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Newsline - June 14, 2007

Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov, who commands the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, was quoted by the military daily "Krasnaya zvezda" on June 14 as saying that the newly tested RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and the related Topol-M, or SS-27, will guarantee Russia's security "for the next 20-30 years," Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 20, 21, and 22, and May 30, 2007). The Topol-M was first developed in the 1990s and has been subsequently upgraded. The RS-24, which has multiple warheads that can be independently targeted, is expected to be deployed in a few years. PM

After meeting with outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London on June 13, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said that Russia's recent offer to share use of a missile radar base in Qabala (Gabala), Azerbaijan, in connection with the proposed U.S. missile-defense system "is an additional feature, not a substitution," for U.S. plans to construct a radar site in the Czech Republic, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on June 14. Topolanek added that the Russian offer is a "significant move" to end the tensions generated by Moscow's recent campaign against missile defense (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 11, 12, and 13, 2007). Also on June 13, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov was quoted by Bloomberg in Moscow as saying that stationing a U.S. radar site in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland would amount to building "a new Berlin Wall." Ivanov added that Russia will target them with its own missiles. The news agency noted that this is the first time that a top-ranking Russian official has confirmed that the missile-defense sites would be targeted. PM

The daily "Kommersant" wrote on June 13 that "the unofficial competition [for the 2008 presidential race] between First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov was one of the main events at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum on June 9-10. These 'primaries' were a success: the two competed in liberal rhetoric, making it unnecessary for business leaders to discuss which one would make a better president for business in 2008." The daily "Vedomosti" noted that "the Economic Development and Trade Ministry presented three options [in St. Petersburg] for Russia's development to 2020. The optimistic scenario has Russia becoming a great high-tech power, with 52 percent of its population in the middle class." The paper added that "Economic Development [and Trade] Minister German Gref said that Russia's economic growth rates have been among the world's highest for eight years running, and it has the third-largest gold and currency reserves." Ivanov argued that "Russia's GDP can and should be among the top five in the world by 2020. This would be achieved by raising Russian industry to leading positions in four to six high-tech sectors, so that it accounts for 10 percent of global output." He identified nuclear energy, aircraft and ship construction, space satellites, space-launch services, software, and nanotechnology as the key sectors. "Our aviation industry should become the world's third-largest producer of civilian aircraft," he added. Ivanov said that state-run companies will buy up private ones "at market prices and without the slightest hint of expropriation." He added that the large firms advocated by President Vladimir Putin will be "public companies...[without] the hot-house conditions of state protection." The nationalist "RBC Daily" wrote that $13 billion worth of agreements were concluded at this year's forum, compared with only $1 billion in 2006. The paper argued, however, that the main achievement of the 2007 gathering was to strengthen trust in Russia among foreigners. The daily quoted former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as saying that "Russia is no longer the weak negotiating partner it was in the 1990s. It has become a strong state in economic and political terms." PM

The government approved on June 9 several measures aimed at removing ambiguities in counterterrorism legislation enacted in 2006, the daily "Kommersant" reported on June 13. One of the new measures provides for shooting down hijacked planes or eliminating ships without warning if there is "reliable information" that hijackers have seized the craft and are about to use them in a terrorist attack, or if there is a "real danger to people's lives or [a potential] environmental catastrophe." Under previous legislation, planes could be shot down or ships destroyed only if they ignored formal warnings. PM

The daily "Izvestia" reported on June 14 that the replacement of Soviet-era flags for 2,135 military units began in ceremonies on June 12 in a process expected to last three years. The new ensigns will use "tsarist" symbols, such as crowns and eagles. First Deputy Defense Minister Aleksandr Belousov said that Russians have been living in a new state for 16 years, and that this state has completely different symbols from those of its predecessor. He added, however, that there will be no breaking with Soviet medals and military traditions. Old regimental flags will be preserved along with the new, he noted. PM

On June 13, a Volgograd court convicted former Mayor Yevgeny Ishchenko of illegal participation in business activities and illegal possession of ammunition but threw out a charge of abuse of office, "The Moscow Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2007). He was sentenced to one year in prison but released after the verdict in recognition of the 12 months he has already been in detention. He is banned from holding public office for four years. Ishchenko told ITAR-TASS that he will not return to politics. "The Moscow Times" noted that "Ishchenko's case was among a series of investigations opened against mayors in what political analysts see as a campaign by the Kremlin and governors to instill greater loyalty in mayors." PM

