News from Beirut September 1  2003   ...Search

Funeral march for slain Iraqi Shiite cleric enters second day

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KUFAH, Iraq, Sept 1 (AFP) - The funeral procession for slain Shiite cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim inched its way Monday towards Kufah and its neighbouring city Najaf, both of which have are under unprecedented security. Thousands continued marching to pay their last respects to Hakim in a three-day funeral march that started Sunday in Baghdad and has so far moved through Karbala and Hilla further south.

Along the way to Kufah, the procession passed through various tribal areas where all the tribes were carrying placards bearing pictures of Hakim. Hundreds of schoolchildren who stood in the blistering sun waiting for the funeral march to pass by also held up the assassinated leader's photo.

Earlier, security forces in Kufah arrested four men after finding two cars laden with bombs amid warnings from clerics that Saddam Hussein loyalists or al-Qaeda members would strike over the next two days, securitymen who requested anonymity told AFP.

Two of the men stopped in a car on Monday were from the southern Iraqi city of Basra while the two caught in another car a day earlier were from Yemen, the securitymen said, outside the Masjed al-Kufah mosque in the city, some 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of Baghdad. Inside the Kufah mosque, clerics were calling on loudspeakers for people to "open their eyes" because "Saddam Hussein's followers and al-Qaeda will try today or tomorrow to make large explosions."

Police were conducting vehicle searches at most street corners. Once here, Hakim's remains are expected to be kept until Tuesday at the Masjed al-Kufah mosque, considered the oldest outside Saudi Arabia. He is set to be buried in nearby Najaf, 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of  the capital.

Earlier in Hilla, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, several thousand people marched, waving black, red and green flags as hundreds of others perched on top of a multi-storey building to pay their last respects. "We as Iraqis, and especially as Shiites, have suffered and been hurt a lot," said mourner Amer Hassan al-Hir, 43.

"For Hakim, as a religious leader, we actually thought his life would finally end like this," he said. "This is the destiny of all good leaders and especially religious leaders in Iraq. We will remain faithful to him and we condemn what has happened because this means they have hurt Imam Ali," he said, in a reference to the first imam of the Shitte faith, martyred in the seventh century AD. In Karbala, 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Baghdad, the casket was marched between the Al-Abbas and Al-Hussein shrines as clerics prayed and followers shouted anti-Saddam slogans, while others railed against the American-led occupation.

Mourners prayed and chanted in the continued collective outpouring of grief  and anger for the murdered leader, who was blown to bits Friday in a car bomb massacre in Najaf that killed at least 82 others and wounded 125. At least 20,000 Iranian pilgrims who crossed illegally into Iraq over the past week found themselves caught up the procession, people among their number told AFP.

Ahmed Kanami said he had crossed into Iraq a week ago with about 2,500 people intending to visit holy Shiite sites in Iraq. "I am very sorry for this and all Iranians are too," he said of Hakim's death. Kanami and other pilgrims said some 20,000 Iranians, maybe many more, had crossed into Iraq and that US troops had provided some of them with food, water and doctors.

Saddam tape calls for attacks on occupiers but not Iraqi collaborators

DUBAI, Sept 1 (AFP) - An audiotape attributed by an Arab TV station to Saddam Hussein on Monday called on Iraqis to step up "painful blows" to occupiers of all nationalities but stopped short of urging the killing of  Iraqis who cooperate with them. "O heroes, intensify your painful, courageous blows to foreign aggressors wherever they come from and whatever their nationalities," said the voice on the audiotape aired by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC). "Besiege the criminals who get entangled in cooperating with the criminal, infidel foreigner. Take the measures that do not anger God and are deemed necessary to protect and defend yourselves towards them.

"Let your gauge in this be your tolerant religion (Islam)," said the voice on the tape, which also carried a denial that Saddam supporters were involved in the assassination of top Shiite cleric and political leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim. Excerpts of the audiotape were earlier aired by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel.

FBI to assist in probe into Najaf bomb massacre

BAGHDAD, Aug 31 (AFP) - The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) will help Iraqi police in their bid to find out who planted the bomb in the Iraqi city of Najaf that killed at least 83 people, the top FBI agent in Iraq said Sunday.

Tom Fuentes told AFP that his officers would examine samples of the explosives used in Friday's car bombing and would check the suspects being held to see if they are known terrorists. "Whoever they (the Iraqi police) have we'll be looking to see if they're members of any known terrorist group and analyse them through terrorist databases to see if they're identified terrorists," he said. He added that the FBI had been requested to help in the probe by the Coalition Provisional Authority, which had received the request from the governor of Najaf.

Fuentes is already helping the Iraqi police in the probes into the August 19 suicide truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and the Jordan embassy blast on August 7 that kicked off the recent wave of car explosions in Iraq.

Riyadh demands proof that Saudis were involved in Najaf blast

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia, Aug 31 (AFP) - Saudi Arabia said on Sunday there was no proof yet that any of its citizens were involved in the devastating bombing in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf, challenging those who made such claims to come up with the evidence. "Some sources in Iraq have said that Saudi citizens were involved in the terrorist incident which claimed the life of (prominent Shiite cleric and politician) Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim," a foreign ministry spokesman said, quoted by the official SPA news agency. "These sources did not present any proof for their claims. "The government of Saudi Arabia hopes these sources will reveal the information they have and pass it on to the government of the kingdom instead of making unsubstantiated allegations," he added.

Man arrested on Iraq's Saudi border over Najaf blast

NAJAF, Iraq, Aug 31 (AFP) - Iraqi police on Sunday arrested a man on the Saudi border in connection with the Najaf bomb massacre, and said they had now made a total of 19 arrests after the blast, police told AFP. They found poison in the man's pockets, an officer who requested anonymity said, and brought him to the holy city of Najaf, where on Friday a car bomb killed prominent Shiite cleric and politician Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim and at least 82 others.

Four suspects were already in detention in connection with the Najaf bombing, two of them Iraqis from Saddam Hussein's fallen regime and two Saudis with alleged links to the al-Qaeda terror group.

Najaf blast used two cars, 700 kilograms of explosives: governor

NAJAF, Iraq, Aug 30 (AFP) - Two cars packed with some 700 kilograms (1,550 pounds) of dynamite, hand grenades and mortars were used in Friday's bombing in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the area's Governor Haidar Mehdi Matar told AFP Saturday.

"The explosion occurred at 2:10 pm (1010 GMT) when a mini bus and another car were detonated by remote control. The vehicles were packed with a total of 700 kilograms of dynamite, mortars and hand grenades," Matar said. "They communicated by mobile phones," he said, adding that no one was in either vehicle.

Killing of leading Iraqi Shiite sparks worldwide outrage

PARIS, Aug 29 (AFP) - Governments around the world Friday condemned the devastating car bombing in the Iraqi city of Najaf that killed Iraq's leading Shiite politician and 81 other people, while Iran charged the US-led occupation forces were ultimately responsible.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called on all groups in Iraq to refrain from further acts of violence following the attack, which came a little over a week after another deadly bombing wrecked the UN headquarters in Baghdad. "In the difficult days ahead, the secretary general urges all political and religious groups in Iraq to exercise maximum restraint and to refrain from further acts of violence and revenge."

Annan reaffirmed "his belief that only a credible, inclusive and transparent political process can lead to peace and stability in Iraq." The car bomb killed at least 82 people, including Iraq's leading Shiite politician, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, and wounded more than 200 outside one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in the central Iraqi city.

Hakim, the head of the Iran-backed Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), was killed moments after he delivered his weekly sermon at the Tomb of Ali in the holy city, 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of Baghdad, party officials said in both Baghdad and Tehran.

In a statement released late Friday, US President George W. Bush denounced the car bombing that killed Iraq's leading Shiite politician and said US forces would help hunt those responsible. "I strongly condemn the bombing today outside the Imam Ali mosque," he said hours after the attack, which killed at least 82 people, including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, and left some 200 injured. "This vicious act of terrorism was aimed at (Hakim), at one of Shi'a Islam's holiest sites, and at the hopes of the people of Iraq for freedom, peace, and reconciliation," Bush said in the statement.

He said he had directed US officials in Iraq "to work closely" with Iraqi security officials and Iraq's governing council "to determine who committed this terrible attack and bring them to justice." The US president also offered his "deepest condolences" to the families of the victims, as well as his hopes for a quick recovery to those hurt, and his sympathies to all Iraqis and the world's Shiite Muslims.

In Moscow, Russia's foreign ministry described the bombing as a "major terrorist act aimed at breaking the process of normalising the situation in Iraq, which is in a position of chronic instability." Without referring specifically to the Najaf bombing, Russian President Vladimir Putin said greater United Nations involvement was needed in Iraq to end the escalating violence there.

"The most urgent thing is to end this escalation and the best way is to involve the United Nations more," he told a news conference in the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, where he was meeting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer condemned what he called the "odious crime", while French foreign ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said the government condemned the bombing "in the strongest possible terms."

Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio said the attack "shows once again the necessity for the international community to fight terrorism." Turkey, which is mulling a US request to send troops to Iraq to serve in an international security force, also denounced what it called "this act of terrorism," and pledged to continue to "support the Iraqi nation during this historic transition phase".

But in Iran, which declared three days of mourning for the slain cleric, a government statement placed ultimate responsibility for the attack on the "occupation forces". "The Islamic Republic condemns this blind action and places direct responsibility on the occupation forces that, under international law, are responsible for the maintenance of security in Iraq," said a government statement carried by the student news agency ISNA.

