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Newsline - April 20, 2006

The "Financial Times" reported on April 20 that Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller told the ambassadors of the 25 EU member states in Moscow on April 19 that the EU should not block Gazprom's "international ambitions, warning that it could redirect supplies to other markets." Gazprom said in a statement after the meeting that "it is necessary to note that attempts to limit Gazprom's activities in the European market and politicize questions of gas supply, which in fact are of an entirely economic nature, will not lead to good results." The statement added that "it should not be forgotten that we are actively familiarizing ourselves with new markets, such as North America and China. Gas producers in Central Asia are also paying attention to the Chinese market. This is not by chance: competition for energy resources is growing." Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told the London-based daily: "We just want European countries to understand that we have other alternatives in terms of gas sales. We have a fast-growing Chinese market, and a market for liquefied natural gas in the [United States]. If the European Union wants our gas, it has to consider our interests as well." Gazprom's warning comes shortly after the "Financial Times" reported on fears in the United Kingdom over a possible Gazprom takeover of Centrica, that country's biggest gas supplier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2006). PM

An unnamed "Gazprom source" told Interfax in Moscow on April 20 that a Gazprom delegation led by Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov discussed with Turkmen officials in Ashgabat on April 17 the "possible acquisition of all the natural gas Turkmenistan [will] ship to Europe over the next three years." Negotiations are slated to continue later in April. In related news, Gazprom CEO Miller said in Moscow on April 19 that his company is considering adding nuclear power to its "portfolio," RIA Novosti reported. PM

The Moscow business daily "Vedomosti" reported on April 20 that Gazprom-Media has agreed to buy the mass-circulation tabloid daily "Komsomolskaya pravda." The report has not been confirmed. "Vedomosti" recently reported that Gazprom was seeking to buy the daily "Kommersant," but the energy company denied the story (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2006). Gazprom already owns an extensive media empire including the NTV news channel, a controlling stake in the Ekho Moskvy radio station, and the long-established Moscow daily "Izvestia." The website noted on April 5 that "Russia's opposition media have been reduced to a handful of small-circulation Moscow dailies and internet sites, such as" Some critics have spoken of an increasing "Putinization" of the Russian media, meaning a tendency to put the authorities in a favorable light and focus attention away from controversial domestic political issues and onto foreign affairs, sport, entertainment, or business. PM

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in Moscow on April 19 that Washington wants the July summit of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries meeting in St. Petersburg to discuss for the first time several "issues pertaining to conflicts very close to Russia's borders," the website reported. Those topics include the situation in Belarus and the conflicts in Georgia, Moldova, and Nagorno-Karabakh, none of which is on Russia's proposed agenda for the meeting. Burns also called on all "countries to stop cooperation with Iran on nuclear issues, even on civilian nuclear issues like the Bushehr facility," which Russia is helping to construct. PM

General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the General Staff, said in Moscow on April 19 after talks with U.S. General James Jones, who is NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, that Russia will carry out its agreements to sell arms to Iran, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 12, and 16, 2005, and February 9, 2006). Baluyevsky added: "I do not think that [the crisis regarding the Iranian nuclear program] will turn into a war. Russia will not propose the use of its armed forces in a [possible] military conflict on either side." PM

The Moscow City Duma adopted an appeal to President Vladimir Putin on April 19 to curb the work of foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) fighting HIV/AIDS on the grounds that they "encourage pedophilia, prostitution, and the use of drugs among teenagers," "The Moscow Times" reported on April 20. The appeal, which accused unnamed foreign NGOs of "corrupting the people's morale and health," was backed by 28 deputies belonging to the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and four Communist (KPRF) legislators. Three deputies belonging to the liberal Yabloko party abstained. Representatives of several foreign NGOs rejected the charges. One such representative, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "We are doing our best to help this country to fight against this epidemic, and this is what we get." Russia's controversial new NGO law took effect on April 17. In related news, the NGO Union of Committees of Soldiers Mothers received a summons to appear in Moscow's Basmany Court at the behest of the Federal Registration Service on April 19, only to find out that the agency had meanwhile suspended its case aimed at shutting down the NGO, "The Moscow Times" reported on April 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12 and 18, 2006). The daily suggested that the authorities will wait until after the G-8 summit in July to close the Union. PM

