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Newsline - August 25, 2006

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on August 23 that his government is taking a cautious attitude to Iran's response to the demands of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, regarding Tehran's nuclear program, reported. He argued that "it is very important to grasp nuances, find constructive elements, if any, and make up our mind whether it is possible to work further with Teheran on the basis of the well-known proposals of the six powers. Russia will continue pursuing a line on searching for a negotiated political settlement to the situation with regard to the Iranian nuclear program and strive to preserve the role of the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] and to prevent an erosion of the nonproliferation regime. For this purpose, we are ready to use further our bilateral contacts with the Iranian side as well as the mechanisms of multilateral talks and the potential of the United Nations Security Council" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20 and 28, and August 4, 2006). U.S. and German officials in particular have expressed disappointment with the Iranian response. German Chancellor Angela Merkel told N24 television on August 24 that Tehran's response lacked any pledge to stop its uranium-enrichment program. PM

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Magadan on August 25 on a tour of Russia's Far East that "speculation about sanctions [against Iran] is premature and inexpedient, to say the least," Interfax reported. He added that "Russia will, in any case, continue to advocate a political and diplomatic settlement of the Iranian nuclear program [issue] in full and strict compliance with all nonproliferation regimes and provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty." Ivanov also commented that he knows "of no instances in world practice and previous experience in which sanctions have achieved their aim and proved effective." Ivanov will discuss the Middle East, North Korea, and bilateral military relations with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Fairbanks, Alaska, on August 27, "The Washington Post" reported on August 25. Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reviewed developments in Iran and Lebanon on August 24 in a telephone conversation at Rice's request, reported. The ministry's website did not elaborate. PM

President Vladimir Putin is still considering whether to send Russian peacekeepers to Lebanon, reported on August 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2006). Defense Minister Ivanov said in Magadan on August 25 that Russia is "studying the situation. It is not yet clear what the status of the peacekeeping forces is, what their rights are, what they should do there, and what mandate they have." Ivanov did not, however, rule out the possibility of Russian engineers and other specialists going to Lebanon to help restore infrastructure destroyed during the recent conflict. Meanwhile in Grozny, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov told Interfax on August 25 that any "decision on whether or not to send a peacekeeping contingent to any conflict zone is a matter for the country's president. If such a decision is made, I do not have the slightest doubts that servicemen of our security structures will unconditionally execute it and will be able to make a worthy contribution to the establishment of peace in the Lebanese-Israeli conflict zone. Our servicemen went through the hardships of the war period in Chechnya, received excellent training, have strict discipline, and will be able to worthily represent Russia within the UN's peacekeeping contingent." PM

Unnamed "security sources" in Conakry, Guinea, told Reuters on August 24 that the armed men who boarded a Russian tanker off the West African coast on August 22 were members of the security forces and not pirates, as some Russian media suggested earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2006). The source said that "this boat was boarded and inspected by members of the Guinean Navy, who surprised it while it was dealing in fuel products in Guinean waters without authorization." He noted that the Russian ship "was flying no flag, and its owners and crew members know perfectly well what that means. It's very serious." Referring to the Russian suggestions that the armed Guineans were pirates, the source commented that "just by looking at the members of the [Russian] crew, any intelligent person can see that they're the ones who look like pirates." PM

A new Defense Ministry study indicates that only a maximum of 19 percent of contract soldiers reenlist for a second stint in the military when their three-year contracts expire, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on August 24. This trend bodes ill for the hopes of some top Russian officials to move away from a conscript military to a professional one. The study blamed low wages and a lack of social-support infrastructure for the high turnover. PM

Viktor Ishayev, who is the long-serving governor of Khabarovsk Krai, said in Moscow on August 24 that his "attitude is negative" toward the possible leasing to China of 1 million hectares of forest land in the Russian Far East, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2006). Ishayev stressed that a similar program of leasing forest land to North Korea led to "colossal ecological, economic, and legal problems." In contrast, he pointed out that foreign timber companies, including some from the United States, are working well in the region to restore forests, build roads, and help extinguish forest fires. He stressed that the regional timber industry must be competitive and based on market principles. Some critics fear that the Chinese might not prove willing to leave when their contracts expire. PM

