will attract their attention," Jashari was quoted as saying. "Our message and our hope is that the protection of human rights will become a matter of course in Kosova society." RK

Milan Jelic, the minister of economy, energy, and development of the Republika Srpska, is prepared to sign an agreement calling for a special relationship with Croatia, the newspaper "Vecernji list" reported on July 9. Jelic has stressed the possibility of strengthening bilateral economic cooperation, which is at a far lower level than that between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The government of Republika Srpska also plans to speed up the implementation of an agreement on special parallel relations with Serbia, the newspaper reported. RK

President Filip Vujanovic announced that parliamentary and local elections will be held on September 10, Mina news agency reported. Voters will cast ballots for 81 members of the new Montenegrin parliament as well as for presidents and assemblies of a number of municipalities. The submission of voting lists for parliament to the Republican Election Commission as well as for candidates for presidents of local assemblies to the Municipal Election Commission will run from July 31 to August 16. A media blackout will be in force as of midnight September 8, at which time all public campaigning is to cease. RK

The recent announcement by a former Iranian vice president of the arrest of members of a banned and clandestine religio-political group probably caught many observers by surprise. The secretive Hojjatieh Society is unlikely to have many remaining members. And allegations in the past five years of Hojjatieh activism have generally appeared in connection with political disputes or to explain sectarian strife. But statements by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who reportedly is inclined toward Shi'ite millennialism, have contributed to speculation that the Hojjatieh Society is making a comeback. Could that include a run for Iran's supreme leadership?

Given the opaque nature of Iranian government, the public might never know just how pervasive the Hojjatieh Society's activities really are.

But Former Vice President Abtahi was quoted by the hard-line daily "Kayhan" on July 5 as saying that several Hojjatieh Society members were arrested recently. It is difficult to test the veracity of the claim by Abtahi, who served as vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs under ex-President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. But it renews fears that the secretive Hojjatieh could wield considerable power in the Iranian establishment.

The Hojjatieh group was formed by a Mashhad-based cleric in the early 1950s to counter the activities of Bahai missionaries, who claimed that the long-awaited Twelfth Imam of Shi'ite Islam had already returned and been superseded by the Bahai faith. That cleric, Sheikh Mahmud Halabi, recruited volunteers who could debate the Bahais and who formed the original Hojjatieh Society (formally known as the Anjoman-i Khayrieyeh-yi Hojjatieh Mahdavieh). But reference sources say the society expanded its reach and its membership in the 1960s and 1970s.

Hojjatieh members initially opposed the ideas of Islamic government and rule of the supreme jurisconsult (Vilayat-i Faqih) espoused by the father of Iran's revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Instead, they favored collective leadership of the religious community and opposed religious involvement in political affairs.

But founder Halabi feared a communist takeover after the 1978-79 Islamic revolution. So he urged his followers to abandon their ideas about collective religious leadership and secular government in Iran's watershed referendum in December 1979.

That move reportedly paid off in the form of administrative appointments in the postrevolutionary government for members, whose religious credentials have been described as "impeccable" by author Baqer Moin in his 1999 book, "Khomeini: Life Of The Ayatollah."

Khomeini and others appear to have grown concerned over Hojjatieh members' secrecy, however, and their success. By 1983, Supreme Leader Khomeini was attacking the Hojjatieh Society and demanding that they "get rid of factionalism and join the wave that is carrying the nation forward" or be "broken." The Hojjatieh Society announced its official dissolution the same day, according to author Moin.

Fast-forward more than two decades to a speech just weeks after President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's August 2005 inauguration. Outgoing President Khatami is warning of the emergence of an extremist movement that is raising fears of corruption and claiming that universities' curricula are insufficiently Islamic. Khatami adds that such groups aid foreigners who do not want to see Islamic states succeed, according to Fars News Agency on August 19.

Reformist commentators quickly pick up on the same theme. A member of the left-wing Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, Hashem Hedayati, says Khatami issued his warning because extremists are entering the government, "Etemad" reports on August 21. Hedayati adds that the phenomenon represents a strategic shift by the Hojjatieh Society, which previously avoided involvement in political affairs.

Less than a month later, a former interior minister and parliamentarian who is a prominent member of the pro-reform Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), also warns of a Hojjatieh revival. Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur says the society opposed involvement with politics before the revolution but subsequently changed tack and displayed a more violent tendency, "Etemad" reports on September 18. Mohtashami-Pur compares the Hojjatieh Society with Osama bin Laden's terrorist group, Al-Qaeda, and accuses it of "speaking through various podiums, brandishing a truncheon on a heretic witch-hunt, [and] accusing [Iranian] youth" of wrongdoing.

Late last year, former Vice President Abtahi noted that many grassroots religious groups had backed Ahmadinejad's presidential run. What stood out most, he said, was that these groups praised the Twelfth Imam, rather than speaking in political terms, the "Financial Times" reported on November 9. Abtahi speculated that Ahmadinejad has "more important goals than politics," warning that the new head of state "speaks with the confidence of someone who has received God's word."

