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Newsline - September 22, 2006

An unidentified "senior Japanese official" told London's "Financial Times" of September 22 that Russia's recent blockage of the Sakhalin-2 gas production-sharing agreement (PSA) with Royal Dutch Shell and Japan's Mitsui and Mitsubishi is a "massive blow" to Japanese plans to establish an energy partnership with Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 20, and 21, 2006). Japan has planned on liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the project to supply 10 percent of its needs and reduce dependency on Middle Eastern oil. The senior official noted that "if this contract is eventually cancelled, it will demonstrate how vulnerable LNG contracts are to the geopolitical intentions of host nations." Agreements with Shell, Exxon, Total, and others were concluded at a time when oil prices were low and Russia sought foreign capital. Now that Russia is awash in petrodollars, the government is reportedly seeking to ease the foreigners out in favor of domestic, state-run firms like Gazprom and Rosneft. The excuse given by the Russian Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor) for blocking Sakhalin-2 is that the project has already led to damage to salmon-bearing rivers and "excessive logging" along the pipeline route. Some other Russian officials such as German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, have complained about cost overruns. PM

The Natural Resources Ministry announced on September 22 that it has awarded a bid for a small oil field near the Sakhalin-1 oil project to Rosneft rather than to Exxon, which leads Sakhalin-1, Reuters reported. "The Wall Street Journal" noted on September 22 that even earlier "Russia appeared to switch the focus of its attack on huge foreign-led projects to...Sakhalin-1, saying it would likely forbid a $4.2 billion cost overrun since that would cut Moscow's profit from the venture." The daily noted that the moves against both Shell and Exxon "are widely seen as part of a broader campaign by the Kremlin to tighten its grip on the energy sector, a drive expected to speed up before Vladimir Putin's presidency is due to end in March 2008. Analysts have said Russia is trying to force foreign oil majors to give up part or all of their advantageous production-sharing agreements, negotiated when global oil prices were lower." Exxon has blamed the overrun on inflation and changes in currency exchange rates. PM

The Moscow daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on September 21 that the Kremlin's moves against Sakhalin-2 are "drawing more and more attention abroad. The governments of Britain and the Netherlands have expressed concern.... Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot requested an explanation from Russia." Bot added that "the actions of the Russian authorities with regard to Shell are causing concern and undermining confidence in Russia." Moscow has meanwhile been sending out signals suggesting that PSAs in general are a thing of the past. A "source at one of the relevant ministries" told the Interfax news agency that "if the [foreign] companies decide...that it would be more advantageous for them to change to an ordinary non-PSA arrangement, that would be very good, and no one would object." RIA Novosti ran a lengthy commentary and analysis suggesting that "Russia has outgrown PSAs." Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Ministry is preparing to submit a bill to the State Duma restricting access by foreign investors to natural resources by further restricting the definition of "strategic" deposits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14 and 19, 2006). Speaking at an economic forum in St. Petersburg in the spring, President Putin said that "the advantage of our country is natural resources.... The only question is the mechanism of control." PM

The trial of Vladimir Rakhmankov, who is editor in chief of the Internet publication, began on September 22 in Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24 and June 1, 2006). He faces charges of "insulting a representative of the state" for calling President Putin "Russia's phallic symbol" in an article with that title in May. Referring to Putin's May 10 state-of-the-nation speech, in which he called for measures to reverse Russia's demographic decline, Rakhmankov wrote that the president's influence is so great that "even beasts in Russian zoos responded to his call to breed immediately." Rakhmankov argued that "Putin looks like the country's phallic symbol, in all senses [of the word]. So why not secure the symbolism officially.... We can now start producing new souvenirs with the president's head as a penis head." If convicted, Rakhmankov could face up to 12 months of "corrective labor." Elsewhere, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement on regarding the case, saying that "prosecutors should never resort to criminal law to shield public figures from the press. Satire is an essential and vital element of democratic discourse." Rakhmankov has a history of clashes with the authorities, primarily for his role in exposing corruption in Ivanovo. He has linked the closure of his website in May to his criticism of officials for abusing their authority. PM

Four unidentified people threw stones at the synagogue in central Khabarovsk near the Chinese border on September 22, reported. Windows and doors were damaged but nobody was hurt. Chief Rabbi Yakov Snetkov said that the incident is probably the work "of a skinhead group." This is the third incident of violence against the synagogue since the spring. PM