Unidentified gunmen opened fire late on August 24 and seriously wounded Aslan Khamkhoyev, an Ingush police officer seconded to the Russian joint military headquarters in Chechnya, and reported. Khamkhoyev was the fifth Ingush police officer to be targeted within the past week. Also on August 24, gunmen in Magas opened fire on a vehicle in which Sultan Kushtov, a close relative of the unnamed head of Ingushetian Prime Minister Ibragim Malsagov's bodyguard, was traveling, injuring Kushtov and his fellow passengers, reported. LF

Moscow has not informed Yerevan of any plans to reopen temporarily the Verkhny Lars border crossing between Georgia and Russia, Armenian Foreign Ministry acting spokesman Vladimir Karapetian told Noyan Tapan on August 24. That crossing, the only overland route by which Armenian producers can transport goods to Russia, was closed without prior warning in July for repairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 12, and 13, 2006). The Georgian daily "Akhali taoba" reported on August 24 that Russia intends to reopen the crossing for 10 days to permit Armenians stranded there to enter the Russian Federation. LF

In line with an Armenian government decision made public only recently, only 10 percent of the estimated 300 male students admitted this year to the privately run European Regional Academy will be eligible to postpone their compulsory military service until after completion of their studies, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on August 24. Former Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who joined the opposition three months ago following a policy disagreement with President Robert Kocharian, is president of that academy's board of trustees. Two other privately run universities will be entitled to grant deferments to 70 and 200 male students, respectively. Parents of prospective students who applied to the European Regional Academy before the new restrictions were made public plan to protest to the Armenian government. LF

Former Economic Development Ministry Department head Ali-Huseyn Shalyyev died from loss of blood after slashing his veins with a disposable razor on August 24 in the Justice Ministry medical facility where he recently underwent surgery, Turan and reported. Shalyyev faced charges of embezzlement and abuse of his official position. His former boss, Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev, was dismissed and arrested last October on charges of conspiring to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership, and was implicated last month in the March 2005 murder of journalist Elmar Huseynov. LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry released a statement on August 24 protesting what it termed "biased and unfair" statements made by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin in an interview published in the August 23 issue of the Russian daily "Izvestia," Caucasus Press reported. The Georgian statement dismissed the reservations Karasin expressed concerning the tensions engendered by the Georgian police operation in late July in the Kodori Gorge. It rejected his argument that the Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia should remain there to protect the local population, who are Russian citizens, noting that the distribution of Russian passports to the population of both regions was illegal. And it rejected the parallel Karasin drew between Kosova on the one hand and the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester on the other. Karasin argued that official recognition of Kosova as a sovereign state would set a precedent for resolving other so-called frozen conflicts in the same way. The Georgian response rejected that argument as based on double standards. In a separate statement, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze said statements by Russian officials, including Karasin, should reflect Russia's proclaimed status as an "impartial mediator," Caucasus Press reported on August 25. LF

The mission of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kyrgyzstan has issued a statement expressing concern over the recent disappearance of five Uzbek citizens in Kyrgyzstan, reported on August 24. The UNHCR noted that a representative of the banned Uzbek opposition party Erk disappeared in Osh on August 10, followed by two Uzbek asylum seekers who were apparently abducted from Osh on August 16-17, and two Uzbek refugees believed to have been abducted from Osh on August 23. identified the two refugees who disappeared on August 23 as Bakhtiyor Ahmedov and Ilhom Abdunabiev. The UNHCR statement noted that the organization regrets "this decline in the Kyrgyz asylum system, which has been an example in Central Asia until recently," reported. DK

