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Newsline - December 22, 2004


PUTIN SAYS BUYER OF YUKOS SUBSIDIARY 'EXPERIENCED IN ENERGY BUSINESS'...
Speaking at a joint press conference in northern Germany with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on 21 December that the sale of Yuganskneftegaz, the main production subsidiary of embattled oil major Yukos, "was held in strict compliance with Russian law" and is "first and foremost, an internal Russia problem," kremlin.ru and newsru.com reported. Putin added that Baikailfinansgrup shareholders "are exclusively individuals but these individuals have been in the energy business for many years. As far as I have been informed, they intend to build relations with Russia's other energy companies interested in" Yuganskneftegaz. Putin added that state companies have the "same right...as other market players" to acquire Baikailfinansgrup assets. VY

...AND CHINESE COMPANY MIGHT STILL BE INVOLVED...
At the same press conference on 21 December, President Putin announced that the state-owned Chinese National Petrochemical Corporation (CNPC) "truly had nothing to do with the auction, but agreement has been reached between...Gazprom and [CNPC] on cooperation in the energy field. I do not exclude Chinese participation in the development of this asset, but the degree of this participation is up to the partners," kremlin.ru reported. Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said on 21 December that his company and CNPC have agreed to expand cooperation not only in gas, but in the oil sector as well, newru.com reported. "This envisages, in particular, the participation of the Chinese party in oil development projects in Russia," RIA-Novosti quoted him as saying. VY

...AS BUSINESS DAILY SAYS YUGANSKNEFTEGAZ BOUGHT BY SURGUTNEFTEGAZ...
"Vedomosti" wrote on 21 December that Yuganskneftegaz was bought by Surgutneftegaz, as the people who represented Baikailfinansgrup at the auction are senior officials in Surgutneftegaz. One of the officials, Igor Minibaev, made the final decisive offer at the auction and immediately afterward left the country, the newspaper reported. VY

...BUT MARKET ANALYSTS SAY GAZPROM STILL 'IN'
Most business analysts agree that even if Surgutneftegaz was immediately behind the buying of Yuganskneftegaz, it its very unlikely that it will end up in control of it, RBK reported. Most probably, Surgutneftegaz is operating in alliance with Gazprom, which will end up in control of it, the business news agency reported. Meanwhile, Gazprom announced on 21 December that it has decided to sell its share in its Gazpromneft subsidiary, the other participant in the Yuganskneftegaz auction, TV-Tsentr reported. TV-Tsentr commented that this is another step to protect Gazprom from possible Yukos lawsuits abroad. VY

RUSSIAN PARLIAMENTARIANS SHRUG OFF U.S. REACTION TO AUCTION
Commenting on the U.S. State Department's negative reaction to the Yuganskneftegaz auction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2004), State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said on 21 December that "We should listen less to what the State Department said. It is our internal business," ORT reported. Duma Economic Policy Committee Chairman Valerii Draganov said the U.S. reaction was "too hasty," "Finanansovye izvestiya" reported on 21 December. Russian law protects the rights of the owners and does not reveal the identity of the company's owners in the course of auctions, Draganov noted. "Certainly the public should know who is running the company as far as natural resources are concerned. But it is an ethical, but not a legal issue," he added. VY

PUTIN PARAPHRASES STALIN TO DESCRIBE SITUATION IN UKRAINE...
At the same 21 December news conference in northern Germany, asked whether a victory by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko in the Ukrainian presidential election would mean a personal defeat for him, President Putin paraphrased Josef Stalin to answer: "Leaders come and go, but the people remain." Stalin once said, "Hitlers come and go, but Germany and the German people remain." "I know Mr. Yushchenko as I do the current prime minister, [Viktor] Yanukovych," Putin added. "He was also a member of President [Leonid] Kuchma's team, like Yanukovych, and so I don't see any problem." VY

...SAYS GERMAN PROTESTERS AGAINST CHECHEN WAR SHOULD 'GO HOME'...
Addressing the 21 December news conference in German, President Putin said that protesters with signs saying "Stop the War in Chechnya" should "go home in peace and have a happy Christmas" as "the war in Chechnya ended three years ago," RTR reported. Putin added that Russia still has a lot of problems in Chechnya and is ready to discuss them with its "European partners." Meanwhile, Chancellor Schroeder noted that he and Putin discussed more European Union involvement in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2004). VY

...AND RUSSIA WILL PAY DEBT TO PARIS CLUB EARLY
Following his talks in northern Germany with Chancellor Schroeder, President Putin announced on 21 December that next year Russia will pay $10 billion of its debt to the Paris Club ahead of schedule, RTR and RIA-Novosti reported. "The Russian economy is on the rise now. We are able to settle the problem of early payment of our debt liabilities," Putin said. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, who accompanied Putin to Germany, said that of the $10 billion Russia plans to pay, $6 billion will go to Germany, adding that Russia would save $700 million on interest payments by paying early. VY

AUTHORITIES MOVE AGAINST ULTRANATIONALIST PARTY...
Law-enforcement officers raided the national headquarters of Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevik Party on 21 December, Ekho Moskvy reported. The previous day, seven activists from the party were sentenced to five years' imprisonment for their role in taking over several offices in a Health and Social Development Ministry building in Moscow on 2 August, the radio station also reported. They threw papers and firecrackers out of the windows and chanted slogans (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 August 2004). Lawyers for the activists said that they will appeal the sentence to have it reduced. JAC

...AS COURT SENTENCE OF WEBSITE CREATOR RAISES LEGAL QUESTIONS
Meanwhile, on 21 December, a raion court in Krasnoyarsk found the leader of the National Bolshevik Party's Krasnoyarsk branch, Andrei Skovorodnikov, guilty of insulting the president and sentenced him to six months' corrective labor with 20 percent of his salary being paid to the state budget, ITAR-TASS reported. Skovorodnikov created a website that was launched on 22 February and published an article mentioning Putin. In an interview with gazeta.ru, attorney Ruben Kirakosyan complained about the legality of the case against Skovorodnikov, because a website cannot be equated with a media outlet and is partly a means of private self-expression, which no one can restrict. Gazeta.ru correspondents did a search for the word "Putin," which generated tens of thousands of hits linked to sites using "non-normative" language. The website wondered how it will be possible to punish all of the violators. JAC