Ismail-hadji Verdiyev, who is chairman of the Coordinating Council of Muslims of the North Caucasus, has rejected as "an appalling lie" the assertion contained in a recently released U.S. Congress Intelligence Committee report that lists Russia among countries where mosques regularly collect donations for Al-Qaeda, reported on September 21. He said that the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the North Caucasus controls the activities of all mosques in the region and is engaged in an all-out struggle against "Wahhabism." Ingushetia's Mufti Isa-hadji Khamkhoyev likewise branded the U.S. allegations "irresponsible" and denied that any such donations are collected at mosques either in his republic or elsewhere in Russia, reported. Khazretali Dkhasezhev, who is deputy chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Kabardino-Balkaria, dismissed the U.S. Congress report as a "provocation intended to denigrate Russia's Muslims," reported. He said some 150 mosques currently operate in Kabardino-Balkaria, and admitted that some of them are closely monitored by police who suspect believers of "extremism." LF

Armed criminal police from North Ossetia detained Akhmet Tsechoyev on September 20 in the Ingushetian town of Malgobek and took him to Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, reported on September 21. Tsechoyev is reportedly suspected of involvement in abductions; he was detained in November 2005 on those grounds but released after six days. His abduction has compounded popular anger at the apparent inability of President Murat Zyazikov and other senior Ingushetian officials to prevent North Ossetian police from repeatedly apprehending Ingush, many of whom subsequently vanish without trace. LF

A referendum will take place in the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) on October 8, concurrently with municipal and parliamentary by-elections, on creating an autonomous formation for the republic's Nogai minority, according to as reposted on September 21 on Azhmagomed Kataganov, who is deputy chairmen of the KChR Election Commission, said on September 20 that some 10,000 residents of the villages of Ikon-Khalk, Adil-Khalk, Erkin-Yurt, Erkin-Khalk, and Erkin-Shakhar are entitled to vote on the creation of a Nogai autonomous district encompassing those five villages, which currently form part of Adyge-Khabl Raion. An analogous referendum took place in the KChR on December 25, 2005, on establishing a comparable autonomous formations for the republic's Abazin community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2005). The Abazins and Nogais account for some 4.6 and 3.1 percent, respectively, of the republic's total population of 440,000. LF.

Armenia commemorated its 15th anniversary of independence on September 21 with a military parade in Yerevan overseen by President Robert Kocharian and Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The military parade, the first since 1999, was broadcast live on television and featured a public display of the country's arsenal, including armored personnel carriers, and various antiaircraft and artillery systems. The parade was also supplemented by a small display of air power by six combat aircraft, including Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, and two helicopter gunships. In a speech from the podium, Kocharian declared that "today Armenia is a steadily developing country," and praised the armed forces as "a reliable defender of the Motherland of all Armenians." The commemoration marks the September 21, 1991, national referendum in which an overwhelming majority of Armenians voted to secede from the then Soviet Union. RG

In a report released on September 21 by the Group of the Countries Against Corruption (GRECO), the Azerbaijani government was urged to adopt more resolute steps to tackle mounting corruption, according to Turan. Although the Azerbaijani government adopted a formal plan to combat corruption in 2004, which has been further bolstered by the adoption of subsequent legislative reforms, the report stressed that it is the implementation of anticorruption measures that presented an equally significant challenge. The report noted specific deficiencies, including "limited cooperation and coordination" by government officials and a "lack of a proactive approach in investigating corruption offenses," and called for more training for officials responsible for "the investigation, prosecution, and adjudication of corruption offences." RG

Municipal officials in the Azerbaijani capital Baku denied on September 21 a request by the opposition Musavat Party to hold a public rally in Baku on September 23, Turan reported. An unidentified official in the Baku mayor's office justified the decision by arguing that because the planned demonstration was to protest socioeconomic inequality, "there is no need to hold a rally," citing President Ilham Aliyev's commitment to job creation and economic development. The Musavat Party released a statement in response, criticizing the decision as "a blatant violation of the right to freedom of assembly" and vowed to "continue to fight against" the government. RG

President Aliyev met on September 21 in Baku with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Information and Communication Policy David Gross, Trend reported. Goss briefed Aliyev on the elements of a new U.S. program on information technology intended to modernize and upgrade several computerized systems for various Azerbaijani government ministries and departments. RG

