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Iraq Report: February 27, 2004


27 February 2004, Volume 7, Number 7
INSIDE IRAQ
ISLAMIC MILITANT GROUP VOWS MORE ATTACKS. A group identifying itself as the Mujahedin Brigades in Iraq has reportedly distributed leaflets at police stations in Kirkuk threatening more attacks against Iraqi police and Kurdish militias for cooperating with Americans, AP reported on 25 February. Police Colonel Adil Ibrahim said that he believes the group may have been involved in the 23 February attack on a police station in the city.

Meanwhile, Kirkuk police chief Sherko Skakir said passengers in a single car distributed the leaflets overnight, throwing them over the walls of about two-thirds of the police compounds in the city. "Anyone who supports and cooperated with the infidels will be under threat of death," the leaflets stated. They also threatened attacks on police checkpoints and warned, "We know all these [security] forces' movements." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

TRANSITIONAL ADMINISTRATION LAW ON SCHEDULE. Iraqi Governing Council spokesman Hamid al-Kifa'i has said that the Transitional Administration Law remains under debate at the Iraqi Governing Council but will be ready by the 28 February deadline set by the 15 November agreement between the Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority, Baghdad's "Al-Mashriq" reported on 24 February.

Al-Kifa'i said that the law, seen as a precursor to Iraq's constitution, would remain in effect for an 18-month transitional period until an elected government ratifies a permanent constitution. He added that versions of the Transitional Administration Law being published in Iraqi newspapers are only draft versions. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI LEADER SAYS SUNNIS, SHI'A TAKING UNIFIED POSITION. Abbas al-Asadi, an official with the Islamic Accord Movement, told London's "Al-Hayat" that Sunni and Shi'a religious parties have agreed to take practical steps to unify their positions in an effort to prevent sectarian strife in Iraq, the daily reported on 24 February. He added that one of the steps includes plans for a conference that will include all political Sunni and Shi'ite authorities in Iraq. Mosque and shrine sermons will also work to promote the idea of "one Islam in Iraq."

Al-Asadi accused unidentified foreign elements of sowing sedition in Iraq. He also rejected claims by some Iraqis that the United States is behind recent terrorist incidents in Iraq, saying, "These forces are offering daily sacrifices and are suffering because of these terrorist acts." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

BADR ORGANIZATION CALLS FOR GREATER SECURITY ROLE IN IRAQ. Hadi al-Amiri, secretary-general of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) armed wing, the Badr Brigades, has said the organization should be allowed to play a greater role in maintaining security in Iraq, the London-based daily "Al-Hayat" reported on 23 February.

Badr Brigades members are "tracking down the terrorist elements coming from abroad, in accordance with the law and in coordination with the Interior Ministry's services," al-Amiri said. "We have the capabilities and the experience, together with a good presence among the people, and this enables us to play a broad security role in Iraq." Al-Amiri said, however, that Badr's level of involvement in Interior Ministry activities is "limited." He also criticized the coalition's approach on security and said "the security issue would be resolved in a very effective manner if it were assigned to the Badr organization." The U.S.-led coalition had made several attempts to disarm Badr forces since taking power in Iraq last spring. SCIRI claims to have some 10,000 troops in the brigade. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI TURKOMAN LEADER OPPOSES DRAFT CONSTITUTION. Sami Dunmuz, head of the Islamic Movement for the Turkomans of Iraq, issued a statement on 21 February criticizing the draft law on state administration being debated by the Iraqi Governing Council because it does not explicitly recognize the Turkomans as a "third nationality," London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 22 February. "We...declare that unless the new Iraqi constitution specifically mentions our legitimate rights and guarantees them, we will consider ourselves not bound to implement any of its principles, basic provisions, recommendations, resolutions, and substance," the statement noted.

The Turkoman representative on the Iraqi Governing Council, Sungul Chabuk, told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that she "would never" make any concessions regarding the Turkomans' rights. "I have urged the Governing Council to phrase the constitutional provision pertaining to language as follows: 'The Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkoman languages are the country's official languages,'" she said. Chabuk also said she does not believe Dunmuz's threats are serious and said that "we will settle everything through dialogue." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

U.S. CIVILIAN ADMINISTRATOR HINTS ELECTIONS COULD BE DELAYED ONE YEAR. U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer told Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television on 21 February that national direct elections could be delayed in Iraq for a year or more, depending upon how long it takes to build an infrastructure to support those elections, RFE/RL reported on 22 February.

"The most important problems are technical ones, as UN specialists pointed out when they were here last week. Iraq has no election law; it has no electoral commission to even establish a law; it has no law governing political parties; it has no voters' lists; it has not had a credible, reliable census in almost 20 years; there are no constituent boundaries to decide where elections would take place," Bremer said. "These technical problems will take time to fix. The UN estimates somewhere between one year to 15 months. It might be that it could be sped up a little bit, but there are real important technical problems why elections are not possible, as [UN] Secretary-General [Kofi Annan] announced" on 19 February. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq issued a press release (http://www.cpa-iraq.org) on 22 February acknowledging Bremer's remarks but adding, "Ambassador Bremer did not articulate a coalition position on an estimated timetable." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

SUICIDE BOMBER STRIKES KIRKUK POLICE STATION. A suicide car bomber detonated his vehicle outside a police station in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk on 23 February, international media reported. According to Reuters, as many as 13 people were killed in the blast in addition to the bomber, and 51 were injured. The attack took place in a Kurdish area of the city. Kirkuk has been rife with tensions in recent months, as Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans vie for control over the oil-rich city. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KURDS SEEK 'SPECIAL PROVISIONS' IN DRAFT CONSTITUTION. The Kurdistan Regional Government has posted a document on its website (http://www.krg.org) that would serve as an amendment to the draft Iraqi constitution now under debate by Iraqi Governing Council members.

The draft calls for "special provisions" for the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, including the continued enforcement of Kurdish laws and the continued functioning of the Kurdistan National Assembly. It also calls for the establishment of a Kurdistan national guard, which would serve as a component of the Iraqi armed forces.

The document stipulates that other elements of the Iraqi armed forces will not enter Kurdish territory "without the consent of the Kurdish National Assembly" and demands Kurdish control over public land and water, petroleum, and mineral resources located within Iraqi Kurdistan. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

AL-SISTANI ISSUES FATWA FOR RETURN OF STOLEN GOVERNMENT DOCUMENTS. Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has reportedly issued a fatwa calling on Iraqis to return documents looted from government offices in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom, according to the Al-Da'wah Party website (http://www.daawaparty.com).

Al-Sistani reportedly said that those in possession of looted government files, particularly files opened by Iraq's security apparatus, should return them to a government agency. He added that it is "impermissible" for looters to keep the documents or sell them. The trade and sale of documents and files that contain personal information on the former regime's state employees as well as documents on civil and property rights, and military and retirement records has flourished in the Iraqi capital, the website reports. Baghdad newspaper "Al-Mada" published information obtained from files found at the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Organization purporting evidence that the Hussein regime bought off Western and Arab individuals, companies, and politicians through illicit oil sales and bribes in exchange for their support for the regime (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 30 January 2004). (Kathleen Ridolfo)

SUNNI SHAYKH ASSASSINATED IN BAGHDAD. Sunni Shaykh Sami al-Dari was gunned down outside his home in Baghdad on 21 February, Al-Jazeera television reported. Al-Dari is the brother of Shaykh Harith al-Dari, secretary-general of the Iraqi Muslim Ulama Council. Representatives of the council blamed foreign forces, not Iraqis, for the assassination.

Council member Shaykh Abd al-Sattar Abd al-Jabbar told Al-Jazeera in a 21 February interview that the assassination "is part of a plan to ignite a sectarian war" in Iraq. "What happened is part of an attempt, which we have been sensing for some time, by unidentified parties to ignite a sectarian war in Iraq. One of the [Muslim Ulama Council's] constants is to work for a unified Iraq -- Arabs, Kurds, Sunnis, and Shi'ites. However, we have recently begun to realize that some people do not like this. Our relations are good with many Shi'ite parties. This is in addition to the Sunnis' position. Regrettably, some sides want to ignite a sectarian war in this country," he added. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

SUNNI LEADER SAYS SECTARIAN ISSUES THREATEN IRAQ. Abd al-Jalil al-Mahdawi, a member of the Muslim Ulama Commission in Iraq, told LBC satellite television on 19 February that sectarian strife is becoming a real threat to Iraqi stability. "Iraq is facing various [threats], including security and sectarian threats. The people are not safe. The people have started to gather along sectarian lines. The ethnic and sectarian divisions threaten to fragment the country into small parts," he said. He added that economic "threats" -- such as 6 million jobless Iraqis -- might exacerbate the situation if not addressed. Al-Mahdawi's comments came during a conference for Iraqi Sunni tribes sponsored by the Sunni Ulama Grouping in Baghdad. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

PLANNING MINISTER REPORTS ON UNEMPLOYMENT. Iraqi Planning Minister Mehdi al-Hafiz issued a report in Baghdad's "Al-Nahdah" on 19 February on the statistical indicators of the economic sector, including unemployment, saying that his ministry and the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry have conducted a major field survey of 24,900 families consisting of 135,384 individuals to assess the rate of unemployment in Iraq.