Moscow's Simonovsky Court on April 19 sentenced Svetlana Bakhmina, a former lawyer for the embattled Yukos company, to seven years in prison on charges of embezzling $300 million and of tax evasion, Russian media reported. Russian courts have already jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and several of his key associates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, March 16 and 20, and April 19, 2006). PM

Speaking in Gudermes on April 19, Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that displaced persons' camps in Chechnya have turned into hotbeds of crime, drug addiction, and prostitution, and will therefore be closed, Interfax and RIA Novosti reported. Kadyrov further alleged that the overwhelming majority of inmates of those camps have habitable accommodation elsewhere in Chechnya, but have "become lazy" and grown accustomed to living on handouts from international aid organizations. In October 2004, Tadeusz Iwinski, the rapporteur on refugees and displaced persons for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, estimated the number of internally displaced persons within Chechnya at 350,000. The current population of Chechnya's displaced persons' camps is unclear, as is the proportion of their inmates who returned to Chechnya from similar camps in neighboring Ingushetia that were closed down two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 13, February 17 and April 10, 2004). LF

Gibo Dzutsev, who headed one of the informal Ossetian paramilitary formations that targeted Ingush settlers in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion during the fighting of October-November 1992 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 27, 2006) died on April 20 when unidentified perpetrators opened fire on his car on a street in Vladikavkaz, reported, quoting a North Ossetian Interior Ministry official. Dzutsev's driver was hospitalized with serious injuries. LF

The office of Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian made public on April 19 a report by the Prosecutor-General's Office concluding that many privatizations of state-owned assets between 2001-04 were carried out in violation of a 1994 decree intended to guarantee the transparency and competitiveness of such deals, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The report cited a dozen cases in which properties were arbitrarily sold at cut-rate prices, a practice the report said inflicted "considerable damage" on state finances. Members of Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir party, which is one of the junior partners in the ruling coalition government, made similar allegations of malpractice during a parliament debate last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2006). LF

The armed forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic concluded on April 19 seven days of war games that mobilized hundreds of troops, including reservists, backed by tanks, helicopters, and heavy artillery, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The troops practiced both defensive and offensive operations in the form of fighting back a hypothetical enemy assault and then launching a counterattack. Both Armenian and Karabakh officials denied that the war games, which are conducted annually, were intended as a response to repeated Azerbaijani threats to launch a new offensive to bring the unrecognized republic back under the control of the Azerbaijani central government. LF

Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, who is Baku's point man for the Karabakh peace process, told journalists on April 19 that Washington has not "officially" made any new "proposals" for resolving the Karabakh conflict, reported on April 20. But he did admit that the United States has floated "new ideas" for normalizing relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan even before a formal settlement of the conflict. Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, who met in Washington on April 7 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, subsequently told Trend news agency that the United States has unveiled unspecified "new proposals" for resolving the Karabakah conflict, and that Baku will officially respond to those proposals during the visit by U.S. Minsk Group Co-chairman Ambassador Steven Mann, who is scheduled to arrive in Baku on April 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly told journalists after talks in Moscow on April 7 with his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian that the OSCE Minsk Group has put forward unspecified "new proposals" that its co-chairmen are discussing with the conflict sides. Azimov's general tone was pessimistic, according to, which quoted him as saying that liberation of the territory contiguous to Karabakh that is currently occupied by Armenian forces "could serve as the first step" toward resolving the conflict. But Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on April 18 that it is premature to discuss an Armenian withdrawal from those occupied districts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2006). LF

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili and Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili both told journalists in Tbilisi on April 19 that the resolution passed earlier that day by the Russian State Duma calling for a ban on the import of wine and mineral water from Georgia and Moldova was "a political act," Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili said the ban is not connected with the Russian crackdown on falsified products, while Svimonishvili stressed that Tbilisi has received no response to its repeated offers to establish a joint Russian-Georgian working group to tackle the problem. LF

