28 March 2003, Volume 6, Number 14
INSIDE IRAQBAGHDAD PRESENTS OFFICIAL VIEW OF WAR... Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf vehemently disputed both the assertions and actions of coalition forces at a 26 March news conference in Baghdad carried by Abu Dhabi Television. Alternating comments on the military situation with scorn for coalition leaders, al-Sahhaf denied coalition control of the port city of Umm Qasr, Al-Nasiriyah, or the Al-Faw peninsula. Al-Sahhaf told journalists that Iraq faces aggression from the "donkeys of colonialism" and "colonialist louts." He estimated the number of civilian Iraqis wounded in Al-Nasiriyah at 500, with another nine killed by bombs at a village called Bani Sa'd. In response to a question about the deaths in Baghdad the same day, al-Sahhaf accused U.S.-led forces of "attacking civilian areas" and assured reporters that "they will lose without a doubt." (Daniel Kimmage)
...AND CLAIMS TO HAVE INFLICTED SEVERE CASUALTIES. Iraqi military spokesman Major General Hazim al-Rawi told a 27 March press conference in Baghdad that Iraqi forces continue to inflict severe losses on coalition forces, giving a sector-by-sector summary of how Iraqi forces are "fiercely confronting the invaders." Al-Rawi said that naval forces destroyed a British helicopter on the ground as well as a tank and Land Rover in Al-Basrah. He added that Saddam Fedayeen destroyed one tank and two personnel carriers in the southern Iraqi city.
In Al-Nasiriyah, he claimed that a commando force from the 11th Division (Al-Miqdad forces) destroyed four armored personnel carriers (APCs) and killed the soldiers inside, while another force raided a coalition convoy on the outskirts of the city, "killing and wounding a large number of enemy troops." Al-Rawi insinuated that reports of "friendly fire" incidents in Al-Nasiriyah by coalition forces were untrue, claiming that Iraqi forces were responsible for coalition losses in that city.
In the Central Euphrates sector, al-Rawi claimed that Republican Guard forces blocked coalition forces and "managed to kill large numbers of the enemy personnel and destroy" six tanks, while Saddam's Fedayeen destroyed "through night infiltration operations" four tanks and two APCs "with their crews." Similar claims were made for Iraqi "successes" in Al-Najaf. In the North, al-Rawi said that Iraqi forces fired 44 Al-Tariq missiles at coalition forces who parachuted into Al-Sulaymaniyah overnight, as well as seven Al-Ra'd missiles, which were fired during the landing operation.
Al-Rawi denied reports that coalition forces had killed 1,000 fighters in Al-Najaf, saying, "Their mass media are excellent...they can show on satellite stations that number of martyrs, if we have so many martyrs." "At any rate," he added, "this would be a source of honor for us." He also reiterated the regime's desire to fight coalition forces "in the cities." (Kathleen Ridolfo)
'SKY SOLDIERS' BEGIN SECOND FRONT IN NORTHERN IRAQ. Personnel from the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade, known as the Sky Soldiers, parachuted into northern Iraq on 26 March, international news agencies reported. With the exception of special operations forces, the 173rd is the first airborne unit to enter the conflict. In addition to helping open a second front in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the presence of the 173rd might dissuade Turkey from sending its troops further into northern Iraq and thus risking a conflict with the Kurds. PUK official Ahmad Piri said in the 26 March issue of Milan's "Il Giornale" that once the U.S. troop presence reaches 20,000 the assistance of 30,000 Kurdish combatants will be on offer. "Our men are ready and trained," Piri said. "All they are waiting for before going into action is an official American request." Piri said Ankara has been sidelined by its refusal to let U.S. troops use Turkish territory. "Ankara is no longer in any position to dictate terms," he said. "It has gone too far and made it impossible for the Americans to operate in the north." (Bill Samii)
