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Newsline - February 5, 2007

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice differed in Washington on February 2 over the potential diplomatic role of Syria in promoting peace in the Middle East, news agencies reported. Rice said she hopes Syria "will in fact try and play a positive role rather than a negative one." Lavrov argued that "Syria could play a constructive role," adding in reference to Syria and Iran that "it is counterproductive to isolate anybody." Lavrov said in Moscow on February 3 that the Russian and U.S. governments "still have no common vision" over how to solve the Kosova problem, RIA Novosti reported. "Kosovo is a subject where our disagreement is deepest, unlike our positions on Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East," he said. Lavrov added that Russia will seek to persuade the United States to lift its remaining sanctions against Russian firms over arms sales to Iran, stressing that those companies have done nothing illegal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007). He noted that the United States "has assured us that it has no plans to wage war against Iran, and that the presence of supplementary [U.S. military] forces in the region helps stabilize the situation" there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). On February 5, the daily "Kommersant" wrote that Lavrov presented his trip to the United States to reporters as a success for Russian policy in the Middle East. The paper argued, however, that he was "not convincing." It noted also that he had to concede that there are "hidden forces" in Washington still blocking Russian admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The daily also questioned why Lavrov now accepts U.S. assurances on its military buildup in the Middle East after having previously rejected such assurances. PM

On February 4, Foreign Minister Lavrov said Russia no longer considers the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) necessary, Interfax reported. He argued that "a lot of things in the OSCE have become redundant to us, because the organization has remade itself in such a way that demand for it is falling" (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2004). Lavrov suggested that it is necessary to "take from any [international] organization [only] what it can give" and not attempt to create any "scheme that will encompass all of the existing bodies." "The United Nations is an organization that has not exhausted its potential," Lavrov said. "The Group of Eight [(G8) industrialized economies] is an example of a flexible union. This is the core that I would call the emerging collective [international] leadership," the many differences among its members notwithstanding. On February 5, Lavrov told visiting EU diplomats there is no need to create any "supranational organizations" to deal with energy issues, Interfax reported. He added that Russia does not reject the principles of the EU's Energy Charter but is actually "fulfilling them." Russia has repeatedly refused to ratify the charter, which Moscow signed in 1994, and whose Transit Protocol would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines. PM

The New York-based nongovernmental organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report released on February 5 that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez "embody a generation of sophisticated, elected leaders who use laws to control, intimidate, and censor the media," reported. The report, entitled "Attacks On The Press In 2006," noted that Putin signed a measure in July that "equates journalism with terrorism." The study added that he and Chavez "tolerate the facade of democracy -- a free press, opposition political parties, [and] an independent judiciary -- while gutting it from within." CPJ head Joel Simon said in a statement that since Putin took power in Russia at the start of 2000, 13 journalists have been killed and none of their killers brought to justice -- a record that "causes reporters to ask fewer questions, to probe less deeply, [and] to pass up risky stories" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and December 14, 2006). The authorities thereby benefit from "a state of fear" prevalent among journalists, the report noted. PM

Attorney and Public Chamber Deputy Anatoly Kucherena said on February 2 that a public organization may be set up in Russia to monitor the observance of human rights and freedoms in Western countries, reported. He added that he will draft a proposal to establish a human rights organization responsible for monitoring the observance of freedom of speech and the fundamental human rights in the United States, Europe, and other Western countries. "We are used to hearing criticism targeting mainly only Russia and remarks pointing to shortcomings in our country," Kucherena said. "Why not carry out evaluations of the problem of human rights and the fundamental freedoms in the [United States] and Europe?" Kucherena nonetheless called on Western human rights organizations to "come here, interact with us, and share their experience with us." PM

Vladimir Potanin, who is co-owner of Norilsk Nickel and head of its parent company, Interros, said on February 4 on NTV television that the state should support, but not take over, Russian businesses, Interfax reported. "It is very hard to implement major projects without state support," Potanin said. "Our competitors have been and will be acting this way. They are seeking the support of their presidents and the governments." He stressed that Russia should follow a similar course of action, but "it is wrong to confuse this with nationalization. Business should be private, while the state should support it." Potanin said that his recent break with his business partner in Norilsk, Mikhail Prokhorov, was long planned, but accelerated by the recent brief detention of Prokhorov by French police investigating an alleged prostitution racket (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). Potanin appealed to Russians to "behave better" when abroad so as not to attract such attention. Norilsk has a market capitalization of $30 billion and produces one-fifth of the world's nickel output, Reuters reported. The news agency described Potanin as a former first deputy prime minister and Russia's ninth richest man. PM

Konstantin Rivkin, who is a lawyer for jailed businessman Platon Lebedev, an associate of imprisoned former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was quoted by Interfax on February 5 as saying that prosecutors in Chita have charged Lebedev with money laundering. Similar charges were also filed against Khodorkovsky. Lebedev and Khodorkovsky are serving eight-year prison sentences in Siberia for fraud and tax evasion. Russian media have suggested recently that the authorities want to keep both men in prison to prevent Khodorkovsky, in particular, from taking part in the 2007 parliamentary elections and the 2008 presidential vote. The media have also indicated that the Kremlin wants the two out of the way at least until the remnants of Khodorkovsky's former Yukos oil major have been taken over by state companies. The authorities maintain they are simply enforcing the law, whereas Khodorkovsky has denied having any political ambitions. PM

Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika said on February 5 in Vladivostok that Primorsky Krai, of which Vladivostok is the capital, is a weak spot in law enforcement and anticorruption efforts, RIA Novosti reported. "Grave crimes are becoming widespread in the area," he told regional law enforcement officials. "Ten percent are drug related, and no serious progress has been made in tackling them." The meeting focused on economic crime, particularly on the smuggling of seafood and timber from Russia to neighboring Asian countries. Smuggling thrives because of endemic corruption. PM

Police and security forces in Malgobek on February 3 laid siege to and subjected to mortar fire a top-floor apartment in Malgobek where they suspected a group of militants was hiding, reported. The occupants returned fire. When security forces finally stormed the apartment, they found the bodies of the owner and of an as-yet-unidentified woman. On February 4, Zelimkhan Merzhoyev, a young man from Malgobek, killed himself by detonating a homemade grenade in the village of Sagopshi a few kilometers south of Malgobek after evading arrest by police who suspected him of links with the militants killed in Malgobek the previous day, reported. LF

Two members of Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov's personal bodyguard were killed late on February 3 when their car was blown up as they accompanied him to investigate the site of a fatal attack on an Interior Ministry official in Makhachkala, and reported. Magomedtagirov escaped unhurt. The Daghestan jamaat tried unsuccessfully to kill Magomedtagirov the same way six months ago, proceeding on the assumption that he would personally travel to the site of an attack on a local prosecutor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9 and 22 2006). LF

Daghestan's Central Election Commission declined on February 2 to register the party lists of candidates for the March 11 parliamentary elections submitted by the Unified Socialist Party of Russia and People's Will, reported on February 3. The two parties reportedly failed to submit the requisite documentation, and some signatures in their support were allegedly forged. Daghestan's Central Election Commision earlier barred from the ballot the Communist Party (KPRF), Yabloko, and the Union of Rightist Forces, but subsequently rescinded the ban on the KPRF (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 25, and 30, 2007). LF

Some 100-150 people gathered on February 2 outside the government building in Yerevan to call for the release of Zhirayr Sefilian and Vardan Malkhasian, both members of the Alliance of Armenian Volunteers, which groups together veterans of the Karabakh war, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The two men were arrested in December and charged with preparing a coup d'etat in the run-up to the May 12 parliamentary election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 12, and 20, 2006, and January 3, 2007). Sefilian's brother, Toros, said on February 2 that he has requested, but not been granted, an audience with President Roert Kocharian (also an active participant of the Karabakh war) and with Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, whom a third member of the alliance identified last month as being behind Zhirayr Sefilian's arrest. Sarkisian has rejected that allegation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007). LF

Azerbaijan's Economic Court has upheld a ruling by a lower-level court on November 24, 2006, requiring the progressive wing of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the opposition newspaper "Azadliq," and the Turan information agency to vacate the premises in central Baku that they had rented for over a decade, zerkalo. az reported on February 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27 and 28 and December 19, 2006). "Azadliq" Editor Azer Ahmedov declared on February 2 he will appeal the ruling in a higher court, and if necessary in the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg. The three organizations were all offered alternative office space that they rejected as inadequate. LF

Vusal Garadjayev, an 18-year-old Azerbaijani serviceman taken prisoner by Armenian forces on December 7, 2006, and released two weeks later, has been arrested on charges of treason and violating sentry procedures, reported on February 2 quoting the Military Prosecutor's Office. LF

Georgian Interior Minister Gela Bezhuashvili and U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft signed an agreement in Tbilisi on February 2 on cooperation to prevent the transit via Georgian territory of nuclear and radioactive substances, Caucasus Press reported. Work on the agreement has been underway for seven months. It is not clear whether it was drafted in direct response to the arrest one year ago in a sting operation of a Russian citizen in possession of weapons-grade uranium (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2007). LF

Ivo Petrov, the deputy head of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) met in Sukhum(i) on February 1 with Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, to discuss Abkhazia's participation at a meeting in Geneva on February 12-13 of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group of countries that seeks to mediate a solution to the Abkhaz conflict, and ITAR-TASS reported on February 1 and 2 respectively. As a "goodwill gesture," the Abkhaz leadership acceded to Petrov's request to lift a ban it imposed in December on traffic crossing the sole functioning bridge over the Inguri River, which marks the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, Caucasus Press reported on February 3. Shamba also met on February 2 with Russian Foreign Ministry official Andrei Kelin, reported. Shamba said that Abkhazia will insist at the Geneva meeting that Georgia withdraw its remaining forces from the upper Kodori Gorge in compliance with the UN Security Council resolution of October 2006, according to Civil Georgia on February 2 (see "Caucasus: Are Georgia, Abkhazia Pursuing Diverging Agendas?", January 31, 2007). LF