Hakim, head of the Iran-backed Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), spent more than 20 years in exile in Iran before making a triumphant return to his homeland in May. Firebrand Iraqi Shiite imam Moqtada Sadr called for three days of work strikes to protest the killing and also lashed out at the Americans, labelling them the greatest enemy in post-war Iraq.

"The Americans are not defending the people and they are not letting us bring security. That's why they are our first enemy," said Sadr, whose followers have been setting up a private militia over the past month and a half. The leader of Lebanon's Shiite party Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, said the killing will strengthen the Iraqis' determination to "save the occupied country".

"The blood shed by our dear martyr and by all the martyrs who died near the mausoleum of Imam Ali will trigger revolt and anger, and will awaken consciences to stand up against the imminent dangers," he said. Hezbollah's Al-Manar television interrupted its programs to broadcast verses from the Koran in a sign of mourning for the death of Hakim.   Members of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council blamed the bombing on an alliance of foreign terrorists and veterans of Saddam Hussein's regime. "We believe this attack was carried out by elements of the dead regime and the terrorists who sneaked inside the country. The foreign terrorists are with the ex-regime members who plotted this attack and the blast on the United Nations building," said Yonnadam Yussef Kanna, an Assyrian Christian member of the council.

He was alluding to the suicide truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on August 19 that killed 22 people and wounded around 100. Jordanian Information Minister Nabil Sharif said the bombing aims to curtail efforts to stabilise Iraq.

He recalled the recent attacks on the Jordanian embassy and the UN headquarters in Baghdad and said "these criminal acts will not achieve their aim; the international community will not turn its back on Iraq."

Moqtada Sadr calls for three days of strikes after Najaf bombing

BAGHDAD, Aug 29 (AFP) - Firebrand Iraqi Shiite imam Moqtada Sadr called for three days of strikes after Friday's car bomb blast in Najaf killed prominent cleric Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim and at least 81 others. "We are calling for the people ... to demonstrate to condemn this crime. We are calling for a three-day strike," Sadr told Arab satellite news channel Al-Jazeera in an interview from Najaf.

"No shop will be open for three days, no one will buy or sell, all life will stop," Sheikh Akil al-Timimi told AFP in Sadr's office in Baghdad. Sadr called on Iraqis to remain calm and organise peaceful protests to show their grief. He also called in a statement for a week of mourning for Hakim. "The criminal Baathists are the only beneficiaries from this attack," Sadr told Al-Jazeera.

"This type of action is totally rejected. We must put an an end to it because maybe in the future they will attack the honourable Hawza, God forbid," he said, referring to the collective of leading Shiite clerics based in the holy city of Najaf.

Sadr also lashed out at the Americans, labelling them the greatest enemy in post-war Iraq. "The Americans are not defending the people and they are not letting us bring security. That's why they are our first enemy," said Sadr, whose followers have been setting up a private militia over the past month and a half.

Sadr has emerged to prominence in the power vacuum of post-Saddam Iraq, tapping the followers of his father, a revered grand ayatollah slain by Iraqi security agents in 1999. He has consistently demanded the Americans' immediate exit from the country, in sharp contrast to Hakim, who quietly cooperated with the US presence here.

Jailed Lebanese human rights lawyer freed on bail

BEIRUT, Aug 29 (AFP) - Human rights lawyer Mohammad Mughrabi was freed on bail here Friday after the Beirut Bar Association accepted a demand for his release following charges against him for illegal practice. "I don't want to speak for the time being. I need some time to gather my thoughts," Mughrabi told AFP after his release from Rumieh prison, northeast of Beirut.

Mughrabi paid a surety of 400,000 Lebanese pounds (266 US dollars). An examining magistrate approved on Thursday Mughrabi's release on bail, provided there were no objections by Friday from the Beirut Bar Association which had accused him of illegal practice.

Mughrabi, whose arrest on August 8 sparked a chorus of condemnation from international human rights watchdogs, had previously been denied bail. He stands accused of "impersonating a lawyer", a charge that carries a maximum three-year jail term, after he continued to practise despite being disbarred in his absence for allegedly bringing the judiciary into disrepute.

Mughrabi, a Sunni Muslim, rejects the bar association's charge saying the case had been filed against him because he had "dared" to apply for the chairmanship of the bar association -- a post traditionally reserved for a Maronite Christian.

He is known to have been taking on the defence of property owners in Beirut's once war-devastated commercial heart against Solidere, the firm entrusted with rebuilding the area under a masterplan drawn up by billionaire Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Mughrabi has also defended Christian militants opposed to Syria's military presence and political influence in its smaller neighbour.

Beirut bans rough diamond trade ahead of law

BEIRUT, Aug 29 (AFP) - Lebanon has issued a three-month ban on the trade of  rough diamonds, awaiting a new law to join the Kimberly Process international initiative to stem the trade of "blood diamonds," officials said Friday.