At a high-level NATO meeting in New York on September 21, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer reaffirmed NATO's intention to intensify its dialogue with Georgia. "NATO and Georgia, it's the right choice of wording, will work very close together and will have a more intensified dialogue between the one and the other," de Hoop Scheffer said. He also emphasized how important it is that a peaceful solution is found to the conflicts between Georgia and Abkhazia, and Georgia and South Ossetia. NK

On the sidelines of the meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili met on September 21 with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and discussed plans to expand bilateral cooperation, Caucasus Press reported. Ahmadinejad expressed Iran's readiness to increase investment in Georgia's energy, transport, and industrial sectors, while Saakashvili extended a formal invitation to his Iranian counterpart to visit Georgia. The two first met in 2005, during last year's UN General Assembly meeting. RG

A special Kyrgyz parliamentary commission established to investigate the recent arrest of a leading opposition leader released its findings on September 21, accusing officials of the National Security Service (SNB) of seeking to discredit opposition leader Omurbek Tekebaev by planting drugs in his luggage, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. Parliament speaker Marat Sultanov read an official statement by commission Chairman Bolot Sherniyazov that reported that "the parliamentary commission believes that officers of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service are involved in the provocation organized against" deputy and former parliament speaker Tekebaev. Sherniyazov characterized the incident as a "provocation that aimed at discrediting and isolating a leader of the opposition," according to Tekebaev was arrested in Poland on September 6 after heroin was detected by airport police (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 8, 11, 12, and 13, 2006). The incident led to the dismissal of SNB Chairman Busurmankul Tabaldiev and his deputy, President Kurmanbek Bakiev's brother Janysh. RG

In a joint statement released in Dushanbe, the Tajik opposition Social Democratic Party and the Democratic Party on September 21 expressed their "distrust" of the Tajik Central Election Commission, Avesta reported. Social Democratic Party Chairman Rahmatullo Zoirov accused election officials of "not observing the law on presidential elections and its own charter," contending that the committee "endorsed the chairpersons and members of district election commissions before the parties submitted the list of their representatives" in direct violation of electoral laws. Democratic Party leader Rajab Mirzo recently announced that his party is considering a boycott of the November 6 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2006). RG

Tajik Defense Ministry spokesman Fairdun Muhammadaliev announced on September 21 the launch of a joint counterterrorism exercise by Tajikistan and China, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The three-day exercise, held at the Mumirak training grounds in the southeastern Khatlon region, includes a company of Chinese special forces and a company of Tajik special forces drawn from its rapid-reaction brigade, supported by army artillery and assault helicopters from the Tajik Air Force, according to Asia-Plus. The exercise, known as Cooperation 2006, was organized within the framework of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) agreement to combat "terrorism, separatism, and extremism." Although the joint exercise with Chinese forces is the first for Tajikistan, China held a similar bilateral counterterrorism exercise with Kyrgyzstan in October 2002 and a much larger one with Russia in August 2005. China also participated in a multilateral exercise with all SCO members, except Uzbekistan, in August 2003. RG

Uzbekistan's border guards reported on September 21 that one of their soldiers and an Uzbek civilian were detained on September 19 by Tajik border troops, the pro-government Uzbek website reported. The two men were carrying out repair work in Uzbekistan's Jizzakh region near its border with Tajikistan when they were detained. Uzbek border guards added that attempt to contact their Tajik counterparts have been unsuccessful. RG

Former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin was transferred on September 21 to a correctional facility in the village of Vitsba in Vitsebsk Oblast to serve his prison term of 5 1/2 years, Belapan reported. Kazulin's wife told journalists that relatives are allowed to visit the prisoner once every two weeks. Kazulin, the rector of Belarusian State University in Minsk in 1996-2003, was found guilty of hooliganism and the organization of group actions disturbing the public peace in the wake of the March 19 presidential election, in which he challenged incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. His appeal against the sentence was rejected earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2006). JM

The Information Ministry has suspended the Belarusian-language monthly magazine "Arche" for three months, Belapan reported on September 21. The ministry accuses the magazine of publishing articles about politics in violation of its license. "Arche," founded in 1997, is a high-profile intellectual publication, featuring essays on history, culture, and literature as well as original prose and poetry. With a monthly print run not exceeding 1,000 copies, it is distributed by volunteers because it was banished from the state-monopolized subscription and retail networks. "The ministry's move dramatically demonstrates the Belarusian authorities' paranoid desire to fight not only the opposition but also all otherwise-minded people," "Arche" Editor in Chief Valer Bulhakau commented on the ban. JM

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso reiterated on September 21 that the commission will start a discussion early next year on a broader cooperation agreement with Ukraine that could include a free-trade deal, Ukrainian and international media reported. Barroso was speaking after talks with Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in Brussels. "Our objective is to bring Ukraine closer to the European Union. Our objective is also to support political, institutional, and economic reforms in a way [that would] contribute to economic growth and the improvement of the living standards of Ukrainian citizens," Barroso said. "Mr. President [Barroso] and I agreed that Ukraine and the European Union should now take on the complex path of achieving the strategic goal of Ukraine joining the European Union," Yanukovych said at the same news conference. Moreover, Yanukovych reaffirmed to Brussels that Ukraine is not going to join a customs union with Russia within the framework of the Single Economic Space, which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. JM

The Cabinet of Ministers has returned seven presidential decrees concerning the judicial sphere and the appointment and dismissal of ambassadors to the Presidential Secretariat, arguing that President Viktor Yushchenko violated the constitutional procedure for their publication, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported on September 21. According to Oleksandr Lavrynovych, deputy minister of the Cabinet of Ministers, Yushchenko made these decrees public without securing the countersignatures of Prime Minister Yanukovych and ministers responsible for their implementation, as stipulated by Article 106 of the Ukrainian Constitution. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on September 22 rejected the presidential veto on a bill introducing a moratorium on utilities payment hikes in 2006, UNIAN reported. With at least 300 votes required to override a presidential veto, 344 lawmakers voted for the motion. JM

An man who allegedly helped war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic avoid capture was arrested on September 21 trying to flee to Russia, Reuters and AP reported the same day. Marko Lugonja was one of the seven men and three women Serbian police arrested this year as part of efforts to crack down on Mladic's support network (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). He was later released on bail. Lugonja, who was due to appear in court next week along with nine others accused of aiding Mladic, was seized while trying to board a plane for Moscow. "Lugonja was obviously trying to flee before his trial starts," Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Ivana Dulic-Markovic said. "It is good to know that Serbia's security is doing its job." BW

Serbian Radical Party (SRS) Secretary-General Aleksandar Vucic said on September 21 that his party will file criminal charges against Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Stankovic for falsely posing as Serbia's foreign and defense ministers, respectively, B92 reported the same day. Vucic argued that since neither man has been confirmed by parliament, then neither can legally serve in his post. Draskovic and Stankovic were Serbia and Montenegro's foreign and defense ministers. When Montenegro became independent in May, the two had their posts transferred to the Serbian government. Both face confirmation votes in parliament in either September or October. BW

A court in Montenegro ruled on September 20 that Podgorica is liable for civil damages for deporting a Bosnian Muslim refugee back to his war-torn country in 1992, AP reported the same day. The man, Suad Karacic, sought refuge in Montenegro but was sent back to Bosnia, where he was killed. The court ruled that the Montenegrin state s liable for Karacic's death and awarded 68,000 euros ($86,000) to his family. The ruling was the second related to the deportation of 34 Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-95 war, 28 of whom were killed after returning home. In June the same court ruled that Montenegrin police must pay 45,000 euros ($57,000) to another refugee who was deported back to Bosnia and was then killed. BW

Foreign ministers from the six-member Contact Group have said that Kosova's final status should be determined by the end of this year, B92, Beta and FoNet reported on September 21. "The ministers reaffirmed their commitment to make every effort to reach the Kosovo status solution during 2006," read a statement from the Contact Group, which comprises Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Russia, and the United States. The group's foreign ministers also called on UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari to "prepare a comprehensive proposal for the solution of the Kosovo status, and to further engage the two sides in the negotiating process on the basis of that proposal." The decision was a blow to Serbia, which has sought to delay a decision on Kosova's status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 9, 2006). BW

Haris Silajdzic, who Bosnia-Herzegovina's foreign minister and prime minister at different times during the 1992-95 war, has said the time has come for Bosnia to unify and abolish its ethnically based entities, Reuters reported on September 21. "The Dayton agreement was a necessity to save lives and stop the war, but now we have to move forward because we want to recreate a normal multiethnic society," Silajdzic said, referring to the 1995 peace accord that established the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. "The last 10 years showed quite clearly that the division into entities does not work and is bad for Bosnia." Silajdzic's comments come in the tense run-up to Bosnia's October 1 general elections. Bosnian Serb leaders, including Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodic, have threatened to push for secession from Bosnia during the campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, and September 1, 5, 14, and 15, 2006). BW

