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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bangladesh hunts for top fugitive Islamist leader

SYLHET, Bangladesh, March 1 (Reuters) - Bangladeshi security forces closed in on a house in a northeastern town where the leader of a militant Islamist group was believed to be hiding, officials and witnesses said on Wednesday.

Some 500 members of an elite police force had surrounded the two-storey house in Sylhet in an overnight siege where Shayek Abdur Rahman, supreme leader of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen group, and his associates were believed to be holed up.

At least four small explosions were heard from inside the building and smoke could be seen, a Reuters reporter said.

Shayek's group and another radical Islamist organisation, the Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh, have been blamed for a wave of bombings in the impoverished nation since August that have killed 30 people and wounded 150.

The crackdown came a day after a district court sentenced 21 activists of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen to death for their role in nationwide serial bombings last Aug. 17.

The death penalties were the first to be handed down for the attacks, when nearly 500 bombs went off simultaneously.

Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh are fighting to impose Islamic sharia law on Bangladesh, a mainly Muslim democracy.

Witnesses at the house in Sylhet, some 400 km (240 miles) from Dhaka, said that police had made repeated announcements over a loudspeaker, urging the militants to surrender.

But one man hiding inside the house shouted : "Go back, officers. We won't give up until we establish the rule of Allah."

Journalists gathered on the street outside were asked to leave as commandos of the Rapid Action Battalion, wearing bullet-proof jackets and helmets, moved closer to the building.

A police officer said earlier that security forces might eventually storm the house if the militants did not give themselves up.

"We are trying to persuade them to come out. But they seem adamant," said another officer.

Hundreds of people believed to belong to Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen and Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh have been detained since the bombings, but Shayek and Jagrata Janata chief Bangla Bhai remain at large.

A Bangladeshi court last month sentenced the two to 40 years imprisonment each for their involvement in a suicide bomb attack in November in which two judges were killed.

at least two militants were sentenced to prison terms (Additional reporting by Nizam Ahmed)

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Exclusive: Terrorist training camps in Iran

Iran Focus has obtained a list of 20 terrorist camps and centres run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The names and details of the training centres were provided by a defector from the IRGC, who has recently left Iran and now lives in hiding in a neighbouring country. Iran Focus agreed to keep his identity secret for obvious security reasons.

The former IRGC officer said the camps and the training centres were under the control of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force, the extra-territorial arm of the Revolutionary Guards.

“The Qods Force has an extensive network that uses the facilities of Iranian embassies or cultural and economic missions or a number of religious institutions such as the Islamic Communications and Culture Organisation to recruit radical Islamists in Muslim countries or among the Muslims living in the West. After going through preliminary training and security checks in those countries, the recruits are then sent to Iran via third countries and end up in one of the Qods Force training camps”, the officer said.

The Imam Ali Garrison has been a long-time training ground for foreign terrorist operatives. Presently, some 50 Islamists from neighbouring Arab countries are receiving training there in five groups of 10, the officer said.

“Iraq followed by the Palestinian territories have become the focal point of the Qods Force’s activities. Many of the foreign recruits in these camps now come from these two areas, but others come from a wide range of countries, including the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, North Africa and south-east Asia”, he said. “In most camps, the Sunnis outnumber the Shiites”.

“The scale and breadth of Qods Force operations in Iraq are far beyond what we did even during the war with Saddam”, the officer said, referring to the IRGC’s extensive activities in Iraq during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. “Vast areas of Iraq are under the virtual control of the Qods Force through its Iraqi surrogates. It uses a vast array of charities, companies and other fronts to conduct its activities across Iraq”.

“We would send our officers into Iraq to operate for months under the cover of a construction company”, he said. “Kawthar Company operated in Najaf last year to carry out construction work in the area around Imam Ali Shrine, but it was in fact a front company for the Qods Force. Qods officers, disguised as company employees, established contacts with Iraqi operatives and organised underground cells in southern Iraq”.

The officer said Qods Force officers also used the Iranian Red Crescent and the state-run television and radio corporation as fronts for their operations in Iraq.

A special branch inside Iran’s Foreign Ministry is responsible for assisting the Qods Force in bringing in foreign recruits. The recruits first travel to third countries where they are given new passports by Iranian agents to facilitate their entry into Iran. Upon finishing their training course, the new agents leave Iran for third countries from where they use their genuine passports to return to their countries of origin or where missions are planned.

The list of the bases used for training terrorists identified for Iran Focus are as follows:

1) Imam Ali Training Garrison, Tajrish Square, Tehran,
2) Bahonar Garrison, Chalous Street, close to the dam of Karaj,
3) Qom’s Ali-Abad Garrison, Tehran-Qom highway,
4) Mostafa Khomeini Garrison, Eshrat-Abad district, Tehran,
5) Crate Camp Garrison, 40 kilometres from the Ahwaz-Mahshar highway,
6) Fateh Qani-Hosseini Garrison, between Tehran and Qom
7) Qayour Asli Garrison, 30 kilometres from Ahwaz-Khorramshahr highway,
8) Abouzar Garrison, Qaleh-Shahin district, Ahwaz, Khuzestan province
9) Hezbollah Garrison, Varamin, east of Tehran
10) Eezeh Training Garrison
11) Amir-ol-Momenin Garrison, Ban-Roushan, Ilam province
12) Kothar Training Garrison, Dezful Street, Shoushtar, Khuzestan province
13) Imam Sadeq Garrison, Qom
14) Lavizan Training Centre, north-east Tehran
15) Abyek Training Centre, west of Tehran
16) Dervish Training Centre, 18 kilometres from the Ahwaz-Mahshar highway,
17) Qazanchi Training Centre, Ravansar-Kermanshah-Kamyaran tri-junction,
18) Beit-ol-Moqaddas University, Qom
19) Navab Safavi School, Ahwaz
20) Nahavand Training Centre, 45 kilometres from Nahavand, western Iran

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Maoists massacre 25 ahead of Bush's visit to India

BHOPAL, India (AFP) - Leftwing guerrillas killed at least 25 anti-Maoist campaigners after ambushing a convoy of trucks ferrying the unarmed activists in central India, police said.

The massacre, the bloodiest in recent years in Chattisgarh state, came on the eve of a three-day visit by US
President George W. Bush to India for talks on strategic ties and countering terrorism.

The rebels ambushed five trucks in Dantewada district. After blowing one up they torched the remaining four taking the anti-Maoist activists to their homes, Chattisgarh's Legislative Affairs Minister Ajay Chandrakar said.

He said the injured were rushed to hospitals in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh state after the attack on the campaigners, who had gone to Chattisgarh's Dornapal district to attend an anti-Maoist rally.

"We strongly condemn this attack which is the outcome of the growing frustration among the Maoists as they are being isolated following the success of the ongoing people's movement against them," Chandrakar said in the state capital Raipur.

According to the state police control room, 25 people died in the attack while another 35 were injured.

The guerrillas also apparently abducted as many as 60 people, the Press Trust of India reported.

All those who died were travelling in a tipper truck which was blown up late morning at a village in the district's Darbhaguda area, 550 kilometers (343 miles) south of Raipur, the minister added.

Police said a manhunt was on for the attackers. State police chief O.P. Rathore was rushed to the site by helicopter.

So far none of the various outlawed leftwing groups in the state has claimed responsibility.

Chattisgarh police senior superintendent Pawan Dev warned the toll would likely rise. India's junior Home Minister Sriprakash Jaiswal said the national government was ready to send reinforcements if the state requested them.

The "public-awakening" campaign to counteract Maoist violence was organised by a provincial politician. It involves peace marches in which thousands of Chattisgarh residents have been taking part.

This month alone the rebels have killed 19 security officials and more than a dozen residents in Dantewada district. Officials said that around 100 people died in 2005 in Maoist violence in Chattisgarh, one of India's newest states.

India's Maoists have bases in several states and have recently stepped up attacks. They say they are fighting for greater economic and social rights for tribes and landless farmers in rural areas.

According to the home ministry, some 9,300 Maoist rebels are operating in the country but security experts say figures are meaningless as leftwing radicals hold sway across wide swathes of the nation's largely-neglected rural population.

The Maoists have been active in India since the 1960s. They have the same ideology and goals as their counterparts in Nepal but do not have links with them.

"Maoists have mobilised hundreds of thousands of people because in most of the places where they operate, there is no state presence, the region is underdeveloped, and state campaigns against them have exposed innocent people to violence," said Ajai Sahni, director of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

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Terrorism: Spain monitoring Chechen and Colombian suspects

Madrid, 28 Feb. (AKI) - Spanish police say several Chechen and Colombian terror suspects have entered the country over the past two months, and believe the Chechens may have fled Russia after an attack, Spanish daily El Mundo reports. The police also believe that fighters from the leftwing Colombian Farc guerrilla movement have entered Spain, using false Venezuelan documents.

Investigators are concentrating on southern Spain, especially the Andalucia region and the Costa del Sol, according to El Mundo. Nearly two years after the deadly 11 March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which killed 191 people and injured nearly 1,000, Spain remains on high terror alert.

Spanish police have arrested more than 100 people in connection with the Madrid attacks, many of whom were Moroccans. Many of those detained have been freed. No-one has yet been tried in connection with the bombings, and no trial date has yet been announced.

Islamist militants claimed the attack as revenge for Spain's deployment of troops in the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In the run-up to the second anniversary of the bombings, Spanish daily El Pais has been publishing a series of classified Spanish intelligence documents, some of which indicate that the government of Jose Maria Aznar was warned of the Madrid train bombings four months before the attack.

Intelligence agents warned of the danger represented by Algerian Allekema Lamari, who was identified as one of the members of the cell that masterminded the attacks. Lamari, who was arrested but released due to a 'judicial error', sought to organise a terror attack on Spain, classified documents show.

Earlier this month, Spanish investigators announced they have now gathered fingerprint and DNA evidence enabling them to pinpoint 11 identified suspects at locations linked to the Madrid train bombings, El Pais reported. Most of these individuals are now dead or under arrest.