A joint venture of Russian oil company LUKoil and Kazakh national oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz has been fined 4.1 billion tenges ($32 million) for unauthorized gas flaring, Interfax reported on February 2. Amangali Sagatov, a spokesman for prosecutors in Aktobe, told the news agency that a January 31 ruling by a court in Aktobe overturned earlier court decisions in Kazakhoil Aktobe's favor and upheld accusations by environmental prosecutors that the joint venture flared gas in violation of a ban on the practice. Gas flaring is the burning off of undesirable gas or other waste. DK

Kyrgyz police on February 1 arrested a 33-year-old resident of the southern city of Uzgen who is suspected of being a member of the banned Islamic Party of Turkestan, reported the next day. An Interior Ministry spokesman said that the man, who is a Kyrgyz citizen, is wanted by Uzbek authorities for alleged involvement in unrest in Andijon in May 2005, Interfax-AVN reported. The spokesman said police confiscated weapons and religious propaganda from his home. Approximately 100 people, including relatives of the arrested man, held a demonstration outside the Uzgen mayor's office after the arrest, charging that the incident was a provocation by Uzbek authorities, and news agency reported. The demonstrators dispersed after receiving a warning from local prosecutors. DK

Murodali Ruziyev, chief doctor at Tajikistan's National HIV/AIDS Center, told Avesta on February 3 that the country registered 204 new cases of HIV infection in 2006. "A total of 586 men and 124 women have been officially registered as having HIV to date," Ruziyev said. He noted that 80 percent of the HIV-positive persons are between the ages of 20 and 30, with intravenous drug users making up 65 percent of the HIV-positive total. At the same time, Ruziyev said that 122 cases stemmed from transmission through sexual intercourse, adding, "Those people are not just prostitutes and drug addicts, but labor migrants too." DK

Tajikistan's government has approved a 25 percent increase in the price of electricity for private households, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on February 2. For monthly usage up to 250 kilowatt-hours, the price of a single kilowatt-hour will rise from 1.6 to 2 dirhams ($.058), and from 2.7 to 3.4 dirhams per kilowatt-hour for monthly usage in excess of 250 kilowatt-hours. Nozirjon Yodgori, a spokesman for national electricity company Barqi Tojik, told Avesta that the price hikes came in response to recommendations from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in order to make the country's hydroelectric power sector more attractive to investors. DK

Uzbek survivors of the violence in Andijon in May 2005 have appealed the refusal of German prosecutors to open an investigation into the role of former Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2006), Human Rights Watch (HRW) announced in a February 2 press release on the organization's website ( In an appeal submitted last week to a court in Stuttgart, a lawyer representing survivors of Andijon argued that German law's principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity obligates prosecutors there to investigate Almatov's activities even though the former minister is no longer physically present in Germany. "Germany's universal jurisdiction law was adopted to help survivors of serious atrocities who have no hope of getting justice at home," Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, commented. "By refusing to use this law, Germany's federal prosecutor has exacerbated the environment of impunity that exists for foreign officials accused of crimes against humanity." DK

Two activists of the unregistered opposition organization Youth Front have allegedly been taken into custody after a special police unit detained some 30 members of the organization in Minsk on February 4, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Most of the detentions were made at a private apartment where the group was meeting. All the detainees, apart from Aleh Korban and Zmitser Khvedaruk, were released late in the evening on February 4. JM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on February 2 instructed the government to build a new space satellite in 2 1/2 years, Belapan reported. Belka, Belarus's first-ever space apparatus, was lost during a failed launch attempt at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on July 26, 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2006). The new satellite will reportedly cost $18 million, $2 million more than Belka. It will be part of a Belarus-Russia satellite network, providing mapping data for agencies working on the ground. Lukashenka said at a government conference on February 2 that the new satellite's image resolution will be 2.1 meters. JM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said in Kyiv on February 2 that it is too early to talk about setting up any joint venture with Russia to manage Ukrainian gas-transit pipelines, Reuters and Interfax-Ukraine reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed the previous day that Ukraine had made an offer of a "revolutionary character" to unify both countries' gas-transportation systems in exchange for a share in Russia's gas-drilling sector (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). "Everything that is related to modifying the [Ukrainian gas-transportation] model requires a very thorough and cautious approach," Yushchenko told a news conference. "It is difficult to speak about this because we need to debate the principles of organizing our relations and methods to implement initiatives. I would not mention any percentages or shares in any plants today because we are far away from this." The same day, Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous opposition bloc, announced that her bloc will prepare a bill to ban what she called "manipulations around our gas-transportation system in exchange for some sort of bait." "We are going to put forward a secure shield against attempts to appropriate our gas-transportation system or entire Naftohaz [Ukraine's gas and oil monopoly] by shrewd businessmen from the Russian Federation," she added. JM

President Yushchenko and visiting Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a Ukraine-Kazakhstan Action Plan for 2007-08 in Kyiv on February 2, Ukrainian media reported. The document provides for holding a Year of Kazakhstan in Ukraine in 2007 -- an event that Nazarbaev officially inaugurated in Kyiv -- and a Year of Ukraine in Kazakhstan in 2008. It also stipulates intensifying bilateral cooperation in the fuel and energy sector, in particular, through the construction of power-engineering facilities, the expansion of oil-pipeline networks, and participation in oil-and-gas development. JM

After 15 rounds of direct talks between Serbian and Kosovar negotiating teams over the past year, UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari on February 2 presented his proposals for the future of Kosova, international media reported. The proposed settlement, released to the media on February 2 by the United Nations Mission In Kosovo (UNMIK), refers neither to independence for Kosova nor to Serbian sovereignty and, in comments to the media, Ahtisaari stressed the document is still open to "constructive amendments." He invited the two negotiating teams to meet with him on February 13 to continue talks. Ahtisaari will present his proposal to the UN Security Council in late March, at which point he said he would be "duty-bound" to address directly the issue of Kosova's formal status. Under Ahtisaari's proposals, Kosova would gain its own constitution, institutions, flag, and army, and would "have the right to negotiate and conclude international agreements, including the right to seek membership of international organizations." However, NATO and the EU would retain a military and police presence in Kosova, while an EU-selected envoy of the international community would have the power to intervene in government. The proposal, described as "supervised independence" in a range of international media, envisages strong protections for ethnic minorities and their cultural heritage and official status for the Serbian language. Under the settlement, Kosova would make "no territorial claims against, and [would] seek no union with, any state or part of any state," a principle that seeks to allay regional fears about the emergence of a Greater Albania and would appear to block Serb areas from joining Serbia. AG

Kosovar Albanian leaders expressed general satisfaction with the proposals. Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku told Kosova Albanian KohaVision television on February 2 that "the way [UN envoy] Ahtisaari describes Kosova is nothing less than a sovereign country, an independent country," though the proposal "nonetheless does not meet all our expectations, our demands." He subsequently told local and international news agencies that "Kosova is definitely running the last mile toward independence." Ceku said he hopes the UN will in April recognize Kosova as independent, but added that his government will not make a unilateral declaration of independence. Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu said an independent Kosova will guarantee the safety and the rights of the Serbian minority, which currently numbers about 100,000. Oliver Ivanovic, the only Kosovar Serb to meet with Ahtisaari when he presented his plan, told Serbia's Radio B92 on February 3 that the proposal is too "vague" to go before the UN in its current form, and he urged Serbia to form a new government quickly in order to continue with negotiations. The leader of the hard-line Serbian National Council, Milan Ivanovic, called the plan "a sort of political terrorism," asserting that it "does not at all differ from the positions held by the Albanian negotiation team." Ivanovic also predicted protests throughout Serb-dominated areas, Radio B92 reported on February 5. The security situation in the UN-administered province remained calm, though Radio Television Serbia reported on February 2 that a dozen youths threw stones at an elementary school in the Serb-dominated north. In the run-up to the proposal, Oliver Ivanovic predicted a war "sooner or later," while the commander of NATO forces in the region warned about the possibility of violence spilling over into the southern Serbian province of Presevo and into Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31 and February 2, 2007). AG

Ahtisaari's plan was universally rejected by Serbia's leading politicians. Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic accused Ahtisaari of proposing independence for Kosova, President Boris Tadic said the proposal set a "dangerous precedent" and reiterated that "Serbia and I, as its president, will never accept Kosovo's independence," while Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who refused to meet Ahtisaari on February 2, said the UN envoy has no mandate and declared his plan "illegitimate." One of the strongest critiques came from the Serbian Orthodox Church, which, in February 2 comments carried by B92, called the plan "legal violence against Serbia," and called on the international community to prevent Ahtisaari "in his dangerous intention to, on behalf of someone, take the most precious part of its territory from Serbia, one of Europe's oldest states." Kosova has emerged as a key issue in talks about the formation of a new government, following elections held on January 21. Kostunica's Popular Coalition has warned of "serious consequences" for any country that recognizes Kosova as independent, and the importance of the issue was underlined in a February 1 interview with the Serbian newspaper "Vecernje novosti" when a Kostunica adviser, Vladeta Jankovic, called the bloc's stance "the last line of defense of the country's sovereignty" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). Officials from other parties have been critical of Kostunica's hard-line position. AG

Albania and Macedonia, which fought a brief campaign against ethnic Albanian separatists in 2001, both welcomed the Ahtisaari plan. Albanian Foreign Minister Besnik Mustafaj praised the proposal, saying that "this moment marks the emergence of Kosova from the so far de jure sovereignty Serbia had over it," the Albanian news agency ATA reported on February 2. Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said the proposal is "acceptable" and Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki said the settlement would end conflicts in the Balkans, local media reported. Milososki added that "Yugoslavia's dissolution was incited by the Kosovo crises in 1981 and would be now wrapped up with the resolution of the Kosovo problem," the news agency MIA reported on February 2. The three-member Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina did not comment, but Milan Jelic, the president of the Bosnian Serb-controlled Republika Srpska, said the status of Kosova is an internal Serbian matter that should be decided by Belgrade and Pristina, the SRNA news agency reported the same day. AG

