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Newsline - January 7, 2005


PUTIN ADDRESSES RUSSIA ON ORTHODOX CHRISTMAS...
President Vladimir Putin congratulated Russians on 6 January on the eve of Orthodox Christmas and said that the Russian state holiday "strengthens traditional spiritual values," RIA-Novosti reported. Putin also thanked the Russian Orthodox Church and other Christian confessions for playing "a most important role in the preservation of the spiritual foundations of society, in the strengthening of civil peace, in the upbringing of a new generation." Putin also met on 6 January in the Kremlin with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II, and told him that the "church's activity of spiritual enlightenment and charity and your personal efforts aimed at the development of an interconfessional dialogue and constructive cooperation of the Russian Orthodox Church with bodies of state power deserve the highest marks." VY

...AS RUSSIAN LEADERS, UKRAINIAN SPEAKER ATTEND CHRISTMAS SERVICE IN MOSCOW
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, and other Russian officials attended on the evening of 6 January the Christmas service in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow given by Patriarch Aleksii II. The two-hour service was broadcast on RTR and ORT. Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn and Apostolic Nuncio to the Russian Federation Archbishop Antonio Mennini also attended the service. Aleksii wished "peace, concord, and welfare to our country and neighboring Ukraine." President Putin attended Christmas service alone in a small village church, 150 kilometers from Moscow. VY

YUKOS CONTINUES LEGAL BATTLE IN U.S. COURT
The U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court in Houston on 6 January resumed hearing the case of embattled oil major Yukos (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 20, and 21 December 2004), international media reported. Yukos lawyers said they want to investigate who is really behind the buying of Yukos main production subsidiary Yuganskneftegaz on 19 December, which they consider an "illegal seizure of assets." Yukos lawyer Zack Clement told Judge Letitia Clark that Yukos intends to file a lawsuit seeking $20 billion in damages against the new owners of Yuganskneftegaz, AP reported. Clark also decided to hear on 16 February Deutsche Bank's motion to dismiss the bankruptcy case for lack of jurisdiction, RBK and polit.ru reported. Lawyers for the bank argue that Yukos has no ties to the United States beyond two bank accounts and the residence of its chief financial officer, and has asked the judge to transfer the case to a European court. VY

ITALIAN COMPANY WANTS TO BUY REMAINING YUKOS ASSETS
Italian Industry Minister Antonio Marzano said in Abu Dhabi on 6 January that Italian companies are ready to buy Yukos assets still under the company's control, if they are allowed to do so, pravda.ru reported. Pravda.ru named the Italian oil major ENI as a possible buyer. In November, ENI backed off plans to take part in the 19 December auction for Yuganskneftegaz. Among remaining Yukos assets are Samaraneftegaz, Tomskneft, Vostsibneftegaz, and several refineries, pravda.ru added. VY

U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT SAYS RUSSIA HAS SERIOUS PROBLEM WITH ANTI-SEMITISM...
The U.S. State Department released on 5 January its annual report on anti-Semitism, citing Russia along with Belarus as countries where "anti-Semitism [remains] a serious problem." According to the report, most anti-Semitic incidents are carried out by ultranationalist and other far-right elements, and the stereotype of Jews as manipulators of the global economy continues "to provide fertile ground for anti-Semitic aggression." The report cited the Anti-Defamation League for reporting that the while the number of anti-Semitic incidents remained stable in 2003, their nature became more violent. Groups of young skinheads are reportedly responsible for most anti-Semitic crimes. Russian officials' response to anti-Semitic violence has been "mixed." Officials often use strong words of condemnation but label the perpetrators as terrorists or hooligans rather than xenophobes or anti-Semites. Human rights observers, according to the State Department, note that Russia has a lot of legislation on the books that bans racist violence and propaganda but it is rarely enforced. JAC

...AS RUSSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST ENDORSES U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT REPORT ON ANTI-SEMITISM...
Russian Holocaust Foundation Chairwoman Alla Gerber told RFE/RL's Russian Service on 6 January that she can confirm and amplify the extent of anti-Semitism described in the U.S. State Department report on anti-Semitism. She especially noted the free and wide circulation of anti-Semitic literature, which is published even by mainstream publishing houses. The spread of anti-Semitism is promoted by some political figures, including Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovskii, "who often allows himself to make anti-Semitic remarks." Nevertheless, television and radio stations, even liberal ones, frequently invite him as a guest as they believe that his outspokenness helps their ratings, Gerber said. VY

...BUT COMMUNIST LEADER REJECTS ACCUSATION OF XENOPHOBIA
Speaking on Ekho Moskvy on 6 January, former presidential candidate and State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov (Communist) rejected accusations in the State Department report connecting his party to anti-Semitism. Kharitonov said that people like him who grew up in the Soviet era are internationalists and never cared about ethnic identity. "I took part in all meetings of the [Communist Party leadership] and never heard such [anti-Semitic] statements made purposefully and intentionally," he added. VY