Artur Ryno, an icon-painting student whose age has been variously given as 17 or 18, unexpectedly withdrew his previous confession to Moscow investigators that he participated in the killing of 37 people in racially motivated attacks since August 2006, "Vremya novostei" reported on June 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2007). The investigation is continuing. PM

The North Caucasus Military Court in Rostov-na-Donu on June 14 found four Russian Interior Ministry spetsnaz servicemen guilty of the execution in Chechnya in January 2002 of six Chechen civilians, reported. During an operation in southern Chechnya to apprehend Chechen field commander Khattab, the servicemen halted the vehicle in which the Chechens were traveling and then shot them dead. The four men were previously twice acquitted of the killings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2004 and May 20, 2005). Captain Eduard Ulman was sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment and the three other officers to prison terms ranging from nine to 12 years. Ulman and two of the other officers failed to appear for a court hearing two months ago; their current whereabouts are unknown (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and May 30, 2007). Speaking in Grozny on June 14, pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov expressed approval of the court verdict, stressing that the law should apply equally to all, reported. LF

North Ossetian police on June 13 removed from the settlement of Maysky to a new settlement nearby the last 12 trailers belonging to displaced Ingush families who fled their homes elsewhere in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion in late 1992, the website and the daily "Kommersant" reported on June 13 and 14, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). Also on June 13, representatives of the Ingush displaced persons met in Moscow with the Federation Council's temporary commission for North Caucasus affairs, which undertook to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Prigorodny Raion later this month to determine whether conditions there are conducive to permitting the displaced persons to return to their abandoned homes, reported. LF

The eight deputies elected to parliament on May 12 from the opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian collected their mandates from the Central Election Commission on June 13, six days after the parliament elected on May 12 met for its first session, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Meanwhile, Armenian courts have passed judgment on 15 people in five separate cases involving procedural violations during the May 12 vote, reported on June 14. Three were jailed for between one and two years, a fourth was fined 300,000 drams ($860), and the others received suspended sentences. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili met in Paris on June 13 with French President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy, Georgian media reported. Saakashvili subsequently described the meeting as "fantastic," and France as "a very strong ally" of Georgia in Europe. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili similarly said "we have received full support for our foreign-policy priorities," Caucasus Press reported on June 14. The talks reportedly focused on Georgia's hopes of joining NATO and other European structures, cooperation in nuclear energy, and French assistance in the reorganization of the Georgian Interior Ministry. Saakashvili also met in Paris the same day with U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns to discuss approaches to resolving Georgia's conflicts with the breakaway unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, according to on June 13. He is to meet on June 14 with executives from Areva NP, one of the world's leading designers and builders of nuclear power plants, Caucasus Press reported. Proposals in the early 1980s to build a nuclear-power station in Georgia generated a heated debate, but were shelved in the wake of the 1986 Chornobyl disaster. LF

A spokesman for the Georgian patriarchy has told journalists that the patriarchy supports a proposal by the women's organization of the opposition Conservative party to detail priests to work in secondary schools as a way to reduce violence among students, Caucasus Press reported on June 13. But Education Minister Aleksandre Lomaya has rejected that proposal on the grounds that giving preference to Orthodox Christianity over other religions would be a violation of the Georgian Constitution, according to the television channel Rustavi-2 on June 12. LF

Kazakhstan's Financial Oversight Agency issued a resolution on June 12 allowing Darigha Nazarbaeva, daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, to acquire a large stake in Nurbank, "Kazakhstan Today" reported the next day. Nurbank stands at the center of a complex scandal involving Nazarbaeva's former husband, Rakhat Aliev, whom she recently divorced (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). Aliev, a former Kazakh ambassador to Austria, faces extradition from that country to Kazakhstan on abduction charges in connection with an alleged attempt to pressure Nurbank managers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4 and 6, 2007). DK

