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Iraq Report: April 16, 2004

16 April 2004, Volume 7, Number 14
U.S. STANDOFF WITH REBEL CLERIC INTENSIFIES... The United States military stepped up efforts this week to rein in anticoalition Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The cleric challenged coalition forces last week after they closed his "Al-Hawzah" newspaper on charges of incitement and arrested an al-Sadr aide on charges relating to the 10 April 2003 killing of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 8 April 2004). The situation escalated when it was revealed that an Iraqi judge had also issued a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest in al-Khoi's assassination outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Al-Najaf.

Thousands of Iraqis in Baghdad and the Shi'ite-populated cities of Al-Kut, Karbala, and Al-Najaf took to the streets in support of al-Sadr, while the cleric's outlawed Imam Al-Mahdi Army established control over government buildings and police stations in a direct challenge to coalition authority.

The Iraqi Governing Council criticized al-Sadr's actions in a terse statement released on 8 April, saying that the cleric abused "his family name to tamper with [the] law and spread anarchy in Iraqi cities," the Shi'ite News Agency reported ( Al-Sadr is the son of the late Shi'ite Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was reportedly killed -- along with Muqtada's two brothers -- at the hands of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 1999. "The attempt by a group of persons to force itself on the rest of the people is utterly unacceptable," the Governing Council statement said. "If the coalition forces do not intervene to end this situation, the Iraqi people's forces will do so to eliminate this situation and rid the people of it." The council statement was clearly a green light for coalition forces to move forward in an attempt to arrest al-Sadr. At the same time, media reports from southern Iraq indicated that some Iraqi police had actually joined the cleric's Al-Mahdi Army after their police stations were taken over. London's "Al-Hayat" later reported from Baghdad that posters threatening Iraqi civil defense and police personnel for their cooperation with the U.S.-led occupation were hung throughout the capital. The posters, signed by the Al-Mahdi Army, said that Iraqi military and police would forfeit their lives if they continued to cooperate with the coalition.

Two major Shi'ite political groups attempted to negotiate with al-Sadr to bring an end to the standoff. The Islamic Al-Da'wah Party released a statement on its website ( on 8 April stating that a representative of al-Sadr had agreed in talks with the party to withdraw the cleric's supporters and the Al-Mahdi Army and calm the situation in Al-Najaf in exchange for a withdrawal of U.S. military units from around the city -- in which the cleric remains -- and a postponement of a trial for al-Sadr until after the transfer of power to Iraqis on 30 June. The U.S. refused the offer. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) released a similar statement on the same day, claiming that SCIRI had organized a three-member team to negotiate with the cleric. Other religious leaders from Al-Najaf would become involved in later days, including a team comprised of the sons of at least three Shi'ite grand ayatollahs. That delegation was reportedly headed by Muhammad Rida al-Sistani, the son of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani.

Meanwhile, an 11 April report in London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" claimed that a decision was made to activate the "Shi'ite resistance" in Iraq during a secret mid-March conference held in London and attended by representatives of unnamed major Islamic movements. A "reliable" Shi'ite source told the daily that members of prominent Islamic movements in Europe, representatives of Sunni and Shi'ite movements in Iraq -- including al-Sadr representatives -- a representative of Hizbollah, and leaders from other Mideast Islamic groups, attended the conference. The conference, titled "Islamic Movement and Iraq," reportedly aimed to find a way to activate the Shi'ite resistance in Iraq.

Reports also began circulating on 11 April that al-Sadr was seeking political asylum in Iran. "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported that an unnamed source in Qom, Iran said that an important Iraqi Shi'ite leader had met with Iranian government officials, including the intelligence service, to discuss how to get al-Sadr out of Iraq. The source added that Iranian officials did not make any promises on aiding al-Sadr but said they would refer the request to the Iranian Intelligence Ministry. The cleric's spokesmen denied the reports, as did Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi, who stated to the media on 12 April that the reports of asylum were "baseless and untrue."

