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Newsline - July 25, 2006

Representatives of Legal Team, an independent organization that monitored protests and other unofficial gatherings during the St. Petersburg summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, said in Moscow on July 24 that 577 activists and rights protesters were "harassed, intimidated, or unlawfully detained" during the event, and "The Moscow Times" reported on July 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 14, 17, and 18, 2006). Seven people were beaten, 54 arrested, more than 250 taken to police stations without being given an explanation, and 210 taken off trains en route to protests, Legal Team added. The group cited several cases of arrests, detentions, and court convictions of activists on charges that were greatly at variance with available evidence or the defendant's testimony. Some activists who participated in the Other Russia alternative gathering one week before the G8 summit reported similar patterns of harassment. Interior Ministry spokesman Pavel Klimovsky denied that the police were under orders to prevent people from taking part in protests. He added that the arrests and detentions amounted to "a mere few cases." PM

The International Protection Center, which is a prominent Russian nongovernmental organization (NGO), has received a bill for $180,000 in back taxes for grants received from foreign sources between 2002 and 2005, Britain's "The Times" reported on July 25. Valentin Moiseyev, the group's deputy director, said that the tax bill is politically motivated. "Why should foreign foundations pay money into the Russian budget?" he asked. "We don't make any profit. We don't receive any income. We spend the money on education." The NGO helps Russians to take cases against the state to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The London daily reports that the center has won nine victories and is helping jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky appeal his conviction to Strasbourg. Many Russian NGOs fear that recent legislation is aimed at shutting them down by imposing taxes, fees, controls, and a maze of bureaucratic paperwork (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2006). PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told President Vladimir Putin on July 24 that implementing a cease-fire in southern Lebanon and obtaining the release of prisoners will be among the most important issues facing the international conference of foreign ministers in Rome on July 26, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on July 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2006). Lavrov added that one of the most sensitive issues involves the proposed international peacekeeping force, including how it will be formed, who will participate, and what kind of mandate it will have. The daily noted that, so far, the United States has "monopolized" diplomatic activity surrounding the crisis. In related news, Lavrov was quoted by the weekly "Kommersant-Vlast" on July 25 as saying that Russia does not seek to isolate Hamas or Hizballah as terrorist organizations because they are deeply rooted in their respective societies and must be worked with in seeking a political solution to the crisis. He argued that Russia believes a military solution is impossible for the deeply rooted conflicts in the Middle East. He also stressed that the radical wing of Hamas must be drawn into mainstream political life. Lavrov repeated the Russian position that a "radical" military approach by Israel will only inflame passions on the other side and make it harder to find a settlement. PM

Oleg Morozov, who is first deputy speaker of the State Duma, said in Moscow on July 24 that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party wants to become the "party of historical revanche," Interfax reported. The term "revanche" in the political discourse of the Russian Federation refers to restoring the country's great-power status. He cautioned against misinterpreting the term, saying that it is positive and provides a "strong, stimulating feeling." Morozov also told reporters that "our mission is to regain lost [popular] trust in power, in the state." He is a member of the party's General Council Presidium and the chairman of its ideological commission. There has been much speculation in the media about the future of Unified Russia as a cohesive entity, particularly once President Putin leaves office, assuming that he does so when his current term expires in 2008. Some critics charge that, despite the party's efforts to acquire ideological cohesion, expand its base among young people, and undermine its opponents through changes in electoral legislation and use of the organs of state power, Unified Russia remains a diverse collection of opportunists and varied regional interests. Accordingly, such critics believe that it is likely to fragment when Putin leaves the scene, if not sooner. PM

Russian Party of Life leader and Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov said in Moscow on July 25 that "Unified Russia faces a whole host of problems," Interfax reported. He added that the party lacks a clear profile and relies instead on the powers of "political monopoly and bureaucracy." He argued that "a lot of political chameleons have streamed into its ranks. I don't think a bright future is ahead of it." Mironov denied, however, that his party intends to obstruct Unified Russia. He rejected rumors that the Party of Life is a Kremlin creation that is assigned a specific role in political life. He also stressed that "the president who takes over in 2008 [must] continue the current course. I will support a candidate who is backed by [President] Putin." Mironov denied that the Communists constitute a serious political force but added that "Russia is, and will remain, a country with a left-wing bias, where ideas of social justice have always won acclaim." PM

Russian prosecutors have charged Aleksei Lebed, the governor of the resource-rich Siberian republic of Khakasia, with abuse of office, ITAR-TASS reported on July 25. He is accused of spending money intended for local colleges on his holidays abroad. Similar charges were filed against a number of other top Khakasia officials. Aleksei Lebed is the brother of Aleksandr Lebed, a Russian general and politician who died in a helicopter crash in 2002. President Putin recently attacked corruption in high places, and there have since been several high-placed dismissals or sackings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2004, and May 10 and June 2 and 6, 2006). Critics argue, however, that the entire system is thoroughly corrupt and that the campaign has tended to target individuals who have run afoul of Putin and the Kremlin politically, particularly in the regions. PM

