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Newsline - May 16, 2006


RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA, CHINA OPPOSE FORCE AGAINST IRAN
During a visit to China on May 16, Sergei Lavrov said Moscow and Beijing will oppose any UN Security Council resolution on Iran that contains a provision for military force, Interfax reported. "We confirmed today that neither Russia nor China will be able to support a possible Security Council resolution that would contain a pretext for coercive, let alone military, measures," Lavrov said. Lavrov also urged Iran to answer all outstanding questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about its nuclear program. "We are concerned that Iran has not answered all questions the IAEA still has regarding its nuclear program," Lavrov said. "Iran has pledged to do so on many occasions, and we hope it will in the very near future." BW

RUSSIA PREPARED TO GIVE MORE AID TO PALESTINIANS...
Summarizing President Vladimir Putin's meeting in Sochi with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov said Moscow is prepared to give additional financial assistance to the Palestinians, ITAR-TASS reported on May 15. Russia has already given the Palestinian Authority $10 million and later said it was prepared to increase that sum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19 and May 9, 2006). Saltanov said that Abbas did not request any more aid in his meeting with Putin. According to ITAR-TASS, Putin assured Abbas of Russia's continued support as a sponsor of the peace process and as "a dependable and consistent friend of the Palestinian people." BW

...AND WILL CONTINUE TALKING TO HAMAS
Russia announced on May 15 that it will continue its dialogue with the militant Palestinian group Hamas, Russian and international news agencies reported. "The dialogue with Hamas has been established and it continues," ITAR-TASS quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Saltanov as saying. Saltanov also said Russia will urge Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence in accordance with international demands. "Negotiations with this movement are complex...since Hamas must also take its own steps," Saltanov said. BW

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL SAYS BUSHEHR TO BE COMPLETED BY 2007 AT EARLIEST
A senior official at the Federal Atomic Energy Agency said on May 15 that Russia will not be able to complete the nuclear power station for Iran at Bushehr earlier than 2007, ITAR-TASS reported on May 16. "It is apparent that the nuclear power station in Bushehr will be completed not earlier than in 2007," the unidentified official said. "It is absolutely clear to professionals that, in accordance with technical regulations, it is impossible to complete the construction of the station in a few months, as Tehran [has claimed]," the official added. Iran recently criticized Moscow for alleged foot dragging on the power station (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12, 2006). BW

GROUP URGES RUSSIA TO COMBAT HATE CRIMES
In a report circulated on May 16, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance said Russia must do more to combat hate crimes, Interfax reported. "Despite some condemnations by the public authorities of racism and hate speech, there needs to be greater urgency at both local and national level in tackling the problem," the report said. "Criminal law provisions aimed at combating racism are not adequately implemented particularly because the racist motive of an offense is not taken sufficiently into account. Visible minorities as well as members of small religious groups are the main targets of racially motivated attacks, and of racist inflammatory discourse," the report adds. The report also advised Russia to take further steps to punish media outlets that foster ethnic and racial hatred. "It has been suggested that the Russian authorities introduce a wider range of penalties aimed at media or journalists responsible for hate speech, allowing the judges to choose the most appropriate sentence," the report says. BW

KLEBNIKOV FAMILY JOINS PROSECUTORS IN PROTESTING VERDICT
The family of slain American journalist Paul Klebnikov said in a statement released on May 16 that they support a decision by the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office to challenge the acquittal of his alleged assassins, Interfax reported. "Our lawyers told us that in their opinion there had been numerous violations of procedure during the trial," the Klebnikov family said in the statement. "We believe that prosecutor Dmitry Shokhin has serious reasons to protest the verdict because we have been informed about significant breaches of law during the trial." The family has filed an appeal with the Russian Supreme Court asking that the not-guilty verdicts for the three defendants be overturned. On May 5, a jury found Kazbek Dukuzov, Musa Vakhayev, and Fail Sadretdinov not guilty of Klebnikov's murder. The Prosecutor-General's Office later announced that it will appeal the verdict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). Klebnikov, who was editor of the Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine, was killed in Moscow two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2004). BW

TWO MILITANTS KILLED IN FIGHTING IN DAGHESTAN
Daghestani police surrounded and then stormed an apartment house in the northern town of Kizilyurt during the night of May 15-16, killing two members of an armed militant group, regnum.ru reported. One security officer was killed during the storm and six were injured. The two dead militants were subsequently identified as Ibragim Ibragimov, "emir" of Buinaksk Raion, and Abdulmadjid Kabashilayev, both wanted on suspicion of belonging to an illegal armed formation. Also on May 16, chechenpress.com reported that a band of militants killed 13 local police and Russian servicemen during fighting near the town of Buynaksk during the night on May 5-6. LF

BESLAN ATTACKER FOUND GUILTY
After a one-year trial, the North Ossetian Supreme Court on May 16 pronounced Nur-Pasha Kulayev guilty of a terrorist act and of participating in hostage taking and murder, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2005). Kulayev is allegedly the only one of the militants who took more than 1,000 people hostage in a Beslan school in early September 2004 to have survived the storm of the building by Russian security forces. Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel told journalists in Vladikavkaz on May 16 that he has asked the court to hand down the death sentence on Kulayev. LF

SEVERAL ARMENIAN DEPUTY MINISTERS, GOVERNORS RESIGN
Orinats Yerkir (OY) party members Artsruni Aghadjanian and Ara Grigorian, who were deputy minister of labor and social affairs and deputy minister of trade and economic development, respectively, have stepped down from those posts in the wake of OY Chairman Artur Baghdasarian's decision to relinquish the position of parliament speaker, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12 and 15, 2006). Baghdasarian also announced on May 12 that OY will quit the coalition government in which it was a junior partner. OY's three government ministers have since left the party rather than jeopardize their government posts. Two regional governors are also rumored to have quit OY, together with a 10th member of the party's parliament faction, which now numbers only nine deputies. LF

ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER SAID FORMER PARLIAMENT SPEAKER VIOLATED COALITION AGREEMENT
In a May 15 interview with RFE/RL's Armenian Service, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian accused Baghdasarian of violating the terms of the 2003 agreement establishing the coalition government. Specifically, Markarian noted that the three coalition members agreed to discuss and try to resolve policy disagreements among themselