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Iran Report: February 18, 2002

18 February 2002, Volume 5, Number 6

KABUL REQUESTS IRANIAN MEDIA ASSISTANCE. Kabul's minister of information and culture, Raheen Makhdoom, announced on 11 February that private television and radio networks will be permitted and encouraged in Afghanistan, according to IRNA. Afghan television chief Aziz Aryafar said on 9 February that "70 percent of [Kabul's] population" uses satellite receivers to watch Iranian television programs. Aryafar called on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) to donate films and television serials to Kabul TV so it could improve its programming. Aryafar also asked IRIB to provide technical and artistic training for Kabul TV, because many of its professional staffers have emigrated. Sultan Ahmad Behin, chief of Kabul's Bakhtar Information Agency, said on 10 February that, "IRNA [Tehran's official Islamic Republic News Agency] and Bakhtar should have closer cooperation in news dissemination and information technology fields," IRNA reported. Behin said his agency suffered many losses during the Taliban era, and at present it has a 134-member team, 99 of whom are reporters and editorial staff. Behin added, "Iran has volunteered to have the broadest presence in the course of reconstruction of Afghanistan and therefore, IRNA, too, should play a greater role in reconstruction of Bakhtar." (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN JOURNALISTS FACE NEW WAVE OF HARASSMENT. Several Iranian journalists recently were summoned by and interrogated at a Tehran police unit called the Edareh-yi Amaken Omumi (Public Establishments Office), which deals with important things like listening to music and lewd behavior. Among the journalists who faced questioning are "Jameh-yi Salem" Editor Firuz Garan, "Guzarish-i Film" Editor in Chief Nushabeh Amiri, "Guzarish-i Film" journalist Hushang Assadi, and Ali Dehbashi, the editor of the suspended publications "Kilk" and "Bukhara." Garan said in the 13 February "Noruz" that the men who interrogated him were not in uniforms and had nothing to do with the security forces. They insulted him and also asked him about Siamak Purzand, a journalist who was jailed in January. Guran also was questioned about his interviews with foreign radio stations. Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Ali Abtahi told "Noruz" that the Public Establishments Office has no business summoning journalists.

The seventh court hearing for "Noruz" daily publisher and parliamentarian Mohsen Mirdamadi was held on 13 February. He was taken to task for more of his writings, while national religious activists who attended the hearing complained about the conditions of their imprisonment.

In another development, the first issue of "Bonyan" daily hit the newsstands on 12 February. Its managing editor is Seyyed Mohsen Ashrafi, who previously worked with the "Sobh-i Imruz" and "Bahar" dailies, and reformist activist Alireza Alavi-Tabar is on its editorial board. Alavi-Tabar said the daily would not focus on individuals when examining the country's difficulties; it would instead look at the underlying structural problems, according to IRNA. Currently 1,863 periodicals have publishing permits, the director-general of the domestic press at the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance, Mehrnush Jafari, said at a press festival in Urumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province, on 13 February. (Bill Samii)

SALMAN RUSHDIE DEATH DECREE NOTED. Thirteen years have passed since the father of Iran's Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, passed a religious decree (fatwa) condemning to death the British author Salman Rushdie for insulting the Prophet Mohammad in his book "The Satanic Verses," and three and a half years have passed since President Mohammad Khatami told Western reporters, "We should consider the Salman Rushdie issue as completely finished." For some Iranians, however, the matter will be over only after Rushdie is murdered.

"This fatwa was issued for protecting the interests of Islam. Therefore, there is no reason for cancellation of the Imam's fatwa as long as the situation has not changed," Qom seminary lecturer Hojatoleslam Mohsen Qaravian declared. Qaravian added that the fatwa against Rushdie is a "governmental verdict," ISNA reported on 13 February, and many top Shia and Sunni scholars support the decree. He went on to say that every single Muslim could carry out this verdict. The Islamic Revolution Guard Corps issued a statement that referred to the decree as irrevocable, ISNA reported on 14 February.