By the end of 2007, the U.S. will have provided a total of $20 million in aid to enhance border security in Tajikistan under a program launched in mid-2005 when Russia withdrew its border troops from along the Afghan-Tajik border, U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Tracy Jacobson told journalists on June 13. Jacobson was speaking following the reopening of two of a total of eight border-crossing posts to be upgraded as part of that program, AP reported. DK

Russia's LUKoil intends to develop three "promising" offshore hydrocarbon fields in Turkmenistan's sector of the Caspian Sea, reported on June 13. LUKoil head Vagit Alekperov discussed the issue with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at a June 12 meeting in Ashgabat, and Berdymukhammedov approved the Russian company's plans. "Our company is making efforts to pursue projects in Turkmenistan," Alekperov told journalists after the meeting. "I'm sure that this process will be effective since we are professionally prepared to develop unique fields in your beautiful country." DK

Gulbahor Turaeva, a rights activist sentenced to six years in prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007), was released after a court hearing in Andijon on June 12 after expressing regret for her activities, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Turaeva told the court that she was lured by financial incentives into committing actions against the Uzbek state, reported. The court reduced her six-year jail term to a six-year suspended sentence and three years of probation. Rights activist Umida Niyazova was recently released after a similar statement of contrition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). DK

Nearly 100 representatives of Belarusian opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations gathered for a two-day conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, on June 13, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka told journalists that the main objective of the conference is to draft an action plan based on the guidelines of the opposition congress in Minsk last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Lyabedzka also explained why the congress is taking place in Lithuania, not Belarus. "We are holding it in Vilnius because the city is close to Belarus. Participants need the same amount of money to travel to it that they would need to go to Vitsebsk or Mahilyou. But in Vilnius we are guaranteed that 30 minutes into the conference no police or emergency-management officers will break into the auditorium, saying that a bomb has been planted there. No one can guarantee this in Belarus," he noted. Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka told RFE/RL that participants in the conference resolved that the opposition will take an active part in parliamentary elections in Belarus in 2008. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on June 13 criticized parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz for his failure to fulfill the deal they made together last month with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to terminate the Verkhovna Rada and stage early elections in September, Ukrainian media reported. "Today, Ukraine has a chance to resolve the political crisis on the basis of political agreements. There are forces today, however, that are torpedoing this option, and those forces include the head of parliament, Oleksandr Moroz," Yushchenko said at a news conference. He reiterated that the current legislature has become illegitimate following the resignation of opposition lawmakers earlier this month, and once again stressed that early polls will definitely take place on September 30. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on June 13 threatened to sack cabinet officials responsible for the agricultural sector if they fail to stop bread prices in Ukraine from increasing, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "There are no reasons for the bread prices to rise," Yanukovych said at a cabinet meeting. "If you fail to bring order before next week's cabinet meeting, I will raise the issue of your dismissal," he added, addressing Deputy Prime Minister for Agricultural Issues Viktor Slauta, Agricultural Policy Minister Yuriy Melnyk, and Economy Minister Anatoliy Kinakh. Yanukovych also pledged that at a sitting of the National Security and Defense Council on June 14 he will discuss the accountability of those regional governors who "take advantage of the current political situation and destabilize the price situation in Ukraine." Interfax-Ukraine reported earlier this week that the prices of flour and bread in Dnipropetrovsk Oblast have increased by some 20 percent since the beginning of the year. JM

The European Union resumed talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia on June 13, international and local media reported the same day. Serbia hopes to become an EU membership candidate next year, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic told reporters in Brussels, and the SAA is a first step on that road. The resumption came after Carla Del Ponte, the outgoing chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, welcomed Serbia's commitment to arrest and extradite the remaining war crimes fugitives wanted by the court during a visit to Belgrade following the arrest and transfer of Bosnian Serb General Zdravko Tolimir earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4 and 7, 2007). The EU suspended talks on an SAA in May 2006 after a negative assessment of Belgrade's willingness to deal with war crimes fugitives, of whom five now remain at large after Tolimir's arrest. Despite the resumption, the EU insists that top indictee Ratko Mladic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb forces, must be in The Hague before an SAA can be concluded. "Achieving full cooperation [with the ICTY] is an international obligation and a condition for the conclusion" of the SAA, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said following talks with a Serbian delegation in Brussels, according to dpa. Belgrade hopes to complete technical talks this year. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, meanwhile, took the preaccession talks as an opportunity to call on the EU to respect Serbia's "internationally recognized borders and the fact that Kosovo is an inalienable and integral part of Serbia's territory," Reuters reported on June 13. At a press conference with Djelic, who acts as his country's chief negotiator with Brussels, Rehn retorted that "in the preaccession process, we have conditions for candidate countries and potential candidates. Serbia is aiming to join the EU, not vice versa. That is how conditionality works. There is no reverse conditionality." TV