Investigation of the Madrid bombings has overlappped with that of extremist Islamic cells in the country, one of which was recently broken up in southern Spain. According to La Vangardia newspaper, these cells form a network inside and outside Spain. The Madrid train bombings may have been organised by a cell that held meetings in the city for years.

The meetings may have been attended by terror suspects from the Casablanca suicide bombings in Morocco in May, 2003, which killed 33 civilians. Participants at the meetings may also have included members of the al-Qaeda linked cell in Spain that police broke up in 2001 in 'Operation Date', as well as the cell police smashed last year which allegedly sent mujahadeen to carry out terrorist attacks in Iraq.

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Rafsanjani: Iran must focus all might on nuclear pursuit

Iran Focus Tehran, Iran, Feb. 28 – Iran’s former President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said that Iran had to muster all its national might and resources to obtain nuclear energy, government-run Persian-language websites reported on Tuesday.

In a meeting with leading officials in the State Expediency Council which he chairs, Majlis deputies, and several senior officials, Rafsanjani said, “The use of peaceful nuclear energy and the immense power that is inside it to fulfil the country’s current and future needs will come about through this. We must muster the country’s resources to be able to use this power”.

Rafsanjani said that the country’s economic decisions had to be made in accordance with the guidelines set out by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

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Developments in Iraq, Feb. 28

Feb 28 (Reuters) - The following are security incidents and political developments in Iraq reported on Tuesday, as of 1200 GMT.

U.S. and Iraqi forces are battling a largely Sunni Arab insurgency against the Shi'ite- and Kurdish-led government in Baghdad.

**Denotes new or updated item.


**BAGHDAD - Three bombs hit Baghdad on Tuesday, two in the east and one in the centre of the city, police said. At least 23 people were killed in one bombing at a petrol station in eastern Baghdad, with 51 wounded, police sources said.

Reuters photographer Ali Jassem counted at least 10 dead bodies after a blast destroyed a car on the main street of the Karrada district in downtown Baghdad though police said five were killed in that incident.

Police put the total number of deaths at 32 killed and 80 people wounded in all three attacks.

TIKRIT - A bomb damaged the dome of the mosque over the grave of Saddam Hussein's father in Tikrit, 175 km (110 miles) north-west of Baghdad, police and officials said. The trial of Saddam, Iraq's deposed president, and seven co-defendants resumed on Tuesday.

AMARA - Two British soldiers were killed and a third was wounded in an attack on their patrol in Amara, 360 km (230 miles) southeast of Baghdad on Tuesday, the British military said.

BAGHDAD - A U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire west of Baghdad on Monday, the U.S. military said.

**BAGHDAD - A mortar round fell near the TV station run by the Iraqi Islamic Party wounding two senior employees, police sources said.

BAQUBA - Nine bodies of shooting victims were found just south of the city of Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad on Tuesday, the army said. The corpses were found in wastelands in the hamlet of Tarfaya, the officials said.

FALLUJA - Two bodies of civilians with multiple gunshot wounds were found north of Falluja, 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad, police said.

KIRKUK - A car bomb exploded as a police patrol passed in Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, wounding three civilians, police said.

BAGHDAD - Interior Ministry sources said a Sunni Arab mosque was damaged by a bomb early Tuesday morning.

BAGHDAD - More than 300 Iraqis have been killed in Baghdad alone since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine last week, morgue officials said.

SAMAWA - Iraqi police caught a Saudi insurgent named Abdulla Salih Salih in Samawa 270 km (170 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraqi state television reported. Iraqi Interior Ministry forces yesterday captured a senior aide to al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Ramadi, Iraqi state television said on Monday. Iraqiya television named the man as Abu Farouq.


**BAGHDAD - Saddam Hussein returned to court on Tuesday but his trial was quickly thrown into fresh disarray when his lawyers walked out after their pleas for an expulsion of the judge and a postponement were rejected.

Saddam's fiery half-brother and former intelligence chief Barzan al-Tikriti then joined in with a heated verbal exchange with chief judge Raouf Abdel-Rahman, whose impartiality has been questioned by the defence because he is a Kurd from Halabja, a Kurdish village allegedly gassed by the former Iraqi leader's forces in 1988.

**BAGHDAD - Iraq's President Jalal Talabani criticised interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's visit to Turkey saying other parts of the government had not been informed. The Iraqi government will not accept any decision made as a result of the meeting with the Turkish government, Talabani said.

KERBALA - Firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for unity when he addressed several hundred supporters in Kerbala 110 km (68 miles) southwest of Baghdad. Sadr said sectarian violence was what foreign forces in Iraq wanted.

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Nuclear: Iran-Russia talks resume

Rome, 28 Feb. (AKI) - Talks between Iran and Russia over a Russian plan to enrich uranium on Tehran's behalf on its soil resume on Tuesday in Moscow. On Sunday, Iran announced it had reached a "basic accord" with Russia, though "the details still need to be outlined." Russian foreign minister Serghei Lavrov stressed late on Monday that "the suspension of all forms of uranium enrichment, even for experimental purposes" was key in order for an agreement to be reached with Tehran. The two countries have time until a 6 March meeting of the board of governors of the UN nuclear watchdog to reach an accord.

Ali Hosseini Tash, the Iranian diplomat heading the delegation in Russia, told a press conference in Isfahan late on Monday that his country's nuclear programme was "connected to the country's security."

Speaking to reporters before leaving for Moscow, the top negotiator also said that "any negotiation on our nuclear plans must take into consideration the fact that Iran is at the centre of an American project to change the current international order and that this project, its authors claim, must start in the Middle East."

The diplomat also said he believed, despite the progress made in recent days, "everything is ready to refer the nuclear dossier of the Islamic Republic to the UN Security Council."

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Sudan: UN Security Council considers action as violence continues

New York, 28 Feb. (AKI) - As violence continues in Sudan’s North Darfur region, the United Nations Security Council met Monday to consider sanctioning individuals deemed to be a threat to peace or to human rights in the area, where fighting involving rebels, the government and militias have already taken a great toll on civilians. After a briefing by the chair of the Council Sanctions Committee, Adamantios Vassilakis of Greece, the Council "expressed its desire to move forward expeditiously on targeted sanctions, which I expect we’ll do shortly," John Bolton of the United States, the current Council President, told reporters.

"The purpose of the targeted sanctions mechanism of resolution 1591 is to apply pressure – and I don’t think we should be ashamed to say that – to people who are violating the arms embargo, not contributing to our effort to establish an effective peace process in Darfur and restore the deteriorating security situation there,” Bolton said.

Since fighting flared a week ago in North Darfur, a large number of villages have been attacked and burned, markets have been looted and people displaced, the UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) said Monday, with clashes between the Sudan Armed Forces and rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) continuing.

Meanwhile, the secretary general’s special representative for Sudan, Jan Pronk, travelled to South Darfur over the weekend, urging the parties there to exercise restraint and protect civilians, according to a UN Spokesman.

UNMIS was deployed to support the peace agreement for the long-running civil conflict in southern Sudan signed about a year ago. It also has a mandate from the UN Security Council to provide some support to the African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission in Darfur.

On 3 March, Pronk is expected to attend a ministerial meeting of the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council on the shift to a proposed Darfur peacekeeping force supervised by the UN.

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Tehran, 28 Feb. (AKI) - Iran's former president Mohammad Khatami told the Isna news agency on Tuesday that the "Holocaust is a historic fact." Khatami's successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the existence of the Holocaust since December last year in a number of speeches against Israel. However, Iran's former president also said that Israel had "made a bad use of this historic fact with the persecution of the Palestinian people."

"We must acknowledge that the crimes committed by Germany's Nazi regime were a massacre of innocents, including a great number of Jews," said Khatami.

The reformist leader, who now heads two non governmental organisations promoting dialogue among cultures and religions, also warned that "the religion we follow condemns the assassination of even one innocent person, including an innocent Jew."

However, he added, "those who consider themselves to be victims of fascism are implementing fascist policies in the Middle East."

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Colombian rebels kill eight town councilors in midday attack

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Rebels burst into a hotel in southern Colombia where local government officials were meeting Monday and killed eight town councilors, authorities said.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebels arrived in a truck disguised as police, walked into the hotel and opened fire while the officials were having a working lunch, said Gilberto Toro, head of the Colombian Federation of Municipalities.

President Alvaro Uribe condemned the attack, which he said killed eight councilors. Early police reports said seven were killed.

"The murders of the councilors fills us with heartfelt sadness," Uribe said in a statement. "This fight against terrorism is hard."

The statement said government troops are combing the area around the town of Rivera, 150 miles southwest of Bogota, for the attackers.

Several more people were injured in the shooting, Toro said. A total of 11 councilors were there.

It was the second deadly attack by the FARC, Colombia's largest rebel group, on unarmed civilians in the past three days as the rebels stepped up violence ahead of March 12 congressional elections.

The FARC on Saturday night attacked a minibus in the southern state of Caqueta that defied a rebel-imposed traffic ban, killing nine passengers and injuring 11, including a 9-year-old boy.

The FARC has been fighting the government for 41 years in a rebel conflict that claims thousands of lives each year.

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Guns, cocaine: One market out of control

ISN: Gone are the days when the black market for cocaine required a few strong men, limited bribes, and involved the purchase of a few revolvers. The cocaine trade has expanded well beyond the Andean mountain corridor and the control of local actors there.

The market for small arms and light weapons has completely overlapped the cocaine market. Purchases for arms are no longer made with cash but with cocaine, and the same routes used to smuggle cocaine out of South America are used to smuggle guns in. Actors far and wide rush to meet the weapons demand created by continued conflict in Colombia.

What used to be two separate cash-for-product markets has blended into one nearly perfect market.

Due to the conflict in Colombia, perfect elasticity of demand exists for anyone who can smuggle guns into Colombia. And the market there will absorb any and all weapons at the going rate, which in this case is measured not in cash but kilos of pure cocaine for one functioning rifle.

