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Newsline - September 24, 2007

The left-leaning pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party held its national preelection congress in Moscow on September 23, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The party's list of candidates for the December 2 Duma elections will be headed by party leader and Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov. Duma Deputy Svetlana Goryacheva (formerly Communist, now independent) will hold the second spot and A Just Russia youth-wing leader Sergei Shargunov (formerly of Rodina) will round out the top three. The party's congress was attended by about 25 State Duma deputies, including Valentin Varennikov, who was a member of the group that tried to carry out a coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, and 16 members of the Federation Council. President Vladimir Putin did not participate in the congress, but Mironov told delegates he spoke with Putin the evening before by telephone and that Putin asked Mironov to convey his greetings to the assembly. RC

The Agrarian Party held its national preelection congress on September 22, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The party's list of candidates for the Duma elections will be headed by party leader Vladimir Plotnikov, Vologda Oblast dairy farmer Nina Brusnikova, and former Communist Party activist Vasily Shandybin. The party's election platform differs little from its 2003 platform, focusing on land-ownership issues and the need to reduce imports of foreign foodstuffs. The Communist Party also held its preelection congress on September 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007) and ratified the party's program, "Seven Steps To A Worthy Future." The liberal Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) held its congress on September 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007), RFE/RL reported. Party leader Nikita Belykh, citing the party's successes in legislative elections in several regions, told delegates SPS is the only liberal party capable of entering the next Duma. He said the party intends to campaign actively against Unified Russia. SPS Political Council member Boris Nemtsov on the eve of the congress participated in a televised debate show on NTV with nationalist author Aleksandr Prokhanov. Nemtsov charged that NTV managers manipulated the viewer voting after results from the Far East showed that Nemtsov was going to "win" the debate. "What exactly they did, I don't know," Nemtsov said. "There are various versions on that. But the fact remains that we won from the Urals to the Far East, but in the center of Russia, for some reason, we lost." Nemtsov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the SPS is experiencing "major problems with financing." RC

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who intends to run for president in March 2008, was named the leader of a new political movement, People for Democracy and Justice, on September 23, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Kasyanov also heads the unregistered People's Democratic Union party. The movement's congress was held at a resort outside of Moscow that was blockaded by demonstrators from the pro-Kremlin Nashi and Young Russia groups (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). Kasyanov told delegates his People's Democratic Union party will submit its registration documents to the Justice Ministry in December, to emphasize its contempt for the December 2 Duma elections. He repeated his call to Yabloko and the SPS to boycott the elections and concentrate on the presidential election in March. He repeated his hope that all Russia's liberal parties will be able to unite around a single candidate in that election. RC

The Federal Registration Service on September 24 refused for a second time to register the leftist Great Russia party, Interfax reported. The party was first rejected in July. Party leader and Duma Deputy Andrei Savelev was quoted as saying he learned of the rejection from a notice on the service's website, and he pledged that Great Russia will submit a third application. He said the Federal Registration Service provided no reason for either the first or the second rejection. The Great Russia party has agreed to participate in the Duma elections together with the registered Patriots of Russia party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). RC

The Podolsk electrical engineering firm, Russia's largest producer of civilian nuclear-power reactors, has been returned to state control, "Izvestia" reported on September 24. Federal Atomic Energy Agency head Sergei Kiriyenko told the daily that a controlling packet of shares in the strategic firm has been transferred to a state company called Energomashinostroitelnyi alyans -- Atom. Kiriyenko said the firm is "a monopoly producer of key blocks of equipment for nuclear power stations." He said the firm plans to increase its production by a factor of four in the medium-term future. In recent years, Podolsk has supplied equipment for new reactor construction in China, India, and Iran. RC

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an interview with Deutsche Welle in Bonn on September 21 that President Putin's announcement in April that Russia intends to "suspend" its compliance with the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty "calls into question the carefully constructed structures of disarmament, which took decades to develop" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and September 13, 17, 19, and 20, 2007). Steinmeier added that his government is trying to "bring reason back into the and has therefore invited all states involved in the treaty to [come to] Berlin to discuss once again how this...system can be rescued. Russia has agreed to come. That is, in any event, a step [forward]." Asked if he is optimistic about the outcome of the gathering, Steinmeier replied that "optimism is not the only factor that motivates people." It is rare for Steinmeier, who belongs to former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), to criticize Russia in public. He criticized Russian policy in the Arctic region while on a visit to the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitzbergen on August 28, but did not mention Putin by name on that occasion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with state-run television on September 21 that the real reason the United States wants a missile-defense system in Central Europe is not to defend Europe from Iranian missiles but to spy on Russia, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17 and 19, 2007). He argued that the reason U.S. officials reject President Putin's offer of a Russian-operated radar station in Qabala (Gabala), Azerbaijan, as a substitute is that the Azeri site cannot be used for monitoring activities in Russia. Lavrov said that "when our American partners say that Gabala cannot be an alternative to a radar station in the Czech Republic, I understand them, because the Gabala radar cannot see Russian territory from its western borders to the Urals.... A radar station in the Czech Republic can." He added that "any action naturally calls for a counteraction.... This is the obligation of militaries, the obligation for the commander-in-chief to guarantee the maximally effective answer to any threat." Lavrov said that "we see a threat and are preparing a response to it. And this certainly will stimulate the scientists on that side of the ocean, the military-industrial complex, to build some sort of more effective type of weapons. But our guys also won't be sitting on their hands." Russian officials previously stressed that Russia's response would be "asymmetric," because Moscow has no intention of being drawn into a new arms race (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22 and April 27, 2007). U.S. officials and some independent Russian military analysts maintain that Qabala is physically too close to Iran to be effective and is technically obsolete. PM

Former French President Jacques Chirac and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder arrived in Sochi on September 23 on private visits at President Putin's invitation, Interfax reported. The two men were close partners of Putin's in their final years in office, particularly after 2003, when the three joined in active opposition to U.S. policy in Iraq. Putin has less cordial relations with their respective successors. PM

