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Newsline - March 15, 2006

The Indian Foreign Ministry announced on March 14 that New Delhi will soon receive uranium from Russia to power its two nuclear power plants at Tarapur, "The New York Times" reported. The United States has objected to such sales in the past but will presumably not do so this time because of the recent agreement between Washington and New Delhi giving India access to nuclear fuel and equipment from the United States for civilian use. Russia might also be able to invoke a "safety exception clause" for members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, to which it belongs, which enables signatories to supply nuclear fuel to countries that have not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Pact, such as India, if there is reason to believe that "starving" a reactor of fuel could pose a safety hazard, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman said. The U.S. company General Electric built the two plants at Tarapur in the 1960s, but Washington blocked sales of nuclear fuel to India after 1974, when India tested a nuclear bomb. Russia and France have sold India nuclear fuel intermittently in the meantime. The last Russian sale took place in 2001, which prompted a U.S. protest. PM

Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on March 14 that he and his visiting Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem are working to persuade the leaders of Hamas to accept the "road map" for Middle East peace, and he noted unspecified "positive signals" from that group, RIA Novosti and "Vremya novostei" reported. Lavrov also warned against unspecified attempts to "isolate Hamas," adding that Palestinian voters have entrusted it with leading their next government. He advised against what he called attempts at "financial strangulation" of the Palestinian Authority by unnamed countries by cutting off funds in response to the recent electoral victory of Hamas. A Hamas delegation visited Moscow earlier this month but did not show signs of willingness to revise that group's hard-line stance towards Israel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 8, 2006). In related news, Russian Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev hailed the development of Russian-Syrian economic relations at the regular meeting of a joint trade body on March 15, ITAR-TASS reported. "The contracts for the construction of such big facilities as the first 324-kilometer line of the Pan-Arab gas pipeline and the construction of a gas processing plant near Palmyra, valued at $370 million, were signed in 2005," he noted. Russian-Syrian trade amounted to $460 million that year, and the goal is to return it to its 1992 figure of $1 billion, the minister added. PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov discussed the need for an unspecified "common strategy" on Iran with his French counterpart Philippe Douste-Blazy by telephone on March 15, Interfax reported. Lavrov subsequently made an apparently similar phone call regarding Iran and the Middle East to his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, but no details have been reported. The Moscow daily "Izvestiya" wrote that Russia's policy in the Middle East is aimed at establishing a special role for itself in that region independent of the Western powers and as an intermediary between them and the Muslim states, which has become "an obsession." The daily also noted Russia's interest in selling nuclear power plants to Iran and arms to several states in the region. The paper warned that Russian policy will be shown as "irrelevant" if it fails to produce results in its dealings with Iran and Hamas. PM

President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of top officials dealing with nuclear power in Moscow on March 14 that Russia should increase the share of atomic energy in electricity production to 20-25 percent, Russian media reported. He noted that the figure for 2006 is expected to be 16 percent, and that this will fall to 13 percent unless steps are taken to reverse a downward trend. He recently called for raising the figure to 25 percent by 2030 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31 and February 2, 2006). PM

Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), has sacked Mayak Nuclear Waste Disposal Facility General Director Vitaly Sadovnikov, RIA Novosti reported on March 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2006). The prosecutor's office for the Urals Federal District in Yekaterinburg recently brought charges against Sadovnikov for allegedly ignoring rules on handling hazardous substances and waste. The charges involved offences allegedly committed during 2001-04, due to which several dozen million cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste spilled into the Techa River. The prosecutors also suggested that Mayak management misused its financial resources. Mayak is Russia's biggest reprocessor of spent nuclear fuel and handles materials from the Kola, Novovoronezh, and Beloyarsk nuclear power plants, as well as from nuclear submarines. It is located just east of the Urals in Chelyabinsk Oblast and was created in the 1940s as the heart of the Soviet Union's nuclear program. It is widely considered to be the site of some of the worst radioactive contamination on earth. PM

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told the weekly meeting of the government on March 15 that inflation must be kept within the target of 8-9 percent for 2006, Interfax reported. He noted that figures for the first two months of the year suggest that the annual rate will exceed the target. "We must keep within the planned figures regarding the consumer price index in 2006," he added. Fradkov said that the government will approve an antiinflation program on April 17. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin did not attend the meeting because he was hospitalized with a lung infection, RIA Novosti reported. On March 14, German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, said that inflation can be kept under the 9 percent rate for 2006. At the March 9 government meeting, Fradkov implied that the two ministers might be sacked unless the rate of inflation drops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2006). PM

Unified Russia won 33.7 percent of the vote in the March 12 elections for a new 54-seat Republic of Adygeya parliament, reported on March 14. In second place was the Communist Party of the Russian Federation with 15.2 percent, followed by the Unified Industrial Party of Russia (OPPR) with 13.6 percent. The OPPR ran together with the Union of Slavs of Adygeya; the two parties hoped to win a majority in the new legislature in order to push through a new law on referendums that would pave the way for a referendum on subsuming Adygeya into surrounding Krasnodar Krai (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 10, 2006). The Agrarian Party won 10 percent of the vote; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, the Party of Life, the Pensioners' Party, and the Party of Social Defense failed to garner the minimum 7 percent of the vote required for representation in the new parliament. Voter turnout was 45 percent. LF