The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek similarly expressed concern about the Uzbek-refugee disappearances in an August 24 statement, reported. The statement noted that the UNHCR and Kyrgyz NGOs have provided information that two Uzbek refugees abducted from Osh "are currently at a remand center in the Uzbek town of Andijon." The embassy called on the Kyrgyz government to investigate the reports and to safeguard the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also issued a statement of concern on August 25. "We're afraid these men have been handed over to Uzbek authorities and that their lives are in danger," Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said. "Security for asylum seekers is poor in most of Kyrgyzstan and dire in the south, so the UN should move them straight to the capital." DK

Russian Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov and Mahmad Ubaydulloev, speaker of Tajikistan's upper chamber of parliament, signed a cooperation accord between the two legislative bodies in Dushanbe on August 24, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Mironov noted that bilateral trade volume in the first half of 2006 has risen 60 percent year-on-year to more than $200 million. DK

Turkmenistan's Ministry of Culture has sent out 2,000 copies of President Saparmurat Niyazov's "Rukhnama" (Book of the Spirit) to 161 countries, reported on August 24. Copies translated into 32 foreign languages are being sent to the world's 1,222 largest libraries. According to the official TDH news service, the international distribution of the "Rukhnama" will "allow millions of people to discover for themselves the rich spiritual world of the Turkmen people, its unique traditions, and its glorious centuries-long tradition." DK

Uzbekistan plans to raise the price of the natural gas it sells to Kyrgyzstan from $55 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2007, the BBC's Kyrgyz Service reported on August 24, quoting Salamat Aitikeev, deputy director of Kyrgyz national gas company Kyrgyzgaz. But Kyrgyzgaz Director Igor Chudinov told the news agency that while prices are likely to rise, the exact terms are not yet known. "It is certain that gas prices will go up. But no one today can say exactly that they will be $100 per 1,000 cubic meters," Chudinov said. He added that Uzbekistan intends to "review price policy in line with international standards for calculating shipments and the situation on the world fuel market." Chudinov said the official price for Uzbek gas will probably be announced in October. DK

Trade ministers from the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met in Tashkent on August 24 to discuss the implementation of decisions made at the SCO summit in Shanghai in June, UzA reported. The meeting focused on improving trade relations among SCO member states, with participants expressing satisfaction at the organization's growing effectiveness as a facilitator of closer economic ties. The SCO comprises full members China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. DK

Mikalay Charhinets, chairman of the Committee on International Affairs and National Security in the Council of the Republic, Belarus's upper house, told journalists in Minsk on August 24 that a draft Constitutional Act of the Russia-Belarus Union State is "99 percent ready," Belapan reported. Charhinets expressed hope that the Belarusian and Russian presidents, Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin, will approve the draft and that national referendums on its adoption will be held in both countries as early as this year. Charhinets revealed that the two sides still cannot agree whether the union state should be governed by a common president or a Supreme State Council comprising the presidents, prime ministers, and heads of both chambers of the parliaments in the respective countries. According to Charhinets, "public discussions" preceding the referendums would last at least one month. JM

The Union of Belarusian Writers (SBP), which was founded in 1934, will be evicted from its longtime headquarters, the House of Writers in Minsk, on August 30 if it fails to settle a rent dispute with the presidential administration by that date, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported on August 24. The presidential administration took control of the House of Writers in 1997 and ordered the SPB to pay rent. The SPB, which was stripped of government support in 2001, refused to pay, arguing that the House of Writers was built partly with writers' royalties. The lease contract for renting the House of Writers by the SPB expired in 2003 and was not renewed. According to a court decision, the SPB owes some $25,000 to the presidential administration in overdue rent. Belarusian writer Volha Ipatava told journalists on August 24 that the SPB is considering appealing for financial aid from the Belarusian public and international community to pay the sum. JM

The Minsk City Court on August 24 rejected a complaint by "Komsomolskaya pravda v Belorussii" against a lower court's decision obliging the newspaper to pay 60 million rubles ($28,000) in damages to State Customs Committee chief Alyaksandr Shpileuski, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Earlier this year, the newspaper published an interview with a sports agent named Mikalay Shpileuski and erroneously illustrated it with a photograph of Alyaksandr Shpileuski. The State Customs Committee chief did not accept a public apology by the editors and filed a complaint to the court, which imposed a heavy fine on the newspaper. According to Yuliya Slutskaya, the newspaper's editor, the verdict sets a "dangerous precedent" for other Belarusian media. "The complaint related to [an exclusively] technical error.... The text [illustrated with Shpileuski's photograph] was absolutely neutral, it could in no way defame anybody," Slutskaya told RFE/RL. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on August 25 took part in an unveiling ceremony of a memorial for young Ukrainians who fought for an independent Ukraine in 1918 against the Moscow-led Bolsheviks, Channel 5 reported. The memorial was erected in the settlement of Kruti in Chernihiv Oblast, where in January 1918 several hundred Ukrainian students from Kyiv fell in an unequal battle against Bolshevik troops advancing on the Ukrainian capital. JM

Prosecutors in Serbia announced on August 24 that they have charged two former policemen with the 1999 murders of three Albanian Americans, B92, Beta, and international news agencies reported the same day. Agron, Mehmet, and Ilijem Bitichi were born in the United States and lived in New York before they traveled to Kosova in 1999 during the war. They were killed in 1999 and their bodies were discovered in 2001. Serbia's war crimes prosecutor's office announced it has issued an indictment for former police officers Sreten Popovic and Milos Stojanovic for the murders. "They are charged with participating in the liquidation of the brothers Bitichi," the statement said, according to Reuters. "They illegally imprisoned the victims on July 8, 1999...and handed them over to unidentified masked members of the Serbian Interior Ministry who took them to a garbage pit and shot them." Earlier this month, the war crimes prosecutor's office said former police General Vlastimir Djordjevic, who is believed to be hiding in Russia, was involved in the killings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 4, 2006). BW

Martti Ahtisaari, the UN envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, said on August 24 that ethnic Albanians and Serbs must reach agreement on practical matters like decentralization and minority rights regardless of the province's ultimate status, Reuters reported the same day. "On the status issue, the parties' opinions are very [well-]known and they haven't moved. These [practical] discussions have been continuing all along and progress is slowly being made," Ahtisaari said during a visit to the tense and ethnically divided town of Mitrovica. Ahtisaari was in Kosova to try to jump-start talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23 and 24, 2006). Among the practical issues being discussed are the protection of Serbian Orthodox monasteries in the province and a decentralization plan giving Serbian areas greater local self-governance. BW

Serbian leaders in northern Kosova complained during Ahtisaari's visit that it is difficult for them to work with the Kosovar authorities in Prishtina, who seek nothing less than independence, Reuters reported on August 24. "We want cooperation with the Albanian community but we cannot cooperate with the Kosovo government, which is working purely for independence and we cannot agree with that," said Slavisa Ristic, mayor of the mostly Serbian town of Zubin Potok. Dragisa Milovic, mayor of the mostly Serbian town of Zvecan, said it is important for local authorities to have control over issues close to people's lives. "The number of new municipalities is important but it is also important that the authority of the local governments is extended and strong authority is transferred in the areas of health, education, police, and the judiciary," Milovic said. BW

Sulejman Tihic, the current chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's rotating three-member Presidency, said on August 23 that the country is indivisible and talk of an independence referendum is unacceptable, AKI reported the next day. Leaders in Republika Srpska have been floating the idea of holding an independence referendum since Montenegro voted for independence in May. In a written statement to Bosnia's Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic and Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik on August 23, Tihic, a Bosnian Muslim, called on the Bosnian Serb officials to "stop entertaining the public and deceiving [Republika Srpska] citizens that a referendum on secession is possible." Tihic said secession is legally impossible, because there are no such provisions in Bosnia's constitution. "Those who don't like it, who are still dreaming of a failed project of Greater Serbia, or some Serbian state in Bosnia, can go somewhere else, but they can't take with them an inch of Bosnian territory," Tihic said. BW