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said that a possible unified Korea "would not be an [overly] large entity in the region with a significant potential," the daily "Vremya novostei" reported on September 24. He added that Korean unification "does not scare Russia.... We would look at this as the emergence of a new and rather large neighbor with whom we could have normal relations, not as a threat." He added, however, that Korean unification would mean "a serious change for the United States, which has a strong presence in the south. The question is what sort of policies the new state would choose." Losyukov said that it is unlikely that Russia will join in any international effort to build a light-water nuclear reactor in North Korea as part of a possible package settlement to persuade Pyongyang to give up its own nuclear program. He implied that North Korea has refused to cooperate with Russia on such matters in the past. PM

Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB) units backed by armor launched a search operation on September 21 near the village of Ali-Yurt, southeast of Nazran, after unidentified militants opened fire earlier that day on the outskirts of Nazran on a vehicle in which FSB personnel were traveling, reported. One militant was killed and an unspecified number of FSB personnel were wounded in the fighting. On September 22, Suleiman Vagapov, who is deputy presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, said that the security forces are successfully combating "banditry" in Ingushetia and the situation there will stabilize "soon," reported. Meanwhile, Gypsies (Tsygane) are leaving the village of Ordjonikidzevskaya in Sunzha Raion where three members of a Gypsy family were found shot dead two weeks ago, reported on September 22, quoting the human-rights center Memorial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). Ingush villagers in Ordjonikidzevskaya are reportedly guarding the homes of ethnic Russian families in the hope of preventing further killings. LF

The prosecution has formally charged Shamil Burayev, the former pro-Moscow head of Chechnya's Achkhoi-Martan Raion, with being an accessory to the murder in October 2006 of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, Burayev's lawyer Pyotr Kazakov told on September 21. Burayev is charged with having sought to obtain from former FSB Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov the address of the apartment Politkovskaya rented in Moscow and to have passed that address to several other suspects, including three Moscow-based Chechen brothers, Tamerlan, Djabrail, and Ibragim Makhmudov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Burayev claims he is innocent, and several prominent Moscow-based Chechens and a former head of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration have expressed serious doubts that he was involved in Politkovskaya's killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17 and 18, 2007). LF

The radical Riyadus Salikhiin group created by field commander Shamil Basayev has been destroyed, and for that reason could not have carried out the August 12 bombing of the Neva Express train, RIA Novosti quoted pro-Moscow Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov as saying on September 22. On August 15, a man claiming to represent Riyadus Salikhiin claimed responsibility for the bombing in a telephone call to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007). On September 10, the Chechen resistance website posted an analogous claim of responsibility that it received on August 16, noting that it received independent confirmation only on September 9 that the e-mail indeed originated with a person close to Riyadus Salikhiin. On September 21, police searched the homes of at least three Chechens living in the town of Chudovo in Novgorod Oblast in connection with the ongoing investigation into the bombing, reported on September 22. LF

Speaking in Yerevan on September 21 at a reception to mark the 16th anniversary of Armenia's declaration of independence from the USSR, President Robert Kocharian declared that "contemporary Armenia is on the path of sustainable development," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. "It can be said with certitude that the economy is developing rapidly, thousands of jobs are being created, the population's incomes are growing considerably, poverty is declining, and the quality of life is improving," he added. Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian similarly noted Armenia's "triumphant victory" and "high economic growth," admitting at the same time that "we have encountered and still encounter difficulties on our way -- misery, corruption, and violated rights," according to the A1+ website. Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, however, offered a radically different assessment, telling supporters in Yerevan in his first major address since resigning nine years ago that Kocharian heads a "criminal regime" that has turned Armenia into a "third-world country," rigs elections, tramples on the law, extorts bribes from businessmen, and restricts press freedom (see upcoming "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," September 27, 2007). LF

Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov rejected on September 21 as "unfounded and far from the truth" the statement the previous day in Bishkek by Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (ODKB), that the increase in defense spending by Azerbaijan and Georgia constitutes a threat to ODKB member states, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 September 2007). Azimov pointed out that of the three South Caucasus states, only Armenia is an ODKB member, and therefore that organization has no right to extend its interests to the region. Ziyafet Askerov, who chairs the Azerbaijan parliament's defense and security commission, told that Russian and Armenian media have grossly overstated Azerbaijan's military spending. He argued that Azerbaijan has not exceeded the ceiling of 6 percent of GDP, but that it has the right to do so given that "we were the victims of aggression." LF

Russian peacekeepers deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone detained on September 21 for approximately 30 minutes before allowing them to continue their journey a group of Western diplomats en route for a conference at the village of Tamarasheni organized by the pro-Georgian South Ossetian provisional administration, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution David Bakradze said the Russians' interference "showed once again that the Russian peacekeepers do not abide by their mandate and international law," Caucasus Press reported. Addressing the conference later on September 21, South Ossetian provisional administration head Dmitry Sanakoyev appealed to the international community to do all in its power to persuade Russia to end its support for Eduard Kokoity, president of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. In Tbilisi, Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, who declined an invitation to the conference in Tamarasheni, said on September 21 that it "will not help to promote confidence building" between the Georgian and South Ossetian sides. The Russian Foreign Ministry released a "commentary" on September 22 similarly condemning the conference as an "irresponsible step" clearly aimed bestowing "the appearance of international respectability" on Sanakoyev. It advised the international community not to recognize the legitimacy of Sanakoyev's administration and warned that doing so would inevitably lead to an escalation of tensions and the freezing of ongoing talks, and delay indefinitely any prospect of resolving the conflict, according to the Ministry's website ( The ministry further appealed to the Georgian authorities to refrain from further steps that could exacerbate existing tensions in the conflict zone. LF