NAMES OF CANDIDATES FOR GOVERNORS' SPOTS BEGIN CIRCULATING
The first candidates under the new system of appointing rather than electing governors have already been chosen, gazeta.ru reported on 6 January, citing an unidentified source in the office of the presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Konstantin Pulikovskii. According to the website, Pulikovskii has already submitted the names of two candidates to presidential-administration head Dmitrii Medvedev for the post of governor of the Jewish Autonomous Okrug. The favorite is current Governor Nikolai Volkov. Volkov's term officially expires on 26 March and under the new law, candidates to replace him should be submitted 90 days before the expiration of his term. Other regional executives whose terms are about to expire are Amur Oblast Governor Leonid Korotkov on 21 April and Saratov Governor Dmitrii Ayatskov also in April. According to the website, presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko has submitted Ayatskov's name as a candidate along with that of State Duma Deputy Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (Unified Russia), who is reportedly Kirienko's first choice. JAC

NUMBER OF PRISONERS DROPS
According to the Federal Prison Service, the number of persons sentenced to service time behind bars dropped by 80,000 in 2004, ITAR-TASS reported on 6 January. The number of people jailed under court order pending trial or sentencing fell by 3,000. As of December, the number of people sentenced to prison time was 605,000 and the number of detainees accused or suspected of a crime was 146,000. The reduction of prisoners is part of a multiyear trend that began in 1999, when Russia had more than 1 million persons behind bars. Since that time the number of crimes committed in prison has halved, according to the Federal Prison Service. In 2003, a Justice Ministry official estimated that almost three-fourths of Russian prisoners, some 590,000 people, suffered from a "socially significant" illness, such as tuberculosis, syphilis, or hepatitis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 October 2003). JAC

POLITKOVSKAYA WINS ANOTHER INTERNATIONAL PRIZE
Anna Politkovskaya, a reporter for "Novaya gazeta," has won the Leipzig Media Foundation's annual "prize for freedom and the future of the media" together with Seymour Hersh of "The New Yorker," who broke the Iraqi Abu Ghurayb prison scandal, AP reported on 5 January. The prize is worth 30,000 euros ($40,000), according to leipziger-medienstiftung.de. Politkovskaya was diagnosed with acute food poisoning during a trip to North Ossetia to cover the Beslan school hostage-taking tragedy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 September 2004). She is well-known for her critical coverage of the war in Chechnya. JAC

MOSCOW DECRIES CHECHENS' RELEASE FROM GEORGIAN JAIL
The Russian Foreign Ministry harshly criticized on 6 January the release from prison in Tbilisi the previous day of one of a group of 13 Chechens who illegally entered Georgia from Russia in August 2002 and surrendered to the Georgian authorities, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2005). The ministry noted that although five of the 13 men were extradited to Russia in October 2002, Tbilisi has steadfastly ignored repeated Russian requests that the remaining eight also be sent back. Such actions on the part of the Georgian authorities do not contribute to strengthening bilateral relations, the Russian Foreign Ministry statement said. Four of the eight Chechens who remained in Georgia have already been released; the remaining three, who were sentenced for a violent protest against the extradition of their eight companions, are to be freed shortly. LF

RUSSIAN MILITARY DENIES REPORTS OF HEAVY FIGHTING IN CHECHNYA
There is no truth to media reports of major clashes in Chechnya between federal forces and the Chechen resistance, an unnamed spokesman for the group of Russian forces in the North Caucasus told Interfax on 6 January. He said such reports, which allege heavy Russian casualties, are merely disinformation spread by the Chechen resistance, and that Chechnya has been "calm" since 1 January. LF

MEDIA WATCHDOG DEMANDS END TO PRESSURE ON AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PAPER
Robert Menard, general secretary of Reporters Without Borders, has written to Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev asking him to put an end to the "hounding" by the authorities of the opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," Turan reported on 6 January. Menard noted that on 4 January a Baku court handed down fines totaling almost 125,000 euros ($165,467) in six libel cases brought by senior Azerbaijani officials, thus aggravating the already grave financial problems the paper faces. As a result of those problems, "Yeni Musavat" temporarily suspended publication late last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 November 2004). Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar accused the Azerbaijani authorities on 3 January of trying to force the paper to close (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). LF