Ahmadinejad's references to the Twelfth Imam in a September speech at the United Nations brought his affinity for millennialist views to the world's attention. Ahmadinejad's later observation that he was surrounded by an aura during the speech, and that the spellbound audience in the General Assembly sat unblinking, also drew attention to his unorthodox views.

More concretely, there are suggestions that Ahmadinejad has earmarked millions of dollars in government funds for the Jamkaran Mosque on the outskirts of Qom, where some Shi'a believe the Hidden Imam will reappear. Finally, there has been a burgeoning of Iranian websites that focus on the Hidden Imam.

A reformist legislator, Imad Afruq, cautions to the reformist "Etemad-i Melli" daily on February 20 that many "pseudo-clerics" who promote mysticism are distorting Islam and misleading the faithful. Under these conditions, the lawmaker claimed, the Hojjatieh Society will find it easy to operate.

At the same time, a Supreme Court judge, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Sadeq Al-i Ishaq, is quoted by "Etemad" on February 20 as warning of the persistent danger of reactionaries. He says Ayatollah Khomeini regretted ever making use of the reactionary clerics, and accuses the Hojjatieh Society of hiding its true intentions so it can gain places in the government. The judge argues that society still exists and that clerics should take the danger seriously.

There have been accusations that Ahmadinejad's religious mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, is a member of the Hojjatieh Society, a claim that he rejected, according to "Hemayat" newspaper on April 30. The hard-line cleric prompted controversy when he claimed last year that the Twelfth Imam prayed for Ahmadinejad's election, according to "Mardom Salari" on July 21, 2005.

Now, Mesbah-Yazdi's name has surfaced in connection with the upcoming election of the Assembly of Experts, which supervises the Iranian supreme leader's performance and selects a successor. Mesbah-Yazdi has been mentioned by some as a possible successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In an effort to preempt Mesbah-Yazdi's selection, opponents have criticized him on a variety of pretexts -- including his perceived lack of activism against the monarchy before Iran's Islamic revolution.

The outcome of this fall's Assembly of Experts election should help gauge the support that Ahmadinejad and his allies have for placing Mesbah-Yazdi atop Iran's theocratic system -- if that is indeed their objective. Given the lack of transparency in the Iranian political process, however, it will be extremely difficult to get an accurate reading of the Hojjatieh Society's influence.

Donald Rumsfeld paid an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on July 11 to reassure Afghan President Hamid Karzai of his country's continued support, international news agencies reported. "I can assure you that the United States will continue to be interested, committed, and involved [with the] success" of Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said in Kabul after meeting with Karzai, American Forces Press Service reported on July 11. According to Karzai, without U.S. help Afghanistan would not have a democracy and the country wouldn't have schools, a free press, and all the other freedoms its people now enjoy. Karzai said that the defeat of the terrorists is "certain," adding that "what we are trying to achieve is to make that sooner, for us, and for the rest of the world." Karzai added: "The war against terrorism is not being lost; it has already been won. The remnants are there that we must clean out." According to Karzai, the recent violence committed by the Taliban can be attributed to a weak police force and also to the continuation of external support for the terrorists. Rumsfeld also said that a foreign element was involved in the recent upsurge of violence in southern Afghanistan but refrained from naming the foreign source, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on July 11. The Afghan government has consistently pointed the finger at Pakistan as the source of violence in Afghanistan. AT

Tom Koenigs, the special representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan for Afghanistan, said at a news conference in Kabul on July 10 that the activities of the Taliban are planned outside of Afghanistan, the official Radio Afghanistan reported on July 11. Koenigs said that it would have been impossible for the Taliban to restore their strength without financial assistance from abroad. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan website (, Koenigs said that: "Drying out the international terrorist networks [that are] financing this insurgency is an international challenge. And ending the logistical and ideological support from over the Pakistan border is a Pakistan issue" which the international community should support. According to Koenigs, somebody is "apparently" financing the Taliban as the Afghan provinces where they are operating are "not sufficiently rich to sustain" the current insurgency. AT

Unidentified gunmen have kidnapped the customs chief of Farah Province, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on July 11. Farah police chief General Sayyed Agha Saqeb said that the customs officer -- who has not been identified -- was kidnapped while travelling home. No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. AT

Coalition and Afghan forces killed around 30 neo-Taliban militants in a raid in the Sangin District of Helmand Province on July 11, international news agencies reported. A coalition helicopter which had made an emergency landing had to be destroyed. The raid was part of the ongoing Operation Mountain Thrust, in which around 10,000 U.K., U.S., Canadian, and Afghan troops are participating in Helmand and in the neighboring Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul provinces. AT

Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on July 11, the first day of a four-day trip to East Azerbaijan Province, that job creation is a major aspect of government development plans, IRNA reported. He told residents of the town of Malekan that unemployment is one of the country's biggest problems. East Azerbaijan -- which has a very large ethnic Azeri population -- was one of the provinces that saw demonstrations in recent weeks sparked by publication of a cartoon deemed offensive to ethnic Azeris, but during which demonstrators protested discrimination and high unemployment. Ahmadinejad added, "The government intends to tackle the unemployment problem with assistance from the people and principled planning." BS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani held formal discussions on the nuclear issue with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana on July 11 in Brussels, Radio Farda reported. The talks took place behind closed doors, but in a subsequent press conference, Solana referred to his upcoming meeting in Paris with foreign ministers of the countries (China, France, Germany, Russia the United Kingdom, and United States) involved with the package of incentives offered to Iran. He said, "Tomorrow I will have a meeting with the ministers of the six countries and they will report -- we will make an analysis of the situation after this period of time and we will see how to proceed," Radio Farda reported. Referring to the July 13 Paris meeting, U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley said on July 10 in Washington that participants will consider Iran's response and determine "whether it is enough to move towards negotiations or whether we need to reopen a process at the Security Council," according to the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs. BS