Georgian police arrested former regional Governor Mikheil Kareli on September 23, reportedly as he was about to leave the country from Tbilisi airport, according to and He was sentenced the same day to two months' pretrial detention. Deputy Prosecutor-General Nika Gvaramia told journalists later on September 23 that Kareli has been charged with bribery and illegal business activities. Kareli, a close associate of former Defense Minister and potential opposition leader Irakli Okruashvili, was dismissed 10 days ago from the post of governor of Shida Kartli to which he was appointed in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2007). LF

Commenting on the September 20 incident in which Georgian special forces killed two Abkhaz border guards and took prisoner seven others (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007, and End Note below), Sergei Bagapsh, who is president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, told Interfax on September 23 that "now no one can doubt any longer that Georgia is a terrorist state that engages in hostage taking." Bagapsh affirmed that the September 20 clash took place on Abkhaz territory, and claimed that one of the men killed was beaten before having his throat cut, while the second was shot in the face at close range, reported. Major General Sergei Chaban, commander of the CIS peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone, said on September 24 that a team made up of representatives of both the peacekeepers and the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) inspected the area on September 22 and established that the incident took place in Tkvarcheli Raion, several hundred meters from the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, rather than in the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge as Georgian officials have claimed. Meanwhile, Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba told Interfax on September 23 that Abkhazia hopes to secure the release of the seven detained men through diplomatic channels. LF

Kazakh Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Sauat Mynbaev met on September 20 in Brussels with visiting European Union Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs to discuss the dispute between the Kazakh authorities and an Italian-led consortium over operations at the offshore Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Piebalgs called on the Kazakh government to continue negotiations with the consortium, adding that "successful cooperation in the energy sector" requires "mutual respect, transparency, and predictability." The meeting follows Mynbaev's recent call for "an open dialogue" to resolve the dispute, which culminated in Kazakhstan's suspension of operations at the Kashagan oil field for three months due to alleged violations of environmental-protection laws and consistent delays and cost overruns by Eni, the consortium in charge of operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Relations between Kazakhstan and the consortium have also been strained by Eni's decision to push back the start of production at the oil field from 2008 to late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007). The total projected cost for operating the Kashagan field has more than doubled from initial estimates of $57 billion to $136 billion. The Kashagan field holds between 7 billion and 9 billion tons of proven reserves, making it the single-largest oil field discovered in the last three decades and the fourth- or fifth-largest in the world. The Kashagan dispute also led to a recent threat by a Kazakh senator to suspend the Caspian Sea operations of an international consortium led by the U.S. energy company Chevron unless the company addresses environmental concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). RG

Kazakh Deputy Defense Minister Mukhtar Altynbaev on September 21 oversaw the conclusion of a multinational military exercise involving a series of combined airborne assault trainings involving British, U.S., and Kazakh troops, Kazakh TV reported. The exercises, known as "Operation Steppe Eagle," involved more than 1,000 troops and were conducted at the Kazakh army training grounds in the southern Ili district outside of Almaty. In a speech during a concluding ceremony, visiting U.S. Army General Steven Whitcomb noted that the exercises demonstrated particular success in peacekeeping-style operations, and welcomed the participation of Kazakhstan's newly created peacekeeping brigade. RG

Speaking at a press conference in the northern Kazakh regional capital of Petropavlovsk, the head of the local regional police department, Yuriy Batyrev, announced on September 21 that a new effort to combat human trafficking resulted in the arrest of group of local residents on charges of trafficking minors, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The criminal case stems from an August 2007 incident involving the group's attempted trafficking of two female minors, intended to send them "to a southern CIS country" before they were to be eventually "dispatched to the United Arab Emirates with the purpose of sexual exploitation." In a related announcement, the regional prosecutor's office also reported that two women, engaged in recruiting children aged 12-13 for sexual exploitation, were sentenced to seven-year prison sentences for trafficking minors, illegally depriving them of freedom, recruiting people for exploitation, and forcing them into prostitution. The arrests and convictions are part of a larger Kazakh effort to crack down on human trafficking. RG

In an official release issued in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission (CEC) announced on September 21 that preparations are well under way for the planned national referendum on proposed amendments to the constitution, according to AKIpress and the website. The CEC reported that the October 21 referendum will cost more than 58.5 million som (over $1.5 million), with about 43 million som ($1.1 million) allocated for operating the roughly 2,500 polling stations and nine voting commissions that will be set up for the referendum vote. Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev recently set the date for the referendum as a way to end a mounting conflict between the Kyrgyz Constitutional Court and parliament over the court's recent decision to overturn a set of constitutional amendments that were adopted in November 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). That ruling, which prompted parliament to adopt a vote of no confidence in the court, held that the constitutional amendment process illegally violated the requirement that "changes or amendments to the constitution can be made only through a referendum," effectively nullifying the present constitution and restoring the February 2003 version (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). RG

Following the announcement of a national referendum on constitutional changes, a coalition of several leading public organizations and civic groups on September 21 called for a delay to ensure that "citizens familiarize themselves with the new constitution and make a conscientious choice," and to allow "a full debate by civil society and political forces," according to the website. In an open letter to Kyrgyz President Bakiev, the coalition argued that "we are facing another political, economic, and social crisis," and criticized the significant expenses related to the referendum in the wake of "another shock from the rise in prices for the most essential products, like bread, milk, sugar, and butter." The statement added that it is not too late to extend the period of time for the "public to familiarize themselves with the amendments," and concluded with a demand "that the dates for holding the referendum should be postponed until a much later time in accordance with the constitution," warning that "if the demands are not met, then we will have to call the president's legitimacy into question for failing to meet the people's expectations." RG