IRAQI OPPOSITION CALLS ON CIVILIANS, MILITARY TO RISE UP... Iraqi opposition groups have issued a statement calling on civilians and military personnel to rise up against the regime of Saddam Hussein, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported on 27 March. The opposition also called on Iraqi embassies and diplomatic mission abroad to declare their secession from the Hussein regime following the 25 March meeting of opposition groups in Salah Al-Din. "To save our people from the ordeal of war and the dying dictatorship requires correct awareness of the need for an organized popular uprising through close cooperation between the popular masses in towns and the armed forces that are loyal to the people and homeland, and the patriotic tribes committed to the honor and glorious heritage of Iraq," the statement read, adding, "Start to organize your ranks and mobilize your forces, because the hour of struggle has come to liberate the people and the homeland." Representatives from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Iraqi National Congress participated in the meeting. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
...AND STATES IT WILL DECLARE TRANSITION GOVERNMENT. The statement also has reportedly announced the opposition's intent to declare a transition government, Reuters reported on 27 March. "On the eve of the liberation of Iraq, the leadership committee will announce an independent, transitional coalition government to run the affairs of the country and protect the dignity of its people, and its independence, national sovereignty, and unity," the statement read. The United States has expressed displeasure with the opposition's intent to form a coalition government in recent months and has expressed its intent to administer Iraq for an unspecified amount of time following the removal of the Hussein regime. More recently, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad tried to temper the disparate viewpoints by calling on the opposition to work together with coalition forces to establish a successor government during a 26 February meeting with the opposition (see RFE/RL "Iraq Report," 7 March 2003). (Kathleen Ridolfo)
PUK, ANSAR AL-ISLAM FIGHTING FIERCELY DESPITE OFFER OF AMNESTY. Elements from the Ansar al-Islam terrorist organization unsuccessfully attacked Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) positions near Halabjah in northern Iraq during the night of 26-27 March, IRNA reported on 27 March, leaving behind many casualties. "Fierce clashes" between PUK and Ansar al-Islam forces occurred on 26 March, Egypt's MENA reported. The fighting commenced when Ansar personnel in the village of Anab, near Halabjah, opened fire on PUK militias, according to MENA. KurdSat television reported the same day that U.S. and U.K. aircraft continued bombing Ansar al-Islam positions, as well as Iraqi positions in northern Iraq. The PUK-led Kurdistan Regional Government on 26 March issued a general amnesty for members of the Ansar al-Islam, KurdSat television reported. The amnesty statement accused the Ansar al-Islam of treachery and murder against the Kurds, and said the group is subservient to foreigners and in breach of Islamic teachings. It added that the "scheming band of Arab Afghans and Iraqi intelligence officers" ensnared some "misguided Kurds." All the "misguided Kurds," except for those guilty of assassinations and massacres, have been pardoned, according to the statement. (Bill Samii)
WAS THERE AN UPRISING IN AL-BASRAH? Conflicting media reports on 25-26 March suggested that residents of the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah might have launched an uprising against Iraqi forces inside the city. Reports of an uprising first emerged when a British ITN news reporter "embedded" with British troops reported that Iraqi forces appeared to be firing mortars on the civilian population, CNN reported on 25 March. Speaking to reporters on 26 March, British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told the BBC, "We know that there have been attempts by regime militia to attack those people, their own people, to attack them with mortars, machinegun fire, rifles, and so on." Hoon claimed residents were "rising up" against Baghdad before the incident, according to Reuters. The BBC, citing only coalition military sources, reported on 25 March that coalition forces in turn targeted locations that appeared to be firing on the residents.