In a further move intended to encourage members of the Chechen resistance to lay down their arms, Alu Alkhanov issued a decree on July 24 proclaiming August a "month of reconciliation and accord," Interfax reported. Alkhanov said he hopes the move will contribute to "easing tensions between different groups" in Chechnya. He added that the initiative should not be confined to the territory of Chechnya, but extended to resistance sympathizers who fled to other regions of Russia or abroad fearing for their security. Those people, Alkhanov said, must be persuaded that they are welcome to return provided they have not committed "grave crimes." LF

Ten Ingush men who began a hunger strike on July 3 to demand the right for their families to return to the homes in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion from which they fled during the fighting of October-November 1992 have appealed to President Putin as guarantor of the Russian Federation Constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 17 and 18, 2006). That appeal, posted on the independent website on July 24, notes that Putin issued instructions earlier this year to his envoy to the Southern Federal District to complete by the early 2007 the transfer of displaced Ingush from the temporary settlement in Maysky on the border between Ingushetia and North Ossetia in which they have lived for the past 14 years. The hunger strikers allege systematic discrimination on the part of the North Ossetian authorities, who refuse them permanent registration (propiska) as residents of North Ossetia. They ask Putin specifically to expedite their immediate return to the villages of Sholkhi, Djeyrkhoi-Yurt, and Buru-Marle; to annul a North Ossetian government decree extending the zone surrounding major sources of drinking water to encompass several villages formerly inhabited primarily by Ingush (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2006); and to ensure all inhabitants of Prigorodny Raion are issued passports stipulating that they are permanent residents of that district. LF

Police surrounded three armed militants near the village of Endirey in Khasavyurt Raion late on July 23, Russian media reported. In the ensuing protracted exchange of fire, two police officers and one militant, identified as a member of the group commanded by Rappani Khalilov, were killed. The fate of the other two fighters is unclear. On July 24, police in Buynaksk, southwest of Makhachkala, intercepted and arrested two men who reportedly acted as liaison between groups of underground fighters and provided them with food, reported. LF

Peter Semneby, the EU's envoy to the Southern Caucasus, told journalists in Yerevan on July 24 following talks with top Armenian officials that it is "crucially important" that the parliamentary elections in May 2007 be acknowledged as free and fair, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. A repeat of the vote rigging that marred earlier ballots would negatively impact on Armenia's participation in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), Semneby continued. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said negotiations on Armenia's inclusion into the ENP should be completed "soon." Semneby also reaffirmed the EU's readiness to contribute to a solution of the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Speaking on July 22 at a congress of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), Serzh Sarkisian pledged that the 2007 parliamentary elections will be "the best ever held" in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on July 24. Sarkisian, who recently joined the party, pointed out that Western observers have characterized each successive ballot in recent years as marking progress over earlier votes, but he admitted that "of course there were shortcomings." As anticipated, the congress elected Sarkisian to the newly-created post of chairman of the HHK board (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 21, 2006). At a press briefing following the congress, Sarkisian denied persistent rumors of tensions between himself and President Robert Kocharian, Noyan Tapan reported on July 24. LF

Azerbaijan National Independence Party leader Etibar Mammadov appealed on July 24 to Azeris throughout the world and to the various political forces within Azerbaijan to join forces in a movement to support the embattled Azeri minority in Iran, reported. He argued that an upsurge of protests among Iran's Azeris, which began two months ago in response to the publication of cartoons depicting Azeris as cockroaches (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 24, 26, 30 and 31, 2006), creates new and favorable conditions for the unification of Azerbaijan and "southern Azerbaijan," as he described the predominantly Azeri-populated regions of northwestern Iran. But the online daily observed on July 25 that pro-Iranian Islamists in Azerbaijan are likely to seek to undermine any such broad-based movement, which would in addition enrage Tehran. LF

Former Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev and former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiyev have both experienced a further deterioration of their health in recent days, Azerbaijani media reported on July 22 and 25. They were dismissed and arrested last October on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership, charges they have both denied. Muradverdiyev temporarily lost the ability to speak late last week, reported on July 22; Aliyev has suffered a further bout of high blood pressure. The online daily on July 25 cited an unnamed official from the Prosecutor General's Office as saying that the two men could be held for a further nine months before they are brought to trial. LF

Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili traveled on July 25 to Mestia in northwestern Georgia where army and Interior Ministry units are reportedly poised to enter the Kodori Gorge, whose former governor Emzar Kvitsiani challenged the Georgian leadership two days earlier, Caucasus Press reported. Kvitsiani accused Okruashvili of having declared his intention to occupy on July 27 the Georgian controlled section of the gorge, a move he vowed that the armed Monadire (Hunter) Svan militia he heads would not permit. Kvitsiani further warned on July 22 that in light of the unresolved murders in recent months of numerous Svans, including banker Sandro Girgvliani, he would "start a civil war" if Merabishvili were reappointed interior minister. Kvitsiani appealed to Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, State Minister Kakha Bendukidze, and a member of the Georgian parliament's majority faction, Giga Bokeria, to come to Kodori for negotiations. However, Bokeria, President Mikheil Saakashvili, and parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze on July 24 ruled out any talks with Kvitsiani, whom they branded a criminal. Givi Targamadze, who chairs the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, told the independent television channel Rustavi-2 on July 25 that Kvitsiani's militia, estimated to number only a few hundred men, are armed by and are acting on orders from Russia, Caucasus Press reported. Former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Avtandil Margiani, who now heads the NGO Revival of Svaneti, has offered to mediate between Kvitsiani and the Georgian government, according to Interfax on July 25. LF

The foreign ministry of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia has written to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and UN Secretary General Kofi Annan accusing Georgia of deploying heavy armor and troops to the Abkhaz conflict zone, reported on July 25. Earlier on July 25, Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone halted two Georgian armored vehicles carrying at least 10 military policemen in Georgia's Tskhalendjikha Raion, Caucasus Press reported. The vehicles were reportedly headed for the Kodori Gorge. The Russians summoned members of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), who reportedly characterized the deployment as a violation of the UN-sponsored ceasefire agreement signed in May 1994. The Abkhaz statement recalled that, following an abortive Georgian incursion into Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion in May 1998, the Georgian and Abkhaz governments signed a protocol under which Tbilisi pledged to refrain from the illegal deployment of its armor and troops in the conflict zone. Russia and the UN are guarantors of that protocol (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 26 and 27, 1998). Abkhazia asked the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia, and the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary General to pressure Georgia to comply with the documents it has signed. LF

Parliament deputies voted unanimously on July 24 to approve the composition of the new cabinet proposed two days earlier by Prime Minister Noghaideli, Georgian media reported. Rustavi-2 claimed 151 deputies cast votes in favor; Caucasus Press gave a figure of 133. Also on July 24, David Zurabishvili, one of the leaders of the opposition Democratic Front faction that has boycotted parliament proceedings for four months, termed the reappointment of Merabishvili as interior minister "an insult to the Georgian people" and accused him of sponsoring death squads, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov told journalists in Sofia, Bulgaria, on July 24 that Bulgaria and Kazakhstan have completed talks on Kazakhstan's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He said the two sides will soon sign a protocol to mark the completion of this step in Kazakhstan's accession. In the course of his visit to Bulgaria, Akhmetov met with Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev and the two signed a protocol on reciprocal investment protection, BTA reported. DK

General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, told a news conference in Astana on July 24 that the United States "has no intention of establishing military bases in this region," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "In future, the level of cooperation with Central Asian countries will only be increasing as the level of U.S. military presence in the region decreases," Abizaid added. On U.S.-Kazakh military cooperation, Abizaid commented, "We have a very good cooperation agreement with Kazakhstan on training." Abizaid was also scheduled to meet with Kazakh Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev during his visit. DK

A court in Temirtau on July 24 handed down a three-year suspended sentence to Bolat Abilov for insulting a police officer, Navigator reported. Abilov, who is the head of the Naghyz Ak Zhol opposition party, is also forbidden to travel abroad for three years. Mustakhim Tuleev, a lawyer representing Abilov, called the case "fabricated" and "politically motivated" and promised an appeal, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Petr Svoik, Abilov's representative in court, told RFE/RL that "this sentence was determined with the purpose of preventing Bolat Abilov from taking part in the next parliamentary election." The next elections to the lower house are scheduled for September 2009. DK

Kyrgyz police have been searching since July 23 for a group of three unidentified armed men in a mountainous region of Jalalabad Province, reported on July 24. Taalaibek Degenbaev, deputy director of the provincial Interior Ministry department, told the news agency that local residents alerted police to the men's presence. "An operative group was created on the basis of the report, and they have been combing through the area up until today -- so far without results," Degenbaev said. The report follows a police operation in Jalalabad in which five suspected members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 17, 2006). DK