Bosnia-Herzegovina's foreign minister, Sven Alkalaj, said during a visit to Portugal that he thinks an SAA with the European Union can be signed before the end of the year, AFP reported on June 12. Portugal will take over the EU's rotating Presidency from Germany for the second half of 2007. The technical aspects of Bosnia's preaccession negotiations with Brussels are essentially complete, but an agreement is held up by policy paralysis in the country. The main obstacle to closer ties with Brussels is the refusal by Bosnia's autonomous Republika Srpska to give up political control over its police forces. TV

In his last address to parliament as the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Christian Schwarz-Schilling told lawmakers that "a darker side of this country's political life" has developed recently. In a thinly veiled reference to two of Bosnia's most prominent politicians, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik and Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnian Muslim member of the tripartite presidency, Schwarz-Schilling listed "extreme political positions taken by one or two important political figures that keep all sides from reaching compromise and making progress" as among the "troubling factors that point to a serious political crisis in this country." Using some of his strongest language to date, he admonished legislators that party leaders are engaging in "irresponsible rhetoric" and play "dangerous games with highly sensitive issues," according to a transcript posted on the website of the Office of the High Representative. The high representative, who is also the EU's special representative to Bosnia, said that since he last spoke to parliament, no significant progress has been made on any key reform. He singled out police reform and the passage of laws on higher education, the economy, and public broadcasting, which are preconditions for the conclusion of an SAA with the European Union. He also called on the country's politicians to recommit to constitutional reform. Schwarz-Schilling, whose hands-off style and belief in local "ownership" were harshly criticized by many observers who held him responsible for a deterioration in Bosnia's domestic politics, will be succeeded by Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak at the end of the month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 16, and 17, 2007). TV

A former Bosnian Serb officer, Milorad Trbic, was transferred from The Hague to Sarajevo on June 11 to stand trial at Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court, Reuters reported the same day. Trbic was a security officer in the Bosnian Serb Army's Zvornik Brigade, whose units operated in Srebrenica in July 1995 and participated in the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim civilians; he now stands accused of genocide and lesser charges in connection with these crimes. Trbic surrendered to the ICTY in April 2005 and pleaded not guilty. The practice of transferring cases from The Hague to domestic courts came under increased scrutiny when Radovan Stankovic, who was sentenced to 20 years for crimes against humanity, rape, and enslavement, escaped from prison in the eastern Bosnian town of Foca, the scene of his crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29 and June 4, 2007). Stankovic, among the ICTY's most wanted, was the first case to be transferred to a domestic court in order to ease the tribunal's workload ahead of its phaseout, which is planned for the end of 2010. Observers are now asking why he was allowed to serve his sentence in the town where he committed his crimes, and they suggest that Stankovic had sympathizers among the prison guards. TV

Albin Kurti, a vocal critic of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) and leader of the Self-Determination (Vetevendosja) movement that demands independence for the nominally Serbian province, was arrested by Kosovar police on orders from the Supreme Court, local and international media reported on June 13. Kurti was released into house arrest on June 6 pending trial over his role in pro-independence riots in February during which UN police shot and killed two protesters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and June 7, 2007). His rearrest was ordered by the internationally-supervised Supreme Court after Kurti denounced the UNMIK in an interview given to the province's public broadcaster on June 12, Reuters reported. Kurti was arrested shortly after the February 10 protests and was put under house arrest in May, then jailed again after breaking the terms of his parole. Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority is increasingly impatient with delays to a plan for full independence, which is currently stalled at the UN Security Council due to Russian opposition. TV

Sunni insurgents have once again attacked the Al-Askari (Golden) Mosque in an apparent attempt to goad Shi'a into launching retalitory actions.