Economy Minister Marwan Hamadeh has ordered a ban on the export and import of rough diamonds without obtaining a certificate from the ministry, which will only issue such permits in line with the Kimberly Process. The Kimberley Process aims to curb trade in so-called "blood diamonds", defined as rough diamonds obtained by using coercion or force, exploited by many rebel movements to fund their activities, mainly in mineral-rich Africa.

The new system is intended to determine a diamond's origin when it passes through customs. "Since Lebanon has technically not joined the Kimberly Process yet, the export and import of rough diamonds is effectively banned," explained Fadi Makki, director general of the economy ministry.

"But this ban is a temporary measure as we wait for parliament, which is in its annual recess month in August, to ratify a project law to join the Kimberly Process," he told AFP. Makki said the special parliamentary commission for economic affairs approved the government project law in July and the house was expected to ratify the law when it returns in September.

Any rough diamond entering or leaving a country taking part in the scheme would have to be transported in a sealed container and accompanied by a certificate of origin. Lebanon was among 22 countries that missed a July 31 deadline to finalise legislation required to implement the Kimberley Process. It was given an extension until August 31. "We did not want to miss the deadline and risk being out of the process, and since parliament does not meet before the end of the deadline, we resorted to the ban," said Makki.

Makki explained that "Lebanon is not a big exporter or importer of rough diamonds, but we want to cooperate in this world initiative like we do in efforts against money-laundering." "We also want to provide help for the Lebanese diaspora which is very powerful in the rough diamonds trade in Africa and Belgium," said Makki.

Lebanon judge OKs rights lawyer's release on bail if bar approves

BEIRUT, Aug 28 (AFP) - An examining magistrate Thursday approved the release on bail of human rights lawyer Mohammad Mughrabi, provided there were no objections from the Beirut Bar Association which had accused him of illegal practice, judicial sources said.

Judge Malek Soaybe ordered that Mughrabi pay a surety of 400,000 Lebanese pounds (266 dollars) and gave the bar association 24 hours to approve the decision, given that the body was the party behind the charges against the veteran lawyer.

Mughrabi, whose arrest on August 8 sparked a chorus of condemnation from international human rights watchdogs, had previously been denied bail. He stands accused of "impersonating a lawyer", a charge that carries a maximum three-year jail term, after he continued to practise despite being disbarred in his absence for allegedly bringing the judiciary into disrepute.

Mughrabi rejects the bar association's charge that he was illegally practising law while disbarred. "I am entitled to continue to practise until a court of law, such as the Court of Appeal... decides otherwise," he wrote in a letter from prison.

Mughrabi, a Sunni Muslim, said the case had been filed against him because he had "dared" to apply for the chairmanship of the bar association -- a post traditionally reserved for a Maronite Christian. He is known to have been taking on the defence of property owners in Beirut's once war-devastated commerical heart against Solidere, the firm entrusted with rebuilding the area under a masterplan drawn up by billionaire Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Mughrabi has also defended Christian militants opposed to Syria's military presence and political influence in its smaller neighbour.

Political disputes block Lebanon privatisation plans

by Nagib Khazzaka

BEIRUT, Aug 28 (AFP) - A privatisation programme eagerly planned by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to help salvage the ailing Lebanese economy may never see the light of day due to disputes among the country's leadership. The premier, a billionaire businessman, is adamant the programme will go ahead as promised by his government at a donors' conference in Paris last November in return for some 4.4 billion dollars in aid to help service Lebanon's crippling public debt of some 32.2 billion dollars.

"Lebanon should fulfill its commitments," Hariri said after talks with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris Tuesday. He warned the international community would be unlikely to repeat its generosity if Lebanon failed to implement an International Monetary Fund-backed economic reform programme which foresees privatization receipts of some five billion dollars.

Without the planned proceeds from privatisation, it will be virtually impossible for Lebanon to meet its debt reduction target of a budget deficit of 25 percent this year, down from 40 percent in 2002. Hariri aide Ghazi Yussef, who heads the state Higher Council for Privatisation, said the delay in sell-offs stemmed from "the absence of political consensus" just a year from the next presidential elections.

Under the threat of a financial crisis, "all the country's political groups had backed the programme submitted to the Paris II (donors') meeting, including privatisation," Yussef told AFP. "Unfortunately, the three projects related to mobile phones, electricity and telecommunications voted a year ago by parliament remain blocked after intense opposition resurfaced to the very principle of privatisation."

The paralysis of the executive is linked to tensions between Hariri, a liberal heading a government reshuffled in the spring under the influence of powerful neighbour Syria, and pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Lahoud and close aide Telecommunication Minister Jean-Louis Cordahi do not hide their preference for keeping the country's two mobile phone firms Cellis and LibanCell in government hands.

Despite going ahead with preselections for the sale of 20-year licences for each of the two networks and a management contract if the offered price does not suit the government, privatisation is meeting many obstacles. Cordahi has even announced plans for the nationalisation of the two networks with a law voted by parliament, even if the companies could be offered to the private sector later.