North Ossetian Constitutional Court Chairman Aleksandr Tsaliev has sent an open letter to the Regnum news agency decrying what he termed unconstitutional actions by unnamed Ingushetian politicians and government agencies to expedite the return to Ingushetia of the disputed Prigorodny district, the independent website reported on March 14. Prigorodny district was part of the then Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) until that republic was abolished following the deportation of the Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia in 1944, when Prigorodny district became part of neighboring North Ossetia. When the Chechens and Ingush were formally exonerated in 1956 and the Chechen-Ingush ASSR was reestablished, Prigorodny district remained in North Ossetia. Tsaliev rejected Ingushetian arguments that the failure to return Prigorodny district to Ingushetia constitutes a violation of the constitutional rights of its former Ingush population. He further argued that it is the Ingush who are acting unconstitutionally in demanding the revision of internal borders between subjects of the Russian Federation. LF

The Nogai community of the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR), which numbers a little fewer than 15,000 people and accounts for just 3.4 percent of the republic's total population, has convened its fourth congress in Cherkessk, which focused on the problems that community faces, and reported on March 14. Those problems include the lack of employment opportunities in the rural districts where most Nogais live, and which has resulted in the emigration of many young Nogai men to Russia's Far North in search of work. The Nogais agreed that the first step towards resolving those problems should be the creation of a Nogai autonomous district, an initiative which KChR President Mustafa Batdyev has termed expedient, according to Addressing the congress, writer Isa Kapaev deplored the negative press coverage given to the Nogais in the wake of last month's clashes in Stavropol Krai between police and security forces and a so-called "Nogai battalion" aligned with the Chechen resistance (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 24, 2006). Kapaev claimed that no such battalion exists, and he protested the media's tendency "to equate Nogais with terrorists." The congress set up a National Council and elected as chairman of the social-political organization Birlik Valery Sanglibaev, who is a factory director and deputy to the KChR parliament. LF

The Union of Public Defenders, an umbrella group comprising six Armenian NGOs, released a statement on March 14 claiming that the approval granted last week by the Public Service Regulatory Commission for a 50 percent increase in the price of gas supplied to domestic consumers was illegal because the public was not informed in advance of the proposed increase, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). LF

On March 14, Prime Minister Artur Rasizade delivered his annual report on the work of the cabinet to parliament, which endorsed it, and reported on March 15. Rasizade stressed the country's strong economic performance, as reflected in GDP growth of 26.4 percent, a 33.5 percent increase in industrial production, and a 42.9 percent increase in oil extraction. Rasizade added that the poverty level has been reduced to 29 percent (it was 40 percent in May 2005, according to President Ilham Aliyev as quoted by Turan on May 12) and that a total of 170,000 new jobs have been created, of which 79,000 are permanent positions. Parliament speaker Oktay Asadov pointed out, however, that the report did not indicate how outstanding problems are to be solved, reported. Opposition deputy Djemal Hasanli argued that the report should also give details of the activities of the so-called "force ministries," and of the government's proposals for resolving the Karabakh conflict. LF

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried and Ambassador Steven Mann, who is the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, convened a press conference in Baku on March 14 at the end of a two-day visit, Azerbaijani media reported. The two diplomats met on March 13 with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and the following day with President Ilham Aliyev to discuss the Karabakh conflict, the internal political situation in Azerbaijan, and the situation in Iran. Also on March 14, they met with Economic Development Minister Heidar Babayev, human rights activists, and with opposition Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar, reported. Fried told journalists that during his meeting with Babayev he stressed the need to ensure transparency in spending the huge revenues Azerbaijan anticipates receiving once the Baku-Tbuilisi-Ceyhan oil export pipeline becomes operational. He warned that a resumption of hostilities over Karabakh would prove a catastrophe for the entire South Caucasus. Mann, for his part, added that a new war would frighten off potential investors and could call into question existing state frontiers. Fried further expressed regret that the November 6 parliamentary elections "did not entirely meet our expectations," and he stressed that for Azerbaijan to become "a strong state" as Washington hopes, it requires "a strong opposition." LF

Former Health Minister Ali Insanov, who was dismissed in October 2005, and arrested on charges of embezzlement and plotting a coup d'etat, is suffering from a serious cough, and a medical examination has revealed spots on one lung that could indicate tuberculosis, reported on March 15 quoting Insanov's lawyer Togrul Babayev. One week earlier, Babayev denied reports that Insanov is suffering from TB, according to on March 7. LF

Zurab Noghaideli denied on March 15 that Vano Merabishvili will step down as interior minister in light of reports implicating senior ministry officials in the January killing of United Georgian Bank official Sandro Girgvliani, Caucasus Press reported. Some media have speculated that Prosecutor-General Zurab Adeishvili or Givi Targamadze, chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, are in line to succeed Merabishvili. Meanwhile, Adjar businessman Mikheil Gagoshidze told journalists in Tbilisi on March 14 that a Toyota Land Cruiser said by the Interior Ministry to have been used by Girgvliani's killers belongs to him, Caucasus Press reported. Gagoshidze said police confiscated the vehicle from him for no valid reason in November 2005. LF