With confirmation of a December 15 date for Iran's next elections, serious politicking has already begun. Early competition to head the Assembly of Experts, the influential assembly that oversees the work of the supreme leader, pits a pragmatic former president against a fundamentalist seminarian with close ties to the current president. Another possible choice and ex-president, reformist Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, lies somewhere in the middle. The race could have serious long-term implications -- particularly for would-be reformers.

The Assembly of Experts is a powerful institution whose 86 clerics' supervisory role includes the power to remove Iran's supreme leader from office. The fact that its members are popularly elected every eight years highlights the significance of the decision that faces voters in the December ballot.

One of the most controversial aspects of this election is the competition for the assembly's leadership.

Ex-President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, already a deputy speaker of the assembly, is largely backed by reformists, centrists, and mainstream conservatives. Leading figures in a conservative clergymen's association, the Tehran Militant Clergy Association (Jameh-yi Ruhaniyat-i Mobarez-i Tehran), visited Hashemi-Rafsanjani in mid-September to encourage his candidacy. One of those clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Mahdavi-Kani, advised Hashemi-Rafsanjani that he is "still one of the principal mainstays of the system and leadership," the Aref website reported on September 19. He said such status carries a responsibility to "stand and serve the system at sensitive junctures."

Hashemi-Rafsanjani is a seasoned politician who served as president for two terms in 1989-97, was a legislator, and currently heads the Expediency Council. He reportedly told the clergymen's group that his participation is unnecessary and would make no real difference. He said he was already being criticized, and he pointed to his unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2005, which included personal attacks against him and his family. Similar attacks -- many of them centered on allegations of financial corruption -- have continued against Hashemi-Rafsanjani's associates. They smack of an effort to weaken the informal network through which he wields his considerable influence.

The man whom many view as Hashemi-Rafsanjani's likely rival is Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi. Mesbah-Yazdi is punningly referred to by detractors as "Ayatollah Crocodile" ("Temsah") due to his hard-line views. He is current President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's spiritual guide and a founder of the conservative Haqqani seminary, with numerous associates in the executive branch of government.

Two Haqqani alumni serve in the current cabinet -- Intelligence and Security Minister Hojatoleslam Gholam-Hussein Mohseni-Ejei and Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi. Mesbah-Yazdi now heads the Imam Khomeini Educational and Research Institute, and several of its associates now work in the executive branch, including government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham, First Vice President Parviz Davudi, and presidential adviser for clerical affairs Hojatoleslam Mohammad Nasser Saqa-yi Biria.

A conservative weekly associated with Mesbah-Yazdi, "Parto-i Sokhan" from Qom, has published a number of attacks on Hashemi-Rafsanjani. A lengthy piece on August 23 purports to be seminarians' response to a letter from Hashemi-Rafsanjani. The ex-president is portrayed as questioning Iran's theocratic system and employing "distorted and truncated quotes" from the founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to substantiate his views. The article goes on to imply that Hashemi-Rafsanjani has comforted Iran's enemies by voicing support for a Leadership Council to replace the current figure of the supreme leader.

The same article suggests that allies of Britain sought to pass a constitutional amendment that would have extended Hashemi-Rafsanjani's term as president beyond 1997. It also condemns his failure to call for the death of a scholar who criticized the clergy in 2003 and his support for women's rights. The article goes on to attack the think tank associated with the Expediency Council, the Strategic Research Center, which includes perceived reformers on its staff like former President Khatami and former Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani.

Occasional hints of reconciliation between the hard-line Mesbah-Yazdi and Hashemi-Rafsanjani generally prove not to be true. The two reportedly bumped into each other at an early September meeting of the Assembly of Experts and had what one observer described as a "very friendly and warm encounter," "Sharq" reported on September 4. A weekly associated with Mesbah-Yazdi, "Parto-i Sokhan," quoted the hard-liner as saying he has "no blood feud with anyone" and stressing his long friendship with Hashemi-Rafsanjani. But he rushed to add that he and Hashemi-Rafsanjani "differ...on certain issues" and that their "religious responsibility" dictates that "friendship will play no role."