Sergei Minenkov, head of the international counterterrorism department in Kazakhstan's National Security Committee, announced on April 19 that security officials have broken up a terror group that was planning a series of attacks in the country, Khabar and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Minenkov said that 10 Kazakh citizens have been arrested and homemade explosive devices, weapons, ammunition, and religious extremist literature were confiscated. He said that the group has been active in Kazakhstan since mid-2005, and that it planned to attack "places where people congregate and vital facilities," including the police and security agencies. Minenkov said that the group's goal was to "spread a radical religious ideology and gradually prepare the population for the need to set up a caliphate." He added, "It's difficult to which international terrorist organization this criminal group belongs; the court should decide that." DK

Nursultan Nazarbaev told a meeting at the National Bank in Astana on April 19 that the country's national debt situation is "not improving," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The meeting focused on the National Bank's report for 2005, which indicated that the country's total foreign debt rose from $31.9 billion at the end of 2004 to $41.5 billion at the end of 2005. Each total equaled 74 percent of GDP at the time. Nazarbaev noted that foreign borrowing by Kazakh banks increased 60 percent in 2005, rising to 25 percent of GDP. Nazarbaev recalled the financial crisis of 1998 and warned that the situation could be dangerous "Given that world politics are so unstable and prices for basic raw materials are also unstable." DK

President Nazarbaev has issued a decree appointing Karim Masimov deputy prime minister and minister of economy and budget planning, Kazinform reported on April 19. Kairat Kelimbetov, the outgoing economy and budget planning minister, has been appointed chairman of the Kazyna sustainable-development foundation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The news agency noted that Masimov, a long-time Nazarbaev aide, has been deputy prime minister since January 2006. DK

President Bakiev and other top officials debated opposition leaders on national television on April 19, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Bakiev said that constitutional reform, a key opposition demand, will be implemented no earlier than the last quarter of 2006, reported. Bakiev also said that demonstrations would not change his mind, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. He said, "If someone thinks it's so easy to shake the president who has been working for only less than a year by rallies and so on, they will all fail." Opposition politicians and NGOs are planning a large rally on April 29 to highlight their demands for immediate constitutional reform, less corruption, and a stronger fight against crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2006). DK

Opposition participants came away from the debate unsatisfied, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev said, "I am not satisfied with the outcome of this meeting because [President Kurmanbek Bakiev] should have explicitly responded to those real public issues and should have presented his own specific proposals and ways of resolving [the issues]. I thought he would launch new directions of reforms. However, regrettably, he confined himself to whitewashing [his policy] and accusing some [opposition] movements." Parliamentary deputy Kubatbek Baibolov commented, "I got the impression that [President Bakiev] is unaware, to a large extent, of the real state of affairs. Perhaps he is not informed about everything. There is no real economic growth.... There is no reform of the administrative and territorial division. There is neither administrative reform, nor judicial reform, nor tax reform under way. Business is still not free, [the situation is] as it was before. The courts still do not provide due justice." Deputy Melis Eshimkanov compared Bakiev to former President Askar Akaev, reported. Eshimkanov said, "I thought our demands would be heard. But [Bakiev], like Akaev, lives in a bubble. He's out of touch with reality." DK

President Bakiev announced on April 19 that Kyrgyzstan will consider ending its 2001 bilateral agreement on the U.S. military base in the country unless negotiations on a new agreement are completed by June 1, and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Noting that he has repeatedly informed "high-ranking U.S. representatives" of the need for a new agreement, Bakiev said "Kyrgyzstan retains the right to consider the possibility of terminating the bilateral agreement signed on December 4, 2001, if circumstances mean we are unable to finish the negotiation process by June 1." Although both sides have been tight-lipped about the negotiating process, Bakiev told Russia's "Kommersant" in a February 15 interview that Kyrgyzstan has asked the United States to increase the amount it pays to lease the base each year to $207 million, up from approximately $2 million at present (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2006). DK