Meeting on March 13 with OSCE and EU officials, Boris Chochiev, who is deputy prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, called for convening within the next few days a session of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported on March 14. Chochiev argued that since the most recent plan for resolving the conflict proposed by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is unworkable, working groups should be established to draft a joint plan acceptable to both sides. RIA Novosti quoted Russian envoy Valery Kenyaikin as saying that the JCC meeting will take place in Vladikavkaz, capital of the Republic of North Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported on March 14. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava last week proposed Brussels as the venue for that session, according to Caucasus Press on March 6. Chochiev also called for a meeting of the presidents and interior ministers of the four parties to the conflict (Russia, Georgia, South Ossetia, and North Ossetia) with OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht. LF

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced on March 14 in Astana that he told Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in a meeting the same day that the United States wants to see "the rapid conclusion of talks between Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan on transporting Kazakh oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Kazakhstan has expressed interest in shipping oil through the BTC (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2005), but it has not yet signed a contract. Bodman said: "I encouraged Kazakhstan to take a leading role in the region to promote expanded energy infrastructure development and additional energy transit routes," AP reported. Bodman also noted that U.S. investment in Kazakhstan "could double in the next five years," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. According to the newspaper, Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry put U.S. investment in Kazakhstan at $11.43 billion as of the first quarter of 2005. DK

Nursultan Nazarbaev spoke with Uzbek President Islam Karimov by telephone on March 14 in the lead-up to Nazarbaev's March 19-20 official visit to Uzbekistan, Kazinform reported. Their discussion focused on bilateral cooperation and regional integration. Also on March 14, Kazakh Industry and Trade Minister Vladimir Shkolnik said that Kazakhstan has proposed the construction of a border cooperation center in Saryagash on the Kazakh-Uzbek border, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Shkolnik said that according to Kazakh customs officials, bilateral trade was nearly $500 million in 2005, a 15.8 percent increase compared to 2004. Uzbek Finance Minister Rustam Azimov also met with Nazarbaev in Astana on March 14, Khabar television reported. DK

Imomali Rakhmonov met with Carlos Pinerua, head of the International Monetary Fund's mission to Tajikistan, in Dushanbe on March 14 to discuss a new IMF poverty reduction program for Tajikistan, Avesta reported. Pinerua said that the new three-year program, which is slated for presentation in late May or early June, will involve allocations of up to $66 million, reported. Pinerua also confirmed that on January 6 seven donor countries agreed to write off Tajikistan's $99 million debt to the IMF, RIA Novosti reported. Tajikistan's foreign debt stands at $895 million as of January 2006. DK

Defendants on trial in a Tashkent Province court on charges of forming a religious extremist group have said that their confessions were extracted under torture, the BBC's Uzbek Service reported on March 14. The trial of eight young men began on March 10. Andrea Berg, the New York-based Human Rights Watch's representative in Uzbekistan, told the BBC that six of the eight accused testified in court that they made false confessions after being beaten and threatened with rape. DK

Polls opened in Belarus on March 14 for early voting in the presidential election scheduled for March 19, Belarusian media reported. During the five-day early-voting period, polls will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Any eligible voter in Belarus can cast his/her ballot during this time without explaining his/her reasons for this step. The opposition has repeatedly complained that advance polls are easy to use for fraud as it is difficult to monitor what happens to ballot boxes over several days and to oversee any vote count. "They are obliging students, servicemen, workers in state companies to vote early because it's an easy way to cheat," Anatol Lybedzka, one of united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich's campaign managers, told Reuters. "Lack of control over ballot boxes makes a redistribution of votes from Milinkevich to [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka a simple matter." According to Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik, Belarus has 7.02 million eligible voters. JM

Vasil Berasneu, campaign manager for opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin in Orsha, Vitsebsk Oblast, was sentenced to seven days in jail on March 14 on a charge of petty hooliganism, Belapan reported. Earlier the same day, the Orsha police also arrested Vasil Leuchankau, the local campaign manager for another opposition candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich. Berasneu was initially accused of organizing an unauthorized rally, but subsequently the charge was changed to petty hooliganism. Leuchankau is reportedly to stand trial on March 15 on as yet unspecified charges. Also on March 14, a court in Hrodna sentenced Maksim Hubarevich, a member of Milinkevich's campaign team in that city, to seven days in jail on a charge of petty hooliganism. The police officers who apprehended Hubarevich the previous day testified that he had been swinging his arms and shouting obscenities while walking on the street. The same day two courts in Hrodna sentenced activists of the Polish ethnic community in Belarus, Andrzej Poczobut and Jozef Porzecki, to 10 and seven days in jail, respectively, finding them guilty of using obscene language in the presence of police officers. Poczobut and Porzecki remain in opposition to the Union of Poles in Belarus leadership elected in August 2005 under pressure from the authorities. JM

Some 5,000 people attended a meeting with opposition presidential candidate Milinkevich in Homel, southern Belarus, on March 14, Belapan reported. "It is a disgrace when a country's leader is not welcome in any European country for 10 years," Milinkevich said in Homel. " It's lies that no one needs us. The world needs a free and democratic Belarus. We'll be in Europe because we are Europe." The rally was held at a soccer stadium. Milinkevich's campaign team had to scrap its initial plans for a rally at a square in downtown Homel as truckloads of snow had been brought to the venue from across the city days before the event. JM