A British military spokesman at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar told reporters on 26 March that the situation in the predominantly Shi'a city of Al-Basrah remains unclear, Reuters reported. "We've had a number of different reports suggesting there has been some civil disturbance, but we are waiting for a clearer picture to emerge before we can be certain of what is actually going on there," Lieutenant Colonel Ronnie McCourt said. Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television correspondents inside Al-Basrah on 26 March said the situation inside the city is calm. "The streets of Al-Basrah are very calm and there are no indications of violence or riots. There are no signs of the reported uprising," Reuters quoted Al-Jazeera correspondent Muhammad al-Abdullah as saying. Meanwhile, Akram al-Hakim from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) told Al-Jazeera on 26 March that SCIRI's London office has confirmation of a "limited popular movement" in Al-Basrah, but he said it "remained limited and did not extend to other areas in the Governorate." Al-Hakim added, "The situation in general is on the brink of explosion, but there are several security and suppressive measures by the authority preventing any action by the people." (Kathleen Ridolfo)
SCIRI UNENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT U.S. HELP. SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim said in the 26 March issue of "Al-Hayah" that the United States has warned the Iraqi opposition and people not to participate in the war and the Iraqi regime has issued orders to suppress any popular uprisings. Al-Hakim urged the Iraqi people not to fight alongside Washington or Baghdad, emphasizing that SCIRI's Badr Corps has suspended its military activities in order to avoid serving what he sees as U.S. interests, and warned that the Iraqi people would resist any foreign forces that stayed in Iraq as occupiers. SCIRI's Akram al-Hakim said in a 26 March interview with Al-Jazeera television that SCIRI does not support an invasion or occupation of Iraq, but it and the rest of the opposition is ready to take over afterward. He expressed the belief that allies were against the Iraqi opposition playing a role but Washington might have changed its views. (Bill Samii)
COALITION FORCES TARGET IRAQ TELEVISION. Coalition air strikes targeted the studios of Iraq Television on 25-26 March, knocking it off the air until broadcasting could be restored using backup equipment, Al-Jazeera television reported on 26 March. The Pentagon and the U.S. Central Command confirmed the bombing, according to Al-Jazeera, which also reported that transmissions were resumed shortly after the bombing with the aid of mobile transmitters mounted on vehicles. The Al-Jazeera correspondent in Baghdad was unable to confirm the bombing on 26 March, telling an anchorwoman at the Qatar-based studio, "Not a single Iraqi official has confirmed the report that the television station was destroyed. Television transmission was cut, but no one at the time knew if this was scheduled or not, since Iraq Television does not transmit around the clock." He confirmed, however, that transmissions had resumed. The correspondent said reporters are taken to view "select sites" that thus far have been limited to "civilian" sites bombed by coalition forces. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
REGIONAL NEWSSAUDI FOREIGN MINISTER PRESENTS IRAQ PEACE PROPOSAL, SAYS U.S. NOT IMPERIALISTIC. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa'ud al-Faysal bin Abd al-Aziz al-Sa'ud has submitted a peace proposal to the United States in an effort to end the conflict in Iraq, "Arab News" reported on 26 March. Addressing the Iraq issue in a 25 March press conference, Prince Sa'ud al-Faysal dispelled arguments that the U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom might be tied to the issue of access to oil, saying, "There is no need for a war to get oil, since the U.S. is the biggest consumer of oil and the Arab region is the biggest producer." Regarding the "colonialist" argument, he said, "The U.S. is not an imperialist power. During the last  Gulf War, it deployed 300,000 troops in the region, which left the area as soon as its job was done." Details of the plan have not been released, but the foreign minister told reporters he believes the proposal is under examination by the United States and Iraq and is awaiting a response, adding, "I don't want to say we were rebuffed because we were not rebuffed, but nor were we given authorization that they're going with it," independent.co.uk reported on 26 March.