Lahoud aides estimate that earnings from the two companies could earn the state some 800 million dollars a year, equivalent to a quarter of current government revenues. One of them, state minister for administrative reform Karim Pakraduni, said Tuesday that he was "against privatisation," preferring "an improvement of public services."

Druze leader Walid Jumblatt also recently said he "opposed privatisation in principle," insisting that "public services, purged from corruption, should stay in the hands of the state." Analysts say the underlying problem is Lebanon's complex ethnic and religious mosaic, which remains a dominant force more than a decade after the end of the civil war. "Privatisation will never happen in Lebanon where political-confessional formations have turned public institutions into inexhaustible reservoirs for their clients," one analyst told AFP asking not to be identified.

US ambassador in Beirut calls on Lebanon to work with Iraqi council

BEIRUT, Aug 27 (AFP) - The United States called on Lebanon to work with the interim Iraqi Governing Council and to send troops to bolster US efforts to restore order in Iraq, its ambassador to Beirut said here Wednesday. "We have asked all countries, among them Lebanon, to work with the Iraqi Governing Council to receive representatives of this Council and to interact with the Iraqi foreign ministry," US ambassador to Lebanon, Vincent Battle told reporters.

He said that Washington had asked Lebanon to send troops to participate in the international stabilisation force in Iraq. If military commitments were impossible, he called on Beirut to issue a message of support for global efforts to restore order in the war-torn country. Battle made the remarks after a meeting with the foreign ministry's director of political affairs, Naji Abi Assi. Lebanon, taking the lead from its dominant neighbour Syria, has not formally recognised the US-backed Governing Council, and opposed the US-led war in Iraq.

Baghdad shoemaker kills 11 family members, turns gun on himself

by Rory Mulholland

BAGHDAD, Aug 27 (AFP) - A middle-class district of Baghdad was in shock Wednesday after a shoemaker allegedly killed his wife, his four young children and six of his relatives before turning an assault rifle on himself. "They were all shot in the head," said Salah Hassan, who lives two houses away from the scene of the massacre in the al-Bunugh area, and who said he was first on the scene.

"You see that chair?" he said, pointing through the bars of the house's kitchen window at a plastic seat with a small blood stain. "The three-year-old girl's body was lying on it." Police were tight-lipped about the incident that happened at around 11:00 am (0700 GMT) Tuesday in a city awash with guns and prone to rampant crime and daily attacks on the US troops that ousted Saddam Hussein.

An officer at Baghdad's al-Shaab police station, where the case is being investigated, confirmed that 12 people had been killed in the house but would give no further details. The uncle of the man who allegedly carried out the killings was at the police station and confirmed that all the people in the house were immediate family members or relatives, of whom two were also uncles. "I can't understand why he killed them," he said, refusing to give his name but confirming that he was the uncle of the man found with the rifle and that the man's name was Abdul Emir Khalaf Sabhan.

The two-storey house was locked Wednesday, but through the windows could be seen walls spattered with blood and dark pools on the tiled floors. The bodies of three of the children were in the kitchen, the mother and her baby in the bathroom, the six male relatives in another downstairs room and the father in the living room lying next to an AK-47 assault rifle, said Hassan.

It appeared that the man had put the gun to his chin and shot himself  through the head, he told AFP. Hassan's mother, Um Falah, said two of the children killed in the massacre, whom she named as Zeinab and Ali, had come to her house that morning as they often did.

About 15 minutes after they left, her grandchildren who were playing in the street ran in to tell her that they had heard gunshots from the house. When she went to see what was going on she saw a man, clearly agitated, running out of the house shouting: "They're all finished!" "I went and knocked on their door and Abu Ali (Sabhan) answered," said Um Falah. "He had a cigarette in his mouth and he told me everything was fine, to go back home."

She returned home. Her grandchildren came back about 30 minutes later to say that they had heard more gunfire from the house. She explained that she had not heard anything herself because the house generator made a lot of noise.

When she returned to the house, she saw a man get out of a car and enter the building. "He came running out shouting, 'Help, Help, they're all killed!'" she said. Her son then went inside and saw the carnage. Um Falah and her son, as well as Sabar Jaaz, a neighbour who lives on the other side of the house, said the family were respected in the neighbourhood and had lived quiet lives in this middle-class area.

But Hassan said he had noticed a change in Sabhan about a week ago. "He became nervous. Normally he talks to me, tells me everything -- we ran into each other several times a day. It was like he had a problem but didn't want to talk about it," he said.

Relatives of the dead who gathered at the capital's mortuary Wednesday to collect the bodies for burial were mystified. "They were a peaceful family, they had no enemies," said Amir Nassir, a cousin of the dead father of the family. "Nothing was stolen. The neighbours went in and saw nothing gone."