The incentive to smuggle guns into Colombia is doubled because the cocaine received in exchange for guns is consistently in high demand. Trading one product - guns - in high demand for another - cocaine - with even higher demand is good business.

This market is inherently transnational, beyond the control of any single government.

While the word waits for the next terrorist attack in the US or Western Europe, the black market for cocaine and weapons continues to erode democratic institutions in Latin America, breeding corruption, instability, and, ultimately, contempt for elected officials.

The ready availability of small arms and light weapons in both South and Central America coupled with the lack of police presence on borders and in backwater areas makes the market a very fluid one.

What used to be a system of limited purchases for cash - made largely to individual gun smugglers by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the paramilitary United Auto-Defense forces of Colombia (AUC) - has turned in to bulk purchases of weapons paid for with pure cocaine. The suppliers range from Central American street gangs and Mexican mafia to Brazilian organized crime groups and Islamic radicals in Trinidad and Tobago.

Honduran police seized 218 weapons and over 50,000 rounds of ammunition in April last year, uncovering a slick guns-for-cocaine operation while adding evidence to the pile that puts Honduras at the center of Central American black market operations. Police seized 161 M-16 assault rifles, 26 Soviet-era AK-47 rifles, 11 US M-60 machine guns, nine grenade launchers for attachment to the M-16 rifle, and five portable grenade launchers, among other things. These weapons were to be exchanged for one to two metric tons of pure cocaine.

The Honduran government believes that these weapons were destined for the FARC. Police in Honduras claim that a functional M-16 or AK-47 is worth around seven pounds of pure cocaine. Using information gathered from interrogations, Honduran police conclude that cocaine that lands there is worth some US$1,350 a pound, while a rifle is worth over US$9,000.

According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control’s 2005 World Drug Report, US retail prices averaged at US$71 a gram, or US$34,050 a pound, in 2003. While this price has most likely gone down since 2003, it is still possible to conclude that gun smugglers stand to earn tens of thousands of dollars on every rifle traded for cocaine as long as they are able to get that cocaine into the US.

A recent study sponsored by the Small Arms Survey concluded that there may be as many as two million illegal weapons in circulation in Central American countries.

Due to the relative high supply of pure cocaine coming out of Colombia and a stable market for cocaine in the US, anyone with a rifle, a cell phone, and some secure trade routes stands to make good money. Any individual or group busted for smuggling is quickly replaced by another. This cycle will last as long as there is demand for cocaine, a supply of weapons, and individuals willing to move both.

Current estimates place the number of FARC fighters between 13,000 and 17,000. Despite the AUC disarmament process in Colombia, there still remain between 3,000 and 7,000 men at arms; counting those believed to be demobilized, this number jumps to 30,000.

In Brazil, where organized crime has come to control the gun and drug trade, there is an increasing demand for both products. In Rio de Janeiro alone, analysts who study violence in the shantytowns estimated in 2003 that there were at least 10,000 armed gang members. This number has likely grown significantly.

Organized crime actors in Brazil purchase weapons from providers in the tri-border area joining Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina. There are so many black market weapons in Brazil that organized crime has been trading weapons for pure cocaine with the FARC since 2000. Some claim this barter system originated in a deal between the Red Command crime faction in Rio de Janeiro, and members of the FARC in southeastern Colombia.

Recent studies conclude that there are some four million illegal weapons in the hands of organized crime in Brazil. Brazil’s demand for cocaine has grown, placing the country at the top of the list of worldwide cocaine markets, behind only the US. Both the CIA and Interpol agree that up to 60 per cent of the cocaine that enters Brazil stays in Brazil, while the rest lands in Europe, Africa, and in some cases the Middle East and Asia.

Venezuela, known as a major cocaine transit country, extends this black market east from Colombia as far as Trinidad and Tobago, where radical Islamic groups are believed to be heavily involved in gun smuggling.

This twin market extends as far north as border towns between the US and Mexico. Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas, has recently been the focal point of violence between rival gangs there and local police. Mexican involvement in the region’s black market creates a soft underbelly along a 2,000-mile boundary across which anything of any size can be smuggled.

Tens of thousands of illicit actors propagate a market that proves to be highly lucrative, flexible, and networked. There is no center, no head, no leader to kill.

Counting all the countries involved just in the Americas, there are over 11 governments independently working to improve national security. Plan Colombia, the region’s high-profile arrangement between the US and Colombia to reduce cocaine supply and diminish the FARC’s presence, is a failure. The plan has stimulated markets for guns and cocaine rather than reduce demand in the US or the military capability of the FARC in Colombia.

In fact, the FARC is stronger now than ever. Supply for cocaine has not diminished, nor have prices soared as originally planned. In fact, increased militarization in Colombia has exacerbated the problem, stimulating the demand for black market guns in Colombia. Militarization is the leading policy for Mexico, Brazil, and Central America, where organized crime and street gangs are running amuck.

The escalation of violence is the only outcome for military solutions to what are essentially social problems. More violence demands more guns, more guns means more cocaine, and so on. This cycle has continued for decades, and will only get worse until leaders work together to seek alternative policies to deal with a massive black market that is quite clearly out of control.

Sam Logan is an investigative journalist who has covered security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism, and black markets in Latin America since July 1999. He has reported from Santiago, Sao Paulo, Brasilia, and Buenos Aires. He lives in Rio de Janeiro and has a website at www.samuellogan.com.

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Riots rock volatile Iran city after blast

Iran Focus Tehran, Iran, Feb. 28 – Hundreds of people in an ethnic Arab neighbourhood of the south-western city of Ahwaz staged an anti-government demonstration hours after three explosions in Khuzistan Province on Monday morning, according to local residents.

The district of Malashieh in Ahwaz, where one of the bombs went off, was the scene of the spontaneous demonstration that led to clashes with State Security Forces (SSF).

Two of the blasts occurred at the local governors’ offices in the cities of Dezful and Abadan.

The third blast occurred in Malashieh on the outskirts of Ahwaz. The city has been the scene of sporadic anti-government protests for months.

According to local residents reached by telephone, soon after the explosion in Malashieh, a large crowd spontaneously gathered at the site of the blast and began to set tyres on fire, chanting anti-government slogans.

Agents of Iran’s State Security Forces and anti-riot police were immediately brought in to prevent an escalation of the protest.

After anti-government demonstrations rapidly grew out of proportion last year, security forces shot dead a number of protestors from Malashieh.

At least 15 people were arrested during Monday’s demonstration, as the angry crowd clashed with agents of the SSF.

Following a spate of similar bombings in Khuzestan since 2005, a string of top Iranian officials including hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Britain of being behind the bombings.

London has repeatedly denied any involvement in the attacks.

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Don't plot against Putin, UK tells Russian tycoon

LONDON, Feb 28 (Reuters) - British Foreign Minister Jack Straw warned UK-based Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky not to plot to overthrow Russian President Vladimir Putin while he is staying in Britain, the foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

In an interview with Reuters earlier this month, Berezovsky said he was "preparing a forced takeover of power in Russia" and accused Putin of creating an over-centralised and weak regime.

Britain damaged cordial relations with the Russian president when it granted Berezovsky asylum status in 2003.

London has refused to return the former oligarch to Russia where he is wanted on fraud charges, which Berezovsky says are politically motivated. Straw said Berezovsky's residence status could be reviewed if his presence was not "conducive to the public good" and condemned comments by Berezovsky in which he said that "coercive actions to take power" were justified if they were taken to restore Russia's constitution.

"Advocating the violent overthrow of a sovereign state is unacceptable," said Straw in a written statement, adding that Britain respected Russia's constitutional arrangements and the territorial integrity of Russia.

"The UK government will take action against those who use the UK as a base from which to foment violent disorder or terrorism in other countries," Straw said.

In the 1990s, Berezovsky enjoyed close ties to the Kremlin and the then President Boris Yeltsin.

He controlled much of Russia's media and helped Putin to power, but later fell foul of the president and fled Russia in 2000, becoming a vocal enemy from London. Straw's warning to Berezovsky comes after a period of mounting tension with Russia, an important business and energy partner.

Russia last month accused Britain of running a James Bond-style spying operation in Moscow using a receiver hidden in a fake rock to communicate secret information.

Moscow named four British Embassy workers as intelligence officers running Russian agents.

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IAEA: Iran wants uranium enrichment

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Tuesday, 28 February: 12.10 CET) – Iran appears determined to expand its uranium enrichment program, according to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report.

The IAEA report also suggested that unless Iran dramatically increases its level of cooperation with an agency probe, the UN nuclear watchdog would be unable to establish whether Iranian is clandestinely involved in a nuclear weapons program.

The damning report, which was prepared for March's meeting of the IAEA board, raises the chances that the board will confirm a decision made in February's meeting to send the Iranian nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council over noncompliance with the country's nuclear obligations.

The IAEA board voted to refer Iran to the UN Security Council earlier this month but delayed the implementation of the decision till the March meeting to give Iran a chance to moderate its stances on uranium enrichment and oversight of nuclear research activities.

A compromise agreement between Iran and Russia on cooperative uranium enrichment this week had appeared to lessen the chances of the implementation of a sanctions regime.

However, Russia has insisted that the fundamental dispute over the Iranian nuclear program had yet to be resolved.

Russia and China had insisted on the month's delay in implementing the IAEA referral in an effort to preserve significant energy and other economic ties with the Islamic Republic.

Western diplomats told the Financial Times that any Russian-Iranian nuclear deal was probably technical in nature and likely failed to deal with the fundamental disagreements that led to the IAEA referral.

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Maoist attack in India kills 50

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Tuesday, 28 February: 12.10 CET) - Maoist guerrillas detonated a land mine on Tuesday, killing at least 50 tribal villagers who were said to belong to a government-sponsored anti-Maoist group, news agencies reported.

The villagers were returning from an anti-Maoist campaign organized by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the main opposition Congress party.