The survey concluded that the overall rate of unemployment is 48.7 percent. According to al-Hafiz, the total unemployment rate is 28.1 percent, and "apparent partial employment" stands at 20.6 percent. The highest rate of unemployment was found in Dhi Qar Province, primarily because of seasonal unemployment in the agricultural sector, and to the fact that a large number of former military conscripts hail from the province. The second-highest rate of unemployment is in Al-Anbar Province (33.3 percent) and in the province of Baghdad (33 percent). Karbala Province had the lowest rate of unemployment-- at a level of 14 percent. Al-Hafiz said that the low unemployment rate was likely due to the booming religious-tourism industry there. He added that the rate of unemployment is 30.2 percent among males and 16 percent among females. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

SHI'ITE CLERIC LABELS KARBALA CITY COUNCIL ILLEGITIMATE, CALLS FOR BOYCOTT... Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i last week labeled the newly expanded provincial council in Karbala illegitimate and called on citizens to boycott it, international media reported. Al-Karbala'i's, who serves as the Karbala representative of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, reportedly issued the call during his Friday prayer sermon, saying: "This council doesn't represent the will of the Iraqi people. It represents the whims of the American ruler," AP reported on 25 February.

The cleric is opposed to a recent decision by the coalition to expand the council from 16 to 40 members. According to AP, coalition authorities asked tribal leaders and other dignitaries to provide a list of 160 potential candidates to replace the existing council, which had members that were seen as ineffective. The coalition and some Iraqi officials then reportedly chose new council members from the list. The council then elected a new provincial governor, Sa'd Sufuq.

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarassi reportedly also weighed in on the issue, telling reporters that the coalition's method of expanding the council was tantamount to a return to dictatorship, AP reported. He added that Iraqis should be responsible for electing their provincial councils.

The opinions of the clerics have had an apparent impact on the Karbala council, with 10 council members resigning or suspending their memberships until the issue is resolved. The council has reportedly asked al-Sistani, the most senior ayatollah in Iraq, to give his opinion on the matter. "We're waiting for his eminence al-Sistani. The first and last word is his," council member Taha Yassin told AP. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AS GOVERNOR CALLS FOR PEACEFUL DEMONSTRATIONS. Sa'd Sufuq, the governor of Karbala, has reportedly issued a statement banning demonstrations unless they are officially approved by his office, Voice of the Mujahedin radio reported on 25 February.

Sufuq said that organizations or groups wishing to demonstrate must obtain approval at least 24 hours in advance. He said that all demonstrations must be peaceful and free of any forms of violence. His statement also reportedly warned against any encroachment on public or private property. He added that Iraqi police would hold watch over demonstrations and arrest those that violated the law. The governor's decision coincides with the Shi'ite religious holiday of Ashura, which begins next week on the 10th day of Muharram on the Islamic calendar. Thousands of Iraqis are expected to visit the shrine of Imam al-Husayn, grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was martyred in Karbala in 61 A.H. (After Hijrah) or approximately A.D. 680.

The Voice of the Mujahedin radio criticized the governor's statement, saying that it is reminiscent of the Hussein regime. "Such decisions issued by the governor of Karbala who is appointed by the occupation authorities, cast doubts on the governor and raises a lot of question marks around him," the radio said. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

GUNMEN ASSASSINATE HIGH-RANKING MOSUL POLICEMAN. Unidentified gunmen assassinated a senior police official in northern Iraq on 25 February, international media reported. Brigadier Hikmat Mahmud Muhammad, chief of administration at the Mosul Governorate police headquarters, was shot and killed as he drove to work, Reuters reported. Beirut's Al-Manar television reported that three gunmen riding in an Opel vehicle attacked Muhammad as he left his home.