Police in Vitsebsk Oblast on March 14 seized "thousands" of copies of the opposition daily "Narodnaya volya," the second print run of the newspaper to be confiscated on its way from the Russian city of Smolensk to Belarus this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006), Belapan reported. The truck carrying the print run was stopped at the Belarusian border and later driven to the regional police department in Vitebsk. Editor in Chief Iosif Syaredzich, who was accompanying the shipment, was also taken to the police department. According to Svyatlana Kalinkina, deputy editor in chief, the decision to seize the print run was made by plainclothes security officers at the border checkpoint. "They did not find any flaws in the accompanying documents but decided to seize the print run for its examination," she said. JM

Belarusian Television reported on March 14 that State Security Committee (KGB) officers seized some 65,000 copies of a fake issue of the country's largest state-run daily, "Sovetskaya Belorussiya," at the Belarusian-Russian border. The issue was reportedly printed in Smolensk, Russia, and its shipment into Belarus escorted by Ales Mikhalevich, deputy head of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF). "I don't deny that I was involved in transporting this newspaper. I know that this newspaper was made by activists of the civic campaign Enough!," Mikhalevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. Dzmitry Kostsin, spokesman for President Lukashenka's reelection team, told Belapan that the fake issue, printed on good quality paper, has a strong resemblance to a genuine "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" issue, with articles allegedly authored by the paper's real staff writers and the content glorifying the incumbent president in a grotesque manner. "According to rough estimates, the production cost of these 60,000 or 65,000 fake copies was more than $100,000," "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" Editor in Chief Pavel Yakubovich said on Belarusian Television. "I think the people who can spend such gigantic sums in such an easy fashion are far from being poor. This is the first thing. Second, the moral aspect. It's monstrous! Because the BNF party, which did it and which has always declared its high morals and adherence to the Belarusian national revival, has now lowered itself to such unworthy tricks." JM

The Verkhovna Rada on March 15 voted to include the Nikopol Ferroalloys Plant on a list of enterprises that cannot be privatized in 2006-2007, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Parliament endorsed a similar bill in February, but it was subsequently vetoed by President Viktor Yushchenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10, 2006). In January, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2003 sale of a 25 percent stake in Nikopol for some $80 million to Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma, was illegal and returned it to the state. The government intended to sell a 50 percent stake plus one share in Nikopol at an open auction later this year. JM

Ihor Popov of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization monitoring election campaigns in the country, told journalists on March 14 that between 5 percent and 10 percent of voter lists prepared for the March 26 parliamentary elections are inaccurate, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Popov was commenting on the results of a monitoring mission that his organization carried out in early March. He added that irregularities in voter lists can be found in all regions of Ukraine. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the opposition Party of Regions, accused the authorities earlier this month of deliberately compiling lists of voters in southeastern Ukraine with mistakes in order to deprive many voters of the right to cast ballots (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 14, 2006). JM

Belarusian border guards on March 15 denied entry to Belarus to two journalists of the Kyiv-based Channel 5, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Reporter Andriy Zhyhulin and camera operator Vitaliy Doroshchenko were turned back without any explanations from a Kyiv-Minsk train at the Ukrainian-Belarusian border. Both reportedly had accreditations for working in Belarus during the presidential election campaign issued by the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. JM

The lawyer for Slobodan Milosevic announced on March 15 that the former Yugoslav president's funeral will be held in Serbia, international news agencies reported. "The son of Mr. Milosevic has just informed (the) Hague tribunal that the funeral of his father will be in Belgrade," Milosevic's lawyer Zdenko Tomanovic said in remarks reported by Reuters. Tomanovic said Milosevic's body would arrive in Belgrade on the afternoon of March 15, but did not indicate when the funeral would take place. The decision followed days of wrangling between Milosevic's family and Serbian authorities. Belgrade refused to hold a state funeral and refused to allow Milosevic to be buried in the "Avenue of Heroes" in the capital's main cemetery. A Belgrade court ruled on March 14 that Milosevic's widow Mirjana Markovic, who fled to Moscow in 2003 to avoid charges of abuse of power, would not be arrested if she came to Serbia for the funeral. She would, however, face a court hearing and her passport would be confiscated on arrival. BW

A Russian doctor who reviewed Milosevic's autopsy results said on March 15 that he agreed that the former Yugoslav president died of a heart attack, Reuters reported. "We came to the [same] conclusion that was made by the local team.... We are satisfied with what we saw," said Leo Bokeria, a director at Moscow's Bakulev Cardiological Surgery Center where Milosevic had requested to go for treatment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 20 and February 24, 2006). Bokeria said he saw "nothing showing signs of suicide." He said, however, that questions remain over whether Milosevic received adequate care during his trial. "If the patient was investigated enough...he would have still been alive today," he said. Milosevic's family has said the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is responsible for his death because it did not allow him to travel to Russia for treatment. But a Dutch toxicologist said blood tests taken weeks before Milosevic died suggested had knowingly taken harmful medicines to bolster his case to go to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2006). BW