The attack comes just weeks after Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr extended an olive branch to Sunni Arabs and called on his followers to protect and defend their Sunni brethren in the wake of Al-Qaeda's increasingly bitter attacks that target all Iraqis without distinction.

The February 22, 2006, bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque, which destroyed the shrine's famous golden dome, was a watershed moment in Iraq. It set off a firestorm of sectarian attacks and counterattacks between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs in the country that continues to this day, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

The shrine, which houses the tombs of the 10th and 11th Shi'ite imams -- Imam Ali al-Askari and his son, Imam Hasan al-Askari -- is immensely symbolic to Shi'a worldwide. Shi'a believe that the revered 12th Imam, al-Mahdi, went into hiding at the site and will only emerge on the day of judgment.

The site is also immensely symbolic to all Iraqis as a historic artifact, and its destruction signifies a further degradation of Iraqi history and culture.

As Iraqis brace for more violence in the wake of the June 13 attack, which toppled two minarets at the partially destroyed mosque, the Iraqi government imposed a curfew in the capital until further notice. A curfew is likely to be called in Samarra as well; the city has a majority Sunni population and is a base for several insurgent groups, including Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq.

Just how Iraqis respond to the bombing will reveal much about the emerging climate in the country. In recent weeks, homegrown Sunni insurgents have taken up arms against the Islamic State, which, due to its composition of foreign fighters, is viewed as an outside force that is doing more harm than good to the homegrown Sunni insurgency.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, one of the most powerful Sunni insurgent groups, has publicly chastised the Islamic State for its attacks on Iraqi civilians. The Islamic Army has also clarified its position on the Shi'a, saying Iraqi Shi'ite civilians should not be targeted; only those Shi'a working to support the so-called Iranian agenda in Iraq -- including the U.S.-supported Iraqi military and police -- should be seen as legitimate targets.

That position has cost the Islamic Army dearly in terms of wider support among Arab mujahedin and their supporters, though it is a position largely supported by other homegrown Sunni insurgent groups. Such a position matters because it speaks to the extent that sectarianism in Iraq has largely been fomented by an outside force (Al-Qaeda) and implies that Muslim unity in Iraq, though it may take years to salvage, is not beyond repair.

While many of Iraq's most influential Shi'ite religious leaders have tried to maintain support for Muslim unity over the past two years, their message has largely been drowned out by sectarian hate speech of Sunni and Shi'ite politicians, and by the actions of Shi'ite militias, which have contributed to internecine violence through their actions and rhetoric.

The changing position of Shi'ite politicians like al-Sadr, who now purports to support and defend Sunni Arabs, is largely the result of the political climate surrounding Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's administration. Al-Sadr has always positioned himself as a "nationalist" Iraqi who, unlike many of Iraq's current leaders, never fled the country during Saddam Hussein's regime, but rather remained on Iraqi soil to defend his nation. The Iraqi opposition, he claims, returned to Iraq in 2003 as an outside force -- bent on exploiting Iraq's wealth with the help of the United States and with no knowledge of or interest in serving the needs of the Iraqi people. It is this position that enabled al-Sadr to emerge as a force to be reckoned with.

Despite al-Sadr's recent stand, reports indicate that Shi'ite militiamen have already begun to target Sunni institutions. On June 13, at least three Sunni mosques south of the capital were set ablaze in retaliatory attacks.

The retaliation is not surprising. Al-Sadr has increasingly lost control of his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, in recent months. Following the announcement of his intention to reconcile with Sunni Arabs, his militia continued to carry out attacks against the Sunni population, ignoring their leader's call to defend the Sunni community. Media reports from Sunni-dominated neighborhoods in Baghdad in recent days indicate the Al-Mahdi Army continues to try to intimidate and impose its will on the Sunni and minority Christian populations.

The attack is also a setback for the Iraqi government, which has come under increasing criticism in recent weeks from Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish politicians. In the aftermath of the June 13 attack, Sunni and Shi'ite clerics and politicians have blamed the government for failing to secure the Al-Askari shrine. The government is in the midst of a fierce political battle to maintain its hold on the parliament, as discontented political parties jockey to form a front to bring down the administration of Prime Minister al-Maliki.

