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Newsline - August 17, 2007

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the Missile Defense Agency, said in Huntsville, Alabama, on August 16 that Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent proposal to jointly operate an early-warning radar system in Azerbaijan would be too close to Iran to serve as a replacement for the projected U.S. missile-defense system, which will include 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 15, 18, and 22, July 3, and August 1, 2007). Just days after Putin made his surprise offer at the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries in Heiligendamm, Germany, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov at the June 14 NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels that Washington's plans to base parts of a missile-defense system in Central Europe will not be altered by Putin's proposal. U.S. President George W. Bush and other top U.S. officials often use noncommittal terms like "very interesting" to describe Putin's offer. Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer wrote in the June 14-18 issue of "Novaya gazeta" that Putin's suggestion is not a "viable proposal" from a military standpoint. PM

Russian Colonel General Vladimir Moltenskoy, who commands the Russian participants in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) ongoing military exercises in the Urals, said in an interview with state-run television on August 16 that no U.S. observers were invited to the maneuvers because they were "internal and concerned only six states," Interfax reported (see below and "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007). The six full members of the SCO are Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Moltenskoy added that "we invited [officials] from these states, as well as the military attaches accredited in Moscow from other countries. The total exceeded 80 people." Moltenskoy said that the Chebarkul military testing ground, where the exercises are taking place, is not large enough "to accommodate many guests." The SCO has been dubbed "a club of dictatorships" and "a rival to NATO." PM

Speaking in Adelaide on August 17, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer confirmed media reports that Australia plans to sign a uranium export agreement with President Putin during his visit there in September, and reported. Downer stressed that Russia will be legally obliged to use the uranium for its nuclear power industry and not for weapons. He noted that "Russia would [not] want to become a rogue state and break international law. It would lead to a collapse with their relations with Australia and probably with an awful lot more countries." The opposition Labour Party said that it has no objections to the deal with Moscow, because Russia is a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Labour does, however, object to the government's plans to sell uranium to India, because it has not signed the NPT. Australia has at least 30 percent of the world's known recoverable uranium reserves and is one of the world's leading uranium producers and exporters, along with Canada and Kazakhstan. Russia has ambitious plans for its nuclear power industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and February 26, 2007). PM

Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin was quoted by Bloomberg News on August 17 as saying in Izhevsk that Russia wants to stop the unlicensed manufacture of Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifles in countries such as China, Poland, and Bulgaria. He stressed that Russia will "fight for its rights" against pirate producers of the famous weapon, which is made in about 30 factories around the world. Russian production accounts for about 10 percent of the world total. Much of the illegal production takes place in factories that had licenses to make Kalashnikovs in the Soviet era but did not renew them after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Vladimir Grodetsky, who heads Russia's Izhmash factory that makes Kalashnikovs, said that "when you see that there's a huge fight against piracy of CDs and DVDs, it's insulting that in such an important area of production our rights are being violated." He declined to comment on media reports that Russia has already begun legal action against pirate producers. On August 15, a Russian court ruled in favor of a Russian music download site that some major Western firms accused of piracy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007). PM

The Samara Oblast court decided on August 16 to charge Tolyatti Mayor Nikolai Utkin with abuse of office in the alleged extortion of a four-story building in 2001 from a local construction firm, and ITAR-TASS reported. It is the third criminal charge pending against him. Utkin has been in custody since May 1 on charges of extorting nearly $6 million from a businessman as part of a real-estate deal (see "Russian Mayor Detained On Corruption Charges,", May 2, 2007). His defense team said on August 16 that the authorities "dug out a six-year-old case...because the other charges are crumbling down." Utkin's lawyers said they will appeal the latest court ruling and noted that the building in question is being used by the city authorities as offices. On August 17, "The Moscow Times" reported that the Interior Ministry announced that it registered 8,848 cases of bureaucrats seeking bribes in 2007. The largest sum involved was $1.85 million, which an official in Karelia sought in return for issuing an unspecified natural-resources license. PM

Ramzan Kadyrov cast doubts on August 16 on the claim by the Chechen militant group Riyadus Salikhiin to have planted the bomb that exploded on August 13 on the "Neva Express" train bound from St. Petersburg to Moscow, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 15, and 16, 2007). Kadyrov said there are no longer any groups of militants in Chechnya large enough to undertake such a terrorist attack, and he suggested that rumors of Chechen involvement originated with unnamed "enemies" who disapprove of the positive trends currently under way in Chechnya. LF

Supporters of Karabakh war veterans Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian, whose trial on charges of calling for the violent overthrow of the Armenian leadership ended last week, released a statement on August 16 arguing that Article 301 of the Penal Code under which the two men were tried is unconstitutional and should be abolished, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. They argued that Article 301 restricts freedom of speech, and noted that it applies exclusively to statements made in pre- and postelection periods. Malkhasian was sentenced to two years' imprisonment, while Sefilian was acquitted of calling for violent regime change but sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment on charges of illegal possession of a firearm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). In separate interviews with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, both men claimed the charges against them were politically motivated and intended as punishment for their stated opposition to resolving the Karabakh conflict by means of territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. LF

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Sullivan met in Baku on August 17 with senior government officials to discuss economic cooperation, especially in the energy sphere, Azerbaijani news agencies reported. Sullivan argued that joining the World Trade Organization would create favorable conditions for further international investment in Azerbaijan, and urged the passage of the necessary legislation, reported. Officials from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and from Azerbaijan's State Oil Company (SOCAR) signed an agreement under which the U.S. will provide $1.7 million to finance a feasibility study for pipelines to transport oil and gas from Kazakhstan across the Caspian Sea bed to Azerbaijan, where they would link up, respectively, with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil export pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline. The estimated cost of the gas pipeline is $11.5 billion, according to the online daily on August 17. Sullivan noted that a trans-Caspian gas pipeline would enable Turkmenistan to export natural gas to Europe via the planned Nabuco pipeline. LF

Russia vetoed on August 16 a UN Security Council vote on two drafted statements submitted by the United States concerning the August 6 incident in which an unidentified aircraft entered Georgian airspace and dropped or jettisoned a missile, reported. Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said that any discussion of the drafts would be premature as Russian experts arrived in Georgia to participate in the investigation into the incident only on August 16. In Tbilisi, Russian ambassador-at-large Valery Kenyaikin told journalists late on August 16 that the Russian experts have provided their Georgian colleagues with Russian radar records that prove Russia was not responsible for the incident, Caucasus Press reported. In a statement summarized by Caucasus Press on August 17, the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi called attention to what it termed the "credible" preliminary conclusion by an international group of experts probing the incident. That report failed to identify the type or origin of the aircraft in question, but said that it entered Georgian airspace from Russia, and noted that the Georgian armed forces do not have missiles of the type dropped. The statement further urged the international community to support confidence-building measures in South Ossetia; international monitoring of the Roki Tunnel linking South Ossetia with the Russian Federation; the deployment of OSCE observers throughout South Ossetia; and to intensify efforts to promote a peaceful solution of the South Ossetian conflict. The U.S. State Department similarly released a brief statement on August 16 saying, "we believe the report accurately summarizes the available evidence," "The New York Times" reported on August 17. LF

Speaking in Tbilisi on August 16 at the end of a government session, Georgian Energy Minister Nika Gilauri said the government will establish a commission that will weigh the benefits and possible risks involved in the construction of a nuclear power plant, Caucasus Press reported. He did not specify a time frame or mention any possible site for the plant, which according to State Minister for Reforms Kakha Bendukidze will have a pressurized light-water reactor. Visiting France two months ago, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili met with the management of Areva NP, which is one of the world's leading designers and constructors of nuclear power plants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, 2007). LF