Two trucks carrying villagers were apparently blown up by landmines Darmagura area, reports said.

Darmagura is a Maoist stronghold. The Maoists claim to be fighting for more rights for peasants and laborers. The Maoists recently have stepped up attacks in India, where they are said to operate in at least nine of the country's 29 states.

On Sunday, rebels raided a government-run relief camp in same area, killing two people and injuring 25 others, reports said.

Police said that around 200 rebels armed with rifles stormed the relief camp killing two refugees.

Last month, rebels killed eight people in an attack on a relief camp in area forcing the state government to increase security in and around all the camps.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Developments in Iraq, Feb. 27

Feb 27 (Reuters) - The following are security incidents and political developments in Iraq reported on Monday, as of 1300 GMT.

U.S. and Iraqi forces are battling a largely Sunni Arab insurgency against the Shi'ite- and Kurdish-led government in Baghdad.

* Asterisk denotes a new or updated item.

*ISKANDARIYA - Two insurgents were killed and another wounded while they were trying to plant a bomb which exploded prematurely in the main road between Iskandariya and Latifiya, south of Baghdad, police said.

*RIYADH - Three civilians were killed when a roadside bomb exploded in Riyadh town, 60 km (40 miles) south west of Kirkuk, police said.

*BAGHDAD - A mortar attack killed four people and wounded 17 in Shola, a Shi'ite district in Sunni-dominated western Baghdad on Monday, police said.

*BAQUBA - Gunmen shot dead the owner of a glaze shop and an employee and wounded five others in Baquba, 60 km (40 miles) north of Baghdad, police said.

*KERBALA - Iraqi police arrested three suspects while they were planting bombs near a Shiite Shrine of al-Hur al-Riyahi near Kerbala, 110 km (68 miles) south of Baghdad, police said.

FALLUJA - A civilian was killed by Iraqi soldiers while he was heading to his work in Falluja, 50 km (30 miles) west of Baghdad, police said.

TUZ KHUMATO - Iraqi police arrested 16 suspects on Saturday and Sunday in Tuz Khurmato, 70 km south of Kirkuk, and Dibis, 40 km (25 miles) northwest of Kirkuk, police said. Two of them were arrested while they were trying to plant bombs near Shiite mosque, police added.

TUZ KHURMATO - The head of the education directorate escaped an assassination attempt when gunmen threw a hand grenade on his office in Tuz Khurmato, police said.

BAGHDAD - A U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire on Sunday in central Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement.


BAGHDAD - Ordinary traffic movement in Baghdad returned to its relative normality after three days of curfew.

*BAGHDAD - American journalist Jill Carroll is alive and Iraqi authorities are optimistic about her release, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said.

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Militants attack train in Pakistan

QUETTA, Pakistan, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Suspected tribal militants attacked a train in Pakistan's southwest province of Baluchistan on Monday, opening fire on paramilitary guards on board but there were no casualties, officials said.

The train was attacked near Baneri, around 80 km (50 miles) southeast of Baluchistan's capital Quetta, and derailed when the driver braked after hearing an explosion, said a senior railway official.

An engine and two carriages jumped the track, but did not overturn and no one on board the Lahore-bound train was injured either in the derailment or the firing, Mohammad Mushtaq, Chief Controller of Pakistan Railways' Quetta Division, told Reuters.

Earlier on Monday, three paramilitary troopers were wounded after coming under fire from gunmen while escorting railway workers to repair a section of track damaged by an explosion in the Harnai area of northern Baluchistan. One of the troopers later died from his wounds, a doctor said.

Baluchistan's Home Minister, Shoaib Nausherwani, said tribal militants were to blame in both cases, and accused them of waging a campaign against government employees.

"We suspect today's incidents are links of the chain of attacks by miscreants. They want to target government servants and people from Punjab," Nausherwani said.

Secessionists and tribal rebels have stepped up a militant campaign in mineral-rich but sparsely populated Baluchistan and much of the violence has centred on an area that is home to Pakistan's largest gas field in the east of the province.

They want to benefit more from the local resources and say they are being exploited by the central government and neighbouring Punjab.

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Pirates hijack Indian-owned dhow off Somali coast

NAIROBI, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Somali gunmen hijacked an Indian-owned dhow off Somalia's coastlines with 25 crew members aboard, a maritime official said on Monday.

The dhow was attacked by two small boats while on route from the southern port of Kismayo to El-Maan, 35 km (22 miles) from the lawless capital Mogadishu on Sunday, Andrew Mwangura, programme coordinator for the Seafarers' Assistance Programme, said.

"Normally when they take captives, they want to get in contact with the chief owner," Mwangura told Reuters, adding he did not know whether the hijackers had contacted the owners.

He said the dhow was called the Bhakti Sagar, but did not name the owners.

El-Maan used to be the most peaceful port, he said. "Those ships who are still in Mombasa are afraid to go to El-Maan now."

Somalia's waters have become among the most dangerous in the world since warlords ousted military dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.

Many militias controlled by powerful warlords smuggle drugs, weapons and people by road, sea and air around the region. Piracy is a lucrative and increasingly popular offshoot of this illicit trade.

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Iranian governors' offices bombed

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Monday, 27 February: 12.23 CET) – Two bombs exploded in governors' offices in the southern Iranian cities of Dezfoul and Abadan on Monday morning, according to the official IRNA news agency.

The first blast occurred at 10.04am in the Dezfoul governor's office in the oil-rich Khuzestan province and the second followed shortly thereafter in the Abadan governor's office.

In both cases the explosive devices were placed in office toilets.

Four people were lightly wounded in the explosions, which caused some property damage.

In comments carried by IRNA, Dezfoul Governor Hamid Qena'ati said: "Hopefully, those behind the bombings will soon be found and punished."

The attacks are the latest to hit the fractious southwestern province, which is home to around two million ethnic Arabs.

The Iranian government accused British troops in nearby southern Iraq of involvement in a bombing last month in the provincial capital Ahwaz that killed eight people and wounded 46.

The British Foreign Office denied any involvement in the attack, which was claimed by a little-known Arab separatist group, according to the BBC.

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Baloch minister’s house attacked in Pakistan

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Monday, 27 February: 14.09 CET) - One person has been killed and eight others injured in a rocket attack on the home of a cabinet minister in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province, news agencies reported.

Two rockets fired by unidentified assailants hit the home of Abdul Quddus Bizinjo, Balochistan’s minister for livestock and dairy. The minister was not at home at the time of the attack, but some of the minister’s relatives and a security guard were wounded.

A spokesman for the separatist Baloch Liberation Army allegedly claimed responsibility for the attack, according to local media reports. Police have reportedly detained five people for questioning in the incident.

Local officials told reporters that Bizenjo’s home may have been targeted because he was a strong opponent of the separatist violence in the province.

Tribal militants in region are demanding greater autonomy and more royalties and control over the province’s vast gas riches.

Separatists have been blamed for earlier bombings and rocket attacks on security force and gas fields in the province.

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Nepal forces kill 16 Maoist rebels in clashes

ISN SECURITY WATCH (Monday, 27 February: 15.06 CET) - At least 16 Maoist rebels have been killed in clashes with Nepalese security forces, the monarchist government has claimed.

The government said that 11 Nepalese security personnel were also injured in the Sunday clashes, according to news agency reports.

The Nepalese Royal Army provided air support to ground troops during the clashes in western Nepal, and additional forces reportedly have been deployed to the area to search for rebels.

The clashes, which took place in Rupandehi district, began after rebels attacked a patrol team of security forces, according to government sources cited by local media.

In a separate development, the Maoists on apologized for a Saturday incident in which a bomb exploded at Chorepatan, wounding six civilians.

In statement distributed to the local media, the Maoists said the bomb had been intended for security forces but had exploded prematurely, missing the target.

Maoists rebels are fighting to overthrow the monarchy in the country and install a secular, communist regime with more rights for the people. More than 13,000 people have been killed in the decade-old conflict.

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Tehran, 27 Feb. (AKI) - Iranian authorities on Monday denied reports in Arab news agencies saying that several people had died in explosions in the southern cities of Abadan and Dezful. According to local government authorities, two bombs exploded simultaneously around 10 a.m. local time in the offices of the regional governments of Abadan and Dezful. Two people were reportedly wounded in the attack in Abadan and four in Dezful.

The attacks on the two cities, where the majority of citizens belong to the Arab minority, took place as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad travelled to Kuwait.

Ever since April last year, Iran's southern regions have been at the centre of violent protests and attacks. Iran's Arab minority is concentrated in the area. The situation is also serious in Kurdistan, Baluchistan and Iranian Azerbaijan - all regions with minorities seeking increasing autonomy.

Ahmadinejad's visits to these regions have further sparked tensions.

The bomb in Abadan could also be linked to the closure by the regime of a local magazine last Saturday, after its editor had harshly criticised the government in an interview to an Italian newspaper, Rome daily La Repubblica.

A court issued an order to stop the publication of the magazine Hamsayeha (The Neighbours) after editor in chief Mohammad Hezbaizadeh accused Tehran of progressively transforming Iran's southern regions bordering Iraq into a military stronghold. The journalist also accused Ahmadinejad of increasingly reducing the freedom of the press and of denouncing any form of dissent as cooperation with foreign powers.


Feb-27-06 11:26

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Baghdad, 27 Feb. (AKI) - The organisation of al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian miltiant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has adopted a new command structure, according to Salafite sources quoted by the Arabic news portal Wifaq. The new line-up is said to include a sort of shadow government at the head of the organisation mandated to direct all the activities of the group. Al-Zarqawi has been flanked by six 'ministers' and by a chief of staff who will coordinate all the operational brigades, the sources said.

In a document entitled "The strategy of al-Qaeda in Iraq", the group outlines a new decentralised and flexible organisational structure.

In the new hierarchy al-Zarqawi's number two would be Abu Abdel Rahman al-Iraqi who also has the role of 'interior minister' and oversees the internal affairs of the organisation. He has also been tasked with overseeing the direct links between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iraqi and other Arab volunteers who enrol in al-Qaeda.