Meanwhile, al-Sadr aide Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji told Al-Jazeera television on 12 April that that the Iraqi people would not support U.S. attempts to arrest the cleric, adding, "The Iraqi people would not surrender this leader on a gold plate to them." A statement released on al-Sadr's website ( illuminated the cleric's bold stance. "It is time for us, sons of the [Shi'ite] sect, to defend -- without assaulting -- our beliefs, religion, holy places, authorities, leaders, and everything that serves peace and Islam," it read. Al-Sadr called on Iraqis to "rally around your rights," quoting from a sermon by his late father, who said: "Anyone killed for the sake of God with a sound belief, is a martyr." "I congratulate you on your martyrdom while defending your religion," al-Sadr added.

Al-Sadr was even bolder in a 13 April interview with Beirut's Al-Manar television, claiming that a "popular revolution" had broken out in Iraq in response to the "aggression of the occupation troops." "The Iraqi people rebelled against this tyranny and oppression in order to spread freedom and democracy," according to the cleric, who went on to assert that Iraqis "seek the most refined democracy, which is the Islamic democracy." Al-Sadr said that he is ready to sacrifice his life in his confrontation with the U.S.-led coalition, adding: "This is the line of my father and forefathers. It is either killing or arrest." Al-Sadr representative Abd al-Karim al-Anzi told Reuters on 14 April that the cleric had "made several proposals to end the crisis" to the U.S. military. Al-Anzi refused to disclose any details, however.

The U.S. issued its response to al-Sadr's continued defiance by positioning some 2,500 troops from three U.S. Army divisions on the northern outskirts of Al-Najaf in preparation for a possible confrontation with the cleric and his Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The move came as U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told a Baghdad press briefing on 13 April that there is a "significant threat in the vicinity of Najaf by the name of Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia. And we will get the [U.S.] forces to the place and at [a] time when it is necessary to go after him and his militia to end this violence." He added that the troops outside Al-Najaf are "capable of conducting the full spectrum of military operations, which could range from full combat operations, and if necessary...humanitarian activities." Asked about prospects for a peaceful resolution with the cleric, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) spokesman Dan Senor told the same briefing: "We are looking for minimal bloodshed, peace, and justice. We are looking for the rule of law to prevail. Much of this can be dictated by Mr. al-Sadr. Much of this can be dictated by the actions of his illegal mob."

Events took a surprising turn on 14 April when it was reported that the coalition had requested the assistance of Iran in resolving the standoff. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said, following a 14 April cabinet meeting, that the U.S. has requested Iranian assistance in calming the current unrest in Iraq, AFP reported. IRNA earlier reported on 10 April that Iranian Charge d'Affaires to Iraq Hassan Kazemi Qomi met with current Iraqi Governing Council President Mas'ud Barzani on the same day to offer Iran's help in mediating the crisis. Hussein Sadeqi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry's director-general for Persian Gulf affairs, was reportedly sent to Baghdad on 14 April to "examine events there and look into finding the means to solve the crisis," AFP quoted IRNA as reporting.

The move is perhaps more surprising given the steady stream of statements by U.S. officials regarding Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Moreover, it is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of the dichotomies that exist within the Iranian foreign-policy process, according to RFE/RL Iran analyst Bill Samii. Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani praised al-Sadr's recent actions as "heroic" during his Friday prayer sermon in Tehran on 9 April. "Contrary to these terrorist groups in Iraq, there are powerful bodies which contribute to the security of that nation...among them is the Mahdi Army, made up of enthusiastic, heroic young people," Reuters quoted Rafsanjani as saying. However, Iranian Grand Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri criticized the Al-Mahdi Army in comments faxed to Reuters, saying: "Imam Mahdi would never be content to initiate disunity, division, and factionalism in his name."