Speaking at a press conference in Almaty on August 16, two leading Kazakh information technology (IT) experts challenged the operational security of a new electronic-voting system to be used in the country's parliamentary elections, scheduled for August 18, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. The two experts, Zhandoz Kashkimbaev and Bakhyt Qayraqbay, argued that design flaws in the newly expanded electronic system, which was first used in the country's 2004 parliamentary elections, make it more susceptible to manipulation of vote counts, and called on Kazakh voters to use traditional paper ballots instead of casting electronic votes. Qayraqbay noted that although "the system is well-protected from possible external meddling," there are concerns that "it is vulnerable to possible internal interference." Responding to the criticism, Samat Uvaliev, who is in charge of the electronic-voting system at the Central Election Commission, asserted that the authorities will be unable to interfere with the voting system. He further stressed that the operation of the electronic-voting system will be closely monitored by independent observers to ensure that no violations take place in the voting process or counting of ballots. RG

The sixth annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) was held on August 16 outside the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, with leaders from China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan vowing to work more closely to develop energy resources and boost security efforts within the SCO framework, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Asia-Plus reported. The summit considered several proposals, including Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for the creation of an "energy club" to share and develop energy resources among SCO members, and formally adopted a set of 10 documents. The summit's centerpiece was the "Bishkek Declaration" affirming a commitment to long-term "good neighborly relations, friendship, and cooperation" among SCO members, AKIpress reported. The leaders discussed regional security issues, focusing on the need to enhance measures to combat terrorism and to stem the proliferation of weapons and illegal narcotics, and also reviewed measures to bolster information security and to establish a new "SCO university." With Afghan President Hamid Karzai also present, the SCO resolved to convene an international conference aimed at increasing security and stability in Afghanistan, noting that many regional security threats emanate from Afghanistan. Delegates decided to convene next year's SCO summit in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. They also reaffirmed the organization's moratorium on accepting new members, deferring requests by countries, including Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan, to graduate from SCO observer states to full members. Turkmenistan also took part in the summit, with President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov being welcomed as a special "honored guest." As the SCO leaders met in Kyrgyzstan, SCO troops held joint counterterrorism military exercises, known as "Peace Mission-2007," near Chelyabinsk in Russia. The exercises involved 6,500 soldiers, including some 2,000 from Russia and 1,700 from China, with smaller company-size units from Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, a special police platoon from Kyrgyzstan, and a team of 20 Uzbek military officers, according to Interfax. RG

Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev on August 16 signed a state directive ratifying an agreement between the Kyrgyz Defense Ministry and the Turkish military's General Staff on a new military aid package for the Kyrgyz armed forces, the website reported, quoting a statement released by the Kyrgyz government's press service. The $150,000 Turkish aid package is to be used to support advanced counterterrorism training and to help fund training for Kyrgyz officers at Turkish military academies. RG

Omonullo Maqsudov, an Uzbek refugee from Andijon, was released on August 16 from a Czech prison in Plzen, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Despite the fact that he holds official refugee status in Germany, Maqsudov was detained on the basis of an Interpol warrant while crossing the Czech-German border with another Uzbek refugee, Zohid Mirzaev, who was also released by the Czech authorities late last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18 and 26, 2007). Maqsudov is among hundreds of Uzbeks who fled Uzbekistan after violence in May 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon, where rights groups and eyewitnesses say Uzbek security forces killed hundreds of protesters. Maqsudov is also the son-in-law of Akrom Yuldoshev, an alleged leader of Akramiya, a religious group that Uzbek officials have accused of involvement in the unrest in Andijon. RG

Police prevented a crowd of young opposition activists from holding a group prayer in front of a church in Minsk on August 16, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The group gathered in front of the church to express solidarity with those enduring political persecution in the country. Police officers forced the demonstrators into a nearby passenger trolleybus, which brought them, along with other passengers, to the outskirts of the city. "We rode from the church to Bangalore Square. We were driven out of the trolleybus with all the others onboard. They tried to detain us. Now we are being followed by KGB officers. Riot policemen beat girls and older woman who did not participate in the [protest] action at all," opposition activist Zmitser Fedaruk told RFE/RL by the telephone immediately after the police intervention. JM

Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the opposition bloc of the same name, said on Ukrainian Channel 5 television on August 16 that on August 20 she will inaugurate her bloc's regional campaign ahead of the September 30 parliamentary elections by visiting her home city, Dnipropetrovsk. Tymoshenko, whose political support base is located in western and central Ukraine, said she will pay more attention to eastern regions in the current elections. Meanwhile, the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Political and Sociological Studies reported earlier the same day that the Party of Regions is currently supported by 27.6 percent of voters, while the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc is close behind with 26.5 percent backing. The report was based on a poll the institute conducted from August 8 to 14 among 2,000 Ukrainians. According to the poll, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc and the Communist Party could also top the 3 percent threshhold needed to make it into parliament, with 11.1 percent and 3.2 percent of the vote respectively. JM

The United States and its European allies "are inclined to give in to blackmail under [the threat of] violence and anarchy," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov wrote in an article published on August 15. Lavrov added that the West's susceptibility to Kosovar "blackmail" compares badly with its indifference to the plight of the Palestinians. Lavrov also reiterated Russia's long-held position that granting independence to Kosova would contravene international law, adding that only evenhandedness and respect for international law will help the world's development. In the 4,000-word article posted on the Foreign Ministry's website (, Lavrov also accused the West of mistakenly seeking to contain rather than engage with Russia. AG

The commander of U.S. troops in Kosova on August 16 rejected claims by several Serbian ministers that the United States intends, through NATO, to turn Kosova into a puppet state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007). "NATO has no intention of forming a state in Kosovo since it is here in a peacekeeping mission," Brigadier General Douglas Earhart told local and international media. "The United Nations, European Union, and United States are all involved in the process to decide Kosovo's status." AG

A court in the Moldovan town of Ocnita on August 16 began the trial of a Moldovan accused of the murder of a Russian journalist, local and international media reported. Ilya Zimin was killed in Moscow in February 2006. His alleged murderer, Igor Velchev, was arrested in June 2006 in southern Moldova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 23, 2006). Moldova refused to extradite Velchev, who faces 20-25 years in prison, on the grounds that its constitution bars the deportation of Moldovan citizens to face trial abroad. AG

This week's posting of a grisly video purporting to show Russian neo-Nazis brutally killing a Tajik and a Daghestani has raised questions about the role of the Internet in disseminating extremist information. The footage has also fuelled intense debate on Russian-language Internet chat rooms and blogs.

The video shows two men, bound and kneeling on the ground in a forest, a large swastika flag hanging behind them. A third man then beheads one of the captives. The second captive is shot in the head. Two masked men raise their arms in a Nazi salute.

A number of Internet users have expressed horror at the video and called for more control over the Internet. Oleg Panfilov, the director of the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, says restrictions on Internet content could help curb the spread of nationalist ideology. But he says he is not in favor of such restrictions in Russia.

"You don't need to ban air conditioning or ice creams to prevent people from catching a cold," Panfilov says. "Authorities can happily impose restrictions on the Internet, but they will outlaw everything connected to political opposition activists. Problems regularly arise with websites that post material from the [opposition groups] Other Russia and the National Bolshevik Party. But nothing is done to ban Nazi or fascist ideas."

The number of racially motivated attacks and killings have soared in Russia over the past few years. Rights activists have consistently blamed authorities for turning a blind eye by convicting most perpetrators of "hooliganism," a charge that carries relatively light sentences.

According to Panfilov, the reason for this is the popularity of nationalist ideas in official circles. "Videos showing Russian nationalists beating up people from Central Asia and the Caucasus emerge quite frequently," he says. "What worries me most is the authorities' placid reaction to the fact that such videos not only appear on the Internet, but also stay there for a long time. Like many experts, I assume that a number of officials support what the nationalists are doing."