Speaking to reporters in Bishkek, Kyrgyz President Bakiev promised on September 22 that he does not intend to extend his term in office if the country's new constitution is adopted in the October 21 referendum, ITAR-TASS and the website reported. Bakiev made the pledge after meeting with representatives of the For the Constitution, Reforms, and Development public movement, a group that the presidential press service defined as set up in support of the president's decision to amend the constitution through a nationwide referendum, AKIpress reported. Bakiev also said that the amendments in question in the referendum would "envisage the formation of a parliament on the basis of party lists." That change was already part of the 2006 amendments that eliminated single-mandate districts, although other amendments adopted in late 2006, which imposed new limits on presidential authority following widespread demonstrations, were later significantly modified and watered down by pro-government parliamentarians in December 2006, restoring much of the power to the presidency. Bakiev recently announced that he intends to form a new political party, presumably to take advantage of the new party-list-based parliamentary election, which will probably be called for early 2008, after the planned constitutional referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20 and 21, 2007). RG

In a statement issued in Vienna, Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, on September 21 called for Tajikistan to "bring its legislation in line with its OSCE commitments by revoking recent criminal code amendments that restrict the freedom of speech," according to RFE/RL and the OSCE website ( The OSCE official specifically pointed to the amendments to the Tajik criminal code, recently signed into law by President Emomali Rahmon, that criminalize the "intentional distribution via the Internet of knowingly false, libelous, and insulting information, as well as expletive words and phrases which denigrate the dignity" of a person's character. Haraszti noted that "under this law, any factual mistake or strong opinion published, republished, reported, or discussed on the Internet can be penalized." He warned that the new legislation used words such as Internet, information, and distribution "so vaguely that it could be broadly interpreted and arbitrarily implemented to criminalize public discussions." He concluded by reminding the Tajik government that the country has "missed an opportunity to transfer all press offences from the criminal to the civil-law court, as expected by international standards of facilitating free discussion of public issues." RG

Before his departure on his first visit to the United States, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a decree naming the members of the Central Election Commission, Turkmen TV reported on September 22. The appointments were made in preparation for local elections set for December and in anticipation of a subsequent national referendum on proposed amendments to the Turkmen constitution. RG

A little-known 64-year old Uzbek man, Akbar Aliev, announced on September 21 that he intends to run in the country's presidential elections, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. A native of the southern Qashqadaryo Province, Aliev is a self-described "scientist, poet, sociologist, philosopher, historian, and specialist in literature," who has no involvement in politics and has never been associated with any political group or party. Mirzoulugbek Abdusalomov, the head of the Uzbek Central Election Commission, recently set December 23 as the date for the country's next presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). The election is seen as a watershed for Uzbekistan, since President Islam Karimov, who has ruled the country since 1989, is constitutionally prevented from running for another term as president. In an open letter published on several websites, Aliev said that the incumbent president should not stay in office for another term, and warned that any attempt to keep Karimov in the post would be a "betrayal of the country, its constitution, social justice, development, democracy, human rights, and statehood." Under the terms of Uzbekistan's electoral laws, Aliev needs to collect signatures in support of his candidacy from at least 300 registered members of either a political party or an initiative group, as well as from a minimum of 5 percent of the country's eligible voters, or about 800,000 people. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on September 23 suggested that he wants to renegotiate the 2006 gas-supply deal with Gazprom, Belapan reported. "Next year they want to further raise the price by 15-20 percent. This means that the profitability rate for Russia in Belarus will be higher than in Germany," Lukashenka said in Rechytsa, Homel Oblast, during a national harvest festival. Lukashenka elaborated by saying that the Russian people do not support Russia's gas-price policy with regard to Belarus. "But gas is their commodity and we are not able to make them lower the price by force. We'll ask them, demand, and try to offer convincing arguments. We'll see whether or not we succeed," Lukashenka said. "We'll try to sign a contract before the Kremlin clock starts ringing the new year in. It will certainly be tied to payments for our transit services via Belarus," he added. Last month, Gazprom spokesman Nikolai Kupriyanov said that Gazprom has a contract with Belarus for five years and does not need additional negotiations for gas supplies to Belarus in 2008. Under the December 2006 contract with Gazprom, Belarus was to pay $100 for 1,000 cubic meters in 2007 compared with $46.68 in the previous 2 1/2 years. The price is to gradually increase to the European market level by 2011, rising from 67 percent of the market rate in 2008 to 80 percent in 2009, 90 percent in 2010, and 100 percent in 2011. In late August, Aleksandr Surikov, the Russian ambassador to Belarus, said that 2008 rate will be between $125 and $150 per 1,000 cubic meters. JM

President Lukashenka asserted at the harvest festival in Rechytsa on September 22 that had it not been for the agricultural workers' "heroism," the nation would have been "on its knees," Belapan reported. "The present achievement of the grain growers is especially important for our country, as they laid down a firm foundation for the food security of the state and the satisfaction of our population's needs for foodstuffs at popular and stable prices," he said. According to Lukashenka, this year's grain harvest totaled nearly 7.5 million tons, with an average yield of 3.1 tons per hectare. Last year's harvest reportedly amounted to 5.9 million tons, whereas 6.9 million had been projected. "Nobody has grain now, not Ukraine, nor Moldova, nor Russia. Speaking in a simple, peasant manner, God saved us this year," Lukashenka said. Independent agricultural expert Ivan Nikitchanka told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on September 23 that this year's grain crop in Belarus may have been officially overreported by some 1.5 million tons. "Very moist grain crops were being gathered this year. There is not as much grain as was reported -- extra water adds to the figures," Nikitchanka claimed. JM

The Central Election Commission on September 21 adopted a resolution saying that public appeals by President Viktor Yushchenko for votes for the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense (NUNS) bloc in the September 30 preterm parliamentary elections run counter the country's legislation and are not appropriate for his position as the head of state, Ukrainian media reported. The resolution came in response to the Socialist Party's official complaint against Yushchenko's speech at an election rally in Lviv earlier this month, when the president called on voters to back the NUNS bloc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). "I, as the president, am not outside the political process," the presidential website ( quoted Yushchenko as saying on September 22. "Therefore I would recommend that state institutions, including the Central Election Commission, refrain from politicizing their work. It is not within their authority to provide such recommendations or assessments," he said. JM