The extent to which the Iranians will be able to influence the cleric remains unclear, but it appears that al-Sadr enjoys a close relationship with members of the Iranian regime. Al-Sadr met a number of senior officials in Iran in June, including Rafsanjani. Al-Sadr, himself a cleric of little standing, also refers to a more senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Kazim Ha'iri, on religious matters. Ha'iri is a former student of al-Sadr's father. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AS FRAGILE TRUCE HOLDS IN AL-FALLUJAH. The office of U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer issued a press release on 9 April announcing that U.S. forces have initiated "a unilateral suspension of offensive operations" in the Iraqi city of Al-Fallujah following five days of intense fighting there between coalition troops and Iraqi insurgents.

The truce was arranged to allow members of the Iraqi Governing Council to meet with local leaders in Al-Fallujah as well as representatives of the anticoalition forces in an effort to bring an end to the hostilities, the press release said. Humanitarian supplies were also delivered to the city, and the residents of Al-Fallujah were allowed to tend to the dead and wounded. Iraqi Governing Council member Muhsin Abd al-Hamid said in a 9 April statement read on Al-Jazeera that his Iraqi Islamic Party and the Muslim Ulama Commission were taking part in the talks.

Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said at a 12 April press briefing in Baghdad that U.S. Marines stood ready to restart the operations to eliminate the insurgence there. He added, "We are, at this point however, working a political track and we look forward to the fruitful discussions that can come about to achieve the ultimate end state, which is to restore legitimate Iraqi control of that city," RFE/RL reported. The truce was further extended for another 48 hours on 14 April amid reports of sporadic fighting in the city, international media reported on 14 April. The announcement was made by Fuad Rawi, a senior official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has been participating in the mediation talks, AFP reported. The truce "is mainly meant to allow the reopening of the Fallujah General Hospital and the Jordanian Hospital, which had been forced to close because of the siege imposed by the Marines," he said.

Rawi said that the two hospitals were "forced to shut down" after U.S. Marines took positions on the roads leading to them. "Doctors, nurses, and equipment could not reach them, so they were closed down," he said. "Now, the 48 hours will help the staff reach the hospitals to reopen them and sterilize them." He claimed that the ongoing truce was proof that progress had been made in the negotiations, adding that he hopes for more progress in the talks, including the withdrawal of U.S. snipers from the area. Iraqi hospital officials claimed this week that some 200 Iraqis were killed in Al-Fallujah in recent days, but U.S. military officials said they had no way of confirming the claims. Nearly 90 coalition soldiers have been killed in action across Iraq so far this month.

Meanwhile, as talks continued, London's "The Guardian" reported on 14 April that the U.S. military had dropped an earlier demand that militants in Al-Fallujah turn over those responsible for the killing and mutilation of four U.S. contractors (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 8 April 2004). (Kathleen Ridolfo)

MINISTERS APPOINTED, AS GOVERNING COUNCIL DENIES MEMBERS RESIGNING OVER CRISIS. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer announced on 9 April the appointment of Sunni Iraqi Governing Council member Samir Shakir Mahmud al-Sumaydi'i as the new interior minister, Reuters reported. Al-Sumaydi'i's appointment came one day after it was announced that Bremer had asked Interior Minister Nuri Badran -- a Shi'a -- to step down. Badran told Al-Jazeera in an 8 April interview that he was asked to step down because Bremer's recent appointment of another Shi'a, Ali Abd al-Amir Allawi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 April 2004), as defense minister, upset the balance of power among various Iraqi groups in the new interim administration.