The Russian State Duma on March 15 unanimously passed a resolution calling for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to be closed, Interfax reported. "The State Duma once again calls for all cases currently being handled by the ICTY within the framework of the so-called Completion Strategy endorsed by the UN Security Council to be wrapped up within the soonest possible period of time and declares that further activity by the ICTY is inappropriate," the State Duma said in a resolution titled "In connection with the death of former President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia." The Duma also voted to send the resolution to all NATO members and to the ICTY. "The rulings passed by the tribunal over the period of its existence have been completely politicized and biased. Double standards have been a norm of its work," the resolution said. BW

Kosova officials announced on March 14 that Hashim Thaci, leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), will head Prishtina's negotiating team when final-status talks resume, international news agencies reported the same day. Thaci replaces Fehmi Mujota, who led the Kosova team in the most recent round of talks, in February. The move is controversial as Thaci, a former senior commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), is reviled as a terrorist by Serbia. The United Nations-backed talks on Kosova's final status are scheduled to resume in Vienna on March 17, dpa reported on March 13. The meeting, which will be chaired by Albert Rohan, deputy to UN Kosova envoy Martti Ahtisaari, will focus on reform of local government, on local finances, and on inter-municipal cooperation. BW

Kosova Prime Minister Agim Ceku on March 15 asked ministers in his government to prepare a report on the state of human rights and minority rights in the province, Beta and B92 reported. "We must promote the values of tolerance, coexistence, reconciliation and forgiveness, so that everyone in Kosova can feel equal and respected," Ceku said. Ceku appointed Arifa Mucolija, a special advisor on human rights issues, to coordinate the government's human rights and minority rights initiatives. He also expressed support for an initiative proposed by the previous government to create a section within each ministry to be responsible for human rights issues. BW

European Union peacekeepers (EUFOR) and NATO troops on March 15 raided the homes of people in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina suspected of assisting war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic, dpa reported. The main target of the operation was Nemanja Vasic -- a known associate of Karadzic and an activist with the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) -- in the northern Bosnian Serb town of Prnjavor. Troops searched Vasic's home, and a company and a bar that he owns. "The search was conducted in an effort to find additional information about Radovan Karadzic's support network in an effort to determine his location," NATO said in a statement. EUFOR said the operation was "carefully planned and coordinated with the local authorities and intelligence." BW

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 14 that new customs rules imposed on the breakaway region of Transdniester violate earlier agreements and are exacerbating the region's humanitarian situation, AP reported the same day. "We aren't going to leave it unattended," Lavrov said. "We will demand the fulfillment of the existing agreements. We must collectively search for a solution," he continued. Lavrov said the new rules, which required all cargo to be cleared by Moldovan customs officers, violated earlier agreements that allowed Transdniester to freely conduct its economic activities. Ukraine and Moldova instituted the customs rules on March 3 in an effort to combat smuggling. Transdniester officials called the move an economic blockade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). BW

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated allegations that the Iranian government is "putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq." Speaking to reporters at a March 7 press briefing in Washington, Rumsfeld added that "they're putting Iranian Al-Quds Force-type people into" Iraq. Asked if these forces were carrying out violence or trying to instigate political instability, Rumsfeld replied: "I don't think we could consider them religious pilgrims."

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the same briefing that the U.S. has found some improvised explosive devices and weapons that it believes can be traced to Iran. Pace added that there has been an influx of "individuals" across the Iran-Iraq border but declined to say how many. Asked if the people entering Iraq were backed by the Iranian government, Pace said simply "I don't know."

Asked the same question, Rumsfeld was more ominous. "Well, of course," Rumsfeld said. "The Revolutionary Guard doesn't go milling around willy-nilly, one would think." He added that the Iranian government might some day view its role in Iraq as an "error in judgment."

Iraq observers have spent much of the past three years debating the extent of Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. There is a growing belief in both Iraqi and U.S. circles that Iranian agents have infiltrated the Iraqi security apparatus, as well as the extra-governmental militias that engage in armed conflict with Iraqi police and army units and multinational forces. Iranian-style weapons -- in particular, more powerful improvised explosive devices -- have also made their way to Iraq in increasing numbers, posing a considerable threat to Iraqi and U.S. security forces.

In an August 2005 feature, the newsweekly "Time" argued that the Iranian regime began planning its infiltration to Iraq in late 2002, setting up military units along the Iran-Iraq border. The units reportedly accompanied Iraqi opposition parties and militias when they entered Iraq during the opening days of the war. "Time" reported that as many as 12,000 people entered Iraq from Iran in the early days after the U.S-led invasion, including agents of the Iranian security services.

Three years on, Iran appears to have entrenched its intelligence and paramilitary forces in Iraq by playing two sides of the conflict: Shi'ite parties and militias who share a common religious outlook, and Sunni Arab Islamists bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq.