Calls for tighter Internet control to combat nationalism began in January 2006, when a young man called Aleksandr Koptsev burst into a Moscow synagogue during evening prayers and stabbed eight people with a hunting knife. Koptsev -- who was subsequently sentenced to 13 years in prison -- said he was inspired to act by nationalist and neo-Nazi websites.

His claim launched a barrage of official statements about the need to screen Internet content. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev urged the world to join forces against terrorism and crime on the Internet. And Pavel Krasheninnikov, the chairman of the State Duma Committee for Civil and Criminal Law, called for the tightening of legislation on extremism and proposed to introduce harsher punishment for those using cyberspace to spread ethnic and religious hatred.

The current debate launched by the video comes just days before an amended version of Russia's law on extremism is due to come into force. The legislation, signed into law by President Vladimir Putin in July, will broaden the definition of "extremism" and give law-enforcement agencies the authority to suspend media outlets that fail to comply with the new rules.

The new law bans public discussion of "extremist" activity and the production and distribution of what it describes as "extremist" material.

For local and international media watchdogs, this measure -- ostensibly designed to fight extremism -- is intended primarily to silence critical voices and put pressure on journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists has criticized the amendments, saying that the "vague language" in which they are phrased makes them "ambiguous and all-encompassing."

Igor Yakovenko, the secretary general of the Union of Russian Journalists, agrees. "Extremism is an accusation that is the equivalent to 'enemy of the state' in Stalinist times," Yakovenko says. "Any criticism of the authorities, any attempt to express social discontent, falls under extremism. And journalists are not the only ones concerned. The recent attempt by workers of the AvtoVAZ [car factory] to defend their interests, for example, was presented as an instance of extremism."

But according to Yakovenko, state-imposed Internet censorship is not a likely scenario in Russia.

"I wouldn't panic about it," he says. "There are examples of very efficient battles against the freedom of expression on the Internet. The main example is China. Unlike Russia, China doesn't present itself as a free country, it isn't seeking to enter the G8. Russia imitates a free country. This is why I think Russia probably cannot resort to the restrictions that China is imposing on freedom of expression on the Internet."

Should Russia decide to follow the Chinese model, authorities may not actually have the power to censor the Russian-language Internet.

"The government and law-enforcement agencies are not able to handle the problem of information circulation on the Internet, of regulation of the Internet," Ilya Rasolov, an expert on Internet law, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "Especially if only one state -- Russia -- is involved. This is an international problem."

The authorities' wrath has nonetheless already fallen on a number of Russian websites and bloggers. In February, prosecutors ordered the human-rights organization Memorial to remove a commentary from its website written by a Russian mufti commenting on trials against defendants charged with links to the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russia banned Hizb ut-Tahrir as a terrorist group in 2003.

The latest Internet-related crackdown came on August 14, when prosecutors in the northern town of Syktyvkar charged an Internet blogger with inciting hatred. The blogger had posted a message on LiveJournal describing police officers as "hooligans" and saying they should be "periodically set on fire." The blogger faces penalties ranging from a $4,000 fine to a two-year prison sentence.

(Claire Bigg and Salome Asatiani are RFE/RL correspondents based in Prague.)

British Defense Secretary Des Browne on August 16 said that Britain's mission to bring stability to Afghanistan may be at a turning point, "The Guardian" reported. Browne said that he was "genuinely surprised" by Britain's progress in promoting stability in southern Afghanistan, a Taliban stronghold where the majority of Britain's 7,000 troops in the country are stationed. While he did not rule out the possibility that British troops will still be operating in Afghanistan in a decade, Browne said he "could not envisage" Britain's long-term presence there "on the present scale." Browne also backed allegations about an link between Iran and weapons flowing into Afghanistan and into the hands of the Taliban. "I have reason to believe the Taliban go to Tehran for training," Browne said. But he added that Afghanistan needs to maintain its relationship with Iran in order to preserve stability over time. JC