Lebanon economy grows 2 percent in first quarter: Audi Bank

BEIRUT, Aug 27 (AFP) - The Lebanese economy grew by two percent in the first quarter of 2003, buoyed by healthy growth in exports and a rise in public spending, according to a report Wednesday by privately held Audi Bank.

Boosting economic growth was a 57 percent rise in exports and an 8 percent increase in public spending during the first quarter compared with the same period in 2002, said Audi in a quarterly report posted on its website "The impact of the war against Iraq on domestic economic conditions was relatively mild and short lived, while the general environment continued to benefit from the support of the international community to Lebanon and the government structural adjustment efforts," said Audi.

Lebanon's strong export performance was matched by a 4.2 percent drop in imports, resulting in a 4.8 percent drop in the trade deficit from a year earlier. The country's import-to-export coverage ratio during the first quarter stood at 21 percent, a post-war record high, according to Audi. Helping the country's finances was a capital inflow of 3.5 billion dollars, the bulk of which were funds pledged to Lebanon under the Paris II bilateral accords with major lenders aimed at helping the country restructure its heavy debt load.

Lebanon's public debt is estimated at 180 percent of its 18 billion dollar gross domestic product.  A decrease in the country's debt service rate and the government's fiscal adjustment policy helped public finances, according to Audi. The picture was "less shiny" on the level of private demand, said Audi, with private investment dropping 13 percent from a year earlier.

Audi said Lebanese bond and equity markets were helped by international ratings agency Standard and Poor's changing it's outlook on Lebanon from "stable" to "positive", The bank forecast that the positive trend in Lebanon's trade balance and balance of payments should continue throughout 2003 but said "what remains is the acceleration of long-awaited structural reforms aiming at ensuring a support to Lebanon's financial immunity against adverse trends."

German-made deal to help close thorny Hezbollah-Israel prisoners file

by Nayla Razzouk

BEIRUT, Aug 26 (AFP) - Israel's turning over the bodies of two Hezbollah guerrillas after obtaining news about an Israeli held by the Shiite movement appears to be a success on the way to a German-mediated end to the thorny question of prisoners.

In a surprise move Monday, Israel allowed the repatriation of the bodies, for whom the Shiite fundamentalist movement is planning funeral ceremonies in their native villages later Tuesday. Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah confirmed that the decision to hand over the bodies was made during German-mediated negotiations.

"The possible repatriation of some bodies of martyrs comes within the activation of ongoing negotiations through the German mediator," he said in a statement Monday, adding that he hoped they "will continue and achieve the requested results."

The deal was the first tangible progress of recently resumed German efforts to negotiate prisoner exchanges since previous successful mediations in 1996 and 1998. "It is clear that Hezbollah is now closer than ever toward completing the exchange operation," said the leading An-Nahar newspaper. Al-Mustaqbal, owned by Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, quoted "informed sources" as saying that the repatriation of the two bodies "can only be the first step of an already settled operation.

"Negotiations are nearly completed, or else (Hezbollah chief) Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, who is known for his caution in dealing with this subject, would not have expressed such optimism," it said. "The case is to witness a happy ending," added the paper, which is usually well informed about the prisoner's exchange negotiations. The breakthrough seemed also to have also raised hopes in Israel. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Monday that "there is a glimmer of hope which could maybe lead to some result."

The Israeli daily Haaretz said Tuesday the deal came after German mediator Ernst Uhrlau recently visited Israeli reservist colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was kidnapped in 2000, and said he was in "satisfactory" health. Contacted by AFP, Hezbollah officials would not comment, reiterating that Nasrallah was the only person to make statements about such delicate matters.

Hezbollah is also holding three Israeli soldiers captured in 2000. For its part, the Jewish state is holding 16 Lebanese, including two senior Islamic figures. Like most newspapers, An-Nahar's editorial considered the breakthrough a "success for Hezbollah" despite unconfirmed reports that the group may have compromised on demands for the exchanges.

The leftist As-Safir noted that "the visit of the German mediator ... would be the most important compromise by Hezbollah in this matter, in giving up the exchange of living detainees in return for information." An-Nahar said "the most important thing for Hezbollah is that it wants the deal to appear as if it was made under the pressure of its threats ... to capture more Israeli soldiers and that Israel is taking these threats seriously and that it had no other choice but to accept."

It was referring to a July 27 warning by Nasrallah of "a last chance for negotiations" after which Hezbollah would try to capture more Israeli soldiers to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israel. An-Nahar said Hezbollah, which had "succeeded in taking advantage to the utmost" of the prisoners' case, became aware "that this card has expired." "As For Israel, it wants to eliminate it permanently from the game because it has been a losing card" for the Jewish state, it said.