Among the possible imputed Iranian goals in Iraq are (1) establishing an Islamic state and preventing the formation of a pro-Arab, pro-U.S., secularist regime; (2) driving U.S. forces from Iraq; (3) preventing the revival of Al-Najaf over Qom as the seat of Shi'ite scholarship; and (4) obtaining influence over the exploitation of Iraq's natural resources, namely oil. A fifth possible goal is to establish a secure route linking Iran to Syria, thereby enabling the movement of goods and hardware that could be used as leverage in Iran's relationship with Israel.

Iraq's leading Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was based in Iran for some 20 years prior to the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime. SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Corps (now known as the Badr Organization) was trained by Iran's Al-Quds Force, a special-operations unit of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. The Cairo-based weekly "Al-Ahram" contended in 2005 that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad played a role in the formation of the Badr Corps and hence wields influence over the organization today. However, the veracity of that allegation is not known.

As the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 got under way, Badr forces -- hundreds of whom are Iraqis with military training who defected to Iran in the 1980s -- entered Iraq. They quickly took control of security, local governance, and aid organizations in Shi'ite-populated towns in Mada'in, located some 30 kilometers south of Baghdad, and as far north as Samarra, located 100 kilometers north of Baghdad. Many analysts believe the Badr forces were accompanied by Iranian Al-Quds Force troops.

Within a month, their sphere of influence had spread to other areas of the country. SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim announced on April 23, 2003, that Badr forces "are in most villages and areas" in the country. "Nobody can drive them out," he said. The lack of security along the 1,000-kilometer Iran-Iraq border allowed for the free flow of weapons into Iraq.

In areas where these forces could not seize overt control, they turned to local clerics to bolster their influence. In areas where they faced resistance, they bought influence in local councils or seized power by force. Meanwhile, Iranian intelligence agents employed a systematic program to eliminate anyone with close ties to the United States, as well as former military personnel and technocrats who served under Hussein, Cairo's "Al-Ahram Weekly" reported on July 6, 2005.

Iran's influence in Iraq today reportedly extends to all corners of the country but is most pervasive in the south. Iranian-backed militia consolidated their control over Al-Basrah by 2004. Now, they dominate the police, governorate council, security apparatuses, and even humanitarian organizations. The militias in the city have virtually eliminated local opposition. Now, minority Christians, Sunni Arabs, and secular Shi'ites are subjected to strict Islamic conduct in the region. Journalists have either abandoned their work altogether or work clandestinely.

In central Iraq, Iran has reportedly funded insurgents through Syria, setting up intelligence networks that some have claimed were better organized than Iraqi intelligence. In its August 2005 report, "Time" magazine wrote that it had obtained IRGC files from August 2004 showing at least 11,740 Badr Corps members were still on the IRGC payroll.

In October 2005, London's "Sunday Telegraph" reported that the Al-Quds Force had established three main smuggling routes into Iraq through Al-Basrah, Al-Amarah, and Baghdad from a base in Ahvaz, which is located inside the Iranian border southeast of Al-Amarah.

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denies any relationship with the Iranian regime, but he visited Iran in June 2003, where he met with high-level Iranian officials. Al-Sadr visited Iran again in January 2006, meeting with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani. Since that time, it appears relations have deepened, and some U.S. and Iraqi officials have alleged that Iran is funding al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

Following the fall of the Hussein regime, al-Sadr, a low-level cleric, aligned himself with Qom-based Iraqi Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha'iri, relying on the ayatollah to issue fatwas that supported his agenda. The relationship was soon on rocky ground after al-Sadr clashed with the clerical establishment in Al-Najaf in late 2003. Later clashes between al-Sadr loyalists and U.S.-led coalition forces in 2004 led to a severing of ties with al-Ha'iri -- leaving al-Sadr without the crucial backing of a senior cleric.

During this period Iran reportedly set up training camps for Al-Mahdi militia inside Iranian territory, according to several sources. According to the reports, the militiamen are trained in combat tactics, reconnaissance, and espionage.

It was also during this time that a number of attempted assassinations were carried out against leading Shi'ite clergy. Some Iraqis accused the Iranian Al-Quds Force of carrying out the attacks, saying Iran's clerical leadership was worried about the revival of Al-Najaf's hawzahs (seminaries), which they viewed as a threat to Shi'ite seminaries in Qom.

Iran has had links to key Al-Qaeda leaders since the mid-1990s. Al-Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was the "frequent guest" of the Iranian intelligence ministry and Al-Quds Force commander Ahmad Vahidi throughout the 1990s, according to a January 20, 2003, report by the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism. Iran's relations with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization reportedly began in 2001. According to a December 2005 report prepared by Dore Gold and Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Haleve for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, al-Zarqawi visited Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) training camps and received logistical support from the Al-Quds Force in 2001. Likewise, al-Zarqawi spent time in Syrian training camps in 2002.

While an ideological divide separates al-Zarqawi's Salafist ideology and the Shi'ite ideology of Iran, the two share some common goals, including the overthrow of corrupt Sunni Arab regimes, the desire to establish Islamist rule across the Muslim world, and the destruction of Israel and its allies, namely the United States. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that al-Zarqawi and Iran's theocratic leaders have been able to come to some sort of strategic alliance.

Iran has reportedly aided Sunni Islamist terrorist organizations in the past -- in Algeria, Egypt, and Gaza. Western intelligence analysts claim that Iran's modus operandi is to "outsource" to proxy organizations the conduct of terrorist activities so that they cannot be linked to Iran.