The European Union, which would play the key international role in the region under the Ahtisaari proposal, and the United States both reiterated their support for the plan, international media reported. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the German paper "Der Spiegel" in an interview published on February 3 that "every attempt to submit those proposals in the Security Council will be in vain and counterproductive." Lavrov also said, though, that Russia would not apply a veto. Lavrov particularly criticized the proposal for not adequately addressing the issue of ethnic Serbs displaced since 1999. UNMIK says 16,000 refugees have returned since 1999. UNMIK estimates that more than 220,000 displaced persons and refugees are still living in Serbia and Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). AG

The Russian state-owned oil company Zarubezhneft on February 2 bought majority stakes in Bosnia's only oil refinery, Bosanski Brod, and in lubricant producer Modrica and fuel retailer Petrol. The sales will raise a total of 121.1 million euros ($157.7 million), Reuters and the Republika Srpska news agency SRNA reported on February 2. NeftegazInKor, the subsidiary through which Zarubezhneft bought the three companies, is also expected to plow nearly 1 billion euros into the companies over the next four years to pay off debts, improve production, and upgrade transportation infrastructure. Bosanski Brod has the capacity to meet 80 percent of the country's refinery needs, but it has produced little for most of the past decade. The deals now need the approval of the country's antimonopoly authorities. Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia-Herzegovina's two autonomous regions, called the agreements "a significant gain for the Serbian republic" and said that NeftegazInKor has promised to pay wage arrears and not to lay off staff. The Republika Srpska leader signed the contracts because, under the terms of the treaty that ended the 1992-95 war, the country's two autonomous entities run their own economic policies and have the right to privatize state-owned companies in their region. AG

On January 28, reports emerged from the town of Al-Zarqa, near the holy city of Al-Najaf, that a shadowy group called the Army of Heaven was waging a fierce battle with Iraqi security forces. However, as details concerning the group continue to emerge, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine what took really place.

The official government version of what occurred in Al-Najaf was that a mysterious messianic group called the Army of Heaven was planning to attack Shi'ite pilgrims and prominent Shi'ite religious figures during the Ashura ceremonies. Authorities said they became aware of the plot through an informant just one week earlier. The fighting, according to some Iraqi government sources, led to the deaths of 263 militants and the arrests of 502 others.

Iraqi officials said the group's leader, Dia Abd al-Zahra Kadim, proclaimed himself as Al-Mahdi, or the guided one. According to Shi'ite belief, the 12th imam, Muhammad al-Muhantazar, disappeared as a child and will reappear as a messianic figure, Al-Mahdi, at the end of the world to save mankind and usher in a perfect Islamic society.

Kadim and his followers were accused of planning to storm the city of Al-Najaf, seize the holy shrine of Imam Ali, declare that Al-Mahdi had returned, and assassinate senior Shi'ite clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Iraqi authorities rejected the group's claims and accused it of trying to incite unrest during Ashura, the holiest day of the Shi'ite calendar.

"The group raises false slogans, claims to be Shi'ite, and wants to rid the world of ulama [religious authorities]," Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd-al-Husayn Abtan told Al-Arabiyah satellite television on January 30. "In fact, it has nothing to do with religion, and its leader managed to attract a number of simple-minded people. Nevertheless, we have discovered that the organization's leaders are highly educated people and maintain links with foreign countries."

Furthermore, Abtan said that, judging by the group's fighting capabilities, its members seem to have received serious military training, an indication that it may have links with Al-Qaeda, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 29. He said that, like Al-Qaeda, the group included foreigners, adding that a Sudanese and a number of Afghans were arrested, while two Egyptians escaped.

On January 30, an "Al-Zaman" report contradicted the official Iraqi government version and accused the Iraqi government of carrying out a massacre of innocent Shi'ite tribesmen.

According to the report, a procession of approximately 200 members of the Shi'ite Al-Hawatimah tribe was making its way to Karbala to participate in the Ashura festivities. The tribesmen carried signs and placards calling on Iran to stop interfering in Iraq's internal affairs. They were stopped at a checkpoint by Iraqi security forces, who subsequently killed the occupants of the lead car of the convoy.

A convoy belonging to the Al-Khaz'al tribe nearby came to the defense of the Al-Hawatimah and the fighting escalated. Iraqi forces soon felt they were outnumbered and called in U.S. air support, claiming that they were being attacked by Al-Qaeda-linked forces. A member of the Al-Hawatimah tribe who fled the fighting told Al-Sharqiyah television on January 31 that the procession was armed only for protection.

The Al-Hawatimah and Al- Khaz'al tribes fiercely oppose the Shi'ite-led government's close ties to Iran, "The Independent" reported on January 31. The tribes also oppose the two main parties comprising the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al-Da'wah Party -- which control Al-Najaf and its security forces.