In an interview that appeared in "Corriere della Sera" on July 11, Larijani said, "We don't trust some of the European countries that have played a leading role." Larijani criticized British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "deplorable pronouncements on Iran that were quite out of place." Larijani did not cite which of ir's statements he is referring to. He said Italy does not act this way, and "Your country is our prime trading partner in Europe." He encouraged Italy to be more active diplomatically in the nuclear issue. BS

Substitute Tehran Friday Prayer leader Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami told a gathering of Islamic Revolution Guards Corps personnel on July 11 that, "America is trying to establish a permanent presence in Iraq by way of provoking ethnic disputes and creating insecurity inside that country," ISNA reported. He added, "Ethnic and tribal clashes are America's bread and butter." To that end," Khatami claimed, "killing Shi'ites on a large scale, and Sunnis on a smaller scale, is on their agenda; by ascribing the killings to acts of revenge by the Shi'ites, they seek to spread killings and insecurity in Iraq." Khatami dismissed accusations of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs and said Iran hopes for a secure Iraqi state. BS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told the Iraqi parliament, the Council of Representatives, on July 12 that the military thwarted a plan by insurgents to occupy some parts of the capital, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. "There was a plan to occupy Baghdad's districts west of the Tigris [River] but Iraqi security forces were able to thwart this occupation," said the premier. He did not identify the insurgent group involved in the plan or when the attempt was to take place. Parliamentarian Ali al-Adib, a member of al-Maliki's United Iraqi Alliance, told the council on July 11 that Iraq "is sliding fast towards civil war," Reuters reported the same day. Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on July 11 that violent sectarianism has become the main challenge facing the Iraqi government since the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra on February 22. "It is imperative for the new Iraqi government to make major progress in dealing with this challenge in the next six months," said Khalilzad. KR

In further comments addressed to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on July 11, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Khalilzad warned that an early withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq could have disastrous consequences. "A precipitous coalition departure could unleash a sectarian civil war, which inevitably would draw neighboring states into a regional conflagration that would disrupt oil supplies and cause instability to spill over borders. It could also result in Al-Qaeda taking over part of Iraq, recreating the sanctuary it enjoyed but lost in Afghanistan. If Al-Qaeda gained this foothold -- which is the strategy of the terrorists -- it would be able to exploit Iraq's strategic location and enormous resources. This would make the past challenge of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan look like child's play," said Khalilzad. The ambassador also warned that a withdrawal could lead to an ethnic civil war, "with the Kurds concluding that the Iraqi democratic experiment had failed and taking matters into their own hands, and with regional powers becoming involved to secure their interests." KR

Yuichi Kajiya, a senior Japanese officer charged with overseeing the withdrawal of Japanese forces from Iraq, says the pullout is progressing smoothly, the Japanese daily "Mainchi Daily News" reported on July 12. Kajiya said the 600-strong Japanese contingent will "soon" leave their base in the city of Samawah, in the Al-Muthanna Governorate, adding that "we will be busy for one or two weeks." Kyodo World Service reported on July 11 that 79 percent of Iraqis it surveyed in Samawah said they were satisfied with the two-and-a-half-year Japanese mission to the governorate, which focused on reconstruction projects. Nearly 19 percent said they were dissatisfied, mainly because they believed the Japanese mission was too small. Some 74.5 percent of those polled said they supported the work of the Japanese forces in Iraq. U.S. Major General William Caldwell told reporters at a July 10 press briefing in Baghdad that Al-Muthanna will be the first Iraqi governorate to take over responsibility for its own security and governance. U.K. Defense Secretary Des Browne told a parliamentary committee this week that the transfer of power in the governorate will take place on July 13, Kyodo reported on July 11. KR

Husayn al-Awadi, the uncle of the kidnapped Iraqi consul to Iran, told Al-Jazeera television on July 11 that Wisam al-Awadi was kidnapped by men carrying police identification cards. Al-Awadi said that the kidnappers stormed the house before 7 a.m. on July 11 and took his nephew at gunpoint. KR

The Islamic Al-Da'wah Party daily "Al-Bayyan" reported on July 11 that President Jalal Talabani has asked Ahmad Chalabi, a former deputy prime minister, not to return to Iraq because of his involvement in corruption. The paper reported that the Commission on Public Integrity is investigating allegations that, while in office, Chalabi accepted $150 million in bribes related to the purchase of sugar. Chalabi has also been dismissed from the commission supervising efforts to reduce the influence of former members of the Ba'ath Party, which dominated Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein, "Al-Bayyan" reported. KR