AZERBAIJANI MUNICIPAL ELECTIONS ANNULLED IN OVER 100 DISTRICTS
Meeting on 6 January, Azerbaijan's Central Election Commission (MSK) announced the final results of the 17 December municipal elections, Turan and zerkalo.az reported on 6 and 7 January, respectively. MSK Secretary Natik Mamedov said that the results of the ballot have been invalidated in 136 localities due to violations of election legislation. Voter turnout was given as 46.34 percent. MSK Chairman Mazahir Panahov again affirmed that the elections were transparent and democratic. MSK spokesman Azer Saryev rejected Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe rapporteur Andreas Gross's criticism of official efforts to prevent the election of opposition candidates; Saryev said it was wrong of Gross to leap to such a conclusion on the basis of visits to only a few polling stations. LF

FORMER GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER REJECTS CORRUPTION ALLEGATIONS...
Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on 6 January, Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze rejected as "absurd" allegations voiced two days earlier by Irakli Okruashvili, who succeeded Baramidze as defense minister in December (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 17 December 2004 ), Caucasus Press and rustavi2.com reported. Baramidze implicitly rejected as untrue some of Okruashvili's claims of official corruption within the ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2005). He implied that Okruashvili is trying "to demonstrate that the situation within the ministry is worse now" than under former President Eduard Shevardnadze, to sow discord among members of the present leadership, and to "settle scores" with him personally. Baramidze further affirmed that "no one can teach me how to fight corruption." LF

...INCURRING GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S CRITICISM
On his return on 6 January from an unofficial visit to Ukraine, President Mikheil Saakashvili publicly upbraided both Baramidze and Okruashvili for "squabbling like children" in his absence, Caucasus Press reported. He warned them that while he considers them both "my friends," they must "work as one team," or quit, as "no one is indispensable." When appointing Okruashvili as defense minister, Saakashvili said he will remain in that post until Georgia's territorial integrity is restored (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2004 ). Saakashvili said on 6 January that Baramidze "did a great deal" for the Georgian armed forces while he served as defense minister, but that "there are [still] certain problems that must be solved jointly." Meanwhile, Malkhaz Maisuradze, whom Okruashvili named first deputy defense minister two weeks ago, according to Caucasus Press on 24 December, has been fired for providing Okruashvili with incorrect information about the state of affairs within the ministry, Caucasus Press reported on 6 January. LF

KAZAKH COURT RULES FOR LIQUIDATION OF OPPOSITION PARTY
A court in Almaty ruled on 6 January that the opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan should be liquidated for inciting civil disobedience, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Prosecutors had alleged that a December statement by the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2004) called for "resolute public actions, including civil disobedience campaigns, and [declared] the incumbent authorities anti-people and illegitimate," Interfax reported. Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, chairman of the Coordinating Council of Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan, dismissed the ruling as groundless. "The authorities are clearing the ground...to make things easier for them in the future," he said. The party now has 15 days to appeal the court decision. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT BLASTS 'CLANDESTINE INTERNATIONAL'
President Askar Akaev spoke out on 6 January in Bishkek against foreign funding for domestic political movements, Interfax reported. Akaev said, "We are concerned about the existence of made-to-order movements with the financial support of international organizations that specialize in organizing 'velvet' revolutions." He added, "Social movements that have emerged in this country are preparing such revolutions as ordered up by a Clandestine International." Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov echoed the president's comments, telling official newspaper "Slovo Kyrgyzstana" on 6 January that he is "very afraid of a 'revolutionary' scenario in our country." Aitmatov warned that an attempt to carry out a "velvet" revolution in the spirit of recent events in Ukraine could instead plunge Kyrgyzstan into chaos along the lines of Tajikistan's destructive 1992-97 civil war. With parliamentary elections scheduled for 14 February and a presidential election in October, Akaev and other high-ranking officials have become increasingly harsh in their criticism of the bloodless revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT DISMISSES TWO DEPUTY PREMIERS
President Saparmurat Niyazov signed decrees on 6 January removing two deputy prime ministers for shortcomings in their work, turkmenistan.ru reported. Begench Atamuradov, deputy prime minister in charge of agriculture, and Rejepdurdy Ataev, deputy prime minister in charge of construction, were dismissed. Niyazov told a cabinet meeting that Ataev had caused the state significant damage through violations of the law in transactions with foreign contractors and said that Ataev will be required to provide reimbursement. DK

FREEDOM HOUSE CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION OF UZBEK TORTURE-DEATH ALLEGATIONS
The U.S.-based NGO Freedom House has asked the Uzbek government to put together a group that includes human rights defenders to review the case of a prisoner alleged to have died under torture, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 6 January, citing Robert Freedman, the senior program officer for Freedom House's Uzbekistan Torture Prevention Project. Human rights groups in Uzbekistan announced on 3 January that Samandar Umarov, a prisoner serving a 17-year sentence for membership in the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, died under torture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). Uzbek officials have said that Umarov, whose body was delivered to his family on 3 January, died as a result of a stroke. DK