The office of Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha released a statement on August 23 denying any connection to Koco Danaj, who called for a Greater Albania in a Kosovar newspaper. The Albanian-language daily "Epoka" on August 22 quoted Koco Danaj, whom it identified as a political adviser to Berisha, as saying that all Albanians living in the region should unite to form a "natural Albania" by 2013. International news agencies reported Serbian Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic's condemnation of Danaj's comments the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2006). "I would like to clarify that Mr. Koco Danaj is not an adviser to Prime Minister Berisha," read a statement posted on the website of Berisha's spokesman ( " Furthermore, Mr. Danaj has never served in any capacity in any of the administrations led by Mr. Berisha. I would like to express the regret that Mr. Draskovic rushed into [hasty] statements before checking these facts," the statement added." BW

Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Mahmud al-Hasani al-Sarkhi grabbed the spotlight last week when he challenged the authority of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani through a brazen attempt to gain access to Karbala's sacred Imam Husayn Shrine.

In his attempt to wrest a greater role for himself and his followers in Karbala, the cleric's militia clashed with government forces, leading to the arrest of some 300 militiamen, according to a statement issued by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office on August 16. While observers say the cleric poses no real threat to Iraqi security, al-Hasani claims thousands of supporters across southern and central Iraq.

Al-Hasani appears to have risen to prominence following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 through his staunch opposition to the U.S. invasion and the subsequent establishment of the Iraqi Governing Council. He later opposed the interim and transitional governments, as well as the December 2005 election that brought the current government to power.

Al-Hasani stands strongly opposed to Iranian influence in Iraq, and has criticized Iranian-backed political groups operating in Iraq, such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al-Da'wah Party, which is led by Prime Minister al-Maliki.

While he opposes Iranian influence, al-Hasani does support the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy in Iraq. A former student of Iraqi Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, al-Hasani subscribes to vilayat al-faqih, or rule of the jurisprudent, as practiced in Iran.

His spokesman Haidar al-Abadi claimed in 2004 that the cleric had some 25,000 to 30,000 supporters. In April 2005, al-Hasani announced the creation of his religious seminary and the establishment of his militia, called Husayn's Army, apparently named after Imam Husayn, over whose tomb he recently clashed with the government in Karbala.

Al-Hasani believes himself to be the supreme religious authority, above all other ayatollahs, including al-Sistani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Meanwhile, his detractors have questioned the 40-year-old cleric's elevated status of ayatollah, and have balked at his delusions of grandeur. Indeed, as a Lebanese cleric pointed out in June, al-Hasani has crossed the line, going so far as to claim he has shared tea with the revered hidden imam, al-Mahdi.

Back on earth, al-Hasani has even clashed with his onetime ally Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of his deceased former teacher Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. Although al-Hasani was once described as the religious authority for the majority of al-Sadr supporters, his relationship with the younger al-Sadr today is severely strained.

Al-Hasani's supporters backed al-Sadr militiamen in their clash with Ayatollah al-Sistani in Karbala in October 2003 and again against U.S. forces in Al-Najaf in 2004.

But in recent months al-Hasani has grown critical of al-Sadr, particularly after the latter's decision to allow his supporters to take part in the December parliamentary elections. Subsequent differences have further strained the relationship.

While al-Hasani claims to have a base of support in Karbala, he was widely criticized in Karbala as early as 2003 for confrontations between his supporters and coalition forces. At least one Iraqi newspaper, "Al-Nahdah," blamed al-Hasani for the October 2003 standoff between al-Sadr forces and the U.S. military there.

In August 2005, his supporters demonstrated in Baghdad and Karbala, demanding that the Interior and Defense ministries close the file against him and drop an arrest warrant.