ENVIRONMENTALIST SOUNDS ALARM
Summing up the results of 2004 for the Russian environment, Center for Environmental Policy President Andrei Yablokov told journalists on 21 December that several positive events occurred this year, the most significant of which was Russia's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, gazeta.ru reported. In addition, he noted that several Russian manufacturers were persuaded not to use genetically modified products. However, he noted that despite these advances, the ecological situation in Russia is continuing to worsen and could soon become catastrophic. He cited various projects that he considers questionable, such as the construction of a nuclear power plant at Severodvinsk, the launch of a third block at the Kalinin power plant, and an oil pipeline from Eastern Siberia to the Pacific Ocean. According to Yablokov, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov has tried to revive the infamous project to reverse the flow of Siberian rivers. He added that 15 percent of Russian territory is now classified as a zone that is "environmentally unfavorable." "We already have a demographic crisis...by our data, around 40,000 people die each year from breathing in dirty air with airborne particles. Because of pesticides that people used 20 years ago, the number of newborns with defects has grown." JAC

WEEKLY PROVIDES ANATOMY OF SMEAR CAMPAIGN
"Novaya gazeta," No. 93, reported that people claiming to speak on behalf of the Kremlin asked journalists in Altai Krai to "spread lies" against independent State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Putin administration. On 15 December, several newspapers in the krai published an open letter from journalists denouncing the pressure campaign. Ryzhkov claims that a senior Kremlin official, whose name he refuses to disclose, organized the effort. Valerii Savinkov, editor in chief of Bankfaks news agency, wrote an article in the weekly describing his interactions with a "political technologist" by the name of Dmitrii Sobolev. Sobolev said he was assigned to work in the krai for a year to discredit a certain politician, showing a photograph of Ryzhkov. Sobolev offered Savinkov the prospect of cooperation with the strana.ru website and the possibility of running for Ryzhkov's Duma seat. According to Savinkov, the campaign ran out of steam when no one in Barnaul would cooperate except for some obscure newspapers with small print runs. JAC

STALIN REMEMBERED
Asked about Josef Stalin on the latter's 125th birthday on 21 December, State Duma Speaker and Unified Russia party leader Gryzlov said he thinks the former Soviet leader was an "outstanding person," admitting that "the exaggerations that he allowed in internal policy, of course, do not show him in a good light," RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported. Gryzlov also noted that "nothing can remove his personal guilt for the repression against millions of people." Also on 21 December, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov laid a wreath on Stalin's grave. According to a survey conducted by the Yurii Levada Center, respondents' opinions about Stalin have not changed a great deal over the past five years. In a survey conducted between 10 and 14 December of 1,600 people, 31 percent considered Stalin to be a cruel and inhuman tyrant guilty of the deaths of millions of innocent people, compared with 32 percent on 1999. Twenty-one percent considered him a wise leader who led the Soviet Union to greatness and 16 percent believe that only such a harsh leader could have maintained order during such a challenging historical period. JAC

WEAPONS, COUNTERFEITING EQUIPMENT FOUND AT CZECH HUMANITARIAN MISSION IN GROZNY
Chechen Interior Ministry forces who raided a building in Grozny on 20 December that is partly used by the Czech charity People in Need found in the cellar two grenade launchers and other weapons and a clandestine printing press used to produce counterfeit Interior Ministry documentation, ITAR-TASS and CTK reported on 21 December. Both agencies quoted People in Need's North Caucasus mission head, Marek Vozka, as saying from Nazran that his staff were unaware not only of the existence of the printer, but that the building in question even has a cellar. The mission has some 120 staff members, most of them Chechens, who are engaged in distributing aid and building rehabilitation centers for children. LF

POLL REGISTERS ARMENIAN OPPOSITION TO IRAQ PEACEKEEPING MISSION
A poll of 2,002 Armenians conducted by the independent Armenian Center for National and International Studies found that 70.5 percent of respondents oppose the dispatch to Iraq of some 50 noncombatant military personnel to participate in the international peacekeeping operation there, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 21 December. Only 15.6 percent approved of the planned deployment, on which the National Assembly is to vote on 24 December. Most Armenians fear that participation in the peacekeeping operation will render Armenia vulnerable to a terrorist attack. Opposition politicians who attended a 21 December discussion convened by the Forum of the Intelligentsia similarly argued against the deployment of Armenian troops to Iraq, primarily on the grounds that it would endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of diaspora Armenians in Arab states. LF

OSCE: 'AZERBAIJANI BALLOT DID NOT MEET DEMOCRATIC NORMS'
The 17 December municipal elections in Azerbaijan failed to meet the democratic norms enshrined in the Copenhagen Document adopted by the then Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in 1990, according to a statement by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Baku office quoted by Turan on 21 December and zerkalo.az on 22 December. That evaluation was based on the observations of some 40 groups of observers from Western embassies and international organizations who visited over 200 polling stations. They noted that although voting proceeded "in a friendly and calm atmosphere," numerous procedural violations were registered, including ballot-box stuffing, pressure on voters, voter-list irregularities, and the falsifying of protocols. Speaking at a press conference in Baku on 21 December, opposition Musavat party Chairman Isa Qamber, whose party boycotted the poll, said he does not recognize the outcome as legal, Turan reported. LF

AUTHORITIES INCREASE PRESSURE ON AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION
Azerbaijani parliament deputy speaker Ziyafet Aliyev told fellow deputies on 21 December that the first task of the country's planned anticorruption commission will be to clarify from where and whom opposition parties receive funding, zerkalo.az reported on 22 December. The commission will consist of members of the Constitutional Court, the parliament and the presidential apparatus. Siyavush Novruzov of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) rejected as reflecting an intolerable lack of confidence in the country's leadership calls for the inclusion in the commission of journalists and NGOs. A second YAP deputy, Akhad Abiev, publicly accused Azerbaijani Popular Front Party (AHChP) progressive wing Chairman Ali Kerimli of working for, and passing "state secrets" to, Armenian intelligence. Abiev repeated his earlier allegations that Kerimli, who is the father of two children, is gay, and called for him to be stripped of his deputy's mandate for failing to attend parliament sessions. Kerimli has boycotted parliament sessions for the past 18 months to protest those insults (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003). Also on 21 December, police in Baku forcibly dispersed some 15 AHChP members who sought to picket the mayor's office to protest the blanket ban on any large-scale AHChP rallies in the city, zerkalo.az reported. LF

BP CONFIRMS STEEP RISE IN COST OF OIL, GAS PIPELINES
David Woodward, president of BP-Azerbaijan, confirmed at a press conference in Baku on 21 December that the final cost of construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil-export pipeline for Caspian oil will be some 10 percent higher that the most recent estimate of $3 billion, zerkalo.az reported on 22 December. ITAR-TASS quoted Woodward as saying that the consortium building the pipeline will not need to raise a further loan from international financial institutions to cover the increase in costs. Initial estimates were in the region of $2.4 billion-$2.6 billion. Woodward also confirmed Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's recent admission that the export pipeline for natural gas extracted from the offshore Shah-Deniz field will cost up to 25 percent more than the initial estimate of $3.2 billion. Initially completion of that pipeline was anticipated by late 2002; the most recent prediction is late 2006. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT SAYS DESERTERS SHOULD BE SEVERELY PUNISHED
Mikheil Saakashvili has tasked the Defense Ministry with clarifying why some 70 servicemen deserted from the Mukhrovani battalion on 20 December, and has demanded that the deserters be severely punished as an example to other servicemen, Caucasus Press reported on 22 December. Saakashvili told journalists on 22 December that a country that cannot keep its armed forces under control is vulnerable to dismemberment. Interior Troops commander Gogi Tatukhashvili said on 21 December that the men's complaints of poor conditions were unfounded, and that he believes they were persuaded by an unnamed foreign intelligence service to desert. Also on 21 December, military ombudsman Irakli Sesiashvili resigned after being refused permission to meet with the deserters, Georgian media reported. He characterized the human rights situation within the armed forces as "serious," and affirmed that "nobody needs the truth in Georgia, where everything is decided in government offices." LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT ADOPTS NEW TAX CODE, EDUCATION LAW
The Georgian parliament adopted the new Tax Code on 22 December in the third and final reading by a vote of 107-11, Caucasus Press reported. The new code cuts from 21 to seven the total number of taxes; reduces income tax to 18 percent; and cuts value-added tax from 20 percent to 18 percent. Excise duties on oil products, tobacco, and alcohol have been raised. Parliament also adopted the controversial new education law in the third and final reading on 21 December by 134 votes in favor and 16 against, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 11 November 2004). LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PROTESTS PRIVATIZATION OF SHIPPING COMPANY
Opposition parliament deputy David Berdzenishvili (Republican Party of Georgia) called during a parliament debate on 21 December for the creation of a special group to investigate the background to the sale for $107 million of the Georgian Ocean Shipping Company to Greenoak, the company that earlier bought the Batumi oil terminal, rustavi2.com reported. The sale is intended to resolve a long-running financial dispute between Greenoak and the Georgian government. Batumi Oil Terminal Chairman Jan Bonde Nielsen hailed the deal on 18 December as "a new and very positive step for us," and noted especially the constructive role in negotiating it of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, Caucasus Press reported. LF

PROTESTS REPORTED IN WESTERN GEORGIA
Protests against "intolerable living conditions," specifically the ongoing electricity shortages, took place in the towns of Kutaisi and Zestafoni on 21 December, Caucasus Press reported the following day, quoting the daily "24 saati." Some districts in Kutaisi have been without electricity for weeks, others have had power for only two or three hours per day. Some 700 people gathered outside the office in Kutaisi of the town's parliament deputy, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze. In Zestafoni, angry residents attacked the manager of the local energy distribution company. LF

IMF, KYRGYZSTAN SIGN NEW COOPERATION PROGRAM
Kyrgyzstan and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have signed a 2005-07 cooperation program, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 21 December. The program's main goals are deficit reduction, improved tax collection, and a limit on foreign borrowing. Tapio Saavalainen, who headed the IMF mission on its 7-18 December visit to Kyrgyzstan, pronounced the new program "convincing and decisive," Kyrgyzinfo reported. While Saavalainen noted that the new program does not contain any radical innovations, the IMF mission stressed that Kyrgyzstan needs to review its strategy for managing the country's external debt. Problems identified in talks with the IMF include corruption and imbalances in tax legislation, RFE/RL reported. IMF specialists said that the country's electricity industry, which loses 40 percent of the power it produces and collects just 50 percent of payments, could benefit from the privatization of the power grid. DK

KYRGYZSTAN ANTICIPATES $115 MILLION IN WORLD BANK GRANTS
A World Bank strategy group has made a decision in principle at a meeting in Greece to provide Kyrgyzstan with $115 million in grants in 2006-08, official Kyrgyz news agency Kabar reported on 21 December. Deputy Prime Minister Joomart Otorbaev noted that another meeting of the strategy group might be required to finalize a decision on such a large grant. DK

TAJIK SOCIALIST PARTY ROW CONTINUES
Tajik Central Election Commission spokesman Muhibullo Dodojonov told Asia Plus-Blitz on 21 December that the commission will not accept a list of party-slate candidates from the Socialist Party headed by Murhuseyn Narziev until Narziev is able to confirm his status as party head. Dodojonov said that, for now, the commission will only accept a list of candidates from the Socialist Party headed by Abduhalim Ghafforov, who has been involved in a conflict with Narziev for control of the party. Deputy Justice Minister Rustam Mengliev said his ministry does not recognize Narziev as the head of the Socialist Party. But the coalition "for fair and transparent elections," which brings together the Democratic Party, Socialist Party, Social Democratic Party, and Islamic Renaissance Party, affirmed its support for Narziev on 21 December, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. DK