Bremer also announced that he appointed Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i, a Shi'a member of the Governing Council, as Iraq's national security adviser, Reuters reported on 9 April. Al-Rubay'i subsequently resigned from his seat on the Iraqi Governing Council. Pro-coalition Iraqi newspaper "Al-Sabah" reported on 13 April that al-Rubay'i resigned due to his new position, contradicting Arab press reports that his resignation was related to the coalition's handling of the current crises in Al-Fallujah and Al-Najaf.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Governing Council spokesman Hamid al-Kifa'i also denied on 11 April reports that Iraqi Governing Council members were threatening to resign over the current crisis. Al-Kifa'i acknowledged that council member Abd al-Karim al-Muhammadawi had announced his resignation, but said that the council member continues to participate in council committees. Al-Kifa'i added that the newest Governing Council member, Salamah al-Khafaji, who replaced slain council member Aqilah al-Hashimi, had also threatened to resign from the council, but she continues to attend meetings. He also denied reports that Iyad Allawi had tendered his resignation, saying that Allawi only relinquished his position on the council's security committee following the appointments of al-Rubay'i and al-Sumaydi'i. Dubai's Al-Arabiyah television reported on 9 April that Allawi resigned from the committee in protest against the coalition's failure to give the committee any responsibility to deal with the unfolding crises in Iraq. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

TRAVEL WARNINGS ISSUED AFTER DOZENS KIDNAPPED. More than 40 foreigners from 12 countries have reportedly been kidnapped in recent days, including two U.S. servicemen, according to international media reports. While many hostages have been released by their captors, the incidents have spurred many nations to issue travel warnings and even withdraw their nationals from Iraq.

Unidentified militants in Iraq kidnapped seven South Korean missionaries on 8 April, before releasing them five hours later. The Christian ministers were en route from Jordan to Baghdad when armed men took them hostage. An eighth member of their group escaped. The kidnapping came two days after two South Koreans were held by Shi'ite militiamen and released after 14 hours in captivity in Al-Nasiriyah, Yonhap News Agency reported on 9 April.

Meanwhile, a group identifying itself as the Ansar Al-Din Organization kidnapped two Palestinian contractors on 8 April, Reuters reported. The organization demanded the "release of...our Sunni and Shi'ite shaykhs and all the detainees" across Iraq in a videotaped statement to Tehran's Al-Alam television station on the same day. The organization, which only identified itself as "a religious faction" in the video, said the captives were Israeli spies. Israeli media identified the two captives as Palestinian Christians from East Jerusalem, and initially said that neither were Israeli citizens. Both Israeli and Palestinian residents of the city hold Israeli identification cards and are eligible to obtain Israeli citizenship. Toronto's "Globe and Mail" later reported on 13 April that one of the men holds Canadian citizenship. Voice of Palestine radio reported on 9 April that Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat was working to secure the release of the two men. Israeli officials reportedly referred the two men's cases to the United States.

But perhaps the most troubling incident was the kidnapping of three Japanese nationals, whose captors threatened to burn them alive by 11 April unless Japan withdraws its troops from Iraq, AP reported on 9 April. The militants shouted, "Allahu Akbar," or "God is Great," in a released videotape, as they held knives to the throats of the hostages. The kidnapped Japanese nationals were released on 15 April, but two other Japanese were seized that same day. Four Italians were also taken hostage on that day, one of whom was executed on 14 April.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi rejected the demand to withdraw his country's forces from Iraq. "We will not bow to any despicable threat by terrorists," he said. Three days after the deadline, the fate of the captives remained unclear, as Japanese officials continued to seek a resolution to the hostage crisis. Seven Chinese nationals abducted in Al-Fallujah were released on 12 April following one day in captivity.

Seven U.S. contractors working for Kellogg, Brown & Root remain missing this week after their fuel convoy was ambushed near Abu Ghurayb, west of Baghdad, on 9 April. Five Ukrainian and three Russian nationals were kidnapped and subsequently released by their captors on 13 April, Reuters reported. Nine truck drivers of various nationalities taken hostage while traveling in a military supply convoy were released on 12 April. Three Czech reporters were also reported missing on 12 April (see this issue), as was a French journalist, who was then released on 15 April. A British contractor was released on 11 April after six days in captivity.