Iranian Brigadier General Qasim Suleimani of the Revolution Guard Corps said in 2004 that Iran supported al-Zarqawi because his activities in Iraq coincided with Iran's goal of preventing the establishment of a pro-U.S. government there, the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported in August 2004.

Any al-Zarqawi-Iran connection may have been severed in recent months, however, as al-Zarqawi's ideology hardened. Al-Zarqawi announced in July that his group had formed the so-called Umar Brigade to hunt down and kill Shi'ite Badr Corps members. Despite warnings from Al-Qaeda leaders -- including No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri -- that he should cease his attacks on Shi'ites, al-Zarqawi's group has continued its activities. Around the same time, al-Zarqawi also clashed with his one-time spiritual mentor, Jordanian-based Abu Ahmad al-Maqdisi over theological issues.

Iran's strong relations with members of Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government go back to the 1980s when groups like SCIRI and the Islamic Al-Da'wah (Call) party sought refuge in Iran from Saddam Hussein's regime.

Within this culture SCIRI's armed wing was born, and today members of those groups are prominent in the Iraqi government, including Prime Minister and Al-Da'wah Party leader Ibrahim al-Ja'fari and Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who is a former leader of the Badr Corps. Jabr's leadership of the Interior Ministry has been called into question after dozens of attacks on Sunni Arabs in Iraq in the past year were purportedly carried out by armed men wearing ministry uniforms. Jabr has denied any wrongdoing by his forces, saying the uniforms were worn by insurgents hoping to spark sectarian violence in Iraq.

Other Iraqi Shi'ite leaders have also blamed insurgents for attacks on Sunni Arabs. Some observers have speculated that leaders such as SCIRI head al-Hakim and al-Ja'fari have lost influence over their original base of support among Iraqis living in Iran before the war. As a result, either they can't control armed Shi'ites or they won't, because they are still dependent on Iranian financial support for their extra-governmental activities.

The outgoing transitional government has worked hard to secure stronger relations with Iran, signing a number of economic agreements with Iraq's eastern neighbor over the past nine months. Al-Ja'fari has in the past supported recognizing Iranians as a minority group in Iraq, "Time" magazine reported in August 2005. Although Iraqi Shi'ite leaders have maintained that they do not support the establishment of an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq, they did lobby intensively for the new constitution to spell out a greater role for Islam.

Geologists in Washington said Afghanistan holds 18 times as much oil and triple the amount of natural gas that was previously thought, AP reported on March 14. The survey, put forward by the U.S. Geological Survey and Afghanistan's Ministry of Mines and Industry, was aimed at drawing energy companies into considering the development of petroleum fields in Afghanistan. The survey said some 1.6 billion barrels of oil exist mostly in the Afghan-Tajik basin, while about 15.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas sits mainly in the Amu Darya Basin. Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the survey's estimates "very positive findings," especially since Afghanistan imports most of its energy. "Knowing more about our country's petroleum resources will enable us to take steps to develop our energy potential, which is crucial for our country's growth," he said. The independent U.S. trade and development agency paid $2 million for the assessment, which took nearly four years to complete. MR

Militias in northern Afghanistan have surrendered three bunkers full of arms to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the biggest peaceful arms surrender yet in the country, AFP reported on March 14. ISAF estimated that the haul included some 80 tons of Russian TNT, 15,000 antipersonnel mines, and 10,000 antitank mines. Another bunker thought to contain weapons is also under inspection, an ISAF statement said. The surrendered weapons were to be handed over to the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) initiative and destroyed. The bunkers, near the northern city of Sheberghan, were initially discovered last year, but local warlords denied Afghan authorities access until ISAF officials working out of Mazar-e Sharif negotiated a handover. MR

Closed-door bilateral talks between Iran and Russia took place in Moscow on March 14, ITAR-TASS reported. Supreme National Security Council Deputy-Secretary Ali Husseinitash represented the Iranian side and Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov represented Russia. The Russian Security Council reaffirmed Moscow's desire to settle the Iranian nuclear crisis diplomatically and said the "consultations" will continue. BS

Iran's parliament approved on March 14 the budget for the year beginning on March 21, IRNA reported. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad submitted the budget in mid-January, and the legislature approved its general outline in early-March. Out of 226 votes, 155 were in favor of the budget and 35 were against it. The Guardians Council must now approve the budget. BS

Two legislators -- Mamasani's Ali Ahmadi and Nishabur's Gholam Hussein Mozaffari -- submitted their resignations as protests against the budget, ILNA reported on March 14. Mozaffari explained, "I am protesting because during the debate yesterday evening the parliament approved the allocation of some budget to unspecified projects from dubious revenue sources." He continued: "And it is not clear how the government is hoping to realize such revenues and how to spend it. I therefore prefer to resign in protest." Previously, legislators objected to excessive reliance on oil revenues for funding the budget. BS