The 'minister of defence' is Abu Asir, whose role is to infiltrate militants into the Iraqi security forces and army, as well as direct the suicide bomber brigade which al-Zarqawi considers central.

A 'religious affairs' post has been given to Sheikh Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi, who issues fatwas and other religious edicts as well as overseeing the spiritual life of the group.

The crucial role of 'information minister', overseeing Internet statements and working to attract recuits via the Internet, has been given to Abu Maysira al-Iraqi.

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Saddam Tapes and Excerpts

Tapes of Saddam's meetings available for download.

Saddam's WMD Tapes
Click to download in Powerpoint presentation

Link to PowerPoint presentation (English)

Original recordings (Arabic)
File lengths vary between 47m & 2h 9m Click to Download

File 3922

File 3978

File 3997

File 4244

File 4667

File 4923

File 5955

File 7379

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Kosovo issue inflaming separatism in EU neighbours

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - The idea of Kosovan independence as a precedent for other separatist states is catching on in South Caucasus, with damaging implications for EU energy interests.

The breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and the Armenian-occupied Azerbaijan region, Nagorno-Karabakh, are using the Kosovan model to legitimise their own "de facto states", UK-based analyst Oksana Antonenko said.

"The EU must develop a position on this. To say we don't recognise a linkage is not good enough," the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) expert added.

"The politicians and the elite continue to make a case to their people. The issue of Kosovo's status is changing their expectations, making them less willing to engage in the peace process."

Separatists will "scream about double standards" if the EU endorses independence in Kosovo but pushes reunification in South Caucasus, Brussels-based CEPS analyst Michael Emerson indicated.

Pristina and Belgrade are currently in talks to decide the status of Kosovo, a UN-administered province in Serbia since ethnic clashes subsided in 1999.

But senior UK diplomat John Sawers told Belgrade two weeks ago that the west has "decided" Kosovo should be independent.

Russian gambit

Russian president Vladimir Putin gave weight to the Kosovo precedent idea on Russian TV on 30 January, with Moscow diplomats discussing the notion at UN level since.

"We need universal principles to find a fair solution to these problems," Mr Putin said.

"If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?" he asked. "We know that Turkey, for instance, has recognised the republic of Northern Cyprus."

Russian troops in Georgia and Armenia give Moscow leverage against the pro-EU drift of South Caucasus.

But Mr Putin's words confused some experts, with Russia historically opposed to Kosovan independence and facing a legacy of separatism at home in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan.

"It's hard to know if they are serious or just trying to create pressure against Kosovan independence," former Estonian foreign minister and socialist MEP Toomas Ilves indicated.

"If Kosovo becomes a precedent and Transniestria recognises Abkhazia, Northern Cyprus recognises Nagorno-Karabakh, we could have a real mess on our hands."

Bosnian region Republika Srpska "will" also call for independence if Kosovo has its way, Serbian contacts told British conservative MEP Charles Tannock on a recent trip to Belgrade.

EU peace efforts

Brussels does not recognise Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Nagorno-Karabakh, but the EU is stepping up conflict resolution and EU integration efforts in South Caucasus under its neighbourhood policy.

The EU buys oil from Azerbaijan through the so-called BCT pipeline, with plans afoot to build a new Caspian Sea gas link via Azerbaijan and Georgia under the Nabucco project, reducing energy dependency on Russia.

"If there was a new conflict [in Nagorno-Karabakh], the first target would be the pipeline and the oil terminals," senior OSCE diplomat Bernard Fassier indicated.

"It's essential the EU uses all the tools at its disposal...to get the message across that you have to respect compromise," he added.

EU special envoy to the region, Heikki Talvitie, said Europe has promised peacekeepers and a "blessing ceremony" for Nagorno-Karabakh if Armenia and Azerbaijan can clinch a deal.

He recently went to Moscow to endorse a Georgian-Russian plan for demilitarising South Ossetia.

EU neighbours on dangerous path

International diplomacy's new interest in South Caucasus comes at a time when popular hardliners are gaining support for military solutions to the conflicts.

The region is arming for battle with Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan all doubling their military spending in the past two years.

"There is a radicalisation of public opinion and a push for more hardline solutions in the future," the IISS' Antonenko said. "What we have seen in the past few years is a serious arms race in South Caucasus."

The OSCE's Bernard Fassier recalled that young soldiers die "on a monthly basis" in border skirmishes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, while the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict claimed 10,000 lives in 1994.

"Time is not on our side," he stated. "Chekhov has taught us, if you have a pistol on the table in the first act, it will be fired by someone before the curtain drops."

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Saudi forces kill suspected militants after siege

RIYADH, Feb 27 (Reuters) - Saudi forces on Monday killed about five suspected militants believed to be linked to an al Qaeda attack on a major oil facility, security sources said.

A firefight ensued at dawn after security forces besieged the men, who were hiding in a villa in the affluent al-Hamra district of east Riyadh where several Western residential compounds are located.

Witnesses said they heard the sound of heavy gunfire and what appeared to be mortars as security forces surrounded the area and sealed it off before dawn.

The shoot-out ended after two hours with the deaths of all of the men inside the building, believed to number about five, the security sources said.

One source said the men were traced partly through Internet surveillance. An Internet statement was issued at the weekend claiming that al Qaeda was behind an attack on the world's largest oil processing plant in Abqaiq on Friday.

The attempt to storm the site in east Saudi Arabia near the Gulf coast was the first direct strike on a Saudi energy target since the militant group launched attacks aimed at toppling the U.S.-allied monarchy in 2003.

It was also the first major attack by militants opposed to the Saudi monarchy since suicide bombers tried to storm the Interior Ministry in Riyadh in December 2004.

Authorities say two of the bombers were on a list of top wanted al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants issued last year. Al Qaeda had previously identified them in an Internet statement posted on Saturday and vowed more attacks.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Iran Says It Will Agree to Russian Enrichment Project

Washington Post: MOSCOW. Feb 26 -- The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said Sunday that his country had agreed in principle to set up a joint uranium enrichment project with Russia, a potentially significant breakthrough in efforts to prevent an international confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Regarding this joint venture, we have reached a basic agreement," said Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the country's nuclear chief, speaking at a press conference with his Russian counterpart in Bushehr, where Russia is helping to build a nuclear power plant. "Talks to complete this package will continue in coming days in Russia."

Russia's offer to enrich uranium for Iran on Russian territory, a proposal backed by the United States and the European Union, has been the basis of intense but previously fruitless negotiations between the two countries. If Iran does agree to shift enrichment to Russia, Iran would cede control of a key element in the nuclear fuel cycle and ease suspicions that it could secretly produce uranium suitable for nuclear weapons.

A deal would also head-off punitive action by the U.N. Security Council after a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on March 6. Aghazadeh made it clear, however, that there is still no formal agreement and some issues remain outstanding.

"There are different parts that need to be discussed," he said, according to Russian news agencies. "These are not just related to forming a company, there are other elements. There are political issues and the proposal should be seen as a package."

He went on to say that Iran has "set a precondition," which he declined to specify.

Russian analysts following the talks said Iran wants security guarantees that it would not be attacked by the United States.

The announcement followed two days of talks between Aghazadeh and Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's nuclear agency. Negotiations are expected to continue in Moscow in the next two or three days.

"I think there remain no organizational, technical or financial problems on the joint venture establishment," said Kiriyenko, but he added that "the international community must have guarantees of security and preservation of the nonproliferation regime."

Kiriyenko provided no specifics, including on key issues such as access to the Russian facility by Iranian scientists and whether or not Iran agreed that it would be permanently based in Russia.

An agreement, if one is reached and backed by the United States and the E.U., would be a significant boon for Russian diplomacy, which has been on the defensive because of Western concerns about the country's democratic direction and its alleged use of its energy resources to punish neighbors such as Ukraine. Russia is chairing meetings of the Group of Eight leading industrial democracies this year, and securing a deal with Iran would be a major boost to the country's desire to be seen as an essential and powerful partner.

More than two years of negotiations between Iran and an E.U. troika of Britain, France and Germany failed to produce an agreement. Russia, which has close financial and military ties with Iran, had much greater leverage, however, including stalling construction of the nuclear plant at Bushehr where Sunday's announcement was made.

In recent weeks Russia has been signaling its mounting frustration with Iran's stance and Russian lawmakers have said that sanctions might become unavoidable unless Iran yielded.

Aghazadeh said the decision to establish a uranium enrichment facility in Russia could be taken before the next IAEA meeting.

"We believe we can get an outcome that will be satisfying for the March 6 meeting," Aghazadeh said.

The board of the IAEA voted this month to report Iran to the Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions, but with the understanding that no action would be taken until after the March 6 meeting. That was to allow more time for negotiations on the Russian proposal. Russia backed the vote to report Iran, but publicly at least has been reluctant to endorse sanctions.

Iran resumed small-scale uranium enrichment after the vote to report the country, and Russian officials said Iran would also have to agree to restore a moratorium on enrichment.

"The Russia side intends to discuss the issue of setting up a joint venture with Iran to enrich uranium only as a package with all other problems concerning the Iranian nuclear dossier," a source in the Russian delegation told the Russian news agency Interfax. "These problems include, among other things, the resumption of an enrichment moratorium by Iran."

Aghazadeh also said Sunday that Iran also planned to add two more power generating units at the Bushehr plant, and was now preparing tender documents.

"Russia will certainly be invited to bid in the tender," Aghazadeh said. "We will be waiting for [Russia's] offer."

Russia had delayed completion of the plant to signal its displeasure, officials said. But Sunday, Kiriyenko said both sides had agreed on a timetable to finish the plant and deliver nuclear fuel to the facility for a launch this fall.

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Developments in Iraq, Feb. 26

Feb 26 (Reuters) - The following are security incidents and political developments in Iraq reported on Sunday, as of 1645 GMT.