Tajik citizens committed more crimes in Russia in 2005 than the citizens of any other CIS country, a Russian Interior Ministry official told Interfax on April 19. According to the Interior Ministry, Tajik citizens committed 7,717 crimes in Russia in 2005, a 9.7 percent increase on 2004 statistics. Ukrainians committed the second-largest number of crimes -- 6,680, a year-on-year decrease of about 1,500. The Interior Ministry also detailed crimes committed in Russia in 2005 by Uzbek citizens (6,679), Azerbaijani citizens (4,893), Moldovan citizens (3,334), and Armenian citizens (2,564). DK

A Tajik police source has said that an arms cache discovered recently in the Zarafshan Valley may belong to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Varorud reported on April 19. Police in Sughd Province said that the cache contained a grenade-launcher with ammunition, two mines, a grenade, and night-vision goggles. An unnamed police source told the news agency, "According to the results of ballistics tests, the arsenal was ready for use. Law-enforcement agencies have information that the ammunition and equipment belong to IMU members." DK

Aleksandr Ryazanov, deputy chairman of Russia's Gazprom, has completed the first round of negotiations with Turkmen officials in Ashgabat for Russia to buy 50 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas each year for the next three years, reported on April 19. The report said that the sides agreed to conclude the talks, which will focus on the price and delivery conditions, by the end of April. DK

Alisher Sharipov, a spokesman for Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry, told Regnum and Interfax on April 19 that recent statements about torture in Uzbekistan by the UN's special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, are inaccurate. Sharipov said, "It appears that Mr. Nowak, who has never been to Uzbekistan, is using information provided by NGOs. They often work on the basis of inaccurate information founded on rumor. In the majority of cases, their activities are avowedly intended to discredit the human rights policies of the Uzbek government." Sharipov said Uzbekistan has implemented 20 of 22 recommendations made by Theo van Boven, a previous UN special rapporteur on torture, who described the practice in 2002 as "systemic" in Uzbekistan. Nowak issued a press release on December 16, 2005, calling on the German authorities to initiate a criminal case against Uzbekistan's then Interior Minister Zokir Almatov, citing "the fact that on 12 December 2005, several survivors of torture filed a case against [Almatov] in the German courts." And on April 10, Nowak told RFE/RL: "I think there is ample evidence that both police and other security forces [in Uzbekistan] have been and are continuing to systematically practice torture, in particular against dissidents or people who are opponents of the regime." DK

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has closed its office in Uzbekistan in compliance with a demand from Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006), the UN News Service reported on April 19. UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told a briefing in Geneva the same day that the UN Development Program, acting "under an alternative arrangement," will provide care and assistance to 1,800 refugees in Uzbekistan, most of them from Afghanistan. Previously, the UNHCR had cared for the refugees. DK

The Minsk City Executive Committee has granted permission for opposition political parties and nongovernmental organizations to stage a march in Minsk on April 26 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Belapan reported. The march, called the Chornobyl Way, has traditionally been an opposition forum of protest against the policies of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Some 1,000 people participated in the unauthorized Chernobyl march in 2004, 3,000 people in 2003, 4,000 in 2002, 5,000 in 2001, and more than 20,000 in 2000. A crowd of up to 50,000 took part in the march on the 10th anniversary, during which demonstrators overturned cars and clashed with police. Dozens were hurt in clashes and more than 200 were arrested in Minsk in 1996. This year city officials insisted that marchers take a route away from the city center. JM

Belarusian Ambassador to Poland Pavel Latushka has submitted to the Polish Foreign Ministry proposals on improving bilateral relations, Belapan reported on April 19. Latushka told journalists in Warsaw on April 19 that the two countries could revive bilateral cooperation commissions, promote cross-border cooperation and cooperation among provinces, hold a joint opening ceremony for the reconstructed Augustow Canal in the summer of 2006, and sign accords to increase cooperation on border controls and environmental protection. Latushka also suggested that the bilateral Commission on Affairs of Ethnic Minority Schools could resume its work in order to improve conditions for the Belarusian minority in Poland and the Polish minority in Belarus. "[The proposals] are very interesting, and they primarily show that the Belarusian side has changed its tone in talks with us," Polish Foreign Ministry spokesman Pawel Dobrowolski told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "It is a very primitive attempt at pressurizing Russia. It is known that the Russian side is now threatening to increase the price of gas for Belarus, so the Belarusian side is suggesting that it will cooperate more closely with Poland, which of course is not desired by Moscow," commented Marek Bucko, former diplomat at the Polish Embassy in Minsk. JM