Al-Hasani's most recent clash with the government follows demands for a greater role for him and his supporters in Karbala. The cleric's supporters have held several demonstrations in the holy city in recent months, including at least two in June, demanding an end to Iranian interference over Iraq's holy shrines and the closure of the Iranian Consulate in the city.

Earlier this month, al-Hasani and his supporters demanded the cleric's participation in daily and Friday Prayer sermons and in the caretaking activities of the Imam Husayn Shrine after guards at the shrine denied entry to al-Hasani's supporters on several occasions, the cleric claimed.

Since 2003, a committee appointed by Ayatollah al-Sistani has been responsible for the assignment of shrine duties and the prayer leadership in the holy city. The committee is headed by al-Sistani representatives Ahmad al-Safi and Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i. The committee was responsible for security for the shrines and security teams were reportedly staffed by Shi'a with diverse political leanings. Members of SCIRI, Al-Da'wah, and Iraqi Hizballah provided extra security support during religious festivals and holy days.

After al-Hasani questioned al-Sistani's authority in Karbala in early August, al-Sistani reportedly asked Salih al-Haydari, the head of Shi'ite Endowments in Baghdad, to officially deem al-Safi and al-Karbala'i guardians of the Imam Abbas and Imam Husayn shrines, respectively.

Clashes subsequently erupted on August 16 between al-Hasani and his supporters and shrine security forces, with the latter eventually seeking backup from Iraqi security forces. Ten militiamen loyal to al-Hasani were killed and 281 arrested, Prime Minister al-Maliki's office said in a statement.

According to a correspondent for RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in Karbala, militiamen connected with SCIRI's Badr Forces and al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army did not take part in the clashes with al-Hasani loyalists on August 16, but both militias were present in the city, offering protection to administrative buildings.

Calm was eventually restored, but not before pro-al-Hasani protesters took to the streets in Karbala, Al-Nasiriyah, and Al-Hillah on August 16 and 17. Al-Hasani spokesman Mustafa al-Thabiti told Al-Sharqiyah television on August 17 that the cleric's supporters would continue to rally against Iran's influence in Iraq. Al-Thabiti claimed that the majority of Karbala Governorate Council members were Iranians "who hold both Iraqi and Iranian passports" and who take their orders from clergy in Qom. Al-Hasani has more than 500 "martyrdom seekers" at his disposal in 10 different governorates ready to die for his cause, al-Thabiti added.

While al-Hasani's profile has certainly been elevated in recent months following his campaign to eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq, the cleric currently poses no real threat.

While he arguably garners sizeable grassroots support, particularly among Iraqi Shi'a weary of Iran's growing influence in Iraq -- "Al-Zaman" reported on August 20 that Persian is steadily replacing Arabic as the dominant language in Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Al-Basrah -- he has seriously damaged his own credibility by claiming elevated religious status and otherworldly contacts with the long-awaited Imam al-Mahdi.

Moreover, al-Hasani's strained relations with nearly every Shi'ite political party have elicited more criticism than respect, and further delegitimized his cause in several cities, including Al-Basrah, where he has clashed with security services on several occasions. Al-Hasani maintains the clashes were the result of a campaign by the Iranian-sponsored political party Al-Fadilah.

It is difficult to predict whether al-Hasani could ever rise to the level of al-Sadr in terms of on-the-ground support. While his message is one that resonates -- no to occupation, no to Iranian influence -- his opposition to federalism and the constitution and his desire to establish a theocracy would draw little popular support in the south.

Al-Hasani also poses no real threat to the Shi'ite militias that currently hold power over much of central and southern Iraq. Although the cleric has accused the Iranian religious establishment in Qom of trying to assassinate him, it is likely that Iran views al-Hasani as little more than an annoyance.

Al-Hasani will garner no sympathy from multinational forces should he run into trouble with his Shi'ite rivals, and not just because of his declared antipathy towards the U.S. military presence in Iraq. U.S. forces pledged a $50,000 reward for al-Hasani's arrest in October 2003 after the cleric's bodyguards allegedly gunned down three military policemen. With little Shi'ite support, a U.S. arrest warrant against him, and Iran as his enemy, it seems likely that al-Hasani's star will soon burn out.

Afghan Education Minister Hanif Atmar said on August 23 that his ministry plans to establish religious schools in all 34 provinces of Afghanistan for those students who wish to acquire religious education, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on August 23. Atmar made the statement while laying the foundation stone of a religious boarding school (madrasah) in Kabul Province's Bagram district. "We will build a pure Islamic education system in our country," Atmar said. He added that once the estimated $30 million project is completed, there will be no need for Afghans to seek Islamic education abroad. The madrasah in Bagram will accommodate 450 students. Most former Taliban and neo-Taliban leaders, as well as a large number of their recruits, come from madrasahs in Pakistan. The attempt by Kabul to establish indigenous religious schools, if successful, could mark a major step toward taking charge of the country's religious-education system, which currently is the domain of opponents and is largely foreign-based. AT

The Union of Afghan Banks issued a statement on August 24 expressing its concern over a purported increase in the number of robberies at commercial banks, state-run Afghan National Television reported. The statement did not offer a figure, but claimed that thieves have worn police uniforms in every case. The union urged the Afghan government to be aware of the bank heists and requested serious measures to protect banks. AT

Participants at a meeting in Kabul of the Tripartite Commission -- which includes military and diplomatic representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the U.S.-led coalition along with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) -- have agreed to establish joint patrols along the Afghan-Pakistani border, the Karachi-based "Dawn" daily reported on August 24. The commission also concluded that the Afghan and Pakistani militaries have improved their operations targeting common enemies through better communication. AT

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said on August 24 that the Iranian response to an international proposal meant to resolve the controversy over its nuclear program should eliminate the other side's concerns and also protect Iran's right to use nuclear energy, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7 and August 23, 2006). Larijani said Iran is amenable to the resumption of negotiations and anticipates the views of its interlocutors. Official details on the Iranian response have not been made available yet, but Larijani said, "Iran's response partly deals with the favorite topic of the 5+1 group [China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, plus Germany], namely the security arrangements of the region." He added, "Given the present sensitive conditions of the region, Iran is prepared to assist promote sustainable peace in the region." BS

Argentina's "La Nacion" newspaper quoted Lebanese Tourism Minister Joseph Sarkis, a member of the Christian Lebanese Forces, on August 22 as saying he believes Iran is discouraging Hizballah from disarming. Sarkis reportedly said Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah should return his arsenal to Iran or make it part of the Lebanese Army. Sarkis said the Lebanese people oppose war: "Only Hizballah wants it, and that is because Iran wants it." He added, "[Hizballah] destroyed the country with its war and now, with money from Iran, is replacing the government and the state." BS

Young people and teenagers gathered in the southwestern city of Ahvaz on August 23 to participate in a "Greeting to Lebanon's Hizballah," provincial television reported. Several of Khuzestan province's representatives in the national legislature reportedly attended the event. BS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his Romanian counterpart, Traian Basescu, held a telephone conversation late on August 23 in which they discussed the reported Iranian seizure of a Romanian oil rig, Iranian state television, IRNA, and Rompres reported on August 24. In that incident, which apparently relates to a contractual dispute, Iranian naval forces reportedly fired on a Romanian oil platform in the Persian Gulf, seized it, and are holding the crew (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23 and 24, 2006). Ahmadinejad and Basescu reportedly agreed that occasional misunderstandings of this sort are inevitable, and they also concurred that the incident will not harm mutual relations. Ahmadinejad is said to have assured Basescu that the incident is merely a commercial misunderstanding and is not an act of hostility against Romania, Rompres reported. According to Iranian television, Romanian Oil Services Group (Grup Servicii Petroliere, or GSP) wanted to lease the oil platform at rates that were at odds with the existing contract, whereas Iran's Petropars claimed the three-year lease obviates a price hike. Another oil rig belonging to GSP reportedly reached Sharjah before the Iranian police could stop it. BS