The paper also noted that "Hezbollah made this issue one of the confrontation fronts with Israel, and thus one of the effective means to pressure the Israeli leadership ... at a time the group finds other ways of skirmishes either blocked or politically costly." Hezbollah, backed by Lebanon's powerful neighbor, Syria, and Shiite heavyweight Iran, was instrumental in the guerrilla war that led to the May 2000 Israeli troop pullout from southern Lebanon after 22 years of occupation.

It continues to carry out operations with the hope of ending Israel's occupation of the disputed Shebaa Farms border territory, despite international pressures for an end to the group's armed resistance.

Hezbollah takes back fighters' bodies from Israel

by Jihad Siqlawi

NAQURA, Lebanon, Aug 25 (AFP) - The bodies of two fighters from Lebanon's Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah were repatriated by Israel Monday, marking the first tangible progress in German efforts to negotiate prisoner exchanges. One of the German mediators also reportedly met last week with an Israeli who was kidnapped by Hezbollah and said he was in "satisfactory" health. The bodies were transported across the border by two Lebanese Red Cross ambulances to the first Hezbollah post on the seafront road. They were preceded by a vehicle of the International Committee for the Red Cross.

As they were unloaded, Hezbollah followers wearing green uniforms placed the movement's yellow flags on the coffins, an AFP correspondent said. Sheikh Nabil Qaooq, the top Hezbollah official in southern Lebanon, then laid wreathes on top of them.

"Today, we regain some of the bodies of our dear martyrs and this is happening as part of the activation of the negotiations and we hope that it will continue and succeed," Qaooq told the crowd. "Hezbollah is determined to work on the return of the bodies of martyrs and the detainees," he added.

Women wearing black chadors and children cried over the coffins as dozens of men shouted: "O God, save us Nasrallah," referring to Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. The coffins were then transported on the shoulders of Hezbollah followers across the main street of the border port of Naqura, home to the headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping forces.

A Hezbollah statement identified the two slain fighters as "martyrs Ammar Hussein Hammud and Ghassan Zaayter." A Hezbollah official told AFP that Hammud was 20 years old when he was killed on December 30, 1999, in a suicide car bomb explosion against an Israeli patrol in the southern Lebanon zone occupied by the Jewish state until May 2000.

The attack had been the first by Hezbollah since 1996. Zaayter, born in 1972, was killed during a Hezbollah clash with Israeli troops in the Iqlim al-Tuffah, a mountainous region in southern Lebanon and a Hezbollah stronghold. In Jerusalem, public television also reported that one of the German mediators met last weekend with an Israeli being held by Hezbollah.

The unidentified mediator told Israeli Reserve General Ilan Biran, in charge of efforts to secure the release of the four Israelis reportedly being held, that Elhanan Tannenbaum was in "satisfactory" health, it said. Reservist colonel Tannenbaum, 57, was apparently kidnapped in Europe in October 2000 by Hezbollah, who accused him of being an agent of the Israeli secret service, Mossad. Israel insists he is a businessman.

Biran visited Germany two weeks ago for talks about the exchanges, the television also reported. Hezbollah chief Nasrallah confirmed said in a statement that Israel made the decision to hand over the bodies during German-mediated negotiations. "The possible repatriation of some bodies of martyrs comes within the activation of ongoing negotiations through the German mediator," said Nasrallah, hoping they "will continue and achieve the requested results."

He had said Saturday that progress was being made on the issue of prisoner exchanges with Israel through recently resumed mediation efforts -- the first since previous successful German mediations in 1996 and 1998. An Israeli security source said on condition of anonymity that "this measure is designed to establish a climate of confidence in order to make progress towards the eventual exchange of prisoners between Israel and Hezbollah."

The ICRC delegate in Lebanon, Antoine Bieler, told AFP the handover of the bodies "went on very well. We have returned the bodies to their families." Besides Tannenbaum, Hezbollah is reportedly holding three Israeli soldiers captured around the disputed Shebaa Farms area close to the Israeli, Lebanese and Syrian border. Israel suspects that the three may be dead. Israel is holding around 20 Lebanese, including two senior Islamic figures.

Syrian opposition figure returns from exile: rights group

BEIRUT, Aug 25 (AFP) - Leading Syrian opposition figure Haytham Mannaa returned home over the weekend after 25 years in exile, a human rights organisation said Monday. Mannaa arrived in Damascus on Saturday, Aktham Nuaisse, president of the Association of Human Rights in Syria, told AFP in Beirut. "If his return was not made under security conditions as he said, then it is a precedent," said Nuaisse, expressing hope that all other Syrians in exile would similarly return home.

"For years, the tradition was that exiles would return through the security gate after admitting their mistakes and pledging to support the regime ... which is a humiliation," he explains. Nuaisse called on Mannaa, a former communist party member, to "answer with transparency" questions raised over his return from exile in France. "There was no amnesty for him. His case may be personal. We ask him to clarify why he was chosen" among all the exiles to return, he said.