In its 13 February edition, the "Jomhuri-yi Islami" daily said that the U.S. is the appropriate place to kill Rushdie. Doing so, the daily hoped, would "be the end of all plots hatched against Islam by the Great Satan and its allies." The 15th of Khordad Foundation, which initially offered a $2.5 million bounty for Rushdie's head, has added accumulated interest to the initial offer. The Martyr's Foundation issued a statement on 14 February that the death decree could not be changed. "Imam Khomeini's fatwa was like a divine decree and can never be revoked or undermined by the passage of time." (Bill Samii)

AL-QAEDA TERRORISTS APPREHENDED IN IRAN. Parliamentarian Elahe Kulyai said the legislature's National Security Committee has met with state security officials about the presence in Iran of Al-Qaeda personnel, and the MPs criticized these organizations for their lack of coordination, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 17 February. Tehran has arrested 150 people suspected of links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban at its border with Pakistan, an anonymous "informed source" told IRNA on 14 February.

Some of these people carry European passports, while others hold Arab or African ones. One day earlier, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Pique said, "We have information that indicates there is a person detained in Iran, apparently Taliban -- everything points to him not being part of Al-Qaeda -- and that he claims to have Spanish citizenship," according to Reuters. But Piques later said that "everything suggests" that the man is not a Spaniard, Madrid's EFE news agency reported. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi acknowledged on 11 February that many people, including some with Arab nationality, had been arrested when they entered Iran illegally, but he said that no Al-Qaeda members had been "spotted in Iran" yet.

The 13 February "Khorasan" daily quoted Iranian parliamentarian Mohsen Tarkashvan as saying that "some Al-Qaeda members who have illegally entered Iran have been arrested, and the security forces are searching for the rest." Khalid Pashtun, a spokesman for the Kandahar Province governor, said that a camp for fleeing Al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel has been established in Nusratabad, which is about 30 kilometers west of Zahedan, according to Reuters and ITAR-TASS on 13 February. Moreover, "diplomatic sources in Dubai confirmed" that Iran is holding 12 Al-Qaeda leaders, "Al-Qods al-Arabi" reported on 28 January. Many of these Al-Qaeda captives are Kuwaitis, and the mid-January visit to Iran by Kuwaiti Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sheikh Muhammad al-Sabah may be related to this. Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi had said on 7 February that no Al-Qaeda had entered Iran and none would dare to do so. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN TO GET NEW MAYOR. The Tehran City Council accepted the resignation of Mayor Morteza Alviri on 13 February, after reading out his letter of resignation during a closed-door session. A new mayor has not been announced, but former Deputy Interior Minister Mustafa Tajzadeh has been mentioned as a possible successor to Alviri (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 November 2001).

On the day of Alviri's resignation, council member Mohammad Ebrahim Asqarzadeh said, " I think this should have happened earlier because the management of the city of Tehran was weak," ISNA reported. Asqarzadeh has been critical of Alviri for quite a while, and in September Alviri lodged a court complaint that Asqarzadeh had slandered him. Alviri is identified with the technocratic Executives of Construction Party, while Asqarzadeh is seen as being more to the left. Asqarzadeh described his problems with Alviri in the 16 and 17 January issues of "Entekhab" daily. Asqarzadeh accused Alviri of not handling city finances in a transparent manner, and "although the mayor is ostensibly carrying out his duties in a democratic fashion, yet the behind-the-curtain forces which support him have no wish to reform the municipality." Nevertheless, Asqarzadeh said that dissatisfaction with Alviri was not factional, it stemmed from his inability to resolve municipal issues, such as construction, housing production, air pollution, and city planning. Asqarzadeh claimed that building permits were issued illogically, and the mayor wanted the council to be a rubber-stamp body.

Meanwhile, Tehran council member Said Hajjarian wants to leave Iran to receive treatment for injuries he suffered in a March 2000 assassination attempt, ISNA reported on 13 February. Hajjarian -- one of the "students" who occupied the U.S. Embassy and held U.S. officials hostage and later an employee of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security -- got physical therapy in the Washington, D.C. area in spring 2001 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 May 2001). (Bill Samii)

SCOPE OF CORRUPTION TRIAL EXPANDS. The resolution read out at the 11 February rallies commemorating Iran's 1979 revolution called on all officials to "strengthen their unity and close their ranks in order to fight corruption," according to IRNA. The current corruption trial of Shahram Jazayeri, however, is becoming increasingly politicized and is causing disarray, not unity.