Robert Gates said on June 13 that large shipments of weapons reaching the Taliban in Afghanistan are coming from Iran, and are likely being trafficked with the knowledge of the Iranian government, AP reported the same day. Gates' comment to reporters during a visit to Ramstein Air Base in Germany is the strongest accusation by a U.S. cabinet official to date on an issue that has surfaced repeatedly in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2007). Gates attributed his conclusions to new intelligence that indicated a "fairly substantial flow of weapons" crossing into Afghanistan from Iran. Earlier the same day, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told CNN that the evidence of Iran's involvement in the weapons shipments is "irrefutable." Iran rejects the accusations, claiming it is illogical that a Shi'ite government like itself would support the fundamentalist Sunni movement of the Taliban. JC

The U.S. led coalition announced on June 13 that it has launched an investigation into claims by the Taliban to have captured a foreign soldier, AFP reported the same day. Coalition spokesman Major Chris Belcher told AFP that the military has unconfirmed reports that a soldier is missing. Meanwhile, purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi told the news agency by telephone from an unknown location on June 12 that the group's mujahedin have captured one NATO soldier with a uniform and a gun. Ahmadi did not specify the nationality or the name of the soldier. If confirmed, the incident would be the first time a foreign soldier has been captured by the Taliban, who have in the past abducted aid and development workers, as well as journalists. JC

A former U.S. soldier imprisoned in Afghanistan for running a private prison for terror suspects was released on June 2 and has departed the country, AP reported on June 13. The warden of Pol-e Charki prison said Jonathan "Jack" Idema was pardoned by President Hamid Karzai in late March on the basis of a general amnesty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). Idema's lawyer, Rahim Ahmadzai, said Idema and his dog flew out of Afghanistan to an unknown destination. A Kabul court sentenced Idema to 10 years in prison in September 2004 on charges of entering Afghanistan illegally, making unauthorized arrests, establishing a private prison, and torturing his captives. Some Afghans imprisoned by Idema claim they were beaten and tortured despite Idema's claims that the prisoners were never mistreated and that he was working with the United States. The U.S. military acknowledges accepting prisoners from Idema in 2004, but has since denounced him as an imposter. JC

In a case of mistaken identity, U.S.-led forces killed eight Afghan policemen and wounded five others in a gunfire exchange on June 11, AP reported on June 12. Taking each other for the enemy, Afghan police fired four dozen grenades at U.S.-led coalition troops, who returned fire with helicopter gunships. A nearly three-hour battle ensued during which the police called for assistance from reserve forces. Afghan presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi confirmed that the police initiated the shooting, but officers at a post in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where the incident occurred, said the U.S. troops fired first. No U.S. casualties were reported. The fatal miscommunication highlights the wide gaps in cooperation between U.S. and Afghan security forces, Rahimi said. JC

An unnamed Iranian diplomat who attended talks on June 11 in Vienna between Iran's Javad Vaidi and EU diplomat Robert Cooper told ISNA that the meeting was a good one, and that Iran's top nuclear dossier negotiator Ali Larijani and EU foreign-policy coordinator Javier Solana would be meeting "soon." The Vaidi-Cooper meeting was scheduled earlier as a preparatory meeting for the Solana-Larijani talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2007). The official said Vaidi and Cooper, or other mid-ranking officials, will remain in contact until Solana and Larijani meet again, ISNA reported. VS

Parliamentarians in Tehran on June 13 approved a bill to declare producers of pornographic films people "spreading corruption on Earth," an offence punishable by death in Iran, Radio Farda reported, citing parliament's website. The charge is also applicable in Iran to such acts as drug trafficking, banditry, and highway robberies. The charge will apply to all those involved in the making of such films or footage, including actors, directors, and financing partners. Pornography was defined as "obscene works" that showed genitalia, the sexual act, or naked people. Those distributing such films could be punished with imprisonment from one to five years and deprivation of "social rights" from seven to 10 years, or given fines ranging from roughly $11,000 to $22,000, Radio Farda reported. The bill envisaged lesser penalties for the production and distribution of "vulgar" films, described as containing "indecent" scenes and contents deemed to be against religious teachings, Radio Farda reported. VS