Pro-reform activists have reacted to fundamentalist attacks against their favorites in many ways -- including downplaying Mesbah-Yazdi's prerevolutionary activities against the shah. He also has been linked with a banned millennialist entity, the Hojjatieh Society.

A former interior minister and legislator better-known for his role in establishing the Lebanese Hizballah in the 1980s, Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, recently likened Mesbah-Yazdi's followers to the Hojjatieh Society -- calling them "a movement within an organized cult...[that seeks] control of the Assembly of Experts," "Aftab-i Yazd" quoted him on August 26 as saying. Mohtashami-Pur warned that "a movement that thinks like the Hojjatieh always poses a danger to the people and the system."

The fundamentalists are attacking other prospective leaders in the Assembly of Experts, too. One of their apparent targets is a symbol of the reformist movement, former President Khatami (1997-2005). A reformist party leader, National Trust Party head Ebrahim Amini, accused Khatami's opponents of "trying by various means to create doubt in public opinion about the positions of the reformists," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 16. He accused those same elements of resorting to "character assassination."

A leading figure from the center of the political spectrum, senior Executives of Construction Party member Mohammad Hashemi, echoed that accusation, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 16. He said the bullying began after the 2000 parliamentary elections and has "gradually turned into an unethical tradition" through which fundamentalists stopped pressing solutions and started relying solely on political attacks on their opponents.

The most vicious recent attacks on Khatami have come from Fatemeh Rajabi, the wife of government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham and the head of the "Nosazi" website. In an open letter published in "Etemad-i Melli" on September 4, Rajabi suggested that a U.S. visa for Khatami's recent trip to the United States is his "reward for eight years of efforts from the Americans, and especially from .the Black House."

Rajabi attacked Khatami's "presence and parading in America's cities" and disparaged his views on "modern Islam" She accused Iran's most prominent proponent of reform of distorting religion -- calling Khatami's Islam "the Islam of a life of pleasure, the Islam of doing business, the Islam of aristocracy, the Islam of seeking comfort, the Islam of seeking welfare, and in a word: American Islam." She called it "a lame excuse for someone who is dressed as Shi'ite clergy?"

Criticized by reformists and by conservatives, and her brother, Mohammad Hassan Rajabi, according to "Kargozaran" on August 1, Rajabi lashed out again. She said Khatami's ascribing of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States to Muslims "delivered a major blow against Islam." She suggested that recent remarks by Pope Benedict XVI that elicited widespread condemnation among Muslims were "a natural echo of Khatami's remarks," "Aftab" reported on September 17.

The role of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) could further cloud prospects for potential rivals to any but the most conservative candidates. The IRGC was accused of interfering in the 2003 municipal elections on behalf of fundamentalists. The Basij, a branch of the IRGC, was accused after the 2005 presidential election of having behaved like a political party.

Such allegations coincide with accusations of Guards Corps political activism that are either denied or refuted with references to Article 150 of the Iranian Constitution that tasks the IRGC with defending the revolution and its achievements.

Recent statements by Guards Corps leaders are consistent with a pattern favoring the hard-liners. The chief of the IRGC joint staff, General Yadollah Javani, told a meeting of corps commanders that there are major political movements involved in the upcoming elections that have different interpretations of Iran's theocratic system (vilayat-i faqih), "Hemayat" reported on September 10. He characterized opponents as believing that the popular vote legitimizes the system and that the theocracy's responsibility is satisfying the people. That movement is opposed by those who -- like revolutionary founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and presumably, himself -- believe God legitimizes the vilayat-i faqih system. Javani went on to say that the reformists are intent on returning to power, and they are trying to create divisions among fundamentalists.

The supreme leader's representative in the IRGC counterintelligence department, Hojatoleslam Ahmad Salek, sounded a more ominous alarm. He warned that there is an effort afoot to undermine the vilayat-i faqih, "Kayhan" reported on September 17. He alleged that an unidentified five-member committee is trying to "infiltrate" individuals into the Assembly of Experts "in order to create deviations in that institution." He said their goal is to "bring about the disintegration and collapse of the Islamic political system."

Pro-reform parties are not standing by idly. They are trying to form a coalition to compete with the fundamentalists. "Aftab-i Yazd" on September 16 quoted Mohammad Salamati of the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization as saying the reformist coalition has been finalized.