MINSK RULES OUT UKRAINIAN-STYLE REVOLUTION
Belarusian Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau told Reuters on 6 January that Belarus will never experience a political upheaval similar to the "Orange Revolution" that brought opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko to power in Ukraine. Martynau asserted that Belarus is an economically and politically stable country and President Alyaksandr Lukashenka faces no threat to his rule. "The economy is developing at a fast pace," Martynau said. "People's incomes are growing quickly. Everything taken together is not giving any ground for events similar to the Ukrainian ones." On the other hand, Martynau avoided criticizing Ukraine's recent transformation. "We wish success to the Ukrainian people," he said. "We are certain they made a right and conscious choice. But we have a different country, different reality." JM

ANOTHER ASPIRANT DECLARES READINESS TO BECOME UKRAINIAN PREMIER
Following Yuliya Tymoshenko and Anatoliy Kinakh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 6 January 2005), politician and businessman Petro Poroshenko said on Channel 5 on 6 January that he is prepared to accept the post of prime minister. Poroshenko, chairman of the parliamentary Budget Committee and head of the Solidarity Party in President-elect Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc, has the Channel 5 television station and the biggest confectionary company in Ukraine among his business holdings. Asked to comment on Yushchenko's requirements that a new premier not be a party leader or have business connections, Poroshenko said his Solidarity Party will merge with a new party that is to be formed on the basis of Our Ukraine by March, adding that he will then cease to be a party leader. Touching upon his business connections, Poroshenko said he has no business interests "from a formal point of view." JM

COURT REJECTS YANUKOVYCH'S COMPLAINT AGAINST CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION
The Supreme Court on 6 January dismissed a complaint by presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych against the Central Election Commission (TsVK), thus bringing the country a step closer to the inauguration of Yanukovych's rival Yushchenko as president, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Yanukovych complained that the TsVK had not accepted his supplementary specifications to last week's rejected appeal to declare the results of the 26 December presidential vote invalid in all of Ukraine's 225 constituencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). The 6 January ruling does not exhaust all of Yanukovych's options for legal protest against the results of the 26 December ballot, but makes any further attempts even less likely to succeed. His election staff has vowed to file a main appeal with the Supreme Court after the TsVK announces the final results of the 26 December vote. JM

BOSNIAN SERB POLICE REFORM ON HOLD UNTIL SUMMER
Outgoing Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Dragan Mikerevic and High Representative Paddy Ashdown agreed in Sarajevo on 6 January that the Republika Srpska authorities will put off reform of the police forces until summer to enable them to concentrate on meeting their obligations to the Hague-based war crimes tribunal by April, "Nezavisne novine" reported. Mikerevic added that Ashdown told him that he will not impose any reforms on the Bosnian Serb police but will work toward a negotiated agreement. The high representative accepted the prime minister's invitation to present his ideas on reform of the security and defense forces to the Bosnian Serb parliament at an unspecified date. In December, Ashdown indicated that he wanted police reform completed by April and military reform by the fall. The Bosnian Serbs' failure to cooperate with the tribunal or to arrest a single war crimes indictee in the 10 years since the Dayton peace agreements came into force is holding up Bosnia-Herzegovina's plans to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 November, 16 and 17 December 2004, and 4 January 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 September and 22 October 2004). PM

SLOVENIA EMERGES AS NET RECIPIENT OF EU MONEY
Despite the fears of many Slovenes that their country would become a net contributor to the EU budget after joining the Brussels-based bloc in May 2004, Slovenia received $242 million from the EU that year while paying in only $225 million, Hina reported from Ljubljana on 6 January, quoting unnamed Slovenian Finance Ministry officials (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 August, 21 November, and 12 December 2003, and 21 May 2004). The government is expected to announce by early February how much it has budgeted for EU contributions in 2005. The total budget deficit is expected to be around $660 million, and cutting it is one of the government's top priorities. PM

ROMANIAN HUMANIST PARTY REACTS TO 'BASESCU'S TSUNAMI'...
Three Romanian dailies ("Curentul," "Romania libera," and "Ziua") on 7 January described President Traian Basescu's 6 January interview with the daily "Adevarul" as a "[political] tsunami" and as "Basescu's tsunami." Reacting to Basescu's call for early elections as a means to overcome the "unethical solution" of including the Humanist Party (PUR) in the ruling coalition, PUR Chairman Dan Voiculescu said in an interview with the BBC that his formation is "likely to withdraw" from the ruling coalition, Mediafax reported. Voiculescu said a decision on this will be made at a PUR leadership meeting slated for 7 or 8 January. He described Basescu's statement as "irresponsible" and "unworthy of a politician." Voiculescu said that before the coalition was formed, "Mr. Basescu...told me: 'I implore you to join us in the government for the sake of political stability.'" Voiculescu also said that if early elections are called, his party will field its own lists. In November, the PUR ran on joint lists with the former ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD). He also said the PUR would not agree to withdraw support for former Prime Ministers Adrian Nastase and Nicolae Vacaroiu as speakers of the two chambers of parliament. MS