A number of European and Asian nations have advised their nationals to avoid traveling to Iraq in the wake of the kidnappings and have encouraged citizens already inside the country to leave. Moscow announced on 15 April that it would withdraw up to 800 Russian and other CIS citizens from Iraq (see this issue). Dutch and Spanish nongovernmental organizations have also pulled their staff out of Iraq, according to international media reports. It is unclear what brought on the sudden spur in kidnappings or whether the incidents were part of a coordinated effort by Iraqi militant groups. It appears that at least some of the kidnappings were copycat incidents, illustrated by the kidnapping and release of some foreigners within a matter of hours. However, what is known is that anticoalition militants support a number of methods for driving coalition forces from Iraq and specifically advocate pressuring U.S. allies to force a break in the coalition. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

AMMAN-BAGHDAD HIGHWAY CLOSED. The U.S. military has closed down the only major highway linking the Jordanian capital of Amman with Baghdad, London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 13 April. Travelers from Baghdad reported being turned away at the outskirts of Al-Fallujah, the scene of nearly two weeks of intense fighting between U.S. troops and Iraqi militants.

The route connecting the neighboring capitals has been beset by violence as well in recent weeks, with international media reporting attacks on passenger vehicles as well as transport convoys. A number of civilians were also reportedly kidnapped along the road. The road serves as a major exit point for Iraqi civilians, businessmen, and foreign workers. It is also a major supply route for Jordanian exports to Iraq. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KING ABDALLAH CALLS FOR URGENT TRANSFER OF POWER TO IRAQIS. Jordan's King Abdallah II reportedly called on the U.S. to expedite the process of transferring power to Iraqis in light of the recent deterioration of security in the country, Jordanian television reported on 11 April. Abdallah called on the international community, including the United Nations to increase their contributions to the rebuilding of Iraqi governmental institutions. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

GUL CONCERNED ABOUT ESCALATING VIOLENCE IN IRAQ. Turkish Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said on 8 April that his country is concerned about the escalation of violence in Iraq in recent days, Anadalou Agency reported. Gul denied reports, however, that Turkey was considering deploying troops to Iraq, saying the prospect was "out of question."

Concerning the current situation between radical Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and coalition forces, Gul reiterated earlier comments, saying: ''We have been telling [the U.S.] from the very beginning that tension could escalate because of lack of information about culture and structure of the region. We hope that our recommendations would be taken into consideration." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

WEBSITE: HUSSEIN'S WIFE SAYS CAPTURED MAN A 'DOUBLE.' The Ilaf website ( reported on 12 April that senior Qatari diplomatic sources said deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's wife Khadijah Talfah has denied that the man captured by coalition forces in Iraq is her husband. Talfah claimed that the man, reportedly being held in Doha, Qatar, is a Hussein double. The former Iraqi president regularly employed doppelgangers to represent him at public events.

The sources added that Talfah recently spoke of her last meeting with Hussein, which she said took place in July at a mud house on a farm near Mosul. Hussein was captured by U.S. forces in a similarly described location. Talfah's claims carry little weight, but could easily strike fear in the minds of Iraqis that the deposed dictator might still be on the loose. It was widely reported, however, that the U.S. confirmed the deposed leader's identity through DNA testing upon his capture. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

BRAHIMI DISCUSSES DIRECTION OF IRAQ'S POLITICAL FUTURE. United Nations Special Adviser Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters in Baghdad on 14 April that national direct elections should be held in Iraq by January 2005, the UN News Center ( reported on the same day. The special adviser made his comments following nearly two weeks of talks with Iraqi leaders representing a broad spectrum of society on the future structure of Iraq's interim government. "Let me emphasize...the elections scheduled to take place in January 2005 are the most important milestone," Brahimi stressed. "There is no substitute for the legitimacy that comes from free and fair elections."

Brahimi added that he agrees with the suggestion of a number of Iraqis that a large national conference should be held to address the issues of national reconciliation and consensus building. He suggested that such a meeting be held in July, and aim to elect a consultative assembly to serve alongside the Iraqi interim government until the January 2005 elections are held, the UN News Center reported.