Mannaa, the head of the Paris-based Arab Committee of Human Rights, told the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar in remarks published Monday that his return was "unconditional" and that the "return from exile of political opponents is on the right track."

He said he had been received in Damascus on Saturday by "an officer from the presidential palace who relayed greetings from President Bashar al-Assad." "I was allowed to return in honor and I think that both the regime and the opposition would benefit from that," he said. During his exile in Paris, Mannaa became known for his virulent criticism of the Syrian regime regarding human rights.

US recruiting members of Saddam's intelligence services: report

WASHINGTON, Aug 24 (AFP) - US authorities in Iraq have quietly begun recruiting members of Saddam Hussein's dreaded intelligence services to help track down perpetrators of attacks on US forces and other targets in the country, the Washington Post reported Sunday. US officials would not say how many of Saddam's spies are being tapped but Iraqi officials said the numbers could be in the hundreds. "We're reaching out very widely," one US official told the Post, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The new tactic reflects growing awareness that US military forces alone cannot prevent increasingly sophisticated attacks such as the suicide bombing at UN headquarters that killed at least 23 people last week. "The only way you can combat terrorism is through intelligence," another US official was quoted as saying. "Without Iraqi input, that's not going to work."

The move comes as US military commanders in Iraq ease back on large-scale sweeps of neighborhoods aimed at flushing out members of the Iraqi resistance. Those sweeps have caused resentment and could increase support for the rebels. The majority of the spies are being recruited from the Mukhabarat, Saddam's foreign intelligence service and the most sophisticated of the four branches of security forces, the report said. Particularly sought after are agents once assigned to Syria or Iran, reflecting US conviction that fighters from those countries are now infiltrating Iraq.

Saddam's intelligence forces were feared in Iraq and elsewhere for their use of torture, intimidation, and rape. The top US administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer dissolved them a few months ago, but now "they are trying to rebuild it very quietly," according to Wafiq Samarrai, a former military intelligence chief.

"Pragmatically, those are people who are potentially very useful because they have access to information, so you have to compromise on that," a US official was quoted as saying. "What we need to do is make sure they are indeed aware of the error of their ways."

Iraq's US-named interim leadership steps up quest for recognition

by Maher Chmaytelli

CAIRO, Aug 24 (AFP) - Iraq's US-appointed interim leadership held its first talks with Egyptian and Arab League officials Sunday as it stepped up its quest for recognition by regional states critical of its representativeness. The Governing Council delegation, which arrived here Saturday, includes its rotating chairman Ibrahim Jafari, and three other members -- Adnan Pachachi, Ghazi al-Yawar and Barak Abu Sultan.

They first met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and were to see Arab League chief Amr Mussa later, Arab diplomats said. Jafari said in press release that the talks with Mussa would concentrate on Iraq's representation in the pan-Arab organisation, ahead of a foreign ministers' meeting scheduled for next month.

He insisted on the representativness of the council. "The council embodies the Iraqi government, we will name ministers next week," he said. But the Egyptian state MENA news agency renewed Cairo's refusal to recognise the legality of the 25-member council formed in July.

The news agency referred to the four as council members rather than a council delegation. It said they were "Iraqi figures" and indicated that Jafari and Abu Sultan were Shiite Muslims while Pachachi and Yawar were Sunni Muslims. Maher said on August 11 that the Governing Council was not a "legal authority" for Iraq.

The 22-member Cairo-based Arab League said Thursday it was ready to host a meeting of Iraqis designed to hammer out a new constitution, but without conferring any special status on the Governing Council. Egypt is the sixth leg of an Arab tour that has already taken Jafari and his colleagues to United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi

Arabia. The delegation is expected to visit Jordan and Yemen on Monday. Earlier this month, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Moasher said the council was a "step on the road" to the re-establishment of a sovereign government.

But Jordan's opposition Islamic Action Front (IAF) issued a "religious ruling" banning Muslims from membership in the US-named body. In Yemen, a staunch opponent of the US-led war on Iraq, government spokesman Abdullah al-Ridha reiterated reservations about the council's representativeness.

"Yemen was among the first countries to have underlined the need for the Iraqi people to elect their representatives through democratic polls," he said. At a meeting here on August 5, Arab foreign ministers withheld endorsement of the council and turned down US requests to send Arab troops to Iraq.

The UN Security Council has adopted a resolution that welcomed the establishment of the Governing Council but stopped short of formally endorsing the body, as initially sought by the United States. Government-owned Cairo dailies Sunday renewed their criticism of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"To call things by their true names, what is happening in Iraq is the assassination of a country's freedom and sovereignty to satisfy colonialist-Zionist ambitions," said Al-Akhbar. The daily added in its main editorial that the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad on Tuesday should be blamed on "the submission" of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the United States.

"The motive of the group who carried out the crime of blowing up the UN building ... was the submission of the international organisation to US hegemony," it wrote.


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