Al-Manar also reported on 25 February that a former major general in the Iraqi army, Abdallah al-Anz, was shot and killed in the city while driving in his car. A police source reportedly identified al-Anz as a member of the Ba'ath Party. His son, whose name was not reported, was in the car and sustained gunshot wounds. The son reportedly is a former Iraqi intelligence officer. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

COALITION, ICDC DETAIN TWO AL-DURI ASSOCIATES... U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told reporters at a 24 February press briefing in Baghdad that Iraqi and coalition forces detained two associates of Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the former vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council.

The first associate, Iyad Hamid Nuri, was detained at the Niwan Hotel in Mosul. Kimmitt said that a human tip led to Nuri's capture. Meanwhile, on 21 February, the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) captured Shihab al-Hawas. He is suspected of financing attacks against coalition forces, and is a cousin of al-Duri, Kimmitt said. The coalition is offering a $10 million reward for information leading to the capture of al-Duri (see http://www.rewardsforjustice.net). (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AND KILL AL-ZARQAWI ASSOCIATE. General Kimmitt told reporters at the 24 February briefing that Iraqi forces shot and killed a suspected associate of wanted terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi on 19 February.

ICDC soldiers stumbled on Abu Muhammad Hamza while distributing leaflets door-to-door. Hamza apparently thought the ICDC soldiers were there to arrest him, and opened fire on them. The soldiers returned fire, killing Hamza. During an investigation that followed, coalition soldiers discovered a large cache of bomb-making materials, explosives, and electronic components, as well as pro-Saddam Hussein literature, and pictures of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, Kimmitt said.

Kimmitt said that he believes Hamza was a lieutenant of al-Zarqawi's. He added that a Jordanian passport bearing Hamza's likeness was found in the house, and coalition forces are working to determine its authenticity. Asked whether Hamza was a member of the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam, Kimmitt said that it was likely that he had some affiliation with Ansar, but added, "I don't think we would consider Abu Muhammad Hamza a card-carrying member of Ansar Al-Islam. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

REGIONAL NEWS
U.A.E. HOSTING DONOR CONFERENCE ON IRAQ THIS WEEK. The United Arab Emirates' (U.A.E.) Finance Ministry will host an international donors' conference on Iraq on behalf of the World Bank on 28-29 February in Abu Dhabi, international press reported.

According to a 25 February report by Reuters, the Iraqi delegation to the conference will seek funding for projects worth $4 billion, including $1.8 billion for infrastructure projects, $790 million for health and education, $602 million for water and agricultural projects, and $62 million for mine sweeping. Non-U.S. pledges at the Iraq donors' conference in Madrid last October amounted to $15 billion. Iraqi Planning Minister Mehdi al-Hafiz told reporters that the non-U.S. pledges, held in a World Bank trust fund, have not translated into any projects as yet, mostly due to security concerns. "These projects are vital for the economy and for the future of Iraq," Hafiz said, adding, "They do not just concern reconstruction, but include employment and long-term development," Reuters reported.

Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera television's website (http://www.aljazeera.net) reported on 25 February that the World Bank only intends to commit to $500 million in projects at the conference. "The total package we are trying to commit by 30 June, which is our target, is over half a billion dollars which is a reasonable chunk of money," the website quoted John Speakman, the World Bank's senior private-sector development specialist, as saying. He reportedly cited security problems, and the fact Iraq is still under occupation and the need to ensure that funds are not mismanaged as reasons behind the decision. "We are talking about very huge sums of money and there is a huge danger that these sums will be misallocated, misspent, or not dealt with in a transparent way and that could undermine all future attempts to reform the Iraqi economy because it would set things up in the wrong way," Speakman said. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

GOVERNING COUNCIL PRESIDENT DENIES IRAQ WOULD LAY CLAIM TO KUWAITI TERRITORY. Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of February Muhsin Abd al-Hamid has spent the past week denying that he made any statements asserting that Iraq laid claim to Jordanian and Kuwaiti territory, according to international media.

Regional media reported last week that Abd al-Hamid said that Iraq might seek to regain territory "given away" by deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but none printed any direct quotes by Abd al-Hamid to that effect. "Some news media have falsely attributed to me that I demanded those [Jordanian] territories and that I hinted at demanding other territories from other neighboring countries. This is sheer fabrication," Al-Jazeera quoted Abd al-Hamid as saying on 22 February.