He also told reporters that the interim Iraqi government would be "led by a prime minister and comprising Iraqi men and women known for their honesty, integrity and competence." A president and two vice presidents would head the government. Brahimi noted that the political framework he has outlined for the establishment of an interim government and national dialogue conference included a number of confidence-building measures. He added that his recommendations would be submitted to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan when he returns to UN headquarters in New York this week, adding that further consultations would also be held between the UN and the Iraqi Governing Council.

Brahimi met with Iraqi Governing Council President for April Mas'ud Barzani on 13 April, according to Kurdistan Satellite television. The special adviser reportedly told Barzani in that meeting that the UN team had reached positive and appropriate results by considering the views of a wide spectrum of Iraqi groups and leaders. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters in New York on 13 April that he does not anticipate the return of a large UN team to Iraq for the "foreseeable future," the UN News Center ( reported the same day. Annan cited insecurity as a major constraint to UN activities in the country.

CPA head L. Paul Bremer issued a statement on 14 April welcoming Brahimi's initiatives. "Mr. Brahimi's recommendation follows broad consultations with hundreds of Iraqis from across the country. We are grateful to Secretary-General Annan, Mr. Brahimi, and all the UN personnel here for their highly constructive contribution. We hope that the UN will continue to use its expertise to play a vital role in advising Iraq as it moves forward with its political transition," Bremer said. "We look forward to hearing further details from the UN mission," he added. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

U.S. PRESIDENT SAYS MORE TROOPS MAY BE NEEDED IN IRAQ. United States President George W. Bush told reporters on 14 April that the U.S. will not hesitate to send additional troops to Iraq should the Commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) deem that necessary, according to a transcript of the press briefing posted on the White House website (

"America's armed forces are performing brilliantly, with all the skill and honor we expect of them. We're constantly reviewing their needs. Troop strength, now and in the future, is determined by the situation on the ground. If additional forces are needed, I will send them," Bush said. Asked whether he would definitely increase the number of troops, the president said: "First of all, that's up to General Abizaid, and he's clearly indicating that he may want more troops. It's coming up through the chain of command. If that's what he wants, that's what he gets." Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced on 15 April that it will extend the combat tours in Iraq of more than 20,000 American soldiers in Iraq by 120 days, AP reported.

Bush also said that the U.S. is exploring the possibility of a greater role for NATO in Iraq. "Secretary of State Powell and Secretary of State Rumsfeld, and a number of NATO defense and foreign ministers, are exploring a more formal role for NATO, such as turning the Polish-led division into a NATO operation, and giving NATO specific responsibilities for border control," he said. Border control remains a problem in the country, according to U.S. military officials, who have largely turned over responsibility for policing the borders to the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps.

Regardless of the current insurgency inside Iraq, Bush told reporters that the U.S. intends to transfer authority to an Iraqi interim government on 30 June. "We have set a deadline of June 30th. It is important that we meet that deadline. As a proud and independent people, Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation -- and neither does America. We're not an imperial power, as nations such as Japan and Germany can attest...America's objective in Iraq is limited, and it is firm: We seek an independent, free and secure Iraq," he said. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

POLISH PREMIER PLEDGES TO KEEP TROOPS IN IRAQ DESPITE VIOLENCE. Prime Minister Leszek Miller said on Polish Radio on 13 April that Polish troops will stay in Iraq despite the recent outbreak of violence, dpa reported. Miller claimed that stability is slowly returning to Iraq's "south-central" zone, which is under Polish command. Miller emphasized the need to find a political resolution of the conflict in Iraq and to turn over political control to Iraqis. He also called on the United Nations to take on a greater role in Iraq and for a NATO presence in the Polish-controlled zone. (Jan Maksymiuk)