The fourth session of the trial was held on 12 February. And although the case is, as Tehran Justice Department head Hojatoleslam Abbas Ali Alizadeh said during a discussion at the Fayzieh seminary in Qom, an "onsor-i pichideh" (very complicated, enigmatic), the initial excitement seems to have worn off. This probably is because the judge did not permit Jazayeri to name any of people he claimed to have bribed, RFE/RL's Persian Service reported, whereas he had done so in the previous sessions. State media promptly broadcast these names, regardless of the existence of proof, thereby implicating the individuals. And some of the hard-line press, such as "Kayhan" and "Jomhuri-yi Islami," suggested that Jazayeri was connected with foreign governments, which suggested that the money he paid to people was meant to turn them against the state and into foreign agents.

The Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) denied that the Jazayeri case dealt with national security and said that it is not involved. Judiciary spokesman Hussein Mir-Mohammad-Sadeqi, however, claimed that the MOIS has been working on the case all along and had access to all the relevant files, IRNA reported on 4 February.

These developments led to complaints that the trial really was about politics, not corruption. Judiciary spokesman Hussein Mir-Mohammad-Sadeqi had said on 4 February that the way in which the trial was being reported was in no way connected with the Judiciary itself. Just one week earlier, however, an Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting official had answered complaints by saying that IRIB was acting in response to the Judiciary's specific request. IRIB chief Ali Larijani said that normally his organization would not broadcast a trial unless the Judiciary requested it.

The reformists are not completely powerless, and Speaker of Parliament Mehdi Karrubi warned that those who live in glass houses should not be throwing stones, according to the RFE/RL Persian Service. Karrubi referred specifically to allegations that the suspects in the serial murders case were tortured, as well as the dubious suicide of Said Imami, the alleged ringleader of the serial murderers. Karrubi expressed concern that Jazayeri might use the same exfoliant solution with which Imami allegedly killed himself.

Another corruption trial was scheduled to begin in Fars Province on 17 February. The case involves seven accused and 14 suspects, a provincial Justice Department official said, according to state radio on 16 February. Three of the accused are government employees, and the others are accused of receiving 10 billion rials in bribes and embezzling 100 billion rials.

The anticorruption campaign is very important to some observers. Ayatollah Naim-Abadi, the Bandar Abbas Friday prayer leader, declared that the Iranian nation considers America as "the true symbol of corruption, and it will never stop uttering the slogan of �death to America,'" according to "Omid-i Sahel" on 31 December. (Bill Samii)

KABUL DENIES IRAN INTERFERING IN WEST. Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Omar Samad told an IRIB correspondent on 15 February that Iran is not interfering in Afghan affairs. Other officials have made similar statements.

"According to my information, there are no Iranians, either [Islamic Revolution] Guards or others, inside the country. It is true that some people went to Iran for military training and then returned, but these are Afghans and not Iranians," Afghan Interior Minister Yunis Qanuni said in the 12 February "Al-Sharq al-Awsat." In an interview with Tehran television on 10 February, Qanuni said that it would be against Tehran's interests to interfere in Afghanistan's internal affairs. Qanuni added that after meeting with the Iranian envoy, Mohammad Ebrahim Taherian, it was determined that the reports of Iranian interference were linked with individual Afghans' pursuit of power. In an earlier meeting with an Iranian delegation to discuss Afghanistan's reconstruction, Qanuni said that rumors that are "meant to damage" Tehran-Kabul relations should be ignored, IRNA reported 9 February.

Afghan interim administration chief Hamid Karzai also rejected the allegations of Iranian interference in Afghan affairs, IRNA reported on 11 February, and he repeated that he would visit Tehran soon (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 4 February 2002). Karzai made the remarks while attending a ceremony marking the Iranian revolution's anniversary at Tehran's embassy in Kabul. Qanuni also attended the ceremony at the Iranian Embassy. Mohammad Avaz Fadai, who heads the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries, met with Iranian envoy Taherian on 11 February, and according to IRNA, he expressed his pleasure that Iran is trying to upgrade trade relations between the two countries.

Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Shirzai was quoted by Islamabad's "The News" on 11 February as saying that, "Iran is supplying weapons and money to the people of Herat, Farah, Nimruz, and Helmand provinces." He added that Iranian intelligence operatives are active in Herat, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps have established offices there, and their agencies are supplying weapons and money to the locals. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN TAKES STEPS TO HANDLE REFUGEE BURDEN. Afghan and Iraqi refugees in Mashhad participated in events commemorating the Iranian revolution's 23rd anniversary, IRNA reported on 11 February. The refugees carried anti-American banners and also "expressed hatred toward the Israeli Zionist regime." Despite this display of loyalty to Iran, the Iranian government is taken further steps to deal with the sizable refugee population it hosts.

About 75 percent of the refugees in Iran are from Afghanistan. Interior Minister Abdol-Vahed Musavi-Lari announced on 6 February that Tehran plans to start repatriating Afghan refugees as early as the spring, and once the repatriation plan gets underway, serious steps would be taken against illegal Afghans residing in Iran. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced on 5 February that it expected 800,000 Afghans to come home from Iran and Pakistan starting in late March, and as "spontaneous returns" of Afghan refugees gain momentum, the UNHCR would be ready to assist by distributing plastic tarps, blankets, buckets, and utensils, Xinhua reported.

UNHCR staff report that more than 143,000 Afghans have spontaneously returned since 1 January -- some 30,000 have returned via the Islam Qala crossing point on Afghanistan's western frontier with Iran. Not all returnees have been spontaneous; UNHCR noted in a 13 February press release -- neighboring countries continue to deport some Afghans, with more than 400 returned by the Iranian authorities. "UNHCR opposes the deportation of Afghans by any country at this time, due to the precarious security situation inside Afghanistan."

The director-general for foreign nationals and immigrants affairs at the Interior Ministry, Hojatoleslam Hassanali Ibrahimi, said there are about 220,000 Iraqi refugees in Iran, and this figure could be as high as 300,000 if the unregistered refugees are included. After a meeting of the Iran-Iraq joint committee on refugees, Ibrahimi announced the creation of facilities for the voluntary repatriation of Iraqi refugees, IRNA reported on 26 January.

In case spontaneous repatriations and forcible repatriations are insufficient, the Iranian parliament is considering legislation that would discourage foreigners from overstaying their welcome. The legislature is considering a bill on "Priority of Natives in Employment," "Iran Daily" reported on 12 January.

The Iranian government's highest body for determining refugee policy is the Interior Ministry's "Permanent Committee on Refugees." Its members are the interior minister, foreign affairs minister, and minister of intelligence and security, and it includes representatives from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the army's intelligence and security organization, the police, and the Red Crescent Society. The Foreign Nationals and Immigrants Affairs Office also deals with the ministries of Health Care and of Education and Training, according to the 10 January "Noruz." Ahmad Husseini has been tapped to replace Hojatoleslam Hassanali Ibrahimi as head of the Interior Ministry's foreign nationals department. Husseini served in this position about 10 years ago, AFP reported on 10 February. (Bill Samii)

GULBUDDIN'S GOTTA GO. Tehran's closure of Hizb-i Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's offices and withdrawal of the party's license raises questions about the Afghan commander's future. Abdul Hai, who was described as one of Hekmatyar's "most prominent assistants" in the 8 February "Al-Zaman," said that although the offices had been closed, Hekmatyar still received visitors at his home in Tehran. During the 11 February meeting of the Iranian cabinet, it was decided that measures should be taken to restrict the activities of Hekmatyar and his entourage in Iran, Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said, according to Tehran television on 12 February.

And a representative of Hekmatyar, possibly Sheikh Abdullah Rasikh, arrived in Pakistan to make contact with Hekmatyar's supporters and to establish a news agency in Kabul, according to "Al-Zaman." Peshawar's "Frontier Post" reported on 11 February that Hekmatyar actually arrived in Pakistan two days earlier. A Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman, however, said on 11 February that Hekmatyar would not be accommodated in Pakistan.

Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim denied that Kabul has asked Tehran to extradite Hekmatyar, Agentsvo Voyennykh Novostey reported on 12 February, adding that Hekmatyar is still an Afghan citizen and, considering his role in destroying Kabul, "let him come back if he finds himself a place in Afghanistan." Once again citing a "reliable source" -- presumably not the same one who said Hekmatyar was already in Pakistan -- the "Frontier Post" reported on 12 February that Hekmatyar would go to Iraq or Libya if Tehran kicks him out. In what may be a coincidence, the Libyan equivalent of a foreign minister, Secretary of the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison & International Cooperation Abd Al-Rahman Shalgam arrived in Tehran on 14 February.

The Hizb-i Islami--Hekmatyar on 14 February released a statement saying that Hekmatyar would leave Iran if that would alleviate its problems with the U.S., and if he left Iran he would go back to Afghanistan. (Bill Samii)

TEHRAN-ISLAMABAD RELATIONS DETERIORATE. Tehran and Islamabad seemed to have reached a consensus on how to deal with Afghanistan -- their main point of contention -- following the meetings of Iranian and Pakistani officials in Islamabad and New York in November (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 19 and 26 November 2001), and it appeared that the arrangement was strengthened further in January, when a Pakistani presidential envoy visited Tehran. But by the second week of February, this situation had changed, and there could be three reasons for this.

In response to a question about Iran during an 18 January interview with London's MBC television, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said: "[W]e must coordinate our efforts. Iranian-Pakistani relations must also be good, as this is in the interest of both countries. Our strategic trends on the Afghan situation must be unified. We have contacted one another. I have contacted President Khatami and the Iranian foreign minister.... I also visited Iran, and I believe that President Khatami will pay a visit to Islamabad. No doubt, he would want to coordinate our steps concerning Afghanistan. No date has yet been fixed for the visit. But, I believe that it would take place next month."

Yet just a few weeks later, Musharraf was sounding less enthusiastic about Iran. He said in an interview with "Middle East Insight," excerpts of which appeared on 11 February in "The Washington Times," that Tehran and Islamabad have a similar "overall strategic objective in Afghanistan," but "the modality of achieving that may be somewhat different." The Pakistani leader added that he still plans to meet with his Iranian counterpart.

One of the factors that may have contributed to this apparent deterioration is the two countries' effort to create spheres of influence in Afghanistan -- Tehran in the west and Pakistan in the south and east. There is overt rivalry between Gul Agha Shirzai in Kandahar and Ismail Khan in Herat. Shirzai's spokesman steadily denounces Ismail Khan for his close ties with Iran. And in recent weeks, Iranian state radio's Dari service has accused Pakistani intelligence officers of contributing to violence and instability in Afghanistan. A 10 February broadcast, for example, claimed that a senior officer in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was observed in Khost Province and played an "active part" in the violence in Paktia Province. Moreover, the Iranians also are trying to influence events in Mazar-i-Sharif and in Bamiyan, as well as in Kabul.

Tehran also accuses Islamabad of permitting Al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel to cross the border into Iran. Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh said that, according to a report presented at the 11 February cabinet session, "one of our neighboring countries was attempting to infiltrate Al-Qaeda members into the country." And Khorasan Province Deputy Governor-General Hussein Zare-Sefat said that the ISI should arrest Al-Qaeda personnel, "Iran" reported on 10 February. Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi had made similar claims on 8 February. Al-Qaeda terrorists are trying to make their way from Pakistan through Iran to the Persian Gulf, "The Guardian" on 13 February quoted Hamid Mir, a Pakistani news editor who was close to the Taliban, as saying.

Afghan Interior Minister Yunis Qanuni said in the 12 February "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the Pakistani ISI is protecting Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. He added that many Taliban have reassembled in Pakistan in an organization called Hizb al-hokm al-furqan, and they maintain contacts with the ISI and interfere in Afghan affairs.

The third possible cause of tension in Iran-Pakistan relations is the possibility of a pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan to the Arabian Sea. A commentary in the 3 February "Iran" claims that Washington sees Afghanistan as a "[pipeline] route other than one going through Iran." Indeed, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Afghanistan's significance from and energy standpoint stems from its geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea." Afghanistan also could resume supplying natural gas, something that it did in the 1970s. There are some small oil fields there, too. (Bill Samii)

IRANIAN POTENTIAL IN ANTI-IRAQ ACTIVITIES CONSIDERED. The cancellation of an early-February meeting in Tehran of Iraqi opposition groups probably resulted from recent developments in Tehran-Baghdad relations. Yet Tehran hosted other meetings between Iraqi opposition leaders, and overall, such connections make it difficult to ignore Iran when one is considering an end to the Iraqi regime.