Yulia Tymoshenko, the head of the election bloc bearing her name, has urged President Yushchenko to nominate her for the post of prime minister if the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense (NUNS) bloc and her force win the September 30 polls, Reuters reported on September 23. In an interview with the agency, Tymoshenko said Yushchenko should unambiguously rule out any post-election coalition with the Party of Regions led by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. "Now is the time to tell people who are going to vote just what sort of coalition they can expect by voting for this or that political party," Tymoshenko said. Tymoshenko said that her team has learned the lessons of her eight months as prime minister in 2005, which ended with Yushchenko's dismissing her following rows between ministers and high-ranking officials of the presidential administration. "I told the president that my team and I would take no steps to damage the unity of the democratic forces," she added. Meanwhile, Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the NUNS leaders, said on the Inter television channel on September 23 that if the NUNS bloc and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc win the elections, they will promptly recreate their Orange Revolution alliance and form a government on a "50-50" division of power. JM

The head of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, ended a two-day trip to Belgrade on September 21 without talking to the media or giving any hint as to whether she will give a positive appraisal of Serbia's cooperation with the UN-mandated tribunal. Serbia's hopes of signing a Stabilization and Accession Agreement (SAA) with the EU may well hinge on Del Ponte's assessment. Del Ponte's key meeting on September 21 was with Serbian President Boris Tadic. Statements issued by the ICTY during the visit merely reported that Del Ponte reiterated the importance of Serbia's capturing Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military commander during the 1992-95 war. Mladic is wanted for a range of war crimes, in particular in connection with his role in the massacre of about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. Del Ponte left with assurances that Serbia is doing everything it can to capture Mladic and the three other fugitive war-crimes suspects wanted by the UN tribunal, but the chair of the commission in charge of cooperation with the ICTY, Rasim Ljajic, said Del Ponte's report could "be a problem for the final completion" of the SAA. AG

Membership of NATO would spell Serbia's "ruin," the leading Serbian Orthodox cleric in Kosova, Bishop Artemije of Raska and Prizren, said on September 20. "There is a danger that even the last traces of our centuries-old existence in Kosovo and Metohija would disappear as a result of NATO actions," Bishop Artemije said, referring to the intervention of international troops in Kosova in 1999. The news agency Beta quoted him as accusing NATO of disregarding a "genocide" against Kosovar Serbs since 1999, and the West of "ruthlessly blackmailing us by offering to admit us to NATO membership by a shortened procedure in return for our acceptance of an independent Kosovo." While Serbian ministers have accused the EU of offering Serbia early membership in exchange for recognition of Kosova as a sovereign state, no elected Serbian official has suggested NATO has offered a comparable deal. NATO has in recent weeks been the target of a series of bitterly worded attacks by Serbia's second-largest governing party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), which, reportedly, also succeeded in watering down Serbia's commitments to NATO's Partnership for Peace, a program that Belgrade joined in December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 20, 21, and 24, and September 7, 2007). Beta also reported that Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of the DSS, reiterated on September 21 that membership of the Partnership for Peace is the "right measure" of relations with NATO for Serbia, which he said should "consolidate its policy of neutrality." Kostunica also ruled out any deployment of troops to Iraq -- or, he added, to Iran. AG

An arms dealer suspected of supplying weapons to Muslim extremists in Serbia was arrested on September 19 after a joint operation by police in Serbia and Kosova, local media reported on September 20. The suspect, an ethnic Albanian from central Kosova, was arrested in Mitrovica in northern Kosova. He is thought to have supplied weapons to extremists based near the town of Novi Pazar in the southern Serbian region of Sandzak, where Serbian police uncovered an alleged terrorist training camp in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). A later police operation in the same area left one suspected extremist dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). Reports at the time suggested dozens of Islamist radicals fled across the border to Montenegro following the operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). During a follow-up operation in June, Serbian police, acting on information provided by three men arrested in the earlier operations, found 15 kilograms of explosives and 10,000 rifle bullets. Sandzak, which Serbia annexed from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 along with Kosova and Macedonia, straddles Serbia and Montenegro. In its Serbian section, Sandzak is predominantly populated by Bosnian Muslims, while Serbs narrowly outnumber Bosnian Muslims in Montenegrin Sandzak. AG

The EU's peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina, EUFOR, on September 21 raided the home of a former president of the Republika Srpska, Mirko Sarovic, and questioned him about the whereabouts of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic. EUFOR did not provide details of the raid, which was carried out in Lukavica, a suburb of Sarajevo. Sarovic served as the president of the Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb-dominated autonomous region, from December 2000 to November 2002. He was also the Bosnian Serbs' representative in the federal presidency between October 2002 and April 2003, a post from which he resigned after being accused of involvement in the illegal export of arms to Iraq. He was acquitted in 2006. The raid was condemned by the Republika Srpska's prime minister, Milorad Dodik, who appeared, in comments aired by national radio, to portray the operation as a continuation of the "agony" Sarovic faced defending himself against arms-trading allegations. Of the four war crimes fugitives wanted by the ICTY, Karadzic is the one about whom UN prosecutors and other officials say they have the least information. Renewed allegations that Western powers and Russia helped Karadzic elude capture, along with the expulsion of Karadzic's son from Serbia, have brought his case back to the foreground in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 12, 17, and 21, 2007). AG