CLOSED-DOOR TRIAL OF TAJIK EX-COMMANDER STARTS
The trial of Sodiq Muhammadokhunov, a former field commander during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war, began behind closed doors in Dushanbe on 20 December, Asia Plus-Blitz reported the next day. A source at the Prosecutor-General's Office told the news agency that the trial is closed because case materials contain classified information. Muhammadokhunov, also known by the sobriquet "Sachan," faces charges of treason and murder. DK

UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY CONDEMNS TURKMENISTAN RIGHTS ABUSES
The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on 20 December calling on Turkmenistan to end human rights abuses, RFE/RL reported the next day. The resolution called for the release of prisoners of conscience and an end to restrictions on civil freedoms in Turkmenistan. Sponsored by the United States and the European Union, among others, the resolution passed with 69 for, 47 against, and 63 abstentions. DK

UKRAINE GAS HEAD DETAILS TURKMEN GAS TALKS
Yuriy Boyko, chairman of Ukrainian oil and gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny, told Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" on 21 December that if Turkmenistan raises the price of natural gas to $60 per 1,000 cubic meters, Naftohaz might look for other suppliers. "If Turkmenistan sells the same fuel at the same station to Gazprom for $44 and to Naftohaz for $60, why should we overpay by 36 percent?" Boyko asked. Queried about Naftohaz's plans should Turkmenistan insist on the higher price, Boyko said, "We'll buy [gas] from Gazprom or someone else at an acceptable price." Boyko also noted that "Gazprom supports our price position in Turkmenistan, since a price increase will lead to a rise in the transit price and the gas will become uncompetitive." Meanwhile, Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov told "Kommersant-Daily," "Taking into account our expenses, we can permit ourselves to purchase Turkmen gas at a price of $25 per 1,000 cubic meters." Both Boyko and Ryazanov noted that talks are ongoing, but little time remains before the end of the year. Turkmen negotiators recently suggested that they would like to raise the current price of $44 per 1,000 cubic meters, paid half in cash and half in kind, to $60 for shipments in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2004). DK

IMF, UZBEK GOVERNMENT TOUT MACROECONOMIC GROWTH
An IMF mission to Uzbekistan on 9-17 December hailed that country's macroeconomic indicators for 2004, official Uzbek news agency UzA reported on 20 December. A joint press release by the IMF and the Uzbek government noted that GDP rose 7 percent, the foreign-trade surplus topped $1 billion, and gold and currency-exchange reserves rose 30 percent. The mission was headed by John Wakeman-Linn, adviser to the Middle East and Central Asia Department of the IMF. DK

BELARUS, RUSSIA AGREE ON GAS-SUPPLY VOLUME, BUT NOT ON PRICE
Gazprom will supply Belarus with 19.1 billion cubic meters of gas in 2005 and an additional 1.4 billion "if the technical capacity of the gas transport system is ensured," Belapan reported on 21 December, quoting Gazprom deputy head Aleksandr Ryazanov. An agreement to that effect was reportedly made during a meeting between Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and his Belarusian counterpart Syarhey Sidorski in Minsk earlier the same day. Fradkov told journalists following the meeting that the two sides have not yet agreed on a price, however. Moscow insists on maintaining the 2004 price of $44.68 per 1,000 cubic meters, while Minsk reportedly wants that figure reduced by 18 percent -- that is, by the amount that Belarus's Beltranshaz must pay to the Belarusian budget in the form of value-added tax (VAT) for Russian gas deliveries. In 2005, Russia is switching to the country-of-destination principle of VAT collection for gas deliveries to Belarus. JM

UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION ALLEGES THAT PREMIER IS PREPARING 'COUNTERREVOLUTION'
Lawmaker Mykola Tomenko, a member of opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko's election staff, suggested to journalists on 21 December that presidential rival and vacationing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is preparing two scenarios aimed at undermining the 26 December presidential vote, Interfax reported. "Yanukovych's team has two scenarios today: a legal and a counterrevolutionary one," Tomenko said. "Under the legal scenario, Yanukovych's staff will question the constitutionality of the Supreme Court's ruling [ordering a repeat vote] and will insist that the [8 December] amendments to the law on presidential elections led to several violations [during the vote]. The second scenario provides for the use of policemen and army servicemen by Yanukovych's team to influence the voting procedure and prepare a counterrevolution." Tomenko also said the pro-Yushchenko camp will resume rallies on Independence Square in Kyiv on 22 December, one month after they began in the wake of the fraudulent 21 November vote. JM

UKRAINE'S OPPOSITION LEADER STRESSES STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP WITH RUSSIA
Our Ukraine bloc leader and presidential candidate Yushchenko said on Ukrainian Radio on 21 December that cooperation with Russia is of strategic interest for Ukraine, Interfax reported. Yushchenko was commenting on Russian President Vladimir Putin's statement earlier the same day that the latter sees "no problem" in cooperating with Yushchenko if he is elected president of Ukraine. "We will always have a strategic policy and political strategy for Russia," Yushchenko said. He also stressed that "our priority is integration into Europe." Asked what his first foreign trip would be if he were elected president, Yushchenko said he would go to Moscow. Putin campaigned openly for Yushchenko rival Prime Minister Yanukovych in the run-up to the first two rounds of the presidential vote. JM

UKRAINIAN YOUTHS UNBLOCK PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION
The radical youth organization Pora (It's Time) unblocked the main entrance to the offices of the presidential administration in Kyiv on 22 December, removing a barricade of motor vehicles and a cordon of young people that has been in place for the past month, Interfax reported. Pora has left a picket in place in front of the building, however. JM