Taliban and South Korean officials on August 16 made no progress in another round of negotiations on the release of 19 South Koreans held captive by the militants, AP reported. The International Committee of the Red Cross facilitated the three-hour talks in Ghazni Province. The Korean delegation told Taliban negotiators that they do not have the authority to release eight Taliban rebels imprisoned in Afghanistan, the primary Taliban demand, Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said. Taliban leaders want Seoul to pressure the Afghan government to free the imprisoned militants. Afghan President Hamid Karzai was criticized in March for freeing five Taliban prisoners in exchange for the release of an Italian journalist and has ruled out any further prisoner-swap deals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). Meanwhile, Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Gin-a, two female hostages who were released by the Taliban on August 13 and were reported to have been ill, arrived back in their home country. JC

Afghan Deputy Interior Minister General Dawood Dawood on August 16 announced government plans to begin arresting the owners of farms where opium poppies are cultivated, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Dawood told journalists that the initiative is part of ministry efforts to eliminate the cultivation of opium throughout the country. Dawood warned that action will be taken against farmers caught supporting poppy cultivation on their land, whether through tenant farmers or other means, and rejected the assumption "that most farmers grow poppies due to widespread poverty in the country." The majority of landowners being targeted for arrest by the ministry grow poppies with the intention of quickly becoming wealthy, Dawood said. He noted that no poppies were cultivated in Afghanistan's poorest provinces this year, which include Wardak, Kapisa, Paktia, and Paktika. Dawood's warning followed a statement issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes on the troubling growth in poppy production this year. JC

President Karzai on August 16 asked Afghanistan's neighbors to focus on combatting the drug trade, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. During a one-day summit of the six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Karzai argued that terrorism and drugs are the top two threats to peace and stability not only in Afghanistan, but also in the whole world. "These two major menaces are not only halting our journey toward progress and prosperity, but also endangering the peace, stability, and progress of the region," Karzai said. He called for full commitment from the international community to tackle the drug trade. Karzai highlighted Afghanistan's economic progress, arguing that the destinies of countries are intertwined and that economic success and peace cannot be separated. A strong and stable Afghanistan is in the best interest of its neighbors, Karzai said. JC

A Tehran court has summoned several Argentinian officials for questioning over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which Argentina claims was carried out with Iranian complicity, Radio Farda and agencies reported on August 15. Argentina has rejected the Iranian court order as illegal, and called it a political reprisal for its own requests for the detention of Iranian officials allegedly involved in the bombing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10 and 13, 2006, and March 19, 2007). The officials named in the summons are former Argentinian Interior Minister Carlos Corach; the judge formerly investigating the bombing case, Juan Jose Galeano; Ruben Beraja, a former head of an Argentinian Jewish group (Delegacion de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas, or DAIA); and two former prosecutors in the case, Eamon Mullen and Jose Barbaccia. An unnamed Iranian judiciary official told the Fars news agency on August 15 that the officials are facing charges in Iran of forging documents, collaborating with terrorist groups to spread information against Iran, and acting against Iran's national security. The officials were ordered to appear at the Tehran prosecutor's office within days, or face an international arrest warrant. Juan Jose Galeano told the daily "El Clarin" on August 15 that the move is an attempt by Iran to pressure Argentina not to raise the issue of the bombing with the UN. Families of the bombing victims and President Nestor Kirchner plan to raise the bombing at the UN General Assembly on September 17, reported on August 15. VS

The chief of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Yahya Rahim Safavi, told a gathering of military engineers in Isfahan, central Iran, on August 16 that the West now accepts that Iran is a regional power, and "has to accept Iran's influence and power in the Middle East and respect its rights," IRNA reported. Safavi said there can be no security in the Middle East unless Iran's rights are recognized. He added that if the United States is thinking of increasing pressure on Iran and trying to restrict the activities of the IRGC, it is "because it has been hit many times by this force. They know who they are up against, and we have many instruments for pressuring them." On August 15, media reports indicated that the United States may place the IRGC on its list of terrorist groups, a move which which would, if carried out, be the first time Washington included the armed forces of a sovereign government on its list of terrorist organizations. Safavi observed that the United States is bogged down in the war in Iraq, and has had to make concessions to European allies, involve the UN in the conflict, and "ask for Iran's help to resolve their problems in Iraq," referring to recent security talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad. He stressed that Iran will not give in to "enemies' pressures," IRNA reported. VS