Meanwhile, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters on 25 March, "We are not aware of any peace proposal from Saudi Arabia. There has been no particular approach or proposal made to us by Saudi Arabia at this stage," "Arab News" reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
TURKISH CHIEF OF STAFF GIVES ASSURANCES ON IRAQ. Turkish Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok issued a statement on 26 March that confirmed that "elements" of Turkish forces are present in northern Iraq but said Turkey has no intention of deploying additional forces into Iraq, CNN Turk reported. "We do not intend to fight or to invade. We are not there permanently. We will not engage in clashes in the region other than in order to defend ourselves," Ozkok said. "The suspicious attitudes of certain institutions, international organizations, and certain allied countries affect us." Regarding the suspension of ongoing talks between U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Turkish officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 March 2003), a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Huseyin Dirioz, told reporters on 25 March: "Negotiations with U.S. [military officials] did not break off. The sides will continue holding negotiations in coming days," "Anatolia" reported the same day. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
CLERICS URGE IRAQIS TO RESIST INVADERS. Iranian state television's Arabic-language Sahar Television reported on 26 March that the Shi'a sources of emulation in the Iraqi city of Al-Najaf have signed a statement urging the population to fight British and U.S. forces. This could not be independently verified and under current circumstances seems unlikely; but in fatwas (religious decrees) described by Baghdad's INA on 13 March, Grand Ayatollahs Ali al-Sistani, Muhammad Said al-Tabatabai al-Hakim, Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad, and Bashir Hussein al-Najafi reportedly called on Muslims to engage in jihad against the United States and its allies. These individuals also sent a cable to Saddam Hussein in which they pledged their support, INA reported. (Bill Samii)
IRAN TURNS ITS BACK ON ANSAR AL-ISLAM. Coalition forces hit Ansar al-Islam positions in northern Iraq with missiles on 21-22 March, AP reported, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) said on 22 March that it fired rockets at Ansar positions. Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) spokesman Haj Balal Suleiman said on 24 March that PUK and IMK forces are preparing to attack Ansar positions, IRNA reported. And IMK representative Bahauddin Barzanji said on 25 March that U.S. and U.K. aircraft are continuing to bomb Ansar positions, IRNA reported.
Tehran has had, at different times, a close relationship with all these warring Kurdish organizations, but it does not seem to be facing any sort of moral dilemma in choosing which one to support now.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi on 24 March said that Ansar al-Islam is an extremist group and Iran has no links with it, IRNA reported, and he dismissed a television report that Iran has assisted the Ansar as a "baseless and sheer lie." According to a report in the 24 March issue of the PUK newspaper "Al-Ittihad," the bombings that began on 21-22 March have killed and wounded many Ansar militants, and the remaining ones have fled into the mountains. This may well be because, as "The Washington Post" reported on 25 March, Iranian authorities have turned back wounded Ansar personnel who are seeking medical attention.
A sign of the change in Iran's previous support for the Ansar al-Islam was its September deportation of Ansar leader Mullah Krekar to Holland, where he was arrested (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 23 September 2002). Yet the PUK continued to complain about Iranian support for Ansar even after that event, "The New York Times" reported on 14 January. And although Tehran appeared to be washing its hands of one Islamist Kurdish group, it increased it contacts with the IMK and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) led by Ali Bapir -- in January 2003, Colonel Masjidi, commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Ramadan headquarters, met with IMK and KIG leaders in northern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 February 2003).
This explains the role of Iranian intelligence personnel, as reported by the 25 March "New York Times," who are trying to dissuade the KIG from joining forces with the Ansar.
Tehran's support for the mutually antagonistic Kurdish groups probably stemmed from its desire to prevent any one of them becoming too powerful and from its fear of a completely stable and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, which could serve as an exemplar for Iran's own Kurdish population of approximately 4.7 million. The arrival in northern Iraq on 23 March of several hundred U.S. special operations personnel and attack helicopters may be an incentive for Tehran to steer clear of events there. Moreover, it seems reasonable to speculate that Washington has sought to reassure Tehran through back channels that it supports Iraq's territorial integrity and that it does not have intentions towards Iranian territory.