...AND IS REBUKED BY PRESIDENT
In response to PUR Chairman Voiculescu's claims that the president "implored" the PUR to join the ruling coalition, President Basescu said on 6 January that: "Presidents do not request, they demand," the daily "Ziua" reported the next day. MS

WILL ROMANIAN CABINET BE RESCUED BY ITS MAIN POLITICAL ADVERSARY?
Citing unidentified sources from within the opposition Social Democrats, Mediafax on 6 January reported that the PSD does not want to bring about early elections at present and might support in parliament a minority government headed by Justice and Truth Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu. The sources said the Social Democrats are to hold a party congress in February at which the new PSD leadership is to be elected, following which the party is to undergo reorganization. They said the reform of the PSD might take as long as one year and the Social Democrats do not want an early ballot to take place before 2006. In an official reaction to Basescu's 6 January interview, PSD spokesman Titus Corlatean accused President Basescu of violating the constitutional provision prohibiting heads of state from engaging in party politics. Corlatean also said Basescu's call to remove Nastase and Vacaroiu as parliamentary speakers is another "serious violation of the constitution." He said that house regulations in both the lower and the upper house stipulate that speakers are elected for four-year terms. MS

ROMANIAN PREMIER, PRESIDENTIAL ALLIES REACT AMBIGUOUSLY TO CONTROVERSIAL INTERVIEW
In a statement released by the prime minister's office on 6 January, Prime Minister Popescu-Tariceanu expressed support for holding early elections "if a stabile and solid majority cannot be counted on [in parliament]." He said the cabinet's main objective in 2005 is European integration, adding that this calls for "political stability relying on a coalition that acts coherently at both the central and local government level, as well as in parliament." Popescu-Tariceanu said he agrees with Basescu's solution, "in the event we face a political crisis." Popescu-Tariceanu, who is also National Liberal Party (PNL) chairman, said he backs Basescu's proposal to merge the two parties that make up the Justice and Truth alliance, and would submit it at a PNL congress slated for 4-6 February, but added: "The congress would have to decide." Democratic Party Chairman Emil Boc said he agrees with the merger "as a long term project" that should reflect both parties' programs. Boc said the merger is "not a short-term priority," but added he opposes the idea of the Democratic Party being "absorbed" by the PNL. MS

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT READY TO HELP MOLDOVA OVERCOME ELECTRICITY CRISIS
The Romanian government on 6 January decided to reactivate the joint Romanian-Moldovan governmental commission and to task it with finding means to respond favorably to a Moldovan government request to help it overcome its current electricity crisis, according to a governmental press release. Moldova requested Bucharest to help it overcome the crisis after the main power supply source -- the Moldavskaya Power Plant near Tiraspol -- last month stopped electricity deliveries to Moldova. The press release said the cabinet would have to find resources for the aid, as electricity prices in Moldova are lower than in Romania. It also said that the Moldovan authorities refuse to acknowledge a $32 million debt to Romania for electricity deliveries in the past. MS

MOLDOVAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TURNS DOWN PPCD APPEAL AGAINST ELECTION DATE
The Constitutional Court on 6 January rejected on procedural grounds an appeal by the opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) against parliament's decision to hold elections on 6 March, Flux reported. The PPCD said the decision was approved on 24 December but was published in the official gazette only on 28 December, and is therefore invalid by law. The court ruled that the PPCD appeal was improperly formulated and refused to consider it. Meanwhile, a group of nine Moldovan nongovernmental organizations on 6 January approved a statement calling on the parliament to reexamine the decision on the election date. The group also said President Vladimir Voronin should resign ahead of the parliamentary elections to allow the next legislature to elect a president who is above partisan politics. MS

IRAQI ELECTION COMMISSION STAFF RESIGNING UNDER THREAT
Members of the Iraqi Election Commission have reportedly been resigning in large numbers in recent weeks under the threat of attack by militants, according to Iraqi and other Arab media reports.

Earlier this week, militants in Ba'qubah kidnapped the head of a polling station in the city, located about 65 kilometers north of Baghdad, warning Ahmad Sulayman Wahhab not to participate in the 30 January elections, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 5 January. The news channel said that gunmen have also distributed leaflets throughout the city warning citizens against promoting or participating in the election process in the city.