Petroleum Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh said during a March 14 visit to the southwestern city of Ahvaz that Iran intends to produce more oil, and it intends to introduce up-to-date methods to extract more oil from its wells, Ahvaz television reported. "Currently, we are producing just over 4 million barrels per day," he said. "We are planning to increase production to over 5 million barrels per day by the end of the Fourth Development Plan [2010]." He also said the ministry is prioritizing the recovery of oil through gas injection and more modern means, and it also wants to modernize installations and pipelines. Turning to the possibility of Iran facing international sanctions as a result of being referred to the UN Security Council over the nuclear issue, Vaziri-Hamaneh said Iran would revise its international oil contracts, IRNA reported. BS

Ahmadinejad said during a March 14 speech in the northwestern city of Gorgan that "several powers" are using "bullying and harassment" in an effort to block Iran's progress, state television reported. This explains the opposition to Iranian nuclear efforts, Ahmadinejad said. He went on to accuse these foreign powers of "brainwashing the nations of the world with their cowardly propaganda," but the expenditure of billions of dollars on "evil propaganda" has not worked, he said. He added that the foreign powers are insinuating that the nuclear program is not beneficial to the Iranian people and is a waste of time and money. BS

Ahmadinejad went on to say during his March 14 speech in Gorgan that the Iranian people had a revolution "in order to be free from having to listen to stand on our own feet...[and so] the Iran government would take orders from the dear Iranian nation." Ahmadinejad said he is not bothered by the possibility that Iranian officials' ability to travel internationally would be curtailed by international sanctions. "I would like to tell them that basically, we are not at all interested in seeing your faces!" BS

The bodies of at least 80 Iraqis have been found in Baghdad over the past three days, international media reported on March 15. Police found some 30 bodies buried in a mass grave in the Al-Kamaliyah area of eastern Baghdad on March 14, KUNA reported. The source said the victims were aged between 30 and 40. They were buried in a shallow grave with two pits. A pool of blood on the ground led investigators to the site. Many of the victims were found handcuffed and blindfolded. Reuters cited police as saying that some of the bodies showed signs of torture. Some appear to have been killed in the past few days, while others appeared to have been dead for as long as 10 days. According to Reuters, a total of 29 corpses were found in the grave, while two bodies were found nearby; another 15 corpses were found in a pickup truck. Forty other bodies were found in separate areas of Baghdad since March 13, the news agency reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2006). KR

The Iraqi Interior Ministry announced on March 14 that a curfew will be in force on all vehicles on March 16 during the opening session of the Council of Representatives, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 14. The curfew will begin at 6:00 a.m. and remain in effect until the end of the session. March 16 also marks the 18th anniversary of the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein's army against the Kurdish Iraqi town of Halabjah. As many as 5,000 Kurds were killed. KR

Defense Ministry Director of Operations Major General Abd al-Aziz Muhammad told reporters at a March 14 press briefing in Baghdad that the Iraqi army has arrested 452 terrorists in Iraq over the past week, RFI reported. Muhammad also reported a 70 percent drop in terrorist attacks last week, saying that some 576 attacks occurred throughout the country. Thirty terrorists were killed by Iraqi forces, and another 16 wounded. Muhammad said the number of terrorist attacks fell in Kirkuk and Mosul, but rose in Diyala, Ba'qubah, and Buhruz. Muhammad said that the army intends to implement strict security measures in Al-Najaf and Karbala during the Shi'ite holy day of Arba'in, which falls on March 19. Al-Sharqiyah television quoted an unidentified spokesman for the Al-Najaf Governorate as saying that three security cordons will be in place in the holy city: one inside the city, one around it, and a third cordon, involving multinational forces "under and Iraqi command," will provide air cover, if needed. KR

Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a March 14 Pentagon press briefing that he does not have hard evidence that the Iranian government was behind the influx of weapons and Islamic Revolution Guards Corps personnel into Iraq. Addressing the same question, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters: "As to equipment, unless you physically see it coming in -- in a government-sponsored vehicle, or with government-sponsored troops, you can't know it. All you know is that you find a country that came from the neighboring country. With respect to people, it's very difficult to tie a thread precisely to the government of Iran...If, on the other hand, you have evidence, intelligence or physical evidence, that Revolutionary Guard or Qods Force people are in Iraq, you again can't -- it's entirely possible they're rogue elements, and they're just there on their own, or they're pilgrims. Not likely. And in this case, there has been evidence that Qods Force/Revolutionary Guard people have been and/or are in Iraq." He added that it is reasonable to suggest that such elements are "not freelancing and they're not pilgrims." KR

The European Court of Human Rights on March 14 dismissed a case brought by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein against 21 European states, all members of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in 2003. Hussein based on his case on clauses in the European Convention on Human Rights relating to the right to life, the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to a fair trail, and the death penalty. The court ruled that Hussein "had not demonstrated that he fell within the jurisdiction of the [21 states] on any of the bases alleged. He did not fall within their jurisdiction on the basis of their control of the territory where the alleged violations took place. Even if he could have fallen within a state's jurisdiction because of his detention by it, he had not shown that any one of those States had any responsibility for, or any involvement or role in, his arrest and subsequent detention. Finally, there was no basis in the Convention's jurisprudence and the applicant had not invoked any established principle of international law which would mean that he fell within those States' jurisdiction on the sole basis that they allegedly formed part (at varying unspecified levels) of a coalition with the United States." KR