U.S. and Iraqi forces are battling a largely Sunni Arab insurgency against the Shi'ite- and Kurdish-led government in Baghdad.

** Denotes new or amended item.


** BAGHDAD - At least 15 people are killed and 45 wounded in a mortar attack on the Baghdad neighbourhood of Dora, police and hospital sources said. Police said more people had been hurt in another mortar attack on the Shola area of Baghdad but could not immediately give the number of casualties.

BAQUBA - Three gunmen opened fire on a crowd of teenage boys playing soccer in a drive-by shooting in the Iraqi town of Baquba on Sunday, killing two youngsters and wounding five in what a police official said was a sectarian attack.

HILLA - A bomb destroyed a minibus as it was leaving a large bus station in Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, on Sunday, killing five people and wounding three, police said. However, the U.S. military said initial reports were erroneous and that two adults and three children were wounded. Police sources stood by their initial report.

BAGHDAD - Two U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in western Baghdad on Sunday, the U.S. military said, bringing the number of U.S. personnel killed since the invasion in March 2003 to at least 2,290.

MADAEN - One police officer was killed and two were wounded when their patrol was hit by two roadside bombs near Madaen, the Interior Ministry said.

BASRA - Explosives packed into the washing area of a Shi'ite mosque in the southern city of Basra blew up on Sunday, causing minor injuries, police and witnesses said. Police said they suspected three men wounded in the blast had been planting the bomb when it exploded prematurely.

RAMADI - A Baathist officer in the previous Iraqi regime was killed in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, police said.

FALLUJA - Three bodies with their hands bound and bullet wounds to the head were found near Falluja, west of Baghdad, police said. The killings took place three days ago, according to a medical source.

BAGHDAD - A mortar round landed near a Shi'ite mosque in eastern Baghdad, police said. No casualties were reported.


BAGHDAD - A traffic ban intended to help stifle the violence remained in force in the capital.

BAGHDAD - Shi'ite local community leaders said several hundred Shi'ites had fled homes in the capital's restive Sunni suburb of Abu Ghraib and were being housed temporarily in schools and other buildings in Shi'ite neighbourhoods.

BAGHDAD - Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, flanked by Sunni and Kurdish politicians, made a midnight televised appeal for Iraqis not to turn on each other after Wednesday's suspected al Qaeda bomb at a Shi'ite shrine. The appeal came after a round of phone calls from U.S. President George W. Bush, though Sunni leader Tareq al-Hashemi said he was not yet ready to end a boycott of U.S.-sponsored coalition talks.

BASRA - Firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr held a rally in Basra calling on Sunnis and Shi'ites to hold joint prayers on Friday. The anti-American cleric was speaking several km away from the blast at the mosque in Basra.

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Thousands of Spaniards say "no" to ETA talks

MADRID (Reuters) - Victims of ETA's campaign of violence led tens of thousands of protesters through Madrid on Saturday in a warning to Spain's Socialist government not to negotiate with the Basque separatist group.

Marching from the Plaza de la Argentina -- a square where an ETA car bomb wounded 16 civil guards in 1985 -- people hurt in ETA attacks and opposition figures including ex-Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar carried banners that read: "Not in my name".

A sea of umbrellas, placards and flags moved slowly through Madrid's posh Salamanca district, as the crowd shouted "Zapatero resign" and "Negotiation is surrender".

Opposition conservatives have accused Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of being soft on ETA since his offer last May to talk to the outlawed group if it abandoned violence for good.

A recent poll showed most Spaniards agree with the policy.

Madrid's opposition-controlled regional government said 1.4 million people turned out in the rain for the protest. Central government officials gave a much lower figure of 111,000.

"I'm so angry about what this government is doing," said hospital administrator Maria Isabel Montesinos, draped in a Spanish flag. "They want to talk with ETA and release ETA prisoners before they've completed their sentence. We say this is wrong. We are true Spaniards."

Newspapers reported this month that a number of ETA prisoners convicted of murders were due to leave prison after serving 18 to 20 years. However, the Supreme Court this week limited reductions for good behavior that such prisoners can receive, meaning they will stay behind bars for 30 years.

ETA, classed as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States, has killed more than 800 people since 1968 in its campaign for an independent Basque Country.

Bombings continue but no one has been killed in an ETA attack since May 2003.

Zapatero has denied the government is already in talks with ETA, despite opposition suspicions.

The march was called by the "Association of Victims of Terrorism", which includes people who have been injured, or have had relatives killed, in ETA attacks. It was backed by the opposition Popular Party, which constantly attacks the Socialist government's policy on ETA.

Socialist spokesman Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba accused the opposition of using terrorism for political ends.

"We have lived for three years without a fatality and (there have been) three demonstrations against the government's policy, one for each year without deaths," Rubalcaba said on Saturday.

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Iran to sign oil deal with China: official

LONDON, February 26 (IranMania) - Tehran expects to sign major energy export deals with a delegation from Beijing "soon", an official said, a move that may seal China's support for Iran's nuclear programme at the UN Security Council, AFP reported.

"A delegation led by the Chinese head of the national development and reform commission, Ma Kai, will be soon in Tehran to sign agreements related to exports of big oil consignments to China," deputy foreign minister Mehdi Safari was quoted as saying by state television Saturday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency earlier this month reported Iran to the UN over its controversial nuclear programme, a move which may lead to a sanctions resolution being drawn up by the Security Council, where China has the right of veto.

Iran has restarted small-scale enrichment of uranium despite international efforts to stop it. The West suspects Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb, something Tehran denies.

The UN Security Council is expected to debate the issue in March.

In October 2004, Iran and China signed a memorandum of understanding for exports of 250 mln tons of liquefied national gas (LNG) over 25 years.

That arrangement could be worth more than $100 bln. It also envisages a share in the development of an Iranian onshore oilfield, Yadavaran.

The preliminary agreement expired in January and neither of the sides have indicated how the negotiations would continue.

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

Chinese parliament to target financing of terrorism

BEIJING (Reuters) - China, facing what it says is terror threat in its restive far northwest, has sent a U.N. convention that tackles the financing of terrorism to parliament for approval, Xinhua news agency said.

China has supported the U.S.-led war on terror, but human rights activists accuse it of using the campaign to legitimise a crackdown on Uighur activists in its remote northwest.

"The core of the convention is about undermining the terrorist organisation's economic support through stemming its fund sources," Xinhua quoted Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei as saying on Saturday.

"The approval of the convention is conducive to stemming funds supplied by overseas anti-Chinese forces to China's domestic terrorists, and helping safeguard national security and social stability."

Muslim Uighur militants have been struggling for decades for self-determination in Xinjiang, an autonomous region established 50 years ago.

Ethnic separatists, religious extremists and terrorists had been "running wild for some time" in neighbouring regions, two general warned last month, singling out Xinjiang, self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, and the Himalayan region of Tibet.

Wu said parliamentary approval would "showcase the country as a responsible country in the international society". The government signed the convention as far back as November 13, 2001, two months after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

Turkic-speaking Uighurs make up the majority of the 19 million people in Xinjiang, which borders former Soviet Central Asian republics, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

China is especially keen to maintain stability in the region as it contains 30 percent of the country's oil reserves.

The International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, which gives signatory countries the power to charge people suspected of financing terrorism and sets rules for repatriation, was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1999.

China's annual session of parliament opens on March 5.

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MI5 rebels expose Tube bomb cover-up

Times Online: MI5 is facing an internal revolt by officers alarmed about intelligence failures and the lack of resources to fight Islamic terrorism.

To illustrate their concern, agents have leaked more topsecret documents to The Sunday Times because they want a public inquiry into the “missed intelligence” leading up to the July attacks in London.

They believe ministers have withheld information from the public about what the security services knew about the suspects before the bombing of July 7 and the abortive attacks of July 21.

The documents include an admission by John Scarlett, head of SIS, the secret intelligence service (also known as MI6), that one of the July 21 suspects was tracked on a trip to Pakistan just months before the attempted bombings.

Until now it was not known that any of the July 21 suspects, who are awaiting trial, were familiar to the intelligence services. It has been disclosed that MI5 had placed two of the July 7 bombers under surveillance before their attack, but judged them not to be a threat.

The new documents show that MI5, which is responsible for national security, allowed the July 21 suspect to travel to Pakistan after he was detained and interviewed at a British airport. Once in Pakistan he was monitored by SIS, which gathers intelligence overseas.

MI5 then conducted what the leaked memo says was “a low-level short-term investigation” into the suspect, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

It stopped monitoring him because it said “the Pakistani authorities assessed that he was doing nothing of significance”.

Scarlett revealed details of the operation to the parliamentary intelligence and security committee (ISC) last November. The committee, comprising MPs and peers picked by Tony Blair, is conducting a secret inquiry into the “lessons learnt” from the July attacks. It is due to be completed in April.

The Scarlett memo — marked top secret — was leaked by the dissident officers who want a public inquiry similar to that undertaken in America after the 9/11 attacks.

They believe it would highlight the need for MI5 and SIS to be given more resources to deal with Al-Qaeda. They are critical of Blair, who has ruled out an inquiry saying it would distract the security services from fighting terrorism.

The leaked memo refers to Scarlett as C — the traditional codename for the head of SIS. It states: “On the events of July itself, and the question of whether intelligence was missed, C noted that SIS had previously been involved in an earlier investigation of one of the July 21 (suspects) in Pakistan.

“This had been at the Security Service (MI5)’s behest and should be discussed with MI5.”

Another document, MI5’s November 2005 memo The July Bombings and the Agencies’ Response, has also been shown to The Sunday Times.

It names the suspect who was the subject of the 2004 investigation and shifts responsibility for the decision to stop monitoring him to the Pakistani intelligence authorities.

“(The suspect) had been the subject of a low-level short-term investigation concerning a visit he made to Pakistan after he was interviewed on departure from the UK,” it states.

“However, the Pakistani authorities assessed that he was doing nothing of significance in a terrorist context.”