Iran has arrested two Chinese nationals for taking photos of military installations, apparently in Arak in central Iran, Radio Farda reported on August 15, citing Iranian media and comments to the press by Iran's judiciary spokesman, Alireza Jamshidi. Jamshidi said the Chinese citizens entered Iran as tourists through the resort island of Kish in the Persian Gulf. The broadcaster reported that Ali Khaqani, an interrogator and judge at the Arak revolutionary court, first mentioned the arrests on August 8, stating that the men were arrested for taking pictures of "military and police" installations in Markazi Province. Khaqani told the daily "Khorasan" that two laptop computers, a GPS device, and "a sensitive digital camera" were taken from the detained men. He named the two as Guang and Xianu or Shianu, and said that when arrested, they claimed that they were working respectively for firms making mobile phones and telecommunications infrastructure, Radio Farda reported. The Radio Farda report suggested that their imprisonment and prosecution may harm Iranian-Chinese ties. VS

Hojjatoleslam Naser Saqa-i Biria, an adviser to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, told a gathering in Qom on August 15 that reformists in power under former President Mohammad Khatami worked to destroy Iran's system of government, and presented the "blessings" of the 1979 revolution as "lies and injustice," "Etemad" reported on August 16. Saqa-i Biria is a presidential adviser on clerical affairs and a pupil of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a reputed archconservative and supporter of Ahmadinejad's government. Saqa-i Biria said reformists challenged all that Iranians consider sacred, while "people who look like intellectuals" have "confused" and "disturbed" the minds of students. He described Ahmadinejad's government as a blessing from God, and said voters should remain "vigilant" in parliamentary elections scheduled for March. Saqa-i Biria also rejected reports that the most senior clerics in Qom recently tasked Khatami with talking to Saudi clerics and muftis to prevent them ordering Sunnis to destroy Shi'ite shrines in Iraq. Saqa-i Biria said these were "political rumors" intended to enhance Khatami's lost reputation, and suggested that Khatami was not important enough for such a task. He said that only Ayatollah Sanei -- possibly referring perhaps to Ayatollah Yusef Sanei, a liberal-minded theologian -- asked Khatami to talk to Sunni clerics about the shrines. He also urged the special clerical court in Qom to fully examine a complaint some seminarians have lodged against Khatami, apparently for having shaken hands with women on a trip to Italy. VS

State-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on August 16 the details of an agreement forged by Iraq's two main Kurdish parties and two main Shi'ite parties for the formation of a moderates' front in the parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007) The parties agreed to work toward achieving what they called basic national principles, including: cooperating to render the political process a success; addressing the problems inherited from the Hussein regime that have negatively affected relations among various groups; adopting a united national stand toward Iraq's neighbors; strengthening and respecting the constitution and improving the parliament's performance; expediting implementation of constitutional Article 140 on the normalization of Kirkuk; agreeing on a timetable to meet political, legal, security, and economic goals; adopting a united position on the presence of foreign troops in Iraq; revising the economic plan to meet citizens' basic needs; forming a general secretariat to carry out a follow-up and coordination role; forging an agreement on coordination among the media departments of the political forces; and initiating weekly meetings between the Presidency Council and the prime minister. The agreement noted the four parties to the agreement should present a unified position on all issues, and that "Should the parties disagree, they will not adopt stands that would contradict this accord, or weaken each other." KR