The head of the Revolutionary Court in Karaj, near Tehran, has sentenced four people to death for selling drugs in the Qazal Hesar prison in Karaj, "Iran" reported on June 13. Musa Asef al-Husseini told the daily on June 12 that the convicts brought the drugs in using a "cooperative company" working in the prison. He said the sentences would be carried out once confirmed by Iran's Supreme Court. Asef al-Husseini said another convicted drug dealer was hanged in that prison at dawn on June 12. He was identified as a 50-year-old man called Gholamhossein, also apprehended bringing heroin into the prison, "Iran" reported. The daily reported on June 12 that four other Iranians sentenced to death for murder or manslaughter were scheduled to be executed in Tehran's Evin prison early on June 13. Two of them were men aged 22 and 27 who had been hired by two women to kill their husbands; another had apparently killed a man during a fight in a Tehran park, "Iran" reported. VS

The Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, and Mines selected a new head on June 12, replacing its leader of 26 years, Alinaqi Khamushi, with Mohammad Nahavandian, Radio Farda and Iranian media reported. Nahavandian won 166 votes of 315 members attending the session, while Khamushi received 99. The body represents the interests of Iranian businesses and private-sector concerns across the country. The 315 voting members included representatives of provincial and Tehran trade chambers and of economic bodies. Khamushi is a member of the Islamic Coalition Society, a conservative group with strong ties to Iran's traditional merchant class, and a former legislator, Radio Farda reported. The broadcaster noted that Nahavandian enjoys the support of self-styled "innovators" and reformist members, including Mohsen Mehralizadeh, who was a vice president in the government of former President Mohammad Khatami. Mehralizadeh withdrew from the race in Nahavandian's favor. Nahavandian, Radio Farda added, is a former deputy trade minister and former vice secretary for economic affairs of the Supreme National Security Council. VS

Radio Farda observed on June 13 that Nahavandian's election as head of the Iran Chamber of Commerce may push the national trade chamber closer to the state sector, given Nahavandian's record as a government official. The body, it stated, was formed in 2006 with the merging of national trade, industries, and mining chambers, but does not represent all private businesses in Iran. Radio Farda added that observers have for many years criticized the chamber for repeatedly reendorsing Khamushi through "African-style" elections and for Khamushi's imposition of management norms reminiscent of Iran's traditional merchants rather than the Western-style private sector of the last years of the monarchy. The traditional merchant class has ties to Iran's clergy and some officials of the Islamic republic. The financial daily "Sarmayeh" has reportedly observed that Nahavandian's election was arguably equivalent to a government takeover of the chamber and an "unwelcome" development for the "genuine" private sector, Radio Farda reported. VS

Some 5,000 workers of the Haft Tapeh sugar-cane factory in the southwestern Khuzestan Province have resumed their strike over two months of unpaid wages -- days after suspending it -- and were blocking a local road on June 13, (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7 and 8, 2007), Radio Farda reported. cited Khuzestan labor representative Hushang Darvishi as saying that the workers have difficulty making ends meet, and that they are not being paid regularly and "the employer is being indifferent" to their demands. He said the factory is a part of the Agriculture Jihad Ministry -- the rural development ministry -- and therefore the ministry should help resolve the workers' problems. VS

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on June 13 blamed the Iraqi government for failing to protect the Al-Askari shrine, Iraqi media reported. The shrine, already dilapidated from a February 2006 bombing, was attacked on June 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). "While the religious authority expresses strong anger and condemnation of this sinful act, and voices deep regret for the competent [Iraqi] authority's procrastination in shouldering its responsibilities of protecting the holy shrine, it urges dear believers to exercise patience and self-restraint [during] these hard times, and to avoid carrying out any retaliatory attacks against innocent people and the holy places of others," al-Sistani said in a statement issued by his office. "We hope that the government would fulfill its promise by taking quick steps to secure protection for the holy [shrine] and to take measures to rebuild it," the ayatollah added. KR