It seems just as reasonable to speculate that Tehran has received similar reassurances from Ankara. If anything, Tehran probably welcomes the Turkish military's recent incursion into northern Iraq as a means of preventing the Kurds from becoming overly independent. Moreover, the Turkish presence there is clearly discomfiting for Washington, and according to Ankara's TRT 2 Television on 24 March, special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is having difficulties trying to persuade the Turks to withdraw their forces. (Bill Samii)
U.K. AID AWAITS MINE CLEARANCE. A senior U.K. military official said on 27 March that Britain will delay its first military aid shipment bound for the southern Iraqi port of Umm Qasr after additional mines were discovered on 26 March in a channel leading to the docks, dpa reported. The discovery is likely to delay the shipment by 24 hours, Air Marshal Brian Burridge said from Qatar. The "HMS Galahad," laden with 200 tons of aid, had been due to dock late on 27 March. (Andy Heil)
THE UN AND IRAQIRAQI AMBASSADOR URGES SECURITY COUNCIL TO TAKE ACTION... Iraqi Ambassador to the UN Muhammad al-Duri addressed the Security Council on 26 March, urging council members to take action to resolve the current crisis in Iraq. Al-Duri called the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, "a blatant violation of international law and the UN Charter, a defiance of the international community, and a violation of international legitimacy," Al-Jazeera reported the same day. He criticized the Security Council for failing to protect Iraq's borders through its withdrawal of UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) observers from the Iraq-Kuwait border area, and reminded the council that UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had both reported on 7 March that their inspectors "had not found any evidence that contradict[ed] Iraq's declarations or evidence of the presence of banned weapons or activities in Iraq." Finally, al-Duri argued that UN Security Council Resolution 1441 did not authorize the use of force in Iraq. "We [Iraq] hope the international community will be able to find a peaceful solution that would spare the world the consequences of this aggression," al-Duri said.
Al-Duri also criticized the UN Security Council on 26 March for "tackling the humanitarian aspect of the aggression instead of tackling the aggression itself," according to Al-Jazeera. He argued that humanitarian discussions distracted council members from addressing the political issue. "Who stopped the oil-for-food program? Who withdrew the observers from Iraq?" al-Duri asked. "How can the council allow itself to be used, I repeat, used, for an issue on which the United States and Britain failed to have a resolution issued; namely, legitimizing aggression?" UN Secretary-General Annan has presented a proposal to the Security Council concerning the restructuring of the Oil-for-Food program that includes the appointment of Annan as administrator over the program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2003). (Kathleen Ridolfo)
UNMOVIC CHIEF CAUTIONS ON DISCOVERY OF CHEMICAL SUITS IN SOUTHERN IRAQ. Hans Blix, chairman of the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), told the BBC on 26 March that the discovery of chemical suits and masks at a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Nasiriyah by U.S. forces does not prove Iraq has chemical weapons. "I don't think it's evidence of weapons. It certainly raises suspicions that [Iraq] might have expected use of chemical weapons and therefore have required [the suits]. I think we will have to find more solid evidence than this," AFP quoted Blix as telling BBC Television on 27 March. U.S. CENTCOM told reporters on 26 March that U.S. forces found 3,000 Iraqi chemical protective suits at a hospital in Al-Nasiriyah, as well as gas masks, nerve-agent-antidote auto-injectors, a tank, and more than 200 light weapons. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
EUROPE, THE U.S., AND IRAQU.S., U.K. LEADERS MEET TO DISCUSS IRAQ. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush concluded two days of talks at the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland on 27 March, Reuters reported. Speaking at a news conference, Bush told reporters that Operation Iraqi Freedom would last "however long it takes" to remove the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "It's a matter of victory and the Iraqi people have got to know that," Bush said, adding, "They have got to know that they will be liberated and Saddam Hussein will be removed no matter how long it takes." Blair addressed photographs taken of British soldiers who appear to have been executed by Iraqi forces, saying, "If anyone needed any further evidence of the depravity of Saddam's regime, this atrocity provides it."