Meanwhile, that Abd al-Hamid told reporters on 24 February, "Our enemies are always ready to misreport our statements but they are exposed to both parties," KUNA reported the same day. "I was asked on action regarding property Saddam had wrongfully given away and answered we are in the midst of rebuilding our nation and cannot afford the luxury of considering such matters," he added. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

BRITISH COUNCIL, BBC WORLD TRUST TRAIN IRAQI JOURNALISTS IN JORDAN. The British Council and the BBC World Trust launched a seven-seek training program for Iraqi media professionals in Amman last week, international media reported. Approximately 140 Iraqis, mostly technicians, will attend the weekly courses in groups of 20 from 15 February to 31 March, AFP reported on 18 February.

"The program aims to address the most urgent needs of the Iraqi media," the British Council said in a statement on 24 February. Participants in the training program will study picture editing, camera and sound-recording skills, and broadcasting technology. Some 20 Iraqi radio and television stations are participating in the training program as well as graduate students from Baghdad University's fine arts, film, and television department. Jordan has served as a base for training Iraqi government and private-sector individuals since reconstruction efforts got under way in Iraq last year. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

THE UN AND IRAQ
UN SAYS ELECTIONS COULD BE HELD IN IRAQ BY YEAR-END. A report released by the United Nations assessment team on elections has concluded that national elections could be held in Iraq by year-end or in early 2005 if certain conditions are met, the UN announced on 23 February (see http://www.un.org).

The assessment team concluded that most Iraqis do not support a proposed plan by the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) for caucus-style elections. However, the UN reported that a "range of Iraqi stakeholders" said they could establish a legal framework for balloting by May. If that happens, and other unspecified conditions are met, the UN team concluded, "Elections could be held by the end of 2004 or shortly after."

The report estimates that once an electoral framework is set, it would take at least eight months to organize national elections. The report also recommends that an Iraqi election commission be established as soon as possible. The UN team supported the 30 June handover date in its report, as well as the agreement among "many" Iraqis that a single elected assembly should be chosen that would draft a constitution and act as the principal lawmaking body in Iraq.

The UN also called on the CPA and the Governing Council to enter into intensified discussions with the world body on security arrangements that will facilitate its return to Iraq, the UN News Center reported on 23 February (http://www.un.org/news). "The United Nations is ready to play a supporting role -- in helping to facilitate political consensus, as well as in offering technical advice on elections -- if the people of Iraq so request it, the [UN] Security Council mandates the organization to play that role, and appropriate agreements are made to provide security for our own personnel," the UN assessment team wrote in its report.

Team member Carina Perelli, director of the UN Electoral Assistance Division, told reporters at UN headquarters in New York on 23 February: "We will now wait to hear from the Iraqis and the CPA to see whether they accept the report and our recommendations and what are the future steps.... The UN and the UN Electoral Assistance Division stands ready to contribute to this process if the Iraqis and the CPA...consider that our help is necessary." Perelli will head an expert team to Baghdad sometime in the next two weeks to assist in preparations for next year's election, Reuters reported on 24 February. The UN said on 24 February that Iraqis should establish an independent election commission to adopt election laws, voting registration, and undertake election planning for Iraq's 18 governorates. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

UN SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE IN IRAQ TO ASSESS HUMANITARIAN NEEDS. United Nations acting Special Representative Ross Mountain is in Iraq this week to assess the country's humanitarian needs ahead of the 28-29 February international donors' conference in Abu Dhabi (see above), Reuters reported on 25 February.

Mountain is scheduled to meet with members of the Iraqi Governing Council, as well as ministers and Iraqi-based UN staff, UN spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said. Mountain was appointed acting special representative by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan following the death of former Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed during the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad in August. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

EUROPE, THE U.S., AND IRAQ
USAID ISSUES REPORT ON MASS GRAVES IN IRAQ. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has issued a report on mass graves in Iraq, the CPA announced in a 24 February press release.

The press release states that some 270 mass graves have been uncovered in Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime in May. "Some graves hold a few dozen bodies -- their arms lashed together and the bullet holes in the backs of skulls testimony to their execution. Other graves go on for hundreds of meters, densely packed with thousands of bodies." It also quoted U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair as saying that some 400,000 bodies have been discovered in mass graves, while Human Rights Watch estimated in May that as many as 290,000 Iraqis were "disappeared" by the Iraqi government over two decades. "If these numbers prove accurate, they represent a crime against humanity surpassed only by the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields in the 1970s, and the Nazi Holocaust of World War II," it added. The USAID report can be accessed from the CPA website (http://www.cpa-iraq.org). (Kathleen Ridolfo)

EUROPEAN STATES PREPARE TO RETURN IRAQI ASYLUM SEEKERS. A number of European states are reviewing the status of Iraqi asylum seekers and considering returning them to Iraq, according to international media reports.