The Iraqi Islamic Party apologized in a statement posted to its website on August 16 for being unable to join the moderates' front. The party said it is convinced that the way out of the current political crisis will not be found through the forging of new alliances or agreements, but rather through reaching a national accord on key issues that continue to divide Iraqis. The party said it wishes the four parties success in their efforts to salvage Iraq from the current crisis. Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who heads the Islamic Party reiterated the main points of the party's statement in an August 16 interview with Al-Jazeera television. "We believe the difficult situation which Iraq is going through now does not need polarization and new alliances," he said. "Our view of resolving the existing crisis lies in a national agreement on the basic general issues over which the Iraqis are sharply divided." He added that deep mistrust between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs continues to affect political relations. Sunnis are fearful of Shi'ite control over security, he said, implying an Iranian influence over the security organizations. Shi'a, he said, fear that Sunnis want to return to a dictatorial state. KR

Another leading figure in the Iraqi Islamic Party, Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i, told Al-Sharqiyah television in an August 16 interview that the Islamic Party did not see any reason to join the moderates' front, as it brings nothing new to the political scene. Al-Samarra'i contended that the front is still based on sectarian quotas, saying the party hopes to move on to a broader framework. "The reason is that the government has failed, and [Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki's desire to maintain his unilateral hold on power is extraordinary," al-Samarra'i contended. "The Kurds share this view. The difference between us and them is that we do not have any hope that this issue will be remedied, whereas [the Kurds] said that this is the last chance. [The Kurds] said, 'Let us give al-Maliki this chance in the hope of getting him out of the narrow partisan circle into which he cornered himself to permit him to move on to a broader space.' This is the difference between us and them, and that is why we sought to remain outside this alliance and to head for a broader national enterprise in which the quota system is shunned." Meanwhile, party member Umar Abd al-Sattar told Al-Sharqiyah that the formation of the front is likely to prompt parties outside the front to form a "counteralliance" in parliament. KR

Khalaf al-Ulayyan, secretary-general of the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, which belongs to the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, also told Al-Sharqiyah television in an August 16 interview that the announcement of the moderates' front will prompt parties outside the front to form a counteralliance. "If this new [front] is meant to consolidate the national will and national unity, we welcome it. However, we have doubts that this is the intention behind the formation of this alliance. The alliance raises doubts and suspicions, because the parties to this alliance might share a common [viewpoint] on some issues. As some brothers have said, this might elicit reactions. Many parties and other national blocs might agree to form a counteralliance to create balance in the Iraqi arena," Al-Ulayyan said. He stressed the right of "other political blocs" to "seek rapprochement and hold a serious and genuine dialogue" toward forming a counteralliance. "There are so many parties -- national blocs -- that could forge a coalition, given the fact that they almost share the same or similar visions, such as the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Iraqis List [headed by Iyad Allawi], the National Dialogue Front, the Al-Fadilah Party, part of the al-Sadr trend, and many other parties," al-Ulayyan contended. KR

The Iraqi Court of Cassation is reviewing the sentences of defendants in the Al-Anfal trial and may overturn the death sentence for former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai, Al-Arabiyah television reported on August 16. Judge Munir Haddad, one of the nine judges who sit on the court, told Al-Arabiyah: "As a court of cassation, we do not view the verdict of the criminal court as sacred. Anything can happen. It might be endorsed, and it might not be endorsed." Haddad said that "many people" have recommended that the court deal favorable with Hashim, and that the former defense minister was a good officer. However, Haddad said that the court will rule based on the law and not public opinion. KR

Staff Lieutenant General Abbud Qanbar, commander of operations for the Baghdad security plan, announced on August 16 that tribal leaders in the Al-Saidiyah district of Baghdad have agreed to support Iraqi security forces in the fight against terrorism, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Qanbar said the willingness of the tribesmen to cooperate is a concrete step toward bringing security to the area. "When we agree with our kinfolk and brothers, we will isolate terrorism and outlaws," Qanbar told reporters. "Our success lies in the support of our brothers, citizens, and the residents of Baghdad for the [Iraqi] armed forces." KR