UKRAINE TO SEE 12,000 FOREIGN OBSERVERS ON 26 DECEMBER
Ukraine's Central Election Commission has registered 12,271 foreign election monitors for the 26 December repeat of the flawed late-November presidential runoff, Interfax reported on 22 December. JM

SERBIAN WORLD WAR II CHETNIK VETERANS TO RECEIVE PENSIONS...
The Serbian parliament voted overwhelmingly on 21 December to enable members of Draza Mihajlovic's World War II Ravnogora Chetnik movement to receive the same pensions as veterans of Josip Broz Tito's Partisan forces, international and regional media reported. The bill was sponsored by the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) of Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic and received broad support, except from former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which opposed the measure. The bill noted that during World War II, "the greater part of Serbia was with Mihajlovic and supported him. A slur on the Serbia of 60 years ago is also a slur on the Serbia of today." Dpa reported that historians and war veterans attentively followed the debate on the bill, but most citizens "appeared uninterested, even exasperated." PM

...AS CONTROVERSIES CONTINUE
The decision by the Serbian parliament on 21 December to enable Chetniks to receive the same pensions as Partisans is likely to strain Serbia's relations with Bosnia and Croatia, where Mihajlovic and the Chetniks are widely regarded as aggressive pro-Axis nationalists, dpa reported. In fact, society in most former Yugoslav republics is divided between families who supported the Partisans and those who backed their opponents. Under Communist rule, the Partisans were lionized and their opponents slammed in black-and-white terms, ignoring the many shades of gray on both sides. The Ravnogora movement consisted originally of veterans of the defeated Army of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, who eventually turned to collaboration with the Axis due to the complex circumstances of war. There were parallel developments in Albania and elsewhere in the Balkans. Moreover, collaboration between the Communists and the Axis was not unknown. After the war, Tito's Communists hounded and often killed Chetnik veterans and discriminated against their families in matters of education, employment, and social benefits. There were parallel moves in Croatia, Slovenia, and elsewhere not only against active collaborators and their families but also against conscripts in pro-Axis units. Probably no former Yugoslav successor state has succeeded in healing the often deep wounds left from World War II. PM

KOSOVA'S PRIME MINISTER CALLS FOR CONTACTS WITH SERBIA
Kosova's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said in Prishtina on 21 December that he is ready for direct political contacts with Belgrade because such a move would be to the advantage of both sides, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He added that he wants contacts with all of Kosova's neighbors in the interest of speeding up the resolution of the province's final status (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004). Haradinaj made his appeal after Soren Jessen-Petersen, who heads the UN's civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), appealed to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to begin direct talks with Prishtina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," and 6, 7, 8, 9, 20, and 21 December 2004). The Serbian authorities refuse to deal with Haradinaj, whom they consider a war criminal for his role in the 1998-99 conflict between Yugoslav President Milosevic's forces and the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). PM

NEW MACEDONIAN PREMIER SEEKS TO IDENTIFY CORRUPTION LOOPHOLES
Macedonian Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski has ordered the Justice Ministry and the government's Secretariat-General to identify by 27 December those laws and other legal measures that provide opportunities for corruption at the ministerial level, the private A1 TV reported on 20 December. Buckovski reportedly plans to cut some unspecified rights of ministers, including the right to sell state property and sign deals without a tender. In related news, the state Anticorruption Commission has reportedly proposed lifting the immunity of ministers and setting up administrative courts, according to A1 TV. Buckovski's predecessor Hari Kostov resigned to protest alleged corruption among his ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 November and 13 December 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 December 2004). UB

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT STARTS TALKS ON POSSIBLE GOVERNMENT...
Newly inaugurated President Traian Basescu held consultations on 21 December with political parties represented in the parliament that was elected on 28 November and pledged afterward to announce his choice of a prime minister-designate the following day, Mediafax reported. Basescu first met with Social Democratic Party (PSD) Chairman and outgoing Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. To avoid resigning as prime minister -- which would have meant the resignation of the entire cabinet -- Nastase reportedly told Basescu that he "opts" for the position of lower house speaker, a function for which he was elected the previous day. Nastase also reportedly recommended that Basescu appoint Government Secretary Eugen Bejenariu as caretaker prime minister, a proposal that Basescu accepted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 December 2004). MS

...AS LIBERAL-DEMOCRATS, UDMR COMPLETE TALKS ON NEW COALITION...
The National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party alliance and the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) successfully completed negotiations on 21 December on the formation of a new Romanian cabinet, Mediafax reported. After talks with President Basescu, UDMR Chairman Bela Marko said a coalition partnership between the two formations is possible and the two parties are now working on a joint government program. Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor said after talks with Basescu that his party does not rule out its parliamentary support for a minority cabinet of the PNL-Democratic Party, depending on its program and "the government team." The PRM has reportedly ruled out its backing for a cabinet that includes the UDMR, and Tudor said after meeting Basescu he rejects the 16 percent flat tax proposed by the alliance. Aurel Vainer, representing the 18 ethnic minorities' representatives in the lower house, promised to endorse a cabinet formed by the alliance. Humanist Party (PUR) Chairman Dan Voiculescu accused Basescu of "mistreating" his party, saying the presidential consultation was just "a formality" that lasted barely a few minutes. MS

...AND ARE WARNED BY NASTASE AGAINST DANGER OF 'POLITICAL INSTABILITY'
Social Democratic Chairman Nastase said after the talks with Basescu that he warned the new president against the risk of political instability, Mediafax reported. Nastase said his own election as lower house speaker and that of Nicolae Vacaroiu as Senate speaker demonstrate that the PNL-Democratic Party alliance does not command a majority in parliament. He said Basescu should first designate a Social Democratic candidate to form the cabinet and turn to a different option only if that candidate fails. Nastase said Basescu will likely name PNL Chairman Calin Popescu-Tariceanu prime minister-designate. Meanwhile, new Democratic Party Chairman Emil Boc told journalists on 21 December that his party's alliance is "determined to form the next cabinet" and that early elections would only be "the last solution." Boc said a government formed by the Social Democrats would not be capable of leading Romania to prosperity, EU membership, or state reform. MS