The Swedish Migration Board said on 25 February that it views Iraq as "sufficiently stable" and it sees no reason as to why asylum seekers cannot return to their homeland, dpa reported on the same day. "The general situation in Iraq cannot be regarded as such that there is need for protection in accordance with the current Aliens' Act," the board said. Some 5,400 cases are now pending with the board, which has not ruled on any cases since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom last March. The board has reportedly ruled out returning refugees by force, however, but did not comment on the fate of those refused asylum.

Meanwhile, telegraph.co.uk reported on 25 February that the U.K. Home Office is planning on repatriating asylum seekers to countries that the government's Foreign Office have deemed unsafe -- including Iraq. British immigration officials are reportedly to begin in April forced returns of rejected Iraqi asylum seekers under an agreement forged with the CPA in Iraq, the website reported. Some 30 Iraqis would initially be returned home each month. The British Foreign Office reportedly says, "The security situation in Iraq remains dangerous" on its website.

The Dutch parliament on 18 February approved a controversial bill calling for the forcible expulsion of 26,000 asylum seekers over the next three years. The law applies to asylum seekers who arrived in the Netherlands after 1 April 2001. Human Rights Watch (HRW) denounced the attempt to return asylum seekers to the home countries in a letter to the Dutch immigration minister that is posted on the HRW website (http://www.hrw.org), noting such deportations would "not conform with the Netherlands' international obligations."

The number of asylum seekers worldwide dropped to 463,000 last year -- the lowest figure since 1997 and a 20 percent decrease from the previous year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said on 24 February (http://www.unhcr.org). "Iraqis, the top asylum-seeking group in 2002, dropped by 50 percent to 24,700 in 2003. Within 2003 itself, their numbers dipped dramatically from 4,200 in January to under 900 in December," the UNHCR reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

RUSSIAN DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS ELECTIONS IMPOSSIBLE WHILE IRAQ IS OCCUPIED. Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov said on 21 February that while Russia believes there must be national elections in Iraq, it is "very hard to imagine" how these elections could be prepared as long as Iraq is occupied, Interfax reported.

Characterizing as "notorious" an agreement signed in November between the U.S.-led CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council on a gradual handover of sovereignty to the Iraqi people, Fedotov said Russia has warned that the plan is not viable because it amounts to "an attempt at a behind-the-scenes settlement in Iraq, without the broad participation of the international community." He said the United Nations must take the lead in preparing and holding elections in Iraq, but that this can happen only "once Iraq is no longer under occupation and is sovereign again." Fedotov's comments followed those of Iraq's U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer, who said in an interview aired by the Arabic-language television channel Al-Arabiyah on 21 February that elections cannot be held in Iraq for 12 to 15 months for "technical" reasons. (Jonas Bernstein)

HUNGARY MULLS EXTENSION OF MILITARY PRESENCE IN IRAQ. Defense Minister Ferenc Juhasz told the MTI news agency on 24 February that Hungary might extend its military presence in Iraq for an additional year if stabilization efforts continue at their current slow pace, AFP reported. Juhasz noted that such a decision would require parliamentary approval. Juhasz's comments came following a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Hungary George Herbert Walker. Three hundred Hungarian troops, mostly logistics experts, have been serving in Iraq under Polish command since last September. Ten Hungarian soldiers were wounded last week in a terrorist attack in Al-Hillah, some 100 kilometers south of Baghdad. (Michael Shafir)

ROMANIAN PREMIER VISITS IRAQ. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase on 24 February visited Romanian troops serving in Iraq and held talks with the allied commanders of the three international contingents in which the 1,500 Romanian soldiers are serving, a government press release announced. Nastase met in Al-Basrah with Major General Andrew Steward, commander of the International Division South East; in Al-Nasiriyah with Brigadier General Marco Chiarini, commander of the Joint Italian Forces; and in Babylon with Polish General Mieczislaw Bicniek, under whose command a Romanian engineering unit is serving in Al-Hillah. All three commanders highly praised the combat readiness and the military know-how of the Romanian soldiers. Nastase also decorated the combat banner of the 26th Infantry Battalion --nicknamed the Red Scorpions-- for outstanding merit accumulated in peacekeeping missions in Angola, Albania, Kosova, and Afghanistan. (Michael Shafir)

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