Muhammad Shahran, the head of the commission's Bayji branch, announced three days earlier that the commission's 12 members in the city have resigned en masse after some of its members received death threats, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 2 January. Bayji is located some 180 kilometers north of Baghdad. Two members of the commission reportedly tendered their resignation two months ago. Shahran declined to give details about the threats.

Two voter-registration centers in Tikrit came under mortar attack on 2 January. The registration centers, located on school grounds, were attacked in the early morning hours, Al-Sharqiyah reported. An Education Ministry source told the news channel that the buildings sustained major damage and many voter-registration documents were destroyed.

Some 700 employees of the commission working in the Ninawah Governorate, which includes the city of Mosul, purportedly resigned in late December. Some staffers said they were threatened by insurgents, while others said their resignations were in support of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni group that withdrew its participation in the elections, Al-Jazeera reported on 30 December. It is unclear how many of the staffers were under threat.

It is not surprising that insurgents have increasingly set their sights on individuals involved in the electoral process. After all, with little to no security provisions in place, polling personnel are easy targets. An unsigned directive posted to a jihadist website in early January advised militants in Iraq to "prevent the continuation of participation by any members of the election committees through persuasion, threats, kidnapping, and other methods." It continued: "Make sure that once they agree to withdraw from the election committee, their withdrawal is not announced except during the critical and narrow time frame [so that] the government cannot replace them with other [workers].... This will make it extremely difficult to find trained people to manage the elections in such a short period of time."

The directive also instructs fighters to attack polling stations in the immediate days leading up to the election and "seize all documents, voter lists, and boxes." It further advises attacks on polling stations throughout the day on 30 January and says that polling stations not attacked on that day should be targeted as the votes are being counted. Vehicles transporting ballot boxes after the election should also be targeted, since "no election can succeed if votes are missing."

Three militant groups, the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, the Mujahedin Army, and the Islamic Army of Iraq posted a joint statement to the Ansar Al-Sunnah website (http://www.jaish-ansaralsunnah.8m.com) on 30 December threatening anyone associated with the elections, stating: "The hands of the mujahedin will reach the election centers, workers, and participants, God willing." The statement carried a number of Koranic verses and posited that any government not ruled by divine law would be in contradiction of the religion of God. The statement referred to Iraqi elections as "the comedy of democracy and elections," adding: "Those who participate in this filthy comedy will not be safe from the attacks of this nation's vanguards and its sharp swords, who taught and are still teaching the enemies of God and their [cohorts] valuable lessons."

Iraqi officials have provided little information on the planned security precautions for election day. However, the Defense Ministry said in mid-December that it has established a three-tiered security system that would protect voters and polling stations. Police and Iraqi security forces would be involved in the plan, which would impose security cordons around the polling stations and prevent cars from approaching them. National Guardsmen will also be setting up makeshift checkpoints around the cities and deploying armored personnel carriers on the streets, Iraqi media reported.

Meanwhile, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on 6 January that the Election Commission has announced that due to the unique security situation in the Al-Anbar and Ninawah governorates, voters who were unable to register to vote during the allotted period in December will be allowed to register and vote on the same day when elections are held on 30 January. The commission added that some registration forms were lost in the governorates due to attacks in which records were burned. Extra polling personnel will be on hand in those governorates on election day to facilitate registration and voting.

THREE DIE IN AFGHAN DRUG GUNFIGHT
A gun battle that left three dead erupted when pro-government troops came under fire on 6 January while destroying opium-poppy crops in central Afghanistan, AP reported. One government solider and two gunmen were killed in the fighting, which broke out near Deh Rawood in Oruzgan Province, according to Oruzgan Governor Jan Mohammad Khan. The gunmen struck a group of 50 pro-government militia fighters at work in the poppy fields. Khan blamed the attack on neo-Taliban supporters but offered no details, saying only that poppy eradication will continue. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has pledged to crack down on Afghanistan's flourishing drug trade, which accounts for most of the opium in the world. Afghan officials have voiced concern that action against poppy production could spark retaliation by drug lords and farmers who profit from the trade. MR

UN SAYS HALF OF AFGHAN FIGHTERS DISARMED
UN officials said more than 50 percent of the former fighters in Afghanistan are now disarmed, with more than 32,000 of them having given up their weapons, Xinhua News Agency reported on 6 January. "To date, 32,210 former military personnel have disarmed and from this number 28,984 have begun their reintegration package," said Manoel de Almeida e Silva, a spokesperson for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). According to UN figures, between 50,000 and 60,000 former combatants loyal to different warlords and regional leaders were at arms shortly after the Taliban lost power in late 2001. The Afghan administration launched the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program in October 2003. The program calls for all irregular militias throughout the country to be disarmed before the parliamentary election, which is set for spring. Fighters who give up their weapons are eligible to begin a reintegration process that offers a financial package ranging from $100 to roughly $650. MR