MOLDOVAN FOREIGN MINISTER APPOINTED DEPUTY PREMIER
President Vladimir Voronin appointed Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan to be Moldova's deputy prime minister on 21 December, Infotag reported. The decision followed a meeting of the National Commission for European Integration that is chaired by Voronin. Stratan is a deputy chairman of that commission. Stratan described the recent approval by the EU of the Moldova-EU Action Plan as a Moldovan success on the path to European integration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2004). Stratan said successful implementation of the Action Plan might lead to Moldovan status as an EU associate member. Unidentified "independent experts" quoted by Infotag said Stratan's appointment as deputy prime minister is aimed at demonstrating the seriousness of the Moldovan authorities' effort to confront the issue of European integration. Stratan recently denounced the Russian presence in Transdniester as a "foreign occupation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 8 December 2004). MS

MOLDOVAN CHRISTIAN DEMOCRATS ACQUAINT JOURNALISTS WITH ELECTORAL PROGRAM
The opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) on 21 December presented its electoral program for the 2005 parliamentary elections, Flux and Infotag reported. The program includes fighting poverty, job creation, ending labor migration, ensuring sustainable economic growth, and fighting corruption and organized crime. The PPCD also said it would restore the country's territorial integrity by abolishing a 21 July 1992 accord with Russia that provides the international legal framework for the presence of Russian troops in the Transdniester. The PPCD wants to develop a "strategic partnership" with the United States, the EU, Romania, and Ukraine, and would abolish the constitutional article stipulating Moldova is a neutral state. The party's candidate for prime minister is PPCD Chairman Iurie Rosca, while Deputy Chairmen Vlad Cubreacov and Stefan Secareanu are suggested as foreign and defense minister, respectively, in the event of a PPCD electoral victory. MS

UKRAINE'S PRESIDENTIAL RIVALS TRADE BARBS IN TELEVISED DEBATE


Ukrainian presidential candidates Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych on 20 December met in a live televised debate ahead of the upcoming repeat of last month's flawed presidential runoff.

In contrast to their first debate on 15 November, this time the two men were allowed to address each other directly with questions. The new format livened the discussion and arguably made it more interesting to watch; nearly half of Ukraine's 47 million citizens viewed the 100-minute verbal duel, in which Yushchenko and Yanukovych traded accusations and barbs. According to many analysts, Yushchenko came out as the undeniable winner of the debate by assuming the role of a "president-in-waiting" and repeatedly putting Prime Minister Yanukovych on the defensive.

Yushchenko had two strong points that he emphasized throughout the debate. First, Yushchenko accused Yanukovych's election staff and political patrons, including President Leonid Kuchma and presidential-administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, of stealing 3 million votes during the abortive 21 November runoff. Second, he sarcastically questioned Yanukovych's recently assumed status of an oppositionist to the ruling regime. Moreover, Yushchenko resolutely shunned Yanukovych's repeated attempts to elicit a pledge from him that both sit down and discuss "how we are to live after the elections." Yushchenko made an unambiguous impression during the debate that he is not going to treat Yanukovych as an equal political partner in the future. This, perhaps, was the bitterest pill Yanukovych had to swallow during the debate.

Yushchenko also managed to neutralize to some extent the myths disseminated about him by his opponent's election staff alleging that, as president, he would discriminate, economically and otherwise, against the country's Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions for their support for Yanukovych. "Under my presidency, each region will take an appropriate place in accordance with its potential," Yushchenko said in conclusion of the debate. "Second, nobody will close even a single Russian-language school. Third, nobody will divide Ukrainians into three sorts of people, as it was shown on posters distributed in Kyiv and all of Ukraine by a pro-government force.... [And] nobody will close a single Orthodox church in favor of some denomination or other."

The psychological advantage gained by Yushchenko from the "Orange Revolution" made him on 20 December a much more relaxed and self-confident interlocutor than during the first debate, in which, according to many analysts, he was lethargic and unconvincing and clearly lost to Yanukovych. On the other hand, Yanukovych has apparently not recovered from the invalidation of the 21 November vote by the Supreme Court and the subsequent political compromise that changed the election rules and visibly quelled the executive branch's enthusiasm to employ "administrative resources" on Yanukovych's side in the 26 December repeat runoff.

According to a poll conducted by the Kyiv-based Razumkov Center from 14-19 December, Yushchenko should safely win the 26 December ballot, with 48 percent of the vote against Yanukovych's 39 percent; 5 percent of respondents said they will vote against both candidates, 3 percent said they will not go to the polls, and 5 percent are undecided.

It also has not passed unnoticed that Russian President Vladimir Putin, who unofficially backed Yanukovych in the Ukrainian race and called to congratulate him even before all votes were counted, has seemingly reappraised the election situation in Ukraine. Asked on 21 December in Germany whether a Yushchenko victory would mean a personal defeat to him, Putin said he is ready to work with either candidate. "I know Mr. Yushchenko," international news agencies quoted Putin as saying. "He worked in the same position as the current Ukrainian prime minister, Mr. Yanukovych. He was the head of the Ukrainian government and we cooperated with him. It was a fair cooperation. He, like Mr. Yanukovych, is a member of the team of the current president, Mr. Kuchma. I see no problems here."

According to Interfax-Ukraine, Ukrainian analysts at a roundtable in Kyiv on 21 December agreed that the most probable scenario for Ukraine in the near future is a Yushchenko presidency under which Yanukovych will assume the role of the leader of an opposition camp. This camp -- as opposed to Yushchenko's Our Ukraine and its allies -- might include Yanukovych's Party of Regions, Viktor Medvedchuk's Social Democratic Party-united, and Petro Symonenko's Communist Party.