GEORGIAN PRIME MINISTER SAYS PEACEKEEPERS WILL NOT BE WITHDRAWN FROM IRAQ. Zurab Zhvania told journalists on 13 April that the contingent of Georgian peacekeepers dispatched to Iraq on 7 April will not be withdrawn, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 13 April, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, former chairwoman of the National Democratic Party of Georgia who now heads the League for the People's Protection, said she plans to collect the required 30,000 signatures to force a referendum on whether Georgian troops should participate in international peacekeeping operations, Caucasus Press reported. On 7 April, another former Soviet-era dissident, former parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Batiashvili, argued that Georgia should not endanger its best troops by sending them to Iraq, Caucasus Press reported. The 159-man Georgian contingent currently serving in Iraq consists of engineers, sappers, and medical personnel. (Liz Fuller)

RUSSIA TAKES STEPS TO EVACUATE ITS CITIZENS FROM IRAQ. Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov said on 13 April that Russia has recommended that its citizens do not enter Iraq, and he advised those who are in the country to leave, RTR and RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The Emergency Situations Ministry and the Foreign Ministry are jointly preparing plans for the rapid evacuation of Russian citizens, Ivanov said, adding that the Coalition Provisional Authority has been contacted to determine the logistics of sending Russian aircraft to Baghdad and of the safe delivery of Russian citizens to the airport.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told RTR on 13 April that Russian companies involved in Iraq must decide for themselves whether to evacuate their employees. Approximately 500 Russian citizens are currently working in Iraq. On 13 April, the exporter Tekhnoeksport announced that its 370 employees working in Iraq will be evacuated, Interfax reported. The eight employees of Interenergoservis, who were kidnapped on 12 April and released the next day following the intervention of the Russian Foreign Ministry, were treated well by their captors, RTR reported on 13 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004). (Victor Yasmann)

CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS JOURNALISTS MISSING IN IRAQ ARE ALIVE. Cyril Svoboda told the Chamber of Deputies on 13 April that the three Czech journalists kidnapped in Iraq the previous day are alive and that "unconfirmed" information gives grounds to believe they are safe, dpa and Reuters reported. Svoboda added that, thus far, no person or group in Iraq has emerged with ransom demands or information about the three journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004). He said the government is making preparations for "all possible scenarios." Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists condemned the kidnappings on 13 April as "unacceptable and inhuman," CTK reported.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Culture Minister Mufid Muhammad Jawad al-Jaza'iri told Czech Television on 13 April that the kidnapped Czech journalists are alive and that according to information he received they are likely to be released the next day, CTK reported. Al-Jaza'iri said the journalists were abducted by one of several groups that compete among themselves to demonstrate they are able to abduct more foreigners than the other groups. To date, there is no word on their fate. Czech Television also reported on 13 April that Czech journalist Tomas Etzler, who is working for CNN, sustained shrapnel wounds to his back, head, and arms in Al-Fallujah, during an attack on U.S. Marine forces in a school in that town. (Michael Shafir)

SLOVAKIA, HUNGARY TO KEEP TROOPS IN IRAQ. The foreign ministers of Slovakia and Hungary, Eduard Kukan and Laszlo Kovacs, respectively, told journalists at a meeting in Sturovo, southern Slovakia on 13 April that neither country intends to withdraw its troops from Iraq in view of the deterioration of the situation in that country, CTK reported. Kovacs, nonetheless, added that Budapest will follow developments closely and that "if the extent of risk exceeds certain limits, we shall consider withdrawing our troops." (Michael Shafir)

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT CALLS ON COALITION TO CHANGE COURSE. Georgi Parvanov said on 13 April that the coalition command should consider implementing its original plan and station more than one battalion in Karbala, according to the president's official website ( Parvanov demanded that the coalition command provide military and technical assistance to the Bulgarian troops, limit the tasks of the Bulgarian contingent, and improve communication among coalition forces. He also called on the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry to help prepare a new UN Security Council resolution on the UN's role in rebuilding Iraq. Most importantly, he said, the Iraqi people must be encouraged to participate in building a new Iraq, adding that the coalition command would be wrong to believe that only force can stop the insurgencies and violence. (Uli Buechsenschuetz)