The assessment echoes a decision by MI5 to halt surveillance on two of the July 7 bombers 16 months before the attacks. Both were filmed and taped by MI5 agents as they met two men allegedly plotting to carry out a terrorist attack in England.

After making what an official called “a quick assessment”, MI5 concluded Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer were not immediate threats. As the MI5 memo puts it: “Intelligence at the time suggested Khan’s purpose was financial crime rather than terrorist activity.”

David Davis, the shadow home secretary, said: “These leaks show that the need for an independent inquiry is incontrovertible.”

There is a growing consensus in Whitehall that the intelligence services will be seen to have made critical errors in failing to assess adequately the threat from at least three of the July suspects.

Scarlett conceded to the ISC that his agency had reacted too slowly. “Summing up the position before July 2005, C noted SIS were conscious of the size of the target, but equally conscious of what we did not know; we were thinly spread in North and East Africa; we were looking at new ways of increasing our reach; and we had sought funding to grow as fast as we thought feasible.

“Turning to the lessons learnt, C noted that SIS had understood the nature of the threat and that there was a great deal that we did not know. SIS had developed strategies to meet this threat.

“The attacks had shown that our strategies were correct, but needed to be implemented more extensively and more quickly,” the memo noted.

Scarlett said that even before the attacks, SIS had planned to expand overseas. “C concluded by explaining how post-July SIS were speeding up implementation of the pre-July strategy.” He said the agency did not want more money for staff.

The dissident officers believe the buck-passing revealed in the memos demonstrates that there should be closer co-operation between the agencies.

They support calls for a unified department of homeland security, along the lines suggested by Gordon Brown, the chancellor, this month.

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Germany jails 2 men suspected of buying arms for Iran

BERLIN, Feb 25 (Reuters) - German authorities have jailed two men suspected of buying weapons and missile technology on behalf of Iranian intelligence services, a German government official said on Saturday.

The two men, identified as a 59-year-old German citizen named Joseph Edward G. and a 41-year-old foreigner named Yousef P., were jailed pending completion of the prosecutors' investigation of possible espionage activities.

"They were brought before the investigating judge at the district court in Karlsruhe on Friday, who decided to detain them on suspicion of acting as agents for an intelligence service," the Federal Prosecutors Office said in a statement.

A German government official familiar with some aspects of the case told Reuters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case that the men were suspected of acting on behalf of Iran.

"This has to do with Iran again," he said.

German police and customs officials investigating the case raided 12 premises across four states on Thursday and arrested the two men. The raids were in the western states of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse, North Rhine-Westphalia and Saarland.

"The accused are suspected of attempting, in the service of a foreign intelligence agency, to obtain parts for delivery systems and conventional weaponry for armed forces," the office said shortly after the raids.

Last month, German federal prosecutors formally charged two German citizens with espionage in a separate case for helping an unidentified foreign intelligence agency acquire dual use "delivery system" missile technology.

A German official familiar with the case said the country involved was Iran.

The prosecutors are also in contact with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna as they investigate German involvement in a nuclear black market that supplied Iran, Libya and North Korea with uranium enrichment technology that can be used to produce fuel for nuclear power plants or weapons.

Iran has a conventional missile programme but denies both seeking to arm these weapons with nuclear warheads and wanting nuclear weapons at all.

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Iran’s censors remove ayatollah from Top-10 dictators

Iran Focus London, Feb. 25 – Iranians were surprised to see that the Persian translation of this year’s “The World’s 10 Worst Dictators” published in the New York-based weekly Parade contained only nine names. Who was missing?

Iran’s state-run news agency ILNA carried a report on the list of authoritarian rulers published by the magazine, but the agency deliberately removed the name of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, from the list.

Parade’s list says that Khamenei has “shut down the free press, tortured journalists and ordered the execution of homosexual males”.

“Over the past four years, the rulers of Iran have undone the reforms that were emerging in the nation”.

Khamenei was a new entry in the Top 10, up nine points from his previous standing.

In a report on Khamenei’s role in the Iranian theocracy in December 2004, the U.S.-based Committee on the Present Danger wrote, “In addition to its peace-threatening nuclear program, Iran under Khamenei continues to be the world’s foremost state supporter of terrorism… He is seeking regional hegemony, both ideologically and militarily. His growing oil wealth increases his capacity for wreaking havoc on his own people and the region”.

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Developments in Iraq, Feb 25

Feb 25 (Reuters) - The following are security incidents and political developments in Iraq reported on Saturday Feb. 25 as of 0715 GMT

U.S. and Iraqi forces are battling a largely Sunni Arab insurgency against the Shi'ite- and Kurdish-led government in Baghdad.


SAMARRA - Gunmen opened fire on the funeral procession of an Al Arabiya correspondent killed while covering an attack on a Shi'ite shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra, the Arab television station reported. It said Iraqi security forces protecting the funeral of Atwar Bahjat returned fire. It was not clear if anyone was hurt.

BAGHDAD - Overnight, gunmen -- some firing rockets -- attacked Sunni mosques in two Baghdad districts, including the Sunnis' revered Abu Hanifa shrine, police said, adding that police and Iraqi troops repelled assailants who wore the black of Shi'ite militias.


BAGHDAD - The Iraqi government has extended the daylight security clampdown with a ban on cars to 4 p.m. on Saturday (1300 GMT) in a bid to ease sectarian tensions that have raised fears of civil war. The overnight curfew was still in effect. Baghdad was calm in the early morning following late night clashes.

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Al Qaeda says it carried out Saudi oil plant attack

ABQAIQ, Saudi Arabia, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for Friday's attack on a Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq, when security forces fired at suicide bombers trying to storm the world's biggest oil processing plant.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said oil and gas output was unaffected by the "terrorist attempt" -- the first direct strike on a Saudi oil target since al Qaeda militants launched attacks aimed at toppling Saudi Arabia's pro-Western monarchy in 2003.

In a statement posted on a Web site often used by militants, Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's group said two of its members carried out the operation.

"With grace from God alone, hero mujahideen from the squadron of Sheikh Osama bin Laden succeeded today (Friday)...in penetrating a plant for refining oil and gas in the town of Abqaiq in the eastern part of the peninsula, and then allowed two car bombs in driven by two martyrdom seekers," it said.

It said the raid was within the framework of efforts by al Qaeda to prevent the theft of Muslims' wealth by "crusaders and Jews" and to force "infidels" out of the peninsula.

Oil prices jumped $2 a barrel on news of the attack in the world's largest oil exporter, which came a year after bin Laden urged his supporters to hit Gulf oil targets.

In Abqaiq, a guard manning an outer gate of the facility said security forces were combing the plant in search of any militants hiding there. "The security situation is still unstable," said the guard, ushering people away.

Saudi security adviser Nawaf Obaid said security forces fired on three cars at the outer gates of the Abqaiq facility, 1.5 km (one mile) from the main entrance.


One car was carrying gunmen and two others, packed with explosives, rammed the gates, he said. All the attackers were killed. Security sources in Riyadh said four militants and two security officers died and two other officers were wounded.

Mohammad al-Merri, a relative of one of the officers killed, said the militants were able to penetrate the first checkpoint leading to the facility. "They opened fire and killed two officers after the guards at the second checkpoint became suspicious of them," he told Reuters in Abqaiq.

Security sources said the blast after the shootout slightly injured eight workers, including some from the Indian subcontinent.

Dubai-based Al Arabiya television said the attackers used cars bearing the logo of Saudi state-owned oil company Aramco.

Residents said they heard the blast from about two km (more than a mile) away, then saw smoke rising from the site.

Naimi, quoted by the Saudi Press Agency, said a small fire broke out after the explosion but was quickly brought under control.

It was the first major strike by militants in Saudi Arabia since suicide bombers tried to storm the Interior Ministry in Riyadh in December 2004.


Most Saudi oil is exported from the Gulf via the huge producing, pumping and processing facility at Abqaiq, also known locally as Baqiq, in the mainly Shi'ite Eastern Province.

The prospect of an attack on Saudi crude facilities has deeply worried nations reliant on Saudi oil, which makes up one-sixth of the world's exports, or 7.5 million barrels a day.

Former Middle East CIA field officer Robert Baer has described Abqaiq as "the most vulnerable point and most spectacular target in the Saudi oil system."

Aramco says it has the tightest security at all its oil plants, including helicopters, cameras, motion detectors and thousands of armed guards.

"The security measures at the oil facilities are better than at the royal palaces," said al Qaeda expert Fares bin Houzam.

Abqaiq handles crude pumped from the giant Ghawar field and ships it off to terminals at Ras Tanura -- the world's biggest offshore oil loading facility -- and Juaymah. It also pumps oil westwards across the kingdom to Red Sea export terminals.

"Abqaiq is the world's most important oil facility," said Gary Ross, CEO at PIRA Energy consultancy in New York. "This just emphasises fears over global oil supply security when we're already facing major ongoing risks in Nigeria, Iran and Iraq."

Officials say about 144 foreigners and Saudis, including security forces, and 120 militants have died in militant attacks and clashes with police since May 2003, when al Qaeda suicide bombers hit three Western housing compounds in Riyadh.

(Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous, Inal Ersan, Miral Fahmy and Amil Khan in Dubai; Richard Mably and Peg Mackey in London; Caroline Drees in Washington; Andrew Hammond)

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Iraq: Sect against sect


The bombing of the sacred Shia al-Askariya mosque in Samarra has sparked off the most serious bout of sectarian violence in Iraq since the US-led invasion, putting the whole process of political reconstruction at risk. There is little room for doubt that the perpetrators were from an extreme wing of the insurgency, and that one of their objectives was to undermine the recent efforts to draw Sunni Arabs into the Shia-dominated political process. Work is still likely to go ahead on the formation of a new government by the constitutional deadline of April 10th, but the reaction to the attack on the mosque suggests that the effectiveness of this administration will be severely compromised, with more power flowing to party militias.