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of Russia's Liberal-Democratic Party and deputy speaker of the State Duma, met with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov in Bishkek on July 24, reported. Zhirinovsky told journalists that Kyrgyzstan should restore dual citizenship with Russia and said that Kyrgyz workers should come to Russia to work in factories. On the international front, Zhirinovsky called the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan "of no use" and "dangerous for Kyrgyzstan." He said that Russia's base in Kyrgyzstan is "ensuring security in the region." Overall, Zhirinovsky said that he believes Kyrgyz-Russian relations are developing in a positive direction. DK

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on July 24 for talks centered on the expansion of mutual cooperation, IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad called ties between the two countries "very good." For his part, Niyazov said that the talks were "successful and fruitful," ITAR-TASS reported. IRNA reported that bilateral trade volume was $1.2 billion in 2005 and $600 million in the first half of 2006. DK

India's Spentex Industries has purchased the Uzbek textile manufacturer Toshkent-Toytepa-Tekstil for $81 million, reported on July 24. Spentex will pay for the state-owned enterprise over four years pending shareholder approval. DK

Visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said after talks with his Belarusian counterpart, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, on July 24 that he has found "yet another friend" in Belarus and added that he and Lukashenka should form a "fighting team" together, Belarusian and international news agencies reported. Chavez also congratulated Lukashenka on preventing a "color revolution" in Belarus, Belarusian Television reported. "We will be delighted to deal with such a man [Chavez] and such a state [Venezuela]," Lukashenka responded at a joint news conference with Chavez. "Honestly speaking, I have expected that our talks will bring a great economic effect.... Our economy is practically in full demand in Venezuela. Venezuela offers us everything we do not have," Lukashenka added. The Chavez-Lukashenka talks reportedly resulted in the signing of a declaration on political consultations and several documents on cooperation in scientific research and economy. JM

Verkhovna Rada speaker Oleksandr Moroz on July 24 warned President Viktor Yushchenko against dissolving the parliament, claiming that lawmakers would not comply with such a move, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Let's remember Russia in 1993, when hundreds of people died as a result of political intrigues," Moroz said in a televised address to the public. "It was a shame for the state.... Disbanding the [Ukrainian] parliament would lead to a civil conflict, and this would be an unpardonable tragedy, for which someone would have to be held accountable." On July 25, the Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution to convene a special parliamentary session later the same day on the political situation in the country, with President Yushchenko in attendance. Beginning on July 25, Yushchenko has the power to disband the legislature elected on March 26, as lawmakers failed to comply with a constitutional provision obliging them to form a new cabinet within 60 days of the previous government's resignation. JM

Kosova's leaders formally made their case for independence at a high-level one-day meeting in Vienna on July 24, Reuters reported the same day. Kosova President Fatmir Sejdiu said independence is "the beginning and end of our position" in a UN-backed meeting that also included Kosova Prime Minister Agim Ceku, Serbian President Boris Tadic, and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. "The will for independence cannot be ignored or negotiated away in talks," Sejdiu said. Kostunica responded that Serbia could offer "substantial autonomy," but added that Belgrade "cannot accept the creation of a separate state on 15 percent of its territory." Kostunica later declined to attend a joint lunch with the Kosovar Albanian delegation. United Nations envoy and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari proposed the talks, which were the highest-level meeting between the two sides since NATO drove Serbian forces out of Kosova in 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). BW

Erhard Busek, the coordinator of the EU-funded Balkan Stability Pact, said in an interview published on July 24 that Kosova's independence is inevitable, AFP reported the same day. "It is without doubt a long-term process, but at the end it will lead to independence," Busek told the German newspaper "Der Tagesspiegel." In a separate interview with the radio station Bayerischer Rundfunk, Busek said Belgrade's desire to keep Kosova inside Serbia "does not reflect the realities of today" given the changes in the province. "The ethnic Albanians of Kosovo believe independence is already a reality. But on the Serb side, they are defending the not very realistic viewpoint that things can continue as they were before," Busek said. BW

Momcilo Mandic, a former Bosnian Serb government official, pleaded not guilty to war crimes charges on July 25, dpa reported. Mandic told judges at the Sarajevo-based War Crimes Chamber of the State Court of Bosnia- Herzegovina that the charges brought against him on July 17 are "unfounded" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 2006). Mandic, who served as deputy interior minister and justice minister in the wartime Bosnian Serb government, was arrested in August 2005. He is accused of leading an attack by Bosnian Serb police, military, and paramilitary units against the Interior Ministry's training center in Sarajevo in April 1992. Mandic has also been indicted for organizing and maintaining detention centers for non-Serbs near Sarajevo between May and December 1992. BW

The Albanian government announced on July 23 that it has frozen the bank account of a businessman suspected by U.S. authorities of receiving funds from Osama bin Laden to set up a terror network, AP reported the same day. The businessman, identified as Abdul Latif Saleh, holds Jordanian and Albanian citizenship and was placed on a United Nations list that requires member states to impose a travel ban on him and block his assets. According to Albanian prosecutors cited by AP, Saleh left Albania in 2002. His last known residence was in the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. Treasury Department said in September 2005 that bin Laden gave Saleh $600,000 to create "extremist groups" in Albania. Also on July 23, Albanian authorities announced they have frozen the bank accounts of five Islamic charities and seized their property. BW

Albania's parliament voted on July 24 to recommend the removal of Prosecutor-General Theodhori Sollaku for abuse of office, AP reported the same day. President Alfred Moisiu must now decide whether to implement parliament's proposal. Sollaku's removal is supported by the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Sali Berisha, but opposition legislators boycotted the vote, arguing that the investigation of Sollaku's activities is illegal and violates parliamentary procedures. Albania's government began the process of sacking Sollaku on April 18, accusing him of incompetence and of hindering its fight against corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2006). A two-month parliamentary investigation alleged in a 200-page report that Sollaku's actions have cost the government $20 million in damages paid to people unfairly imprisoned. Sollaku has called the investigation a political attack orchestrated by Berisha. BW

The Islamic Republic of Iran has provided ideological inspiration for Hizballah since that Lebanese militant group's creation in 1982, and Tehran acknowledges that it supports Hizballah morally and politically. Moreover, a prominent Iranian journalist recently told RFE/RL that many of his compatriots sympathize with Hizballah and view it as a legitimate resistance organization.

The extent of any Iranian government involvement in the July 12 kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizballah or the earlier kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas is unclear, and Tehran has denied that it is involved in the current conflict. But Tehran has been active in generating public outrage over the events in Lebanon, and even if Iranian military personnel are not going there openly, other Iranians are volunteering to do so.

Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the father of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said in a July 18 letter to Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that he is ready to go to Lebanon to fight the "enemies of Islam and humanity," Iranian state television reported. Khomeini met with Nasrallah during a July 2 visit to Damascus, IRNA reported. The Pro-Justice Student Movement announced on July 15 that a convoy of students will be sent to Palestine and to Lebanon in the coming week, ILNA reported. A spokesman for the Commemoration Headquarters for the Martyrs of Islam's World Movement, identified only as Mohammadi, said on July 16 that 27 members who have been trained to carry out suicide bombings have been sent to Lebanon, Mehr News Agency reported. These people will take action if Israel attempts to occupy Lebanon, he said, and they also are ready to form resistance cells. Iran's Basij Resistance Force, which is an arm of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, issued a statement on July 16 in which it condemned the Israeli attack on Lebanon, condemned Western governments that support Israel, and pledged support for the Palestinians, according to the Basij News Agency. The statement added: "the Basij Resistance Force believes that Israel, the region's rancid cancerous tumor, must be wiped off the map."

While such enthusiasm and self-sacrifice is almost certainly welcomed by the Iranian leadership, the Iranian armed forces seems to have a greater sensitivity to the repercussions of amateurish Iranian combatants being captured or killed in Lebanon.

General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij, said on July 21 that groups with no official connections or proper authorization have raised the possibility of dispatching volunteer suicide bombers to Lebanon, Fars News Agency reported. Hejazi said this is nothing more than "propaganda" and -- although it might be well-intentioned -- it helps neither Iran nor Hizballah. "There no doubt exist better ways to defend the Islamic resistance," he added.

Allegations that Iranian military supplies and even personnel were involved in the conflict appeared almost as soon as hostilities commenced. Most recently, long-time defense correspondent Ze'ev Schiff wrote in the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" on July 21 that Iranian munitions are being trucked to Hizballah via Syria, and the Iranian Embassy is coordinating actual military operations. Schiff noted that the long-range Zilzal missiles that Iran has allegedly provided to Hizballah have not been used yet.

Hejazi of the Basij dismissed such allegations in his comments on July 21, adding that Israel makes unsubstantiated statements to hide its own failures.

Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, head of the Armed Forces General Staff, said on July 22 that there will be no Iranian military involvement in the Lebanese conflict, IRNA reported. "The Islamic Republic of Iran will just continue its political and diplomatic support for Lebanon," he said. Firuzabadi added that U.S. President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair planned the war.

Mohammad-Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, said on July 21 that everybody knows who is responsible for events in the Middle East, IRNA reported. He dismissed the allegations against Iran and added that all problems in the region stem from the Israeli occupation and its consequences. "These allegations emanate from the occupying regime and are relayed by Zionist quarters across the globe to overshadow its crimes and excuse its recent chronic setbacks in the face of a growing resistance in Palestine and Lebanon," he said.