Both leaders urged the UN to take a role in postwar Iraq, but neither would specify what that role might be. There are indications, however, that the U.S. might support UN Secretary-General Annan's proposal for the revamping of the Oil-for-Food program. Members of the Iraqi opposition who received military-civilian liaison training from the U.S. Army in Taszar, Hungary, have arrived in the Persian Gulf and were expected to begin "restarting" the Oil-for-Food program, according to a 26 March Kossuth Radio report. In addition, U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte has said that the U.S. supports Annan's proposal. "As far as we are concerned, the key point is to give the secretary-general the authorities and the flexibility -- which he has asked for -- in order to deal with the situation in Iraq under the Oil-for-Food program," the "Washington File" (http://usinfo.state.gov) reported on 26 March. UN figures place 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people as dependent upon the program for 80 percent of their food each month. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
U.S. PRESIDENT TELLS CONGRESS OF 'URGENT' NEED FOR APPROVAL OF IRAQ-WAR FUNDS. President George W. Bush on 25 March implored the U.S. Congress to grant quick approval to his request for roughly $75 billion to wage war in Iraq and further antiterrorism efforts, international news agencies reported. "The need is urgent," Bush said, according to Reuters, noting that funding for the current military campaign in Iraq could otherwise run out in May. Bush has asked legislators to approve the emergency funding request by 11 April, the news agency added. Amid repeated warnings from U.S. and U.K. officials that the war is far from over, Bush said, "We cannot know the duration of this war, yet, we know its outcome. We will prevail." The measure includes $63 billion to fund the military campaign, plus more money for homeland security, Iraqi reconstruction, and aid to allies in the war effort, Reuters reported. Some $8.5 billion in loans and credit guarantees are earmarked for Turkey, which has granted overflight rights but refused to allow troop deployments on its soil while sparking fears its troops are poised to move en masse into Kurd-controlled northern Iraq. The 1991 Gulf War cost an estimated $61 billion, equivalent to $80 billion in current spending, Reuters reported. (Andy Heil)
U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY: IRAN-BACKED PRESENCE IN IRAQ 'UNHELPFUL.' Donald Rumsfeld during a 25 March Pentagon briefing called the presence of Iran-backed forces in Iraq "unhelpful," according to the U.S. State Department's website (http://.usinfo.state.gov). Asked about the possible presence of Iranian forces in Iraq or Iranian activities there that could affect allied operations, Rumsfeld responded: "We do see Iran-sponsored forces -- Iraqis, but sponsored and armed and housed previously by Iran -- in [Iraq] in small numbers." He presumably was referring to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's military wing, the Badr Corps, which has established itself in northern Iraq. (Bill Samii)
PRESIDENT SAYS EC WORKING HARD TO DELIVER AID TO IRAQ. European Commission President Romano Prodi on 26 March warned of the plight of Iraqi citizens in the current conflict and said his institution is working around the clock to ensure that humanitarian relief is delivered as soon as possible, dpa reported. Prodi said a 3 million-euro ($3.2 million) aid package approved by the commission last week is already being used by the International Committee of the Red Cross, dpa reported. "The Red Cross has begun distributing food parcels and nonfood items in northern Iraq. We're delivering support for hospitals in Baghdad. ICRC flight operations are ready to begin as soon as security conditions allow," Prodi said. "People are being driven out of their homes amid fierce fighting. Many are left without food, proper clothing and shelter and without access to clean drinking water." The European Commission has pledged 79 million euros in further aid for Iraq pending its approval by member governments and the European Parliament, dpa reported. (Andy Heil)
FOREIGN MINISTER BACKS ARAB LEAGUE CALL FOR END TO IRAQ WAR... Addressing the Federation Council on 26 March, Igor Ivanov said that at a special session of the UN Security Council to be convened at the initiative of the Arab League later that day, Russia will back the league's call for an immediate halt to the military operation against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, RTR reported. Ivanov also said that the conflict in Iraq has already grown from a regional one to one of international significance. In addition, Ivanov repeated the Kremlin's dismissal of U.S. allegations that Russian companies transferred military equipment to Iraq in violation of UN-imposed sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 25 March 2003). "The United States has presented no evidence of this," Ivanov said. He added somewhat sarcastically that "we should expect that very soon the United States will 'find' some weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." Finally, he said he supports a Federation Council proposal to create a "national consensus" committee on Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2003), where legislators, government officials, diplomats, and businesspeople will work out a coordinated Russian approach to postwar Iraq. Federation Council International Affairs Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov has said that such a committee would consider Russian policy not just for Iraq but for the entire Middle East. "For us, Iraqi oil and Iraqi debts are not the most important things; political stability in the region is," Margelov said, according to nns.ru on 26 March. (Victor Yasmann)