Ultimate target

The al-Qaida-inspired wing of the insurgency has made no secret of its disdain for the Shia sect, and it has directed dozens of operations against Shia targets, including the assassination of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim in August 2003 and the killing of hundreds of pilgrims in the holy city of Karbala during the Shia Ashura festival in March 2004. However, the attack on the Samarra mosque, which is believed to house the remains of the 10th and 11th Shia imams, was a direct attack on one of the central symbols of the Shia sect, and has consequently produced a much stronger sectarian reaction.

Shia leaders have put the blame squarely on the "takfiris" (believers in excommunication of unfit Muslims, including, in some interpretations, the Shia), and have issued calls for restraint. The spate of sectarian killings in the aftermath of the attack--mainly directed at Sunnis--has exposed the limitations of these calls, but the real test will come with the congregation of large numbers of Muslims of both sects at their mosques for Friday prayers.

Some of the blame has also been directed at the US, whose ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been putting pressure of the Iraqi authorities to limit the role of party militias. This brought a sharp rejoinder from Abdelaziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose affiliated Badr Brigade is one of the largest and best equipped of these militias. After the attacks, several Shia leaders, including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme religious authority for the sect in Iraq, have indicated that if the regular security forces cannot safeguard the security of mosques, then "the believers"--in other words the militias--should take on this role. This raises the prospect of large swathes of Iraq falling under the sway of rival Shia militias--the Badr Brigade and Mr Sadr's Mahdi Army, as well as Ayatollah Sistani's own security detail. This would open up the prospect of turf wars breaking out between these rival forces, possibly involving rival factions in Iran.

The attack has also put paid, for now, to the talks between the main Shia political front, the United Iraqi Alliance, and the Sunni parties, which hold 55 of the 275 seats in parliament, about forming a broad coalition government. The Sunni groups have withdrawn from these talks in protest at the lack of action from the authorities to stop revenge killings of Sunnis. If the violence can be contained over the next few weeks, these talks could resume, but forging an agreement will be much harder than before.

Zarqawi's gain?

If the attack and the reactions to it undermine the political process to the extent that the prime minister designate, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is forced to abandon his efforts to form a government, the al-Qaida in Iraq group, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, could gain renewed strength. Mr Zarqawi's group has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months, as many of the Sunni tribal leaders have chosen to work with the central government. The rise in sectarian tension following the Samarra attack could persuade more Iraqi Sunnis to rally to his cause in a bid to exact revenge on the rampaging Shia. Those Iraqi leaders who remain committed to maintaining the country's integrity face a stern challenge to ensure that such an outcome does not happen.

SOURCE: ViewsWire Middle East

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Montenegro: independent or not?


The authorities in Montenegro, one of the two republics in the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, are preparing for a referendum on independence that is expected to take place in May. The terms of the referendum are proving contentious. The EU has recently recommended that the pro-independence forces will need to secure at least 55% of the vote in the referendum for the result to be domestically acceptable and internationally recognised. The Montenegrin government would like a lower threshold but may in the end have to go along with the EU's recommendation. The most likely scenario at present is that the pro-independence camp secures a majority but falls short of 55%. Such an outcome would prolong the uncertainty regarding Montenegro's future status and most probably leave the union with Serbia in a dysfunctional state.

Decision time

The EU-brokered Belgrade Agreement of 2002, which paved the way for the creation of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, allowed for either of the two constituent republics to hold a referendum on independence no less than three years after the common state's Constitutional Charter took effect. The charter came into force in February 2003, meaning that the moratorium on holding an independence referendum expired in February 2006.

Montenegro’s pro-independence government, led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, had for some time made it clear that it would hold a referendum at the earliest possible moment after the moratorium expired. However, as February 2006 approached, it became clear that Mr Djukanovic’s government and the largely unionist opposition would struggle to agree on the conditions for the referendum—in particular, the required minimum turnout, the majority in favour, and the percentage of registered voters required to make a “yes” vote valid. In December 2005 the EU’s High Representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, appointed Miroslav Lajcak, a Slovak diplomat, as special envoy charged with helping the two sides reach agreement.

In mid-February, after consultations with the government and the opposition, Mr Lajcak recommended that at least 55% of those voting in the referendum favour independence in order for the result to be valid. Mr Lajcak also proposed that the referendum be held on May 14th, to coincide with scheduled local elections, and consist of a single question asking voters whether they want Montenegro to be an independent and fully internationally recognised state.

Can't please everybody

There are elements of compromise in the EU proposal. Mr Lajcak has stopped well short of meeting the opposition's demand that 50% of all registered voters in Montenegro opt for independence in the referendum. (Mr Djukanovic had previously suggested that the bar should be set at 40% of the electorate.) Indeed, by stipulating a majority of those voting on the day, rather than a percentage of all registered voters, Mr Lajcak has encouraged Montenegrins to vote in the referendum by removing the possibility that a boycott by the pro-union opposition could render it invalid. Furthermore, the EU proposal endorses the recommendation of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, which ruled in late 2005 that Montenegrin citizens living in Serbia, most of whom would probably oppose independence, will not be allowed to vote in the referendum.

Nevertheless, the EU proposal enraged Mr Djukanovic’s government, which felt that Mr Lajcak was setting an unfairly high threshold. Pro-independence Montenegrins allege that the EU’s proposal is a backhanded attempt to scupper Mr Djukanovic’s chances of victory in the referendum, which, they argue, would simply formalise the existing situation, remove uncertainty and thus bring stability.

Serbia and Montenegro have operated as de facto independent states for some time—the state union has only five ministries, most of which are virtually idle, and the two republics service their public debt separately. The IMF conducts essentially separate negotiations with the two, and the EU has openly split Serbia and Montenegro’s negotiations over a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), the first step toward candidate status, into two discrete tracks. The common state has clearly not been functioning, and diverts the energies of both Serbia and Montenegro from other tasks.

But the Montenegrins’ referendum drive comes at an awkward time, with Serbia having only just begun negotiations with the ethnic Albanian authorities in Kosovo on the latter’s future status. Given the extreme sensitivity of the Kosovo talks, it has been alleged that some elements within the EU would prefer to allow Serbia to “keep” Montenegro to soften the blow of its likely loss of Kosovo. There are also widespread concerns about the viability of Montenegro as an independent state and about corruption within its administration—not least Mr Djukanovic’s alleged involvement in smuggling of contraband goods during the period of western sanctions against former Yugoslavia. Together, these concerns have led some EU member states to calculate that an independent Montenegro could cause instability in the region.

Devil in the details

It is still not clear whether the Montenegrin government will accept Mr Lajcak's recommendation of a 55% majority. Mr Djukanovic and other senior pro-independence politicians are urging the EU's Council of Ministers to lower the threshold at a meeting scheduled for February 27th, and are proposing that the referendum be valid if 41% of all registered voters opt for independence. However, Mr Lajcak has refused to consider altering the proposed terms, and all the signs are that the member states will endorse the 55% threshold (although it remains to be seen how strongly they will do so).

The Montenegrin parliament is scheduled to discuss the terms of the referendum at a special session on February 25th, and the pro-independence forces may yet disregard Mr Lajcak and set the conditions they want. However, snubbing the EU in this way would be a high-risk strategy for Mr Djukanovic and would also raise tensions with the unionist forces in the republic, increasing the likelihood that they will boycott the referendum. This in turn would cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and raise potential risks to the republic's internal stability were the government to declare independence in the aftermath of a disputed referendum. The Montenegrin authorities are therefore under considerable pressure to accept the 55% threshold. The pro-union forces probably have an even stronger incentive to accept these terms, and abandon their insistence that the requirement should be 50% of all registered voters, since the pro-independence camp may struggle to reach the 55% mark.

Possible outcomes

Assuming that the referendum is conducted in accordance with the EU's recommendations, there are three different scenarios that could unfold. A pro-independence vote of more than 55% would indisputably set in motion the demise of the state union, although this would take some time to complete. A clear failure—high turnout and a pro-independence vote below or around 50%—would mean the end for Mr Djukanovic and may well bring forward the parliamentary election scheduled for later in 2006. Such an outcome would also lend some legitimacy to the state union, but Serbia and Montenegro would then face the very difficult task of trying to shape a new, functional common state out of the dysfunctional status quo. For example, it is unclear whether Montenegro would hold direct elections to the state union parliament simultaneously with its general election, as it is obliged to do under the terms of a separate EU-brokered agreement reached in 2005.

At present, however, the most likely scenario is that the pro-independence forces secure a majority in the referendum but fall a little short of 55%. Recent opinion polls conducted by independent monitors suggest that this will be the outcome if turnout exceeds 75%—which it has done in the last three national elections in Montenegro and is likely to again on a question of such importance.

Montenegro has about 467,000 registered voters. If 82% of these voters turn out—the same proportion as in the April 2001 parliamentary election—then the pro-independence forces will need about 210,000 votes to gain the necessary 55% majority. This is considerably above the 194,000 votes that pro-independence parties received in the 2001 election. Should 85% of voters turn out, the pro-independence camp would face the even more daunting target of about 218,000 votes. Even with a lower turnout of 75%, Mr Djukanovic and his allies would need 192,000 votes to pass the EU threshold. This may prove difficult, since some opposition forces that are not especially opposed to independence, such as the Group for Change, will campaign against Mr Djukanovic.

A pro-independence vote just below 55% would enable Mr Djukanovic to claim a victory of sorts. At the very least, the Montenegrin government would say that it had no mandate to invest extra energy in the state union (for example, by organising direct elections to the joint parliament), and would strongly resist EU pressure for such a course of action. This would in turn leave the union in a dysfunctional, or indeed non-functional, state. The outcome of the upcoming general election in Montenegro would then help to determine how soon a fresh bid for independence might take place.

With less than three months to go before Montenegro's independence referendum, the outcome is uncertain and the stakes are high. Opinion polls indicate that a sizable number of voters are still undecided, and in such a small republic the result may yet be determined by a few hundred votes.

SOURCE: ViewsWire Eastern Europe

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