That Yanukovych might become an important political player in the post-Kuchma era was confirmed by a poll conducted by the Razumkov Center from 6-9 December, in which respondents were asked about their preferences in a hypothetical parliamentary ballot. It turned out that only four parties -- Yushchenko's Our Ukraine (28.8 percent backing), Yanukovych's Party of Regions (14.5 percent), Symonenko's Communist Party (6 percent), and Oleksandr Moroz's Socialist Party (4.5 percent) -- can count on overcoming the 3 percent voting barrier that is required for winning parliamentary mandates (parliamentary elections in 2006 are to be held under a fully proportional party-list system that was approved by the Verkhovna Rada in March).

In other words, the "Orange Revolution" might not only install Yushchenko in power and give Ukraine's shaky democracy a new lease on life, but also contribute to the transformation to a much more transparent and consolidated political scene -- a scenario that can only be welcomed by the two sides.

AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL SPOKESMAN VOWS THAT CABINET APPOINTMENTS WILL BE CONSTITUTIONAL
Afghan government spokesman Jawed Ludin told reporters in Kabul on 21 December that President Hamid Karzai will select members of his cabinet in line with the stipulations of the Afghan Constitution, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. Ludin mentioned the first and second paragraphs of Article 72 of the constitution, which require cabinet ministers to "have only the citizenship of Afghanistan" and suggests they "should have higher education, work experience, and a good reputation." Karzai is still working on the composition of his cabinet, Ludin added. Ludin hinted that some of the new cabinet ministers might have dual citizenship and the National Assembly would have the power to either accept or reject their nomination, Afghan Voice Agency (http://www.tebyan.com) reported on 21 December. The constitution states that "should a nominee for a ministerial post also hold the citizenship of another country," the National Assembly "shall have the right to confirm or reject his or her nomination." However, the National Assembly is not scheduled to come into existence until at least April. According to Afghan Voice Agency, Ludin said that since cabinet members will precede the formation of the National Assembly, they will influence the assembly's composition (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 December 2004). AT

KABUL DENIES NEGOTIATING WITH FORMER TALIBAN MINISTER
In his 21 December news conference, government spokesman Ludin denied reports that the government is holding negotiations with a former foreign minister of the Taliban regime, Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, Bakhtar reported. Reports of efforts to include some Taliban members in Afghanistan's future administration have circulated since October 2003, when former Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil was released from custody (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July, 18 September, and 9, 16, 23, and 30 October 2003 and 4 March, 10 June, 25 October and 8 November 2004). An October report from Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran suggested that Mutawakkil intends to form a new political party. AT

EXPLOSION IN EASTERN AFGHANISTAN KILLS ONE SOLDIER, WOUNDS FOUR
An explosion at a security checkpoint in Nangarhar Province on 21 December left one soldier dead and four others wounded, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. No further information was available about the incident. AT

ENVOY INSISTS U.S. WILL NOT ABANDON AFGHANISTAN
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in a joint RFE/RL and Voice of America (VOA) interview in Washington on 20 December that the United States will not abandon Afghanistan, VOA reported. "I speak for [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush: We will not abandon Afghanistan," Khalilzad said. On 21 December, Khalilzad told reporters that foreign troops might remain in Afghanistan for a long time, Reuters reported. The question, according to Khalilzad, is the arrangement of the long-term presence in Afghanistan that "may be, either in a NATO context [or] in a bilateral context." Seventy percent of Afghans approve of the presence of U.S. troops, Khalilzad claimed, adding that the figure is higher than President Karzai's approval rating. AT

IRANIAN REFORMISTS IDENTIFY A PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
Mohammad Moghaddam, a member of the central council of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), said on 20 December that his organization has chosen its secretary-general, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Mahdavi-Karrubi, as its candidate for the next presidential election, IRNA reported. Moghaddam cautioned that Karrubi has not yet agreed to run, however. Other reformist organizations, such as the Islamic Iran Participation Party and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, have voiced support for former Science, Research, and Technology Minister Mustafa Moin. BS

IRANIAN COUNTERNARCOTICS PERSONNEL VISIT UZBEKISTAN
An 11-member team of Iranian Drug Control Headquarters personnel has traveled to Uzbekistan for counternarcotics training, Mashhad Radio's Uzbek-language service reported on 20 December. The trip follows Uzbekistan's agreement to provide 10 drug-sniffing canines for Iran. The training takes place at a canine facility in Tashkent, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is covering the costs of the dogs and their handlers. Drug Control Headquarters chief Ali Hashemi visited Tashkent in early June. He met with his Uzbek counterpart, Kamal Dustemov, on 1 June, according to IRNA, and they agreed on the need to cooperate on the problem posed by Afghanistan, the world's biggest opium producer. Hashemi met with Uzbek Health Minister Feruz Nazirov on 3 June, IRNA reported. Hashemi described his country's demand-reduction efforts and said there are 350 rehabilitation and treatment facilities in the country. "We believe that if we spend one dollar on preventing drug addiction, we will save $12 for treatment and rehabilitation of addicts," Hashemi told his host. BS

IRANIAN OFFICIAL ASSAILS U.S. ROLE IN MIDDLE EAST
"There is no doubt that the arrogance [United States] has new plans to dominate the whole world, especially the Middle East region," Expediency Council chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in a 21 December address to clerics assigned to the armed forces' Ideological-Political Organization, state television reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani condemned the 19 December bombings in the Iraqi cities of Al-Najaf and Karbala, and he said clerics have played a valuable role in restraining violence there. Also on 21 December, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi accused the United States of spreading rumors about alleged Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, IRNA reported. Assefi said Tehran has challenged Washington to provide evidence to support its accusations, but Washington has only said that Iran and Iraq are neighbors. Assefi said Iran wants to assist in the restoration of security and stability in Iraq. BS

TEHRAN DOES NOT OBJECT TO U.S. ROLE IN NUCLEAR TALKS
Supreme National Security Council official Hussein Musavian said on 21 December that Iran does not object to U.S. participation in the current Iran-EU nuclear discussions, Radio Farda reported. He dismissed the possibility of direct U.S.-Iran talks. Musavian said the EU and the United States must settle their differences on how to handle the Iranian nuclear issue. BS