While the Iranian government is keen to avoid the appearance of being involved in the current conflict, it has been quick to whip up public sentiment over the issue, possibly with the intention of diverting attention from more pressing problems, such as unemployment. There are hundreds of Friday Prayer leaders in Iran who are appointed by the central government and whose sermons are dictated or at least outlined by a central authority. Praise for Hizballah and criticism of the United States and Israel were major aspects of the sermons on July 21.

In Tehran, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said events in Lebanon and in Gaza were "engineered by the U.S. and Israel," state radio reported. The plan was prepared "weeks in advance," he said. Rafsanjani criticized international human rights organizations for their silence on these events. The Lebanese and Hizballah have survived and "resisted well," he said, adding, "They are the heroes, both Hizballah members and the Hizballah leader, our dear brother Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah. He is truly a historical figure in our world today."

Hashemi-Rafsanjani suggested that southern Lebanon might be occupied by foreign, pro-Israeli forces. He explained, "To remove their citizens, several powerful countries, such as Canada, America, and Britain, are bringing in military troops. Of course, it is apparently for taking out their citizens but [other] things could happen."

In the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Heidari also criticized human rights organizations for their alleged silence, Khuzestan Province television reported. "With a green light from Western governments, particularly America, the criminal Israel is murdering the oppressed people of Lebanon and Palestine," he added. Hizballah, he continued, is representing the Islamic world, and Arab and Muslim governments are therefore obliged to help it.

In Mashhad, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Ahmad Elmolhoda said Hizballah's resistance has revealed Israel's "aggressive visage of profanity and apostasy," IRNA reported. He called on Islamic countries to provide greater support for Hizballah. Elmolhoda added, "We hope that Israel, like the Taliban and Saddam which were the proteges of world arrogance, one day will turn into a source of disgrace and humiliation for America."

In the southern city of Bandar Abbas, Ayatollah Gholam Ali Naimabadi said, "Without a doubt, Israel is the manifestation of America's wrath," IRNA reported. He called for Muslims to "annihilate these superpowers."

In Ardabil, Hojatoleslam Hassan Ameli told his congregation that Hizballah did the right thing by seizing the Israeli soldiers and firing missiles at Israel, IRNA reported. Western silence shows that its pro-democracy slogans are meaningless, he added.

Pro-Hizballah and anti-Western statements were not confined to the pulpit, and there were related rallies across the country. Senior officials, political activists, students, and members of the public participated in a rally in Tehran on July 18 against Israeli activities in Palestine and Lebanon, IRNA reported. Parliamentarian Hussein Muzaffar read out a statement from the legislature in which Israeli activities were denounced as "brutal aggression" and "savagery," IRNA reported. The statement criticized the U.S. for vetoing an anti-Israeli resolution in the UN Security Council.

Ali Zoham, the Hizballah envoy in Tehran, also spoke at the rally, Fars News Agency reported. "We are now fighting with the worst creatures of God," he said. The conflict is not about the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizballah on July 12, Zoham said, "Rather, this is an idealistic, ideological, and cultural war -- the war of Islam with blasphemy." Zoham said Hizballah is willing to fight for another century, until it "demolish[es] the Israeli regime exactly the same way that we destroyed the Israeli townships, settlements, and navigation fleet."

Numerous rallies took place in the southwestern Khuzestan Province. At an event on July 19, a demonstrator said: "Israel is another word for America," according to provincial television. Another said, "America and Britain naturally support Israel."

The Khuzestan Province representative to the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Abbas Kabi, said on July 20 that the Zionists are trying to wipe out Muslims, provincial television reported. He urged locals to participate in a rally the next day. He added, "If the Zionists consider the myth of the Holocaust as acts of inhuman crime, they themselves are now committing bigger inhuman crimes in Lebanon and Palestine."

Tens of thousands of people participated in a July 21 rally in Ahvaz, provincial television reported. They chanted "Death to Israel," and a young girl said, "I have come here today to tell the children of Palestine and Lebanon that we support them."

With the outset of hostilities, Israeli officials immediately portrayed Hizballah as an instrument of Iranian and Syrian policy, but several Lebanese observers reject this perspective.

"To suggest Hizballah attacked [Israel on July 12] on the orders of Tehran and Damascus is to grossly oversimplify a strong strategic and ideological relationship," Lebanese American University's Professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb wrote in a July 15 commentary in "The Guardian." Syria, Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas have overlapping interests and "form a strategic axis." However, Hizballah has "never allowed any foreign power to dictate its military strategy."

Leading figures in Hizballah also deny that Iran is telling the organization what to do. Haj Hassan Hussein, a Hizballah deputy, said, "We acknowledge that Iran helps us in humanitarian and civilian matters but we are the masters of our decisions," "Le Figaro" reported on July 21.