Six of the parties representing Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnic-Croatian community on September 21 backed a joint position on the country's new constitution. Their position paper calls for the dismantling of the current political structure, which divides the country into two regions with substantial autonomy, the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation. They did not call for the creation of a third entity for Croats, calling simply for the establishment of "a more functional and just organization, which will not discriminate against or favor any one people." The six parties were the Croatian Democratic Union in Bosnia (HDZ-BiH); the Croatian Democratic Union 1990 (HDZ-1990); the Croat Peasants' Party (HSS); the Croatian Party of Rights-Djapic-Jurisic; the People's Party-Through Labor for Progress; and the Croatian Christian Democratic Union (HKDU). Croatian President Stjepan Mesic on September 20 called for Bosnia to become a unitary state and said the creation of a third entity would take Bosnia in a "direction that would probably not strengthen the country," Bosnian media reported. Formal talks about Bosnia's constitutional make-up are due to begin in November. Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Dodik criticized the platform, telling public radio on September 21 that the declaration "undermines" the foundations of the Republika Srpska. AG

Canada has joined a long list of countries that recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name "the Republic of Macedonia," the Macedonian and Canadian foreign ministries have confirmed. Greece insists that it alone has the right to use the name of Macedonia, which is the name of a modern-day Greek province and an area that was an integral part of the ancient Greek empire. Pending a resolution of the long-running dispute, Macedonia is usually referred to as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)" in international fora. Canada's recognition of Macedonia's constitutional name is limited only to bilateral relations. Athens estimates the size of the Greek diaspora in Canada at 300,000, while the United Macedonian Diaspora estimates that there are 200,000 Canadians of Macedonian descent. Among the countries that have recognized Macedonia by its constitutional name are three members of the UN Security Council: the United States, Russia, and China. AG

Pope Benedict XVI has accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Sali Berisha to visit Albania, the Albanian government announced on September 21. Berisha invited the pope during a visit by representatives of center-right parties from across Europe to the pope's summer residence at Castel Gandolfo on September 21. No date has yet been set. Pope Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, in 1993 became the first pope to visit Albania. Catholics are estimated to comprise about 10 percent of Albania's population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and June 11, 2007). AG

On September 20, Georgian special forces killed two of a group of between 16-25 uniformed armed men from Abkhazia and apprehended seven more. Where the incident took place is not clear. Georgian officials have blamed the alleged aggression on an unidentified "third force," rather than directly accusing Russia.

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili went on record on September 21 as stating that the men in question were armed saboteurs seeking to thwart the construction of a highway in the upper, Georgian-controlled reaches of the Kodori Gorge and isolate the gorge from the rest of Georgia, according to the pro-government television station Rustavi-2 on September 20. Merabishvili said the men were spotted in the vicinity two days earlier, and that they opened fire on Georgian special forces deployed to "neutralize" them.

That argument is less than convincing in that the Abkhaz group could not have hoped to inflict serious damage that would have delayed construction more than temporarily. Moreover, professional saboteurs do not generally hang around in large numbers for days in advance before mounting an operation. And if the Abkhaz were indeed to blame, the timing of the attack was spectacularly inept, coinciding as it did with a visit by Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, to Sochi to lobby at an economic forum there for large-scale Russian investment. Bagapsh broke off his visit and returned to Sukhum(i) as soon as news of the incident broke. The resulting tensions also call into question an official visit by Bagapsh to Turkey scheduled for mid-October.

Abkhaz accounts of what happened too have been inconsistent, pointed out on September 21: Abkhaz officials have said variously that the target of the attack was a border-guard post, a border-guard training camp, and a training camp for conscripts. But whatever its nature, the base was reportedly located near Mt. Khodjal in Abkhazia's Tkvarcheli Raion, which lies to the south of Kodori. Meeting in emergency session on September 21, the Abkhaz Security Council termed the attack a deliberate attempt to unleash a new armed conflict. Addressing the council, Bagapsh said the Georgian force penetrated Abkhaz territory and committed an act of aggression, according to the website Bagapsh said Abkhazia will make every effort to bring the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge under its control. Doing so would inevitably mean further fighting between Abkhaz troops and the Georgian Interior Ministry forces deployed to the gorge in July 2006. The Abkhaz armed forces have been placed on full alert, according to on September 21. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said the same day that additional troops have been deployed to Tkvarcheli and to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion.

Merabishvili in his televised comments on September 20 refrained from identifying any specific party as having planned the alleged incursion. But Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze was quoted by Prime News on September 20 as blaming the de facto Abkhaz authorities, whom he warned to desist from further "playing with fire." Speaking on September 21 in New York, Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania, formerly President Mikheil Saakashvili's special envoy for talks on resolving the Abkhaz conflict, said the previous day's clash was masterminded by a "third force," Caucasus Press reported. He added that such renegade factions exist on both sides. Alasania argued that a new round of hostilities is not in the interests of either the Georgian or the Abkhaz authorities. At the same time, he conceded that "it will not be easy to convince the sides to resume talks after what has happened."

Earlier on September 21, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili too was quoted as telling journalists in Tbilisi "it is time to resume the Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue as there is a third force in the region that masterminds such armed provocations," according to Caucasus Press. Three years ago, in August 2004, Georgian officials similarly blamed an unidentified "third force" for torpedoing a cease-fire agreement in the South Ossetian conflict zone by carrying out systematic attacks on Georgian forces deployed there.

The presence in the lower Kodori Gorge (from where it would be possible to launch an incursion into Tkvarcheli) of an unidentified armed force was first registered two months ago in the most recent report on the situation in Abkhazia submitted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the UN Security Council. Ban's spokesman Michele Montas told journalists in New York on September 21 that the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) is investigating the circumstances of the previous day's incident.

Meanwhile, the seven captured men have been taken to Tbilisi and remanded in pretrial detention for two months, reported on September 22. To judge by their names, three are Abkhaz, three Armenians, and one from the North Caucasus. One of them, Irakli Khorava, was quoted by Georgia Online as denying they opened fire on the Georgian contingent; he said they surrendered without resisting.