But there also are questions about a draft election law that many observers fear would extend the hard-liners' considerable ability to restrict candidates for elected office. A former interior minister, Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, noted that the group conducting the election -- the Interior Ministry -- is from the same political camp as the Guardians Council, which is supervising the election, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on August 14.

Musavi-Lari noted that the Guardians Council's power to vet candidates represents reformists' "main concern," since that body can decide "whether or not they will be allowed to remain on the scene."

The Assembly of Experts held its semi-annual meeting on August 29-30. Little information emerges from those closed-door affairs -- highlighted by the fact that final statements are remarkably similar from year to year.

But as the current group prepares to give way to a new Assembly of Experts, it appears that a fundamentalist victory would cement the hold of President Ahmadinejad's allies over all elected branches of government. On the other hand, reformist gains would signal that a group that has been in disarray since 2003 has returned to the political fray -- and is not completely marginalized.

NATO's top commander called on September 21 for more international troops in Afghanistan to deal with a rising insurgency, AFP reported. "I am relatively satisfied, but I add more can be done and more should be done," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said after a meeting with foreign ministers from alliance members in New York. De Hoop Scheffer said NATO troops battling neo-Taliban forces in southern Afghanistan need more helicopters, heavy transport planes, and other support equipment. "That is not to say that on the basis of what we have, we cannot do what we have to do, but it is always better with more forces," he added. MR

U.S. forces will continue on in their current numbers in Afghanistan until early next year, U.S. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry said on September 21, AP reported. Speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., Eikenberry said U.S. forces will maintain their present numbers through the end of 2006 in Afghanistan in light of the widening neo-Taliban insurgency. "Our expectation is that our troop levels in Afghanistan will remain about steady through the point" that the U.S. takes command of the NATO force next February, he said. After that, Eikenberry said, U.S. officials will reevaluate the need for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. MR

Afghan police said on September 21 that they have found the headless body of a man thought to be Turkish road worker kidnapped by neo-Taliban fighters weeks ago, AFP reported. Police found the body on September 21 in the southern Helmand Province after a long search of the area, local police said. The Turkish Embassy said the remains were being brought to Turkish officials in Kabul for identification. A Turkish road worker was abducted on August 28 in neighboring Nimroz Province. Neo-Taliban guerrillas threatened to kill him unless the Turkish road construction company he worked for left Afghanistan. MR

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on September 21 that neo-Taliban forces operating in Afghanistan are growing stronger, and implicated neighboring Pakistan as the reason, AP reported. Karzai, in an obvious reference to the Pakistani government, said some in the region used extremists to project influence and power. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Karzai compared supporting terrorists to "trying to train a snake against somebody else." "You cannot train a snake," he said. "It will come and bite you." In a reference to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, Karzai said, "Some of these regimes are definitely using extremism as an instrument of policy, and that is why Afghanistan has suffered." Pakistan has repeatedly denied charges from Afghanistan that Islamabad is involved with insurgent activity in Afghanistan. MR

Mohammad Reza Shafei, the Agricultural Jihad Ministry's director-general for domestic commerce, announced on September 21 that red meat and chicken will be distributed at lowered prices in the coming month, IRNA reported. The holy month of Ramadan is expected to begin on September 23 or 24, and it will conclude with the festival of Eid al-Fitr. During Ramadan, devout Muslims fast during daylight hours and consume meals only during the night. Shafei said 10,000 tons of frozen chicken will be distributed and consumers will face only a 400-rial-per-kilogram markup. The ministry is considering the distribution of 20,000 tons of red meat, and possibly an additional 12,000 tons of imported red meat. BS

"Some root causes of today's problems of humanity are coming from the world order that we believe remained since World War II," President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said during a September 21 news conference at the United Nations in New York, RFE/RL reported. Ahmadinejad continued: "This is an old system, it leads a few to see themselves as the owners of the world and see others as their belongings. Some like to rule the whole world and this has led to injustice in world relations." Ahmadinejad repeated criticism of the Security Council that he aired during his earlier address to the General Assembly, and he called for a change in the status quo, saying, "All nations should have equal rights, all peoples and nations are respected, all have the right to have a respectable life, all have the right to access justice, all have the right to peace and calm." BS

Ahmadinejad dismissed international concern over Iran's nuclear program during his September 21 press conference, and he ascribed this concern to alleged U.S. hostility and efforts to retard Iran's development, RFE/RL reported. "U.S. leaders have opposed our nation for the past 27 years, they are against any progress by our nation," he claimed. "They imposed eight years of war on us and the United States supported the aggressor [Iraq]. We hadn't done anything wrong, we had just been freed from a dictator who was supported by America [a reference to the Iranian monarch]." According to Reuters, Ahmadinejad also said Iran is willing to negotiate over the possibility if its suspending uranium-enrichment activities, and he added that negotiations with the European Union are going well. "We have said that under fair conditions and just conditions we will negotiate about it," he said. Speaking to the General Assembly one day earlier, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni voiced concern about Iran's leaders, who "deny and mock the Holocaust," "speak proudly and openly of their desire to wipe Israel off the map," and "pursue the weapons to achieve this objective to imperil the region and threaten the world," RFE/RL reported. BS

The Kurdish autonomous regional government executed Zana Nasrat Sheikh Abd al-Karim Barzinji, aka Sheikh Zana, and 10 other members of his gang on September 21 after a court found them guilty of dozens of kidnappings, rapes, and killings over a several-year period, Kurdish media reported the same day. Zana was a former intelligence officer with the Kurdish Asayish security service. The group is the first to be executed by the regional government since it was established in 1992. Zana and other group members confessed to their crimes following their arrests last year. KR

Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Muhammad al-Askari told Al-Arabiyah television in a September 21 interview that the Iraqi public needs to show greater confidence in the country's security forces. Al-Askari said that although the security forces are increasingly able to operate on their own, public confidence is not growing. "If the multinational force stays in Iraq, [the public] would say that they are occupation forces, that they should not stay and that [groups] should attack them. And if the multinational force turns over the security file to Iraqi forces, [the public] would say that the violence increased, and accuse the Iraqi forces of being biased in favor of this or that side," he said. "This is a complex issue." Iraqi security forces assumed security responsibility in Dhi Qar Governorate on September 21, the second governorate to come under their control in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2006). KR

The BBC reported on September 20 that it has obtained evidence that Israeli commandos have been training Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. The BBC television program "Newsnight" showed footage of Israeli forces providing military training to Kurdish soldiers, and presented an interview with an unidentified former Israeli soldier who said the Israeli forces' mission was to train Kurdish troops to protect the new international airport in Irbil. He indicated that the commandos had entered Iraq from Turkey in 2004 and that they also trained 100 peshmerga fighters for "special assignments," including how to shoot militants in a crowd. Israeli security experts who spoke with the BBC said the Israeli forces could not have been active inside the Kurdish region without the knowledge of Kurdish authorities. "Newsnight" also revealed that an Israeli security firm, Interop, was among the main contractors providing security fencing and communications equipment for the Irbil airport. Kurdish officials refused to comment on the report and Israel denied any involvement, but the Israeli government said it would open an inquiry into the BBC report. SS

Corporal Donald Payne of the Duke of Lancaster's regiment pleaded guilty to mistreating Iraqi civilians, "The Guardian" reported on September 20. Payne has, however, pled not guilty to charges of manslaughter in the death of Iraqi hotel worker Baha Musa and obstructing justice in trying to cover up his death by telling colleagues that Musa died accidentally. Musa was arrested in a security sweep by British troops on September 14, 2003, in Al-Basrah and subsequently beaten so severely that he suffered 93 injures and eventually died. The court martial also heard accounts that Payne and six fellow officers systematically abused Iraqi detainees in detention centers in southern Iraq. The court heard that prisoners were forced to maintain stress positions for an extended period of time and if they failed, were subsequently beaten. One prisoner alleged he was threatened with lighted gasoline, while another was forced to urinate into a bottle which was then poured over him. The other six defendants pleaded not guilty in Musa's death. SS

The director of the Soran district police, Imad Kan'an Rekani, issued a directive on September 19 calling on the Kurdish Interior Ministry to order all police officers to remove badges featuring the Iraqi flag, Peyamner reported on September 20. Rekani said that the badge will be replaced with a different insignia and if Kurdish authorities do not come up with a new badge, he will recommend using a Kurdish badge "dating back to the peshmerga era in the mountains." This is the latest episode in the continuing Iraqi flag controversy, which began when Kurdish regional President Mas'ud Barzani ordered the removal of the Iraqi flag from official buildings, calling it a symbol of the oppressive former regime of President Saddam Hussein (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2006). SS