Shi'ite cleric Jawad al-Khalisi told Al-Sharqiyah television on June 13 that the Al-Askari attack sends a message to Iraqis to be aware of the plan that seeks to divide the people, destroy their holy places, and "involve them in a fierce war that will make Iraqis destroy themselves by themselves." He added, "This is what the enemy is planning." Meanwhile, Sunni Imam Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, who has been reinstated as head of the Sunni Waqf (religious endowments office), told the news channel that the attack is "part of an ongoing series of acts that originate from a source that seeks to harm shrines, mosques, and people." Al-Samarra'i did not identify this "source." Sunni Imam Abd al-Latif Humayyim told the news channel that the incident "comes in the presence of the occupation and as a result of it.... Therefore, we believe that responsibility in the first place lies on the [U.S.] occupier's shoulders." KR

Supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr pulled out of the Iraqi parliament on June 13, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Sadr's supporters said they will suspend their membership in the Council of Representatives until the Al-Askari shrine and other mosques targeted by terrorists are rebuilt. Representative Nasir al-Rubay'i confirmed the decision to Al-Sharqiyah, the news channel reported. KR

At least three Sunni mosques were attacked on June 13 by suspected Shi'ite militiamen south of Baghdad, Iraqi media reported on June 14. Two mosques in Al-Iskandariyah and another mosque in Al-Mahawil were set on fire. All sustained severe damage, Reuters reported on June 14. No casualties were reported in the attacks. Shi'ite demonstrators, many of them supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, took to the streets in Al-Najaf and Al-Basrah on June 14 to protest the attack on the Al-Askari shrine. The demonstrations have been peaceful, according to media reports. Meanwhile, U.S. commanders in Iraq have said some 28,000 additional soldiers are being deployed to Baghdad and other areas as part of a security crackdown. The troops are expected to be on the ground by June 15. Reuters reported on June 14 that tens of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops are patrolling the capital to enforce the curfew imposed on June 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki surveyed the damage to the Al-Askari shrine on June 13, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Speaking to reporters following his tour of the destroyed mosque, al-Maliki said: "We are just about to finish arrangements to provide full security protection to the shrine of the two Al-Askari imams. An army brigade will be formed to security the Baghdad-Samarra highway.... Another police brigade will be responsible for the security file in Samarra. We have also agreed with reconstruction firms to start rebuilding the shrine." In his address to the country about the bombing on June 13, Al-Maliki blamed "Saddamists, terrorists, and Al-Qaeda" for the attack. Meanwhile, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told Al-Iraqiyah in a separate interview: "We hope that our dear people will be aware of the hidden dimensions of the plot against this country. This plot targets Sunnis and Shi'a alike. They had to come up with a way -- just like today's incident -- to trigger large-scale [sectarianism]. Therefore we should not be misled." He added that the "identity of those who want to destroy Iraq is so clear now," without elaborating. Al-Hashimi has accused Iran of fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq in the past. KR

The UN Security Council agreed to an Iraqi request that it extend the mandate of multinational forces in Iraq, international media reported on June 13. The Security Council renewed the mandate for multinational forces on December 31, but stipulated that the mandate be reviewed by June 15. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari welcomed the decision, saying, "Today, and for the foreseeable months at least, the presence of [foreign] troops is vitally necessary not only for Iraq but also to safeguard regional security and stability," AP reported on June 14. Zebari met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on June 13 in New York to discuss the mandate, as well as the threat of a Turkish incursion into Iraq. Zebari told reporters following the meeting: "The platform to discuss Turkey's security concerns, including the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] problem, is a trilateral committee comprised of the U.S., Turkey, and Iraq," Anatolia news agency reported on June 14. KR

Mas'ud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan regional government, told members of his Kurdistan Democratic Party at a June 12 meeting that Turkey has a problem with the existence of Kurds, Kurdistan Satellite TV reported on June 13. "The problem of Turkey is neither Kirkuk nor the PKK, but Turkey has a problem with the existence of Kurds. Before the downfall of the Iraqi regime, we had relations with the Turkish government at all levels. However, after that, a shift had taken place in the Turkish policy on Kurds," Barzani said. Foreign Minister Zebari told the BBC last week that Iraq is ready to hold talks with Turkey on the presence of PKK militants in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 11, 2007). KR