Representatives from key NATO countries and top diplomats from Afghanistan's neighbors on September 23 called for the United Nations to play a greater role there, and pressed Afghan President Hamid Karzai to promote national unity through an "inclusive political dialogue" with the country's rebel factions, Reuters reported. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the meeting at the UN headquarters to seek increased support for the UN's efforts in Afghanistan. Ban stated clearly in his opening address that security concerns in certain areas of Afghanistan -- primarily the south -- prevent him from backing an expanded UN presence there, but called for greater participation in assisting the UN groups presently operating there to work with "a reasonable level of freedom of movement and security." The number of UN agencies in Afghanistan recently increased from eight to 17. Ban also noted that some countries are seeking to create a new post for a special UN representative in Afghanistan with greater authority to assist Karzai in achieving national reconciliation, particularly following the departure in three months of Tom Koenigs, the current UN envoy. The majority of delegates agreed that Karzai and Afghan leaders need to step up current peace efforts by including insurgent groups in the political dialogue. Karzai said his government is "working hard" to bring certain Taliban supporters and other antigovernment factions not associated with terrorist networks "back into the fold." JC

Two Italian soldiers who were feared kidnapped in western Afghanistan were freed in a NATO-led military operation early on September 24, according to the Italian Embassy in Kabul. AP quoted an unnamed embassy employee as saying both of the men were injured. The Italians, with their Afghan driver and translator, went missing on September 22 after they set out on a night patrol from a garrison in Herat Province. The soldiers apparently become separated from the Afghans and lost contact with headquarters while traveling through the Shindand region of Herat, where Taliban militants have previously battled coalition forces, an Italian official told news agencies on on condition of anonymity. The Italian Defense Ministry confirmed the four went missing while "carrying out liaison activities with local civilian authorities," AP reported. General Ali Khan Hussainzada, the police chief in charge of criminal investigations in western Afghanistan, reported that the Afghan interpreter was safe but had no information about the driver. Taliban spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi told AP that he did not know if his group was responsible for the disappearance of the four. The Taliban group has previously kidnapped Italian civilians, but is not known to have captured members of a Western military force to date. In March, Taliban militants kidnapped Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and released him three weeks later after Rome and Kabul allegedly negotiated his release in exchange for freeing five Taliban militants from jail, a deal overwhelmingly criticized by the international community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). JC

Two Afghan guards kidnapped on September 21 were found dead early the next day in Afghanistan's southern Zabul Province, Pahjwak Afghan News reported. Checkpoint commander Muhammad Qasim told Pajhwak that the bodies of the two guards were found close to a security checkpoint near the provincial capital, Qalat, where they were abducted. An investigation is under way but no arrests have been made so far, Qasim said. Meanwhile, an employee with a private road-construction firm was killed and two workers kidnapped in the Sarakan district of Kunar Province on September 22, according to Zarghun Shah Khaleqyar, a spokesman for the province's governor. No one has claimed responsibility for the killing or kidnappings. Kidnappings of civilians are on the rise in Afghanistan, as both the Taliban and local criminal gangs seek political gains or attempt to coerce Afghan and coalition authorities into striking deals for prisoners swaps or paying ransom. JC

Unidentified gunmen set fire to a vehicle carrying food to foreign forces in Afghanistan's central Wardak Province on September 22, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. District chief Inayatullah Mangal told Pajhwak that the attack took place in the Salar area of Saidabad on the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, a frequent target for local criminals and Taliban insurgents. The driver and another person traveling in the vehicle were unhurt in the fire, which prompted police to close the road to traffic. Mangal said police are investigating the incident, but there have been no arrests thus far. Purported Taliban spokesman Zabeehullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of the militant group, alleging that the rebels captured the vehicle before setting it ablaze. Insurgents have previously attacked UN agency vehicles transporting food to civilians in Afghanistan's volatile southern provinces, causing interruptions in much-needed food deliveries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22 and July 12, 2007). JC

Yahya Rahim-Safavi, a general of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and an adviser on military affairs to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, confirmed in a television interview that Iran has been firing on Kurdish rebels along the Iraqi border and inside Iraq, Radio Farda reported on September 23. Iranian officials have in the past refused to confirm reports of Iranian bombardments in border areas allegedly targeting the PJAK, a Kurdish group associated with PKK guerrillas battling the Turkish government. Rahim-Safavi said Iran warned Iraq and officials of Iraq's Kurdish regional government that it would take action if PJAK activities are not reined in. He added that "Iran considers itself as having the right to fire on PJAK bases, and has done so." Radio Farda quoted the general as saying the PJAK bases are positioned some 10 kilometers inside Iraq, "and it is our natural right to assure the security of our borders." Rahim-Safavi did not specify when Iran fired on the PJAK bases, or if it would resume its bombardments, Radio Farda reported. It stated that Iranian officials -- including Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Mostafavi and Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini -- have so far either denied reports of Iranian bombardments, or merely said Iran is examining the reports. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry summoned Iran's ambassador in Baghdad on August 29 to protest the bombardments, Radio Farda stated. VS

Ayatollah Khamenei told a gathering of the heads of three government branches and other senior officials in Tehran on September 22 that Iran has no fear of foreign threats, and that these merely ensure that Iranians are alert, Iranian media reported. He said "those making the threats should know that it is not possible to attack Iran with hit-and-run strikes, and [aggressors] will intensely suffer the consequences," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on September 23. Khamenei said the enemy is repeating its threats to scare Iranian officials and the public, but Iranians have "never let fear into their hearts" and instead prepare themselves in the face of danger. He said that Western states resort to the language of threats with Iran because its "presence in the region and the world is the presence of ideas, of logic and moral resolve," and Western democracies have "nothing to say in these areas." VS