The Our Ukraine bloc on April 19 basically approved the protocol on the creation of a democratic coalition that the leaders of the Our Ukraine People's Union, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialists Party signed last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2006), Ukrainian media reported. However, Our Ukraine did not okay the last provision of this protocol, which effectively stipulates that the party that garnered the largest number of votes in the March 26 parliamentary elections will nominate its representative for prime minister. Yuliya Tymoshenko, whose bloc came in second after the Party of Yanukovych, has publicly announced that she will seek the post of prime minister in a renewed Orange Revolution coalition. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said on April 19 that talks on a future coalition should be based on programmatic issues rather than "personal interests." "I think that the time of kings and princesses is long gone in Ukraine," Yekhanurov said in an apparent reference to Tymoshenko, who was known as the "gas princess" in the 1990s when she headed a gas-trading company. JM

According to Serbian media reports, two men have been arrested for assisting war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, B92 reported on April 20, citing the daily "Blic." Stanko Ristic, a pilot and former military officer, and his son Predrag will be charged with helping Mladic evade capture. Meanwhile, the daily "Kurir," citing unidentified sources close to the Serbian government, reported on April 19 that Mladic has been located and will be arrested by the end of April, Reuters reported the same day. According to the report, Mladic is surrounded and his communications have been cut off. "Mladic has no way out," "Kurir" quoted one official as saying. "He was located some 20 days ago on the territory of one of the former Yugoslav republics. The final preparations for his arrest are being made, and as things stand that will happen around the May Day holiday to prevent a huge media circus." The European Union has given Serbia until April 30 to arrest Mladic or face a suspension of talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). BW

A senior UN official said on April 19 that the world body may need to maintain a presence in northern Kosova regardless of the province's final status, Reuters reported the same day. U.S. diplomat Gerard Gallucci, the top UN official in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, said a continued international presence would help "coordinate relations" between Serbs in the north and the ethnic Albanian authorities in Prishtina. "Everyone now understands there has to be a transitional period in which the international community -- even though it may be getting out of a UN role south of the Ibar River -- may continue to play some similar role in the north for some period of time," Gallucci told Reuters. "I think the UN may be best-equipped to play this role." BW

The United Nations has appointed retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Steven Schook as the deputy head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), AP reported the same day. Schook has extensive experience in the Balkans. He has served as chief of staff to the commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosova (KFOR). He also served as the top NATO official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as commander of the SFOR multinational peacekeeping force. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Holy See signed a basic agreement on April 19 regulating relations between Sarajevo and the Roman Catholic Church, dpa reported the same day. Ivo Miro Jovic, the Croatian member of Bosnia's collective presidency, and the papal nuncio in Bosnia, Alessandro D'Errico, signed the agreement. "For more than 530 years, Bosnia-Herzegovina did not have a basic agreement with the Holy See. Signing this document now we show our orientation toward Europe," Jovic said. The agreement was signed after Bosnia's parliament passed legislation on religious freedom and on the legal standing of churches and religious communities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). In the agreement, Bosnia and the Vatican "reaffirm that the state and the Catholic Church, each in its proper sphere, are independent and autonomous." BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's Islamic Community on April 18 officially established a Fatwa Council, dpa reported the same day. The council, which is designed to explain Islamic law and protect Islamic rights, was inaugurated in Sarajevo in the presence of Islamic Community leader Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric and the grand mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa. With the inauguration, Bosnia's Islamic Community became a full member of the Fatwa Council of Egypt and Syria. "This is a historical moment for Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina," Ceric said. He added that the Fatwa Council will help Bosnian Muslims to "pose questions and get answers about the religion," promote dialogue among different faiths, and speak out against extremism and terrorism. BW

Jailed former Moldovan Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat announced a hunger strike on April 19 to protest inadequate medical attention, Interfax reported the same day, citing Pasat's lawyer, Gheorghe Amihalachioae. "My client's health had been undermined since he was imprisoned and continues to deteriorate daily," Amihalachioae said. "He has been examined, but doctors have been refusing to announce the results. He has not been informed of his diagnosis and he cannot get appropriate medical treatment." Pasat was sentenced to 10 years in prison for abuse of office in connection with the sale of MiG-29 fighter jets to the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 2006). In February, Moldovan prosecutors filed additional charges against him for allegedly plotting a coup and planning the assassination of a top politician (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2006). Pasat has said all charges against him are political. BW

Ten thousand Iraqi families have been internally displaced as a result of the ongoing civil conflict, and the number continues to rise. The president of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in an April 17 interview that the number of displaced persons has almost tripled in less than a month.

"On March 22, the number of the displaced was 3,400 families, with each family made up of seven to 11 people on average," Sa'id Isma'il Haqqi said. "Between March 22 and April 15, the number of the families [displaced] jumped to 9,900 nearing 10,000 families." If Haqqi's figures are correct, the number of people displaced now stands at about 89,000.

Both the UN and the Red Crescent maintain that the number could be far higher, as many families opt to seek shelter with relatives in different cities rather than in camps. Many of those who fled said they had lived in their homes for more than 20 years.

While the majority of those displaced appear to be residents of Baghdad, minority communities of Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs across the country have fled violence and threats. The surge in sectarian violence is a sufficient threat in and of itself, with dozens of Iraqis now turning up dead on the streets of Baghdad and other cities each week.

In addition, nearly 20,000 Iraqis have been kidnapped so far this year, including 4,959 women and 2,350 children, according to an April 19 report compiled by a group of 125 Iraqi NGOs in Karbala, reported the same day.

According to an April 17 report by the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (, Shi'ite Muslims displaced from the Sunni-majority Al-Anbar Governorate and Baghdad have sought refuge in the southern cities of Al-Najaf, Al-Nasiriyah, and Al-Basrah. Meanwhile, Sunni families have fled from Shi'ite strongholds in Baghdad and Al-Basrah for the Sunni-populated towns of Al-Fallujah, Al-Ramadi, and Al-Rawa.

More than 500 families are in a Red Crescent camp inside an abandoned factory in Al-Amarah, and 950 families are in another camp set up in an Al-Kut amusement park. The Red Crescent says it has provided the families with electricity, foodstuffs, cooking stoves, and blankets and beds.

Families interviewed by RFI over the past few weeks said they fled their homes after family members were killed, or after being warned to leave or be killed. One Shi'ite woman, who fled Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb district to the Diyala Governorate north of the capital, told RFI on April 19: "We have been beaten up and felt bad as [armed groups] started to kidnap the kids. This is why we have left." The woman, who was not identified by name, said her family was "expelled" from Baghdad.

Another woman, a widow with six children, told RFI that she too was expelled on sectarian grounds. Asked who was responsible for her expulsion, she said: "Well, I don't know. We don't have anything [against] Sunnis and Shi'a. We don't know from which sect this [threat] has come." The woman did not identify her own sect. The head of the Red Crescent Society in Diyala's Al-Miqdadiyah district told RFI that some 175 displaced families are registered, and new families continue to arrive seeking food rations and other support.

Earlier this month, gunmen in Al-Basrah distributed leaflets threatening to kill Sunni Arabs unless they left the city. City officials said that 12 Sunnis were killed in sectarian attacks in the first week of April, RFI reported, while Waqf officials said that the number was closer to 40.

The tactics used by armed Sunni and Shi'ite groups are similar to campaigns by Sunni insurgents in Mosul in 2004 and 2005 to drive Kurdish residents from the city. Families received written notes warning them to leave, or awoke to find threats scribbled in graffiti on their homes. Others reported confrontations with armed gunmen.

In some cases the tactics have become more sophisticated. Some of the displaced said they had received threatening text messages and grisly videos filmed on mobile-phone cameras warning them to leave, the BBC reported on April 13.

One video purportedly showed a Sunni Arab man who had entered a Shi'ite-majority neighborhood in Baghdad being beaten and killed by men in black clothes. The video promised the same fate to any other Sunni who came to that neighborhood.

Iraqis are not the only ones suffering under the threat of intimidation and violence. Palestinian families who have lived in Iraq for decades have fled Baghdad under increasing threat by armed groups since 2003. In the past month, about 100 Palestinians have sought safe haven in Jordan after coming under threat, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on April 7. Jordan refused them entry, and they remain stranded on the Iraqi side of the border.

According to HRW, the situation of Palestinian refugees in Iraq has deteriorated significantly over the past year. Ten Palestinians were murdered in late February. In March, fliers were distributed in a Baghdad neighborhood anonymously warning some 35 Palestinian families to leave their houses by April 2, one refugee told HRW.

Iraqis say that Sunnis and Shi'a lived together in harmony until Saddam Hussein built a regime that favored one sectarian identity over another. Today, that harmony seems all but a mirage hijacked through retribution attacks by both victor and vanquished.

While the average Iraqi on the street may hold no ill will against his neighbor, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the campaigns of violence carried out against Sunnis and Shi'a, which grow more brutal by the day.

The longer it takes to bring the security situation under control, the more difficult it will be to reverse the ethnic cleansing of mixed communities that is now taking place across Iraq. Should armed groups achieve their goal, the result will be more than just notations on a map; it will also be a cultural and linguistic loss and, in the end, a loss of Iraqi identity.

The People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) will vote on President Hamid Karzai's proposed 25-member cabinet on April 20, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on April 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2006). During deliberations on April 19, some members of the People's Council voiced their concern over the fact that some members of the proposed cabinet hold citizenship of other countries in addition to their Afghan citizenship. People's Council Speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni informed the representatives that Parliamentary Affairs Minister Faruq Wardak has informed him that six members of the proposed cabinet have dual citizenship that they would give up if asked. According to the Afghan Constitution, a cabinet minister can only have Afghan citizenship. Members of the People's Council must vote for each minister-designate and the results of the vote will be announced on April 20, Qanuni explained. AT

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on April 19 that the joint military operation conducted by the U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan security forces in Konar Province will continue until its objectives are achieved. According to Azimi, the objective of the campaign, dubbed Operation Mountain Lion, is the elimination of the antigovernment forces in Konar and neighboring Nuristan Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2006). Azimi told RFE/RL that in the past such operations were conducted only by the coalition forces, but now Afghan forces are also engaged. The current military campaign, which began on April 7, was planned one year ago, Azimi said, adding that other than initial resistance the enemy has not shown the ability to fight. Azimi said that thus far eight enemy combatants have been killed. AT

The intelligence chief of Konduz Province, Kamaluddin Golalai, on April 19 accused police of smuggling 4,400 bottles of alcoholic beverages from Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Without identifying the suspects, Golalai said that the five police officers, including a general, brought the alcohol to Konduz before being caught. Meanwhile, Konduz police chief Brigadier General Matlab Baig denied charges that members of his department were involved in the smuggling case, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 19. While alcoholic beverages are freely sold in Kabul markets and served in some of that city's restaurants, technically under Afghan law the import and consumption of alcohol by Afghan Muslims is prohibited. AT

According to an April 19 report by AFP, Afghan refugees returning from Iran have brought with them the practice of temporary marriages. Saying that no one would give him "their daughters to marry," because he does not have a family or money, Payenda Mohammad, a resident of the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, told AFP that he continued "doing short marriages" as he had done in Iran. According to Payenda Mohammad, he has been married 20 times. Temporary marriages -- known as mutta' or sigha -- are not accepted by the majority of Afghans who follow the Sunni branch of Islam. Shi'ites accept sigha with certain conditions. "For a man it means he doesn't have to think about women or sex," he said. AT

A report from Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations official tasked with reviewing implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, notes the close ties between Iran and Hizballah in Lebanon, and Reuters reported on 19 April. Passed in September 2004, the resolution calls for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and the dissolution of militias. The report goes on to encourage Iranian and Syrian cooperation in addressing problems in Lebanon, and it says Hizballah should be disbanded. U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton hailed the report's attention to Iranian influence in Lebanese affairs, reported. He said, "I think it's a recognition by the secretary-general that Iran's financing of terrorist groups in Lebanon and Syria has a significant impact on what happens in those two countries." BS

An anonymous Iranian official said on April 19 that neither the date of Iranian-U.S. talks on Iraq has been set, nor has a chief Iranian negotiator been named, IRNA reported. The anonymous official denied that Mohammad Javad Larijani -- who has served as a UN diplomat -- would head the Iranian delegation. The previous day, anonymous sources said in the state-run daily "Iran" that Larijani -- because of his extensive diplomatic experience -- and UN Ambassador Mohammad Javad Zarif are likely to be on the negotiating team. In Baghdad on April 18, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he will participate in the planned Iran-U.S. talks, IRNA reported the next day. Washington called for the talks last autumn, and Tehran agreed to them in mid-March. They are not likely to be held until an Iraqi government is formed. BS

Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mohammad Suleimani announced on April 19 that Iran intends to establish a "national" Internet this year, state television reported. He explained that the current requirement that information on a website must exit the country and then return in order for users to access it is quite costly. "Our people may not feel the problem, but this problem is there anyway," he continued. Suleimani went on to say that this effort began a few months earlier with the connection of the country's universities to a fiber-optic network. BS

Iraq's parliament session was postponed on April 20 as Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Ja'fari asked the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) to confirm its nomination of him to the post, international media reported. Jawad al-Maliki, spokesman for the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, told reporters that the UIA will meet on April 22 to issue a decision, according to AP. Acting parliament speaker Adnan Pachachi later told reporters at a Baghdad press briefing that it was agreed that the parliament will now convene that day as well, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. President Jalal Talabani told reporters at the same briefing that the delay will also affect the participation of some Iraqis in the April 22 reconciliation summit in Amman (see below). Talabani said he has already spoken with Jordan's King Abdallah II, adding that the Amman summit could be postponed as a result of the political developments in Iraq. KR

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani will not attend the April 22 Iraqi Islamic Reconciliation Summit in Amman, reported on April 19. The website cited a source from within the ayatollah's office as confirming al-Sistani will not attend. The source did not say whether al-Sistani will send a representative to the meeting. Grand Ayatollahs Ishaq al-Fayyad and Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim have also said that they will not attend the summit. Meanwhile, Bashir al-Najafi said that he intends to deliver a message on behalf of his father, Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, at the summit. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will send a representative as well. Religious leaders from around the region, including Sheikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the grand imam of Egypt's Al-Azhar Mosque, are expected to attend the summit. KR

The chief judge in the Al-Dujayl trial, Ra'uf Rashid Abd al-Rahman, told the court on April 19 that experts have authenticated the signature of Saddam Hussein on two documents approving the execution of 148 Shi'a from the town of Al-Dujayl and the confiscation of their land, saying the signatures were "identical," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Abd al-Rahman also approved requests by defendants Abdallah Kazim Mizhar Abdullah Kazim, and Muhammad Azzawi to present witnesses to testify on their behalf at an upcoming session. Meanwhile, Hussein's half-brother, Barzan al-Tikriti, disputed the expert analysis of his signature, saying he did not know how his signature could be authenticated when he never provided the court with a writing sample. Abd al-Rahman countered that the court used samples collected from various government departments, including the Foreign Ministry, that were identical to court documents implicating Barzan in the case. The judge also approved a request by the prosecution to appoint five experts to analyze the handwriting of Mizhar Abdullah. Experts have so far not been able to confirm his signature on documents. KR

Nearly 20,000 Iraqis have been kidnapped so far this year, including 4,959 women and 2,350 children, according to an April 19 report compiled by a group of 125 Iraqi NGOs in Karbala, reported the same day. The report said the majority of kidnappings were politically motivated or the work of common criminals seeking ransom. Regarding the escalating violence in the country, the report said, "The violence is generated by armed militias linked to political parties and is fed by porous borders and by the delay in forming a new government." KR