A spokesman for the Army of Heaven, Abd al-Imam Jabbar, said the group was not involved in the battle in Al-Najaf at all and accused the government of carrying out "a propaganda campaign to discredit our group" in order to cover up the government's "crimes." "Al-Zaman" and "The Independent" also reported on January 31 that the Iraqi government has prevented journalists from talking to those wounded during the fighting.

In addition, the Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on February 1 backing the claims of a massacre and called for international investigation.

"The government's side of the story that there is a group calling itself the Army of Heaven that pursues subversive goals is baseless, and the whole issue was merely an attack against Arab tribes that did not show allegiance to the current government, or to the forces and militias that stand behind it," the statement said.

While it is difficult to ascertain what actually occurred in Al-Najaf, the battle does seem to indicate that there are divisions within the Shi'ite community. Shi'ite leaders have taken pains to project an image of unity, and Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has repeatedly stressed the importance of Shi'ite unity above all else.

It may be in the best interests of the Shi'a-led government to promote the notion of an Al-Qaeda-linked Army of Heaven as the culprit in the Al-Najaf battle and a threat to Iraqi security. Doing so deflects attention from the fractious state of the Shi'ite community.

This would not be the first time Shi'a-on-Shi'a violence has broken out in Iraq. On October 19, 2006, clashes erupted between Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam al-Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades that left 25 dead and more than 160 injured in Al-Amarah. The fighting began after the Badr Brigades, the militia loyal to SCIRI, blamed the Imam al-Mahdi Army for the assassination of Qassim al-Tamini, a senior Iraqi intelligence officer and a member of the Badr Brigades.

The suggestion that the Shi'ite community is distancing itself from the Army of Heaven was given greater credence when "The New York Times" reported on February 1 that Iraqi officials have called into question the sectarian identity of the group's leader.

At a news conference on January 31, General Qais Hamzah al-Mamuri, chief of police for the Babil Governorate, said the leader of the group was not killed, and identified him as Ahmad Ismail Katte, who also went by the name of Ahmad bin al-Hasan al-Basri. Al-Mamuri said Katte is actually a Sunni militant who took control of the Army of Heaven by masquerading as a Shi'a. He claimed Katte was originally from the town of Al-Zubayr, a Sunni stronghold near Al-Basrah.

"He is a Wahabbi from a Sunni town," Hamzah said, a reference to the austere sect of Sunni Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia. "His family is Sunni, but they brought him up to be Shi'a."

Iraqi officials also claimed that intelligence officers from the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein have infiltrated the Army of Heaven. They stressed that Katte's hometown, Al-Zubayr, has long been considered a Ba'athist bastion.

While the Iraqi government's explanations continue to be confusing and convoluted, they are bent on portraying the Army of Heaven as a rogue force that has no links to the mainstream Shi'ite community. Accusing the group's leader of being a Sunni and linking him with the former regime is an ideal way to distance the Shi'ite organizations from the group and minimize indications that the Shi'ite community is deeply divided.

U.S. General Dan McNeill assumed command of the 35,000-member NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan at a ceremony in Kabul on February 4, international news agencies reported. McNeill previously commanded the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003 and is scheduled to lead the NATO-led force for one year. "We will quit neither post nor mission until the job is done and we are properly relieved," McNeill said during the ceremonies to mark the handover of command from British General David Richards, according to "The New York Times" on February 5. In his speech, Richards warned that victory in Afghanistan requires more than just a military solution. He cited the need for more reconstruction and development, as well as the assumption by Kabul of responsibilities like good governance and improved relations with neighboring Pakistan, which Afghanistan has accused of supporting the neo-Taliban. AT

Hours before the United States assumed command of ISAF on February 4, NATO launched an aerial attack on Musa Qala in Helmand Province, targeting the Taliban who took control of the town on February 2, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. A resident of Musa Qala told AIP that two bombs were dropped near the main market in the town. U.K. forces struch a deal with local elders and left Musa Qala in October after suffering higher-than-expected casualties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). Former Helmand provincial security commander and current Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) member Dad Mohammad told AIP on February 3 that the "Taliban were in total control of Musa Qala" at the time of the October deal, adding that "everything said about an agreement [with local elders] has been a lie." His statements followed an ISAF press release the same day that said "reports were received that an unknown number of Taliban entered the Musa Qala district center." AT

Qari Mohammad Yusof, speaking for the Taliban on February 4, proposed a new peace deal with NATO over Musa Qala, AIP reported. "We want total security to prevail in Musa Qala," Mohammad Yusof told AIP. "It was for this reason that we left Musa Qala last time [October 2006] at the request of local elders.... However, NATO did not observe the agreement and carried out bombing raids in Musa Qala several times." The Taliban spokesman went on to say that "once again we propose a security agreement, provided that local elders can give us firm guarantees that there will be no more" bombings or other military operations in the district and that NATO and Afghan military forces are barred from entering the area. Mohammad Yusof warned that Taliban fighters in Musa Qala will defend themselves if attacked by NATO or other forces. AT

In a press release on February 3, the New York-based International Central for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) criticized a recent decision by the Afghan lower house to grant full amnesty to all parties involved in more than two decades of conflict in Afganistan. The ICTJ said that by offering "an amnesty to a broad range of perpetrators," the Wolesi Jirga's (People's Council) resolution "contravenes Afghanistan's obligations to pursue accountability for serious human rights abuses." The group charged that Afghan President Hamid Karzai would "break his recent promise to pursue justice and fight impunity" if he signed the bill into law. "A genuine desire for peace must be expressed by addressing the needs of victims, not by promoting impunity," Marieke Wierda, head of ICTJ's Afghanistan program, said. Backers argue that the Wolesi Jirga adopted the resolution, called "National Stability and Reconciliation," in the interest of peace and security (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). AT

A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- posted a statement on February 3 rejecting the Wolesi Jirga's wartime-amnesty resolution. The amnesty decision not only grants full amnesty to all sides in the Afghan conflict, but also extends a blanket amnesty to all opponents of the current Afghan government if they end their fighting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). The Taliban has consistently rejected any suggestion of talks with either Kabul authorities or "the foreign invaders." The statement called the Wolesi Jirga resolution illegal and said it contradicted Shari'a, adding that the Taliban will never forgive people who "entered Kabul with [the aid of] American aircrafts" and "invited the Americans" to occupy Afghanistan. The statement added that the Afghan nation will never grant amnesty to those who have "sold the Afghan identity and the country's independence." AT

Gholamreza Aqazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said in Tehran on February 4 that "we think" that UN Resolution 1737 targeting Iran's atomic program "has serious legal and executive problems" and added that "we said right from the start [that] we would not implement it," ISNA reported. He was speaking to the press after meeting with representatives of Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Arab League states who visited the Isfahan uranium-conversion site in central Iran the previous day (see item below). Aqazadeh said that "remaining matters between Iran" and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) might be resolved "in one working session." "We have no new issues with the [IAEA], and everything left is to do with the past," he said. But "as Iran's dossier is political, while these political issues are not resolved, the [IAEA] cannot or will not resolve its outstanding issues with Iran." Aqazadeh reported the installation of new cameras in the Isfahan plant, which he said have been placed to monitor "the gas injection system, the final product, and the storage of nuclear material." Aqazadeh said Iran is now working with the IAEA within the bounds of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), "while in the past we cooperated...beyond this treaty or beyond the additional protocol" to the treaty, ISNA reported. VS

Iran showed six NAM and Arab League diplomats the Isfahan uranium-conversion plant on February 3, presumably in an attempt to demonstrate the transparency of its activities, news agencies reported. Diplomats representing member states of the IAEA governing board were among the visitors to the site, where uranium ore or "yellowcake" is converted to UF6 gas; that gas is fed into centrifuges for further enrichment as part of the nuclear fuel-production process. Iranian envoy to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh joined ambassadors from Cuba, Sudan, Egypt, Malaysia, and Algeria, as well as Syria's envoy to the Arab League and about 90 journalists, news agencies reported. Cuban envoy Norma Goicochea Estenoz said visitors could not assess what they had seen from "the technical point of view," Reuters reported. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran the same day that Iran will continue cooperating with the IAEA, and that inspectors may check installations without restrictions, Radio Farda reported, citing an ISNA report. "We are ready for any cooperation with the [IAEA]," Larijani reportedly said. Radio Farda suggested that Larijani's statement appeared to contradict a previous decision to bar the entry of 38 UN inspectors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has proposed government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham to be the new justice minister, IRNA reported. The nomination was made in a letter to parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel that was read out to lawmakers on February 4, and is subject to parliamentary approval. Former Justice Minister Jamal Karimi-Rad died in an automobile accident on December 28. Deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar told parliament on February 4 that the chamber will debate the choice on February 13. Separately, ISNA quoted an unnamed judiciary source as saying that the deputy head of the judiciary for legal and judicial development affairs, Alireza Jamshidi, is "presently the main choice" to become the next judiciary spokesman. VS

Two Iranian activists were prevented from boarding a flight on February 4 on their way to a conference in the United States on reforms and religion in Iran, Radio Farda reported the same day, citing ILNA. Hashem Aghajari and Abdullah Momeni were stopped shortly before boarding and their passports were confiscated, Aghajari told ILNA. Momeni is a postgraduate member of the Office to Consolidate Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat, or DTV), a confederation of student associations, while Aghajari is an academic who has faced past prosecution for expressing critical views of Iran's clergy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 2, 2004). Aghajari said a plain-clothes agent who "did not show us any order or name any authority" prevented Momeni and him from boarding the flight. He added that they were later told to go to an address in northern Tehran "after 72 hours," Radio Farda reported. VS

Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani on February 4 sought to explain Tehran's position on regime changes in Iraq and Afghanistan, ISNA reported. Speaking at a university in Varamin, near Tehran, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said that U.S. forces have occupied Iraq to "dominate the region" and "have not attained their goal." Now, he said, "they have...identified Iran as the culprit, and say Iran is interfering in these countries' affairs." He said Iran is "pleased" that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein -- whose army invaded Iran in 1980, setting off an eight-year war that is believed to have killed more than 1 million Iranians -- was overthrown. "If we are upset today, it is over a worse government like America governing in Iraq," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. "America claims to have come to [Iraq] to establish democracy. We, too, support democracy." He added that Iran has "not seen anything good in Afghanistan either." Previous conflicts in Iran's neighbor to the east led to floods of refugees into Iran, he said, "So why should we oppose Afghanistan's freedom and independence?" He said NATO forces in Afghanistan have failed to prevent increased drug production that, in turn, flows into Iran. "Iran has helped in both these countries, but...they accuse us of interference," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said, according to ISNA. "They have failed and are looking for pretexts." VS

A truck bomb at a central market in Baghdad on February 3 killed at least 130 and wounded more than 300, making it the single deadliest bombing since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, international media reported the same day. Police officials said that a truck carrying an estimated 1 ton of explosives blew up in the predominantly Shi'ite Al-Sadriyah district as people were buying food ahead of the nighttime curfew. Iraqi officials blamed the bombing on supporters of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Sunni insurgents. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a statement condemning the attack and describing it as a "despicable crime," state-run Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 3. "Today, we, and all Iraqis and honorable people in the world, have been devastated by the news of a despicable crime that targeted a popular market in the Al-Sadriyah area in Baghdad, which claimed the lives of a large number of innocent civilians. We reiterate to our dear people that we are bent on eradicating crime, uprooting it, and terminating those who support it with words or deeds," al-Maliki said in a statement. SS

The National Intelligence Assessment released on February 2 paints a bleak picture of Iraq's future and indicates the conflict has elements of a "civil war," international media reported the same day. Although, the report said "civil war" does not adequately reflect the complexity of the conflict, "nonetheless, the term 'civil war' accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements." Prior to the release of the report, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the term civil war oversimplifies the conflict. "I believe that there are essentially four wars going on in Iraq: one is Shi'a-on-Shi'a, principally in the south; the second is sectarian conflict, principally in Baghdad; third is the insurgency; and fourth is Al-Qaeda," Gates said. In addition, the report warned of serious consequences if the violence is not curtailed. "Unless efforts to reverse these conditions show measurable progress during the term of this estimate in the coming 12 to 18 months, we assess that the overall security situation will continue to deteriorate." SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said on February 3 that half of all attacks in Baghdad are committed by insurgents coming from Syria, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported the same day. "We have evidence and confirmation that 50 percent of the takfiris [insurgents] and killers who call themselves Arab mujahedin come across the Syrian border. We said in the past and we say it again today that Syria closes its eyes to them," al-Dabbagh said. He also accused the Syrian government of ignoring intelligence it obtains concerning Sunni insurgents on Syrian territory. "The Iraqi Interior Ministry and National Security Ministry presented evidence [to the Syrians], along with the names of those who plot and send funds and car bombs. We know all this and we presented this information to the Syrian brothers," al-Dabbagh added. U.S. and Iraqi officials have long accused Damascus of not doing enough to prevent Sunni insurgents based in Syria from crossing into Iraq. SS

The office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on February 3 issued a rare public statement calling for unity among Iraqis and an end to the sectarian violence, "Gulf News" reported on February 4. "Everyone realizes the desperate need for unity and for renouncing divisions, avoiding sectarian fanaticism, and avoiding arousing sectarian disputes," the statement said. Al-Sistani also warned "that some individuals and some groups are working totally contrary to [reconciliation] by strengthening divisions and deepening sectarian disputes among Muslims." Al-Sistani's comments were supposedly a reference to influential Saudi cleric Abdallah Bin Jabrain, who recently described Shi'a as "the most vicious enemy of Muslims". SS

The UN announced on February 2 that mercenaries comprise the second-largest fighting force in Iraq after U.S. forces, international media reported the same day. Jose Luis Gomez del Prado, a member of the UN's working group on mercenaries, said that there are between 30,000 and 50,000 mercenaries fighting in Iraq. The case of Iraq "is a new manifestation of the use of mercenaries that has caught the U.S. by surprise," Gomez del Prado said. UN official Amada Guevara said thousands of workers have been contracted by existing companies that have exploited legal loopholes and, in some cases, have been hired by "ghost firms" that have opened an office for a month and then disappeared without trace. "This amounts to the privatization of warfare," Guevara said. SS

U.S. forces announced on February 3 that it killed four Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters and arrested more than 20 suspected terrorists during separate raids in Al-Fallujah and Al-Tarmiyah. In Al-Fallujah, U.S. forces killed three Al-Qaeda fighters and arrested 10 others. In the Al-Tarmiyah operation, U.S. forces killed one Al-Qaeda fighter and detained eight others. U.S. forces also said that in the Al-Tarmiyah raid, they uncovered a large weapons cache consisting of numerous AK-47s, several pistols, wire spools, 60 mm mortar rounds, and a pressure plate. "Coalition forces are working diligently to eliminate foreign terrorists and Al-Qaeda supporters who are trying to hijack the development and building of a new stable and peaceful Iraq," the military said in a statement. SS