NEO-TALIBAN OFFICIAL CALLS FOR ARMED RESISTANCE
Mohammad Yasir, the top neo-Taliban spokesman, has issued a pubic appeal calling on Afghans to fight foreign troops in the country, Al-Jazeera reported on 5 January. In comments aired by the Arabic news channel, Yasir said fighters opposed to the U.S.-led coalition in the country are waging a "battle for the liberation of Afghanistan." Yasir added: "I call it the fourth war between the Afghans and the British. We have fought three major wars against the British in our history. Therefore, I call it the fourth war against the British and the Americans. It is the war of liberation. It is a battle for liberation. We do not just accept, but rather call on all jihadist factions to raise the banner of jihad against the Americans and take their positions in this historic battle to expel the occupation and foreign soldiers from Afghanistan." Yasir aired further comments in another Al-Jazeera report, calling on Afghan President Karzai to give up U.S. military protection. "Being protected by U.S. guards, this means one of two things," Yasir said. "Either he does not depend on his people, who voted for him, or he is a captive of the Americans and has lost his freedom." MR

NEO-TALIBAN RECEIVES SUPPORT FROM PAKISTANI MILITANTS
A Pakistani militant leader has said that neo-Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan will have the continued support of jihadi outfits in Pakistan, the Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported 6 January. Addressing followers in Pakistan, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of the Islamic Clerics Society -- Fazlur Rahman Group and chairman of the Pakistani Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an umbrella group of Islamic opposition parties, said his organization has long provided the Taliban with political and moral support and will do so in the future. "A number of people say that MMA Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal have been supporting the Taliban, but that it is tight-lipped regarding the army operations in Wana North Waziristan, Pakistan," he said. "The answer is that we have supported the Taliban politically and morally and will continue to do so." The organization supported the Taliban during its rule of Afghanistan and strongly opposed the U.S. overthrow of the regime in 2001. Afghan authorities have long complained that Pakistan has done too little to stop Pakistanis from aiding insurgents who move back and forth across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. MR

ISRAEL NOTES INCREASING IRANIAN AND HIZBALLAH INVOLVEMENT IN TERRORISM
The involvement of Iran and Hizballah in Palestinian terrorist activities is increasing, according to the Israeli domestic-security agency's annual report, Voice of Israel reported on 6 January. The report from Shin Bet states that Hizballah was behind 68 terrorist attacks in 2004, transfers substantial amounts of money to terrorists in Palestine, and operates many terrorist squads in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. BS

REFORMIST CANDIDATE CALLS FOR HIGH ELECTION TURNOUT
Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, secretary-general of the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez), has stressed the needed for public participation in the June 2005 presidential election, "Iran" reported on 6 January. Karrubi, who recently declared his interest in being a presidential candidate, addressed the Islamic Ladies Society, which is headed by his wife, Fatimeh Karrubi. He told the women that international pressure on Iran will increase if there is a low level of public participation in the election. He said that high turnout in the 1997 election deterred the United States' aggressive intentions. In a separate meeting with reporters, Karrubi said he will run to win, rather than participating in an event that people assume has predetermined results, "Iran" reported. BS

MILITARY COMMANDER BERATES U.S. REGIONAL POLICY
Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Yahya Rahim-Safavi on 6 January expressed concern about regional developments during at a flag-raising ceremony in Bandar Abbas, ISNA reported. Foreign military forces are in the region under false pretexts, he said, adding that "the presence of foreign forces in the area and the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by America are causing insecurity in the region." He said the IRGC's presence in the Persian Gulf's waters is necessary for regional security. Rahim-Safavi accused the United States of having colonialist ambitions in the region. "America wants to use the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan, to [improve] its access to Central Asia and the [South] Caucasus, but it will not succeed," he said. "As we can see, after a 20-month occupation, America, entangled in a quagmire in Iraq, has experienced its first defeat in the region." If the United States fails to accept the outcome of the Iraqi parliamentary elections, Rahim-Safavi said, it will demonstrate its deception and interference. BS

IRANIAN OFFICIAL PARTICIPATES IN AMMAN CONFERENCE
Deputy Foreign Minister Gholamali Khoshru told reporters prior to leaving Tehran for a 6 January meeting in Amman of foreign ministers of Iraq's neighboring states that the conference comes at a sensitive time, Radio Farda reported. He said that failing to adhere to the election timetable will contribute to insecurity, which, in turn, would lead to the continuation of the occupation and more terrorism. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi is not attending the meeting in protest against King Abdullah's recent allegations of Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. King Abdullah retracted his statements on 5 January, telling a Kuwaiti newspaper that he was misquoted, Radio Farda reported (see Iraq item below). Meanwhile, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari said at the 6 January meeting in Amman that the world should not expect a replica of the Iranian form of government just because some Iraqis have links with Iran, Radio Farda reported. He called on the foreign ministers attending the meeting to resist interfering in the 30 January Iraqi election in any form, Radio Farda reported. Also in attendance were representatives of Egypt and Bahrain, as well as Ashraf Ghazi on behalf of the United Nations and Amr Musa on behalf of the Arab League. BS