Ebrahim Fathian, who represents Isfahan Province workers, said on August 23 that 300 employees of the Rahimzadeh textile factory in Isfahan are owed six months' wages and benefits, while 500 workers at the Simin-i No textile factory in Isfahan have not been paid or received benefits since March 21, ILNA reported. Fathian said the Rahimzadeh textile factory has not been able to pay wages, buy raw materials, or resume production, because it has not received the 15 million-rial ($1,700) credit it was promised -- presumably by the central government. Fathian attributed the situation to privatization and a downturn in the textile business. BS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has reportedly renewed a ban on the broadcasting of graphic images of blood, killings, and terrorism on Iraq-based satellite channels, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 24. According to an Interior Ministry press release, satellite channels will be subject to legal action if they violate the ban. The directive is difficult to reconcile with the government's current awareness campaign that includes graphic television ads broadcast at virtually every commercial break in the evening on state-run Al-Iraqiyah television that show suicide bombers detonating themselves amongst innocent civilians. In the aftermath of the attack, the ads show blood, dead bodies strewn on the street, shattered buildings, and general chaos. Though aimed at eliciting greater vigilance against terrorism, the campaign hardly makes for pleasant viewing. Iraqi satellite channels also routinely broadcast movies and series with violent and bloody content. Al-Maliki's directive also warned mosque imams against harboring terrorists or their weapons. KR

U.K. forces have handed over daily responsibility for security in Maysan Governorate to Iraqi security forces, and have moved 600 troops underground in a bid to curb cross-border smuggling of weapons between Iran and Iraq, Reuters reported on August 24. U.K. military spokesman Charlie Burbridge told the news agency that British troops will draw on tactics first used in Africa in World War II. "We will live in the desert. We will be mobile and able to strike when we want. We will have surprise on our side." Burbridge denied media reports that the British were forced to abandon the Abu Naji base in Al-Amarah, the governorate capital, but said that daily attacks on the base prompted military commanders to adopt a new strategy for dealing with local insurgents. Burbridge said the 600 roving troops will be backed up by another 600 soldiers based in Al-Basrah. Although Iraqi security forces will have day-to-day responsibility for security, the United Kingdom has not yet handed over complete control to them, Reuters reported. KR

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has asked Iraqi government officials to put more focus on getting in touch with the daily needs of the people, the Al-Najaf News Network reported on August 24. Al-Sistani's plea follows a visit by an unidentified politician to his office in Al-Najaf. "We are aware of the dangers involved [in their work] and would like to thank [politicians] for their efforts under the current security conditions. But they have to bear their responsibilities in full," the news agency quoted a statement from al-Sistani's office as saying. The ayatollah also asked ministers to avoid traveling abroad, saying there is a more pressing need for their presence at home. KR

U.K. Lieutenant General Robert Fry, deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, told reporters via videophone from Baghdad at an August 22 Pentagon press briefing that it is very difficult to classify the sectarian violence in Iraq as civil war. Fry noted that Iraq has 14 out of 18 governorates that are free of violence, and a functioning government and functioning security apparatus. "What I think we have is something which is at the very best, civil war in miniature.... But I don't think it actually even meets that definition," he said. "I think we have something which is localized, relatively difficult to deal with, but we're now beginning to take measures which are genuinely eating into the sectarian violence which has been operating up until now." Fry said that sectarian killings in Baghdad have been significantly reduced since Operation Together Forward was launched in June. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General John Abizaid concurred, telling reporters in Baghdad on August 24 that security operations have made the capital much safer. "I think there has been great progress," on the security front, Reuters quoted Abizaid as saying. KR