Former Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Larijani, a prominent conservative politician, told ISNA on September 22 that "political calculations" demonstrate the pointlessness of any attack on Iran, noting that Iran is ready to defend itself. Larijani, the head of a physics research center in Tehran and a brother of Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, said Iran cannot ignore military threats by the United States and some Western allies. He said efforts to agree on another package of UN sanctions on Iran represent "a very bad path," adding that Iran should have left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty "after the first resolution against us, and suspended everything." The UN Security Council issued a resolution against Iran in December 2006 and another in March 2007 in a bid to curb Iran's contested nuclear program, particularly its uranium-enrichment and related activities. Larijani said Iran is not yet in a situation of emergency and "does not want to give a sharp response" to Western pressures, but added that there are limits to Iran's moderate policy. Referring to opportunities to reduce regional tensions, he cited talks between Iran and the United States over Iraq, and said that Iran "can prove to the Americans in these talks that our aim in penetrating Iraq is not to fill power vacuums but merely in the interests" of the Iraqis. Larijani said Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rohani, cancelled a meeting last week with the EU's senior foreign policy official, Javier Solana, to avoid giving the impression that Iran is responding to international pressures and sending a moderate politician to discuss accepting UN demands on its nuclear program. Rohani addressed German lawmakers on September 19, apparently at a seminar or meeting in Berlin, and was scheduled to meet with Solana in Brussels before that meeting was called off (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). VS

Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, the spokesman for the Guardians Council -- the body that must approve aspiring candidates and election results in Iran -- told the press in Tehran on September 22 that the council is resolved to fulfill its mission ahead of parliamentary polls scheduled for March 2008 without regard for political pressures. Reformists claim the council has been very strict in the past in determining the legal eligibility of electoral aspirants, and especially so with reformists or independent aspirants. They have expressed concern that the Guardians Council will disqualify many of their proposed candidates for the March polls. Kadkhodai said "the council examines the eligibility of candidates on the basis of laws and regulations, and will not be influenced by any...individual or political current," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on September 23. Asked by a reporter about the reformists' concerns, Kadkhodai responded, "If you are concerned, our duty is not to remove your concerns and those of your friends. We shall do our duty in line with the law." He also reproached the journalist, adding, "You are reporting for a paper, not for a particular political group," ISNA reported. He said those concerned about the disqualification of their candidates are already provoking public opinion, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki attended a meeting at UN headquarters in New York on September 22, hosted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, that addressed Iraqi security, political developments, and a possible expanded role for the UN on the ground in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," August 3, 2007). The meeting was attended by foreign ministers from Iraq's neighboring states, the permanent members of the Security Council, the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, major donors, and representatives from Egypt, Bahrain, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the European Union. Ban told reporters following the meeting that countries must do more to help Iraq. "We face numerous challenges in Iraq, and today it was clear that the time for determined collective action has come. This meeting has helped to promote a stronger partnership between the international community and Iraq," he said. "The United Nations is committed to supporting this partnership," Ban said, adding, "There was strong Iraqi support for an enhanced UN role within the framework of the new mandate in Security Council Resolution 1770," which calls for an expanded UN role in Iraq. KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki told reporters at the September 22 press briefing in New York that Iraq has "assumed all the responsibilities on behalf of the world in order to combat" terrorism. Al-Maliki said that the meeting's participants responded positively to plans for an expanded UN role in Iraq, adding that there is an "accurate understanding of all the challenges as well as the need for all friends of Iraq, friends of humanitarianism, and friends of democracy to adopt common positions in support of Iraq, which is fighting this proxy war." Al-Maliki noted achievements in the realm of security, telling reporters that economic progress will follow. "Those who have tried to defeat democracy have been defeated, the economic situation has improved, and we hope to declare 2008 the economic year, whereas 2007 was the security year," al-Maliki said. On the political front, he noted his intention to submit a plan to the Ministerial Council on forming a technocratic government not influenced by partisan interests. "The prime minister should have full authority over his ministers on the basis of their expertise and technical competence," he noted, adding: "The number of ministerial portfolios will be drastically reduced to match actual needs, and appointments will be made on the basis of rigorous factual criteria, without any kind of speculation or partisan manipulation." Al-Maliki is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on September 26. KR

Sheikh Ahmad Abu Rishah said in a recent statement to the London-based daily "Al-Hayat" that 11 Iraqis from Al-Anbar are in custody for the September 13 assassination of his brother, Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, the daily reported on September 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2007). Abu Rishah said Al-Anbar police and local tribesmen arrested a network of 10 people, who were aided in the attack by one of his brother's guards. He claimed that the network had support from outside Iraq. A source close to the sheikh told "Al-Hayat" that all of the arrested hail from Al-Ramadi. The U.S. military said in a September 22 statement that 25 people were arrested in connection with the assassination, including Captain Karim al-Barghuthi, the head of Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah's security detail. Al-Anbar police Lieutenant Colonel Jubayr Rashid said al-Barghuthi confessed that Al-Qaeda, which has claimed responsibility for the assassination, offered to pay him $1.5 million for the killing, AP reported on September 23. KR

The Council of Representatives decided on September 22 to summon Interior Minister Jawad Bulani to explain the recent rash of assassinations targeting aides to Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Al-Sharqiyah television reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). Parliamentarian Hadi al-Amiri, who heads the Security and Defense Committee, called for the reinstatement of bodyguards to protect religious authorities. Al-Amiri said Al-Basrah is witnessing a security crisis. Sheikh Muhammad Falak, an aide to al-Sistani in Al-Basrah, told "Al-Hayat" that foreign hands are behind the campaign targeting the clerics, the daily reported on September 22. Falak said Al-Basrah "is suffering from an unrestrained security situation due to the absence of the state and the rule of law." He said the police and security forces are politicized and their loyalty to their parties outweighs their loyalty to the state. "This has made Al-Basrah fertile soil for recruiting agents and working for the interests of other countries," he added. Falak said the targeting of the clerics was an attempt "to silence the voice of moderation so extremism can prevail" in the city. "The religious leadership's discourse was and remains moderate at a time when many in Al-Basrah do not like this," he said. KR