IRAQI PREMIER EXTENDS STATE OF EMERGENCY
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced on 6 January that he will extend a state of emergency for an additional 30 days, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The state of emergency was first declared on 7 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2004). It gives the government special powers to impose curfews, close airports and borders, and detain suspected insurgents without following normal legal procedures. It affects the whole of Iraq, except for Iraqi Kurdistan, which has seen relative calm in recent months. Allawi told reporters in Baghdad that he decided to extend the curfew "because of the continuous atrocities by terrorist gangs to prevent the forming of a widely elected, representative government in Iraq and because of their attempt to delay peaceful participation by all Iraqis," London's "The Guardian" reported on 7 January. KR

ELECTION COMMISSION ANNOUNCES SPECIAL VOTING PROCEDURES IN SOME AREAS
RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on 6 January that the Election Commission has announced that due to the unique security situation in the Al-Anbar and Ninawah governorates, voters who were unable to register to vote during the allotted period in December will be allowed to register and vote on election day on 30 January. The commission added that some registration forms were lost in the governorates due to attacks in which records were burned. Extra polling personnel will be on hand in those governorates on election day to facilitate registration and voting. KR

FORMER GOVERNING COUNCIL MEMBER SAYS GOVERNMENT CANNOT PROTECT VOTERS
Nasir Kamil Chadirchi told London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on 6 January that the interim government "is incapable of protecting the voters or candidates," and that elections should be postponed until the security situation improves. "The ministers themselves cannot leave their offices out of fear for their life, so how can an appropriate security situation be provided for the elections?" he added. Chadirchi said that his party has yet to announce the names of its candidates out of fear for their safety; it has not campaigned due to the bad security situation. "Voters and candidates do not have enough freedom to play a role in these elections. There are large and hot areas in which the elections cannot be held. They are under pressure." Chadirchi said that Iraqis will find it difficult to vote in the Baghdad, Diyala, Al-Anbar, and Ninawah governorates. "Terrorism will force a large number of Sunnis and Shi'ites, particularly the middle class, to stay away from the ballot boxes," he claimed. U.S. Lieutenant General Thomas Metz told a Baghdad press briefing on 6 January that the Baghdad, Al-Ramadi, Ninawah, and Salah Al-Din governorates are not secure enough for Iraqis to vote, nytimes.com reported on 7 January. KR

JORDAN'S KING SETS THE RECORD STRAIGHT
King Abdullah II told Amman's "Al-Ra'y" newspaper in an interview published on 6 January that his previous statements alluding to Iranian intentions to create a Shi'ite state in Iraq were misinterpreted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2005). "The Iraqis themselves are those who have the right to decide their future by participation in the elections, far from any foreign interference," he said. "Elections might produce a government that does not represent all the Iraqis, a government that represents one segment at the expense of the other. What we want is to have all parties participate for attaining security and democracy and the formulation of the new constitution. All this will ultimately fulfill the interests of Iraq, the interests of all of us, and the interest of the peace process in the region." KR

PENTAGON TO SEND RETIRED GENERAL TO IRAQ TO REVIEW MILITARY POLICY
The U.S. Defense Department will send retired General Gary E. Luck to Iraq next week to carry out an open-ended review of the military's Iraq policy, department officials told "The New York Times" on 6 January, nytimes.com reported on 7 January. The review will examine troop levels, training programs for Iraqi security forces, and the strategy for fighting militants. Luck is the former head of U.S. forces in South Korea and is currently serving as a senior adviser to Joint Forces Command. He also served as a senior adviser to General Tommy R. Franks at CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The website reported that a major focus of the review will be to assess the training programs for Iraqi soldiers and police officers, whose training appears to have fallen short in some areas. KR

SEVEN U.S. SOLDIERS KILLED IN BAGHDAD
Seven U.S. soldiers were killed in Baghdad on 6 January when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device (IED), U.S. Central Command said in a statement posted to its website on 7 January (http://www.centcom.mil). The soldiers were conducting a routine patrol when the IED detonated, the statement said. A U.S. Marine was killed in the Al-Anbar Governorate while conducting "security and stability operations," according to a separate statement. The governorate includes the restive cities of Al-Fallujah and Al-Ramadi. Some 100 Iraqis, mostly policemen, have been killed this week in attacks targeting the interim government and security forces, Reuters reported on 6 January. KR

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