A little more than a week before the scheduled opposition meeting, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri Hadithi was in Tehran, at which time he met with President Mohammad Khatami, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and other officials (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 1 February 2002). Shahram Chubin of the Geneva Center for Security Policy told Radio Free Iraq recently that Baghdad is trying to end its isolation, it is trying to prevent an American attack, and it is trying to avoid becoming a target in the war on terrorism. And from Tehran's perspective, cooperation with Baghdad shows Washington that Iran has options. Yet Chubin appeared to question the wisdom of a relationship with Baghdad, saying, "It is inconceivable to me that one can depend prudently, and seriously rely, on a full peace with Iraq as long as this madman Saddam Hussein is in Iraq. And I think the Iranian policymakers know very well that the nature of the Iraqi regime doesn't allow them to be very safe as long as Saddam Hussein is there."

Iranian restraint of the Iraqi opposition appears to be a concrete result of Haditihi's visit to Tehran. The Iraqi foreign minister's meeting with Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Ali Yunesi resulted in a preliminary agreement that Baghdad would restrict the activities of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, while Tehran would force the SCIRI's Badr Corps to stay 5-10 kilometers from the border, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 30 January. Ghassan Ben Jeddou also noted in "Al-Watan" that Tehran is treating the opposition more restrictively, and he wrote that Iranian newspapers close to official circles have criticized the Iraqi opposition.

Kurdish leaders also have indicated some reluctance to get involved in anti-regime activities. Masud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan said in 10 February interviews with Al-Jazeera television, as cited by the 15 February "RFE/RL Iraq Report," that identification of a future Iraqi president would have to precede their participation in a U.S. scenario to strike Iraq. Barzani said, "[W]e are not custom-made revolutionaries."

Nevertheless, when Jalal Talabani visited Tehran in early February, he was told that the Iranian border with Iraqi Kurdistan would remain open. Talabani also met with Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Moreover, the SCIRI said in a 7 February statement that it launched a mortar attack on an Iraqi Presidential Guard position, Kuwait's KUNA news agency reported.

These reports send conflicting signals about the Iraqi opposition's future, yet they also demonstrate Iranian influence with that opposition. Just as Iran's relationship with the Afghan opposition -- the Northern Alliance or United Front -- was important in the outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, its relationship with Iraqi opposition groups could be important, too. The meeting in Tehran, which was organized by the Foreign Ministry, would have brought together Kurdistan Democratic Party chief Nechirvan Barzani, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan chief Barham Salih, Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim of the SCIRI, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), and Major General Wafiq al-Samarrai, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 26 January.

And this meeting would have come at a time when Washington was reviewing its Iraq strategy -- "serious planning" for a "campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein," the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 10 February. The current policy review explores a new opposition inside and outside Iraq, and there is a consensus on broadening the make-up of the INC and encouraging it to find a new leadership. There also is some hope that a U.S. military offensive against Iraq would lead to defections by Iraqi troops, and these defectors could be turned into an anti-Saddam Hussein force. Indeed, the INC has appealed for military training, "The New York Times" reported on 1 February, but the State Department and the Pentagon are divided on the INC's credibility.

There are other indicators that the military option is getting more consideration than before. A number of former Iraqi military officers -- from the Free Officers Movement and the Iraqi Officers Movement -- visited Washington in November and December. Among these visitors were General Najib al-Salihi, General Fawzi Al-Shamari, and Colonel Faris Hussein Shahid, and among the events that they attended was a gathering on "The Iraqi Armed Forces After Saddam Hussein" at the Middle East Institute. Kurdish representatives were at these events, too.

Washington also has created an interagency committee called the "Iraq Public Diplomacy Group" with officials from the National Security Council, State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and Pentagon. This group is using talking points entitled "Countering Iraq's Charm Offensive" to show that recent Iraqi gestures -- such as inviting a UN human rights rapporteur or permitting inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency -- are merely intended to ward off an attack by the U.S. (Bill Samii)