TEHRAN DENOUNCES UN HUMAN RIGHTS RESOLUTION
The UN adopted on 21 December a resolution that criticized Iran for its arbitrary sentencing, discrimination against women, floggings, public executions, stonings, and torture, Reuters reported. Canada sponsored the resolution, possibly because Canadian citizen Zahra Kazemi was beaten to death by Iranian authorities in Evin prison in June 2003 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 14 and 21 July 2003). The resolution also noted Iran's discrimination against religious minorities, including Bahais, Christians, Jews, and Sunni Muslims. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 21 December that the resolution is "politically motivated" and "unrealistic," Mehr News Agency reported. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 71 in favor, 54 against, and 55 abstentions. Assefi said this tally indicates that many countries oppose politicization of human rights institutions. An Iranian state radio analyst referred to as "Mr. Fathi" questioned the timing of the resolution at a time when U.S., European, and Israeli actions are "extremely inhumane." The adoption of the resolution marks the beginning of a European propaganda campaign, he said. "Everyone in Iran knows," he said, that the country "values human rights and freedom of expression better than any other country in the world." BS

INSURGENT ATTACK ON U.S. MILITARY BASE IN IRAQ KILLS AT LEAST 22...
Insurgents struck a tented dining hall at a U.S. military base in Mosul on 21 December, killing at least 22 Americans and Iraqis, including 14 soldiers, international news agencies reported the same day. Fourteen U.S. troops, four U.S. civilians, and four Iraqi security-force members are among the dead, Reuters reported on 22 December. At least 72 people were wounded in the attack, including 51 military personnel. The cause of the blast at the U.S. military's Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul, located 225 miles north of Baghdad, is still unclear. According to initial reports, a 122-millimeter rocket struck the dining tent, spraying shrapnel as U.S. soldiers were sitting down to lunch, AP reported. But a radical Sunni Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, which reportedly has claimed responsibility for the attack, said a "martyrdom operation" -- a reference to a suicide bomber -- attacked the mess hall. "A suicide bomber has not been ruled out," a U.S. Army official said in Washington, according to Reuters. BW

...AND U.S. FORCES HUNT FOR SUSPECTS
U.S. forces carried out raids in the area and sealed off parts of Mosul, including the five bridges crossing the Tigris River, in search of suspects in the 21 December attack, international news agencies reported on 22 December. With warplanes flying overhead, U.S. soldiers conducted sweeps through Mosul's eastern neighborhoods, AP reported. "It was a tragic event, but it will not deter us from our mission," Sergeant Steve Valley, a U.S. spokesman in Baghdad, said according to Reuters. Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, was calm after Saddam Hussein's fall. But since the U.S. siege of Al-Fallujah in November, insurgent attacks there have increased dramatically. U.S. commanders say Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the Al-Qaeda-allied militant leader believed to be leading insurgency in Iraq, most likely fled Al-Fallujah before the U.S. offensive in November and might have shifted his base of operations to Mosul, Reuters reported on 22 December. BW

FRENCH HOSTAGES IN IRAQ FREED
Two French journalists who had been held hostage for four months were released on 21 December, international news agencies reported the same day. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told his country's parliament that the journalists, who were seized by militants on 20 August, will be home for Christmas. "I have the profound joy of announcing that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot have been freed," Raffarin said, according to Reuters. Amid speculation about how France secured the two journalists' freedom, Raffarin insisted to political leaders in Paris that no ransom was paid, AFP reported on 22 December. President Jacques Chirac interrupted his Christmas vacation, departing from Morocco to greet the men on their return to France. "Their release we owe to the mobilization and solidarity of all the French, to whom I want to pay homage," Chirac said, according to AFP. The Islamic Army in Iraq had demanded that France revoke a law banning Muslim head scarves in French state schools when it seized Malbrunot, 41, a reporter for "Le Figaro," and Chesnot, 37, who works for Radio France Internationale. BW

BLAIR LAUDS IRAQI ELECTION OFFICIALS, SAYS BATTLE AGAINST INSURGENTS VITAL FOR SECURITY...
During a surprise visit to Baghdad on 21 December, British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised Iraq's election workers as heroes and called the battle against insurgents vital for Britain's security and Iraq's freedom, Reuters reported the same day. "Here are people who are risking their lives every day in order to make sure that the people of Iraq get a chance to decide their own destiny," Blair told a news conference after meeting Iraqi Election Commission officials, Reuters reported the same day. Three Iraqi Electoral Commission workers were executed by guerrillas who dragged them from their car in Baghdad on 19 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004). Blair flew into Baghdad on 21 December to meet with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi en route to Jerusalem for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. It was the British prime minister's first visit to Baghdad, although he has twice visited southern Iraq. BW

...AS IRANIAN CLERIC URGES IRAQ'S SHI'ITES TO VOTE
Saying that Iraq's upcoming 30 January elections could be a path to peace and independence, senior Iranian dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri urged Iraqis to vote, AP reported on 21 December. "Under the supervision of the top clerics, all Iraqis should vote to form a powerful government through free, nationwide, and broad-based elections," Montazeri said in a letter to leading Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Sistani has declared that voting in the elections is a religious duty for all Shi'ites, who form a majority in Iraq. Montazeri, who has a large following among Iraq's Shi'ites, is one of Iran's leading clerics. He has been at odds with the country's current leadership, AP reported. BW

RED CROSS SAYS AL-FALLUJAH'S WATER-PURIFICATION PLANTS REMAINS UNUSABLE
None of Al-Fallujah's water-purification plants are operational following November's U.S.-led military campaign to retake the city from rebels, AP reported on 22 December, quoting officials from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "Most of them have been bombed or damaged because of the military operations," ICRC spokesman Ahmed Rawi said. "In the future, when the people return they will be served by mobile tanks that are placed in several areas in the city." Iraqi government figures suggest that 210,600 of Al-Fallujah's 300,000 residents fled the city ahead of the U.S.-led campaign to uproot and eliminate guerrillas there, AP reported. BW

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