Hizballah Secretary-General Nasrallah said on July 20 that neither Iran nor Syria was informed of plans to kidnap the Israelis, Al-Jazeera reported. Nasrallah said a conflict involving Lebanon could last three months but it will eventually end, and it will have no impact on the Iranian nuclear case. Moreover, he added, a Hizballah that is weakened in a war will be less able to help Iran.

Nasrallah said the homes of all leading Hizballah figures have been destroyed, and to suggest that they were acting in the interest of Iran or Syria is insulting. "Yes, we are friends of Syria and Iran, but for 24 years we benefited from our friendship with Syria and Iran for the sake of Lebanon."

Hajj and Religious Endowments Minister Ne'matullah Shahrani on July 24 defended the government's planned reinstatement of the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice as a social necessity, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. A similarly named department gained notoriety for its brutal hard-line tactics under the Taliban regime. Human rights groups have raised concerns about the potential for abuse of religious minorities and women since word spread of its impending reinstatement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 14, 2006). New York-based Human Rights Watch warned in a statement on July 18 that the "proposed vice and virtue department's vague standards for upholding morality could be used to silence critical voices, and further limit women's and girls' access to work, health care and education." Shahrani dismissed fears of abuses by the department, saying its staff members will use the pulpits of mosques and other means to invite the public to refrain from morally corrupt behavior. He added that the department is necessitated by social corruption that threatens Afghan society. Shahrani insisted the department is not similar to the one that existed under the Taliban, and he said it will never resort to violence to enforce its pronouncements. The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice was first established under the Mujahedin government headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani and later meted out harsh punishments prescribed by the Taliban. AT

A message dated July 24 and posted on a Taliban website claims that Mawlawi Mohammad Yunos Khales died on July 19 after a long illness. The message says that when the Taliban regime came to power, Khales pledged allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Omar and ordered his commanders to be loyal to the Taliban and help that regime. After the fall of the Taliban, Khales continued his jihad. The Internet message claims the reins of Khales's Hizb-e Islami are now in the hands of his son, Mawlawi Anwar al-Haq Mujahed. Reports suggested that Khales called for jihad against the "crusaders" in both 2003 and 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2003, and March 1, 2005). Khales led one of the seven Mujahedin parties that were based in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and led a party jointly with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar early in the struggle against the Soviet Army before they split to form two Hizb-e Islami factions. Khales did not generally take part in the political maneuverings and the civil war that followed the fall of the communist government in 1992 until he resurfaced after the fall of the Taliban. His traditional base of support lay in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan. Khales's son, Mujahed, has signed proclamations in which he is described as the acting head of Hizb-e Islami since 2005. AT

A suicide attack that targeted coalition forces in Kandahar Province on July 24 injured two Canadian soldiers and left the attacker dead, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Mohammad Yusof called AIP to claim responsibility for the attack, claiming that 11 Canadians were killed. A Taliban website the same day posted a message claiming that eight Canadians were killed and seven main battle tanks were destroyed in a suicide attack by a mujahed of the "Islamic Emirate." The name of the alleged attacker is omitted in that message, appearing only as empty brackets. Contradictory and exaggerated claims have become a hallmark of the neo-Taliban -- whether as a tactic or a sign of a lack of organized command. AT

Unidentified assailants have killed a Canadian national in the Nahrin district of Baghlan Province, provincial police chief General Mohammad A'waz told Pajhwak News Agency on July 24. The victim was working on a project to build a school in Nahrin. Mohammad A'waz said the Canadian had not informed police of his activities in the district. The police have arrested three suspects in the case. Details including the name and employer of the victim have not been released. AT

Government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on July 24 that the Islamic Republic will not send military personnel to Lebanon to participate in the current conflict, IRNA reported. On July 23, the Pro-Justice Student Movement announced that the first group of student volunteers will head toward Lebanon and Palestine on July 26, ILNA reported. They reportedly will leave from Behesht-i Zahra cemetery after noon prayers and will participate in the defense of these locations. Also on July 23, the fifth consignment of Iranian aid destined for Lebanon arrived in Damascus, IRNA reported. Two aircraft carrying medicine and medical equipment from the Red Crescent Society came on the heels of four other aid consignments, Iranian charge d'affaires in Syria Ghazanfar Roknabadi said. "This is apart from our political support for the Islamic resistance movement against the assault of the Israeli regime," Roknabadi added. He described the provision of ambulances and food, and he said more ambulances, food, and medicine will be sent to Lebanon. BS

Tabriz-based "Nada-yi Azarabadegan" Editor Abolfazl Vesali was sentenced by the East Azerbaijan Province press court on July 24 to six months in jail and the newspaper's license revoked for six months, ILNA reported. Vesali said he was accused of inciting the public with the materials he published, and he spent 45 days in jail despite reportedly having posted bail. The court has already sealed the newspaper's offices and taken the furniture, Vesali said, adding that he will appeal the sentence. Vesali criticized the provincial press union for its failure to speak out on his behalf. The daily was shut down on June 1 over its reporting in connection with ethnically based riots that took place in May, ILNA reported on June 2. BS

Iran's ambassador to Ankara, Firuz Dolatabadi, said on July 24 that the United States and Israel are supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Istanbul's NTV reported. Dolatabadi added that Iran and Turkey are cooperating in the fight against the PKK. The U.S. State Department lists the PKK (also known as Kongra-Gel) as a "foreign terrorist organization," as does Iran. BS

Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on July 24 that talks on the sale of Iranian natural gas to India are continuing, IRNA reported. Over the weekend, Indian media reported that Iran has increased the price it is demanding to supply natural gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2006). The original contract -- to supply 5 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) over 25 years -- set a maximum price of $3.25 per million British thermal units (MBTU). Now, Iran reportedly wants $5.10 per MBTU. Moreover, on July 23, Iranian Petroleum Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh warned that Tehran will not sell gas to India and Pakistan at the price they are proposing, Fars News Agency reported. He reportedly added that the agreement has not yet been finalized. "If the Indian side is not ready to buy our gas at its real price, we have no obligation to sell it at the price lower than the real one," Vaziri-Hamaneh said, adding that India and Pakistan should forget about the lower price. BS

In his first official visit to Britain, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on July 24, Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Speaking about the security situation in Iraq, Al-Maliki said "certain aspects in our local forces...need development" and that "when that happens, foreign troops can start leaving," BBC reported on July 24. Blair affirmed Iraq's "capacity to defeat extremism." Al-Maliki's visit met some criticism at home. In a statement issued on July 24, Falah Shanshal, a parliamentarian affiliated with the bloc loyal to the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, condemned the visit and called upon al-Maliki "not [to] sign any deals that would legitimize the occupation or extend its tenure," Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. BAW

Security in Baghdad will top the agenda at talks between Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush on July 25, AP reported on July 24. "The focal point right now for terror in Iraq is the area in and around Baghdad, and that obviously is going to be a high priority for the president and the prime minister," White House spokesperson Tony Snow told reporters on July 24. "It's pretty clear that there's an attempt in Baghdad to create as much chaos and havoc as possible," Snow said, adding that the security plan, which Bush praised in a June 13 visit to Baghdad, "has not achieved its objectives." Al-Maliki wrote in a "Wall Street Journal" article, published on July 24, that "we must be realistic in measuring success and setbacks. There are serious challenges facing my new government and my people. But Iraq, as a sovereign nation, must stand on its own and find solutions unique to our sensibilities," adding "we will succeed." BAW

Six weeks after the launch of a crackdown on violence in Iraq, dubbed Operation Forward Together, military commanders in Iraq have decided that more U.S. and Iraqi troops should be deployed in the Iraqi capital to curb the surge of sectarian violence, AFP reported on July 24. Some U.S. troops meant to be deployed elsewhere in Iraq "have been redirected to Baghdad," said U.S. Major Scott Coulson. A senior U.S. Defense Department official told AP on July 24 that the new deployment includes backup troops stationed in Kuwait. Two Iraqi military brigades will be added to the force securing Baghdad, the official said. A U.S. army spokesman, Major-General William Caldwell, told reporters on July 24 that the U.S. military is targeting death squads, AP reported the same day. "We will do whatever it takes to bring security to Baghdad," Caldwell said. General George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said that the additional troops will take to the streets of mostly Sunni neighborhoods, such as al-Dorah, al-Amariyah and al-Ghazaliyah, where confidence in the Shi'ite-dominated police and army is low, AP reported on July 24. BAW

Mahmud al-Mashhadani, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, told reporters on July 24 that the captors of a female member of parliament, Taysir al-Mashhadani, have contacted him and asked for a ransom of $1 million to secure her release, the daily "Al-Sabah" reported. Al-Mashhadani did not identify the captors. Taysir al-Mashhadani was abducted on July 2. Her kidnappers earlier demanded the release of 25 jailed Shi'ites in return for her release (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3 and 10, 2006). Al-Mashhadani added that the Iraqi parliament and government need to reach an understanding with the militants in order to win their confidence and convince them to lay down their arms. He also said that the government is currently incapable of providing security. BAW

The last 280 Japanese ground troops to leave Iraq arrived back in Tokyo on July 25, ending their two and a half year presence in Iraq, Reuters reported the same day. "It was tough, but we are proud that [the troops] carried out their duties and made a big international contribution...and could return home without ever being involved in combat activities," Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe told reporters at a news conference. The Japanese troops completed their withdrawal from the city of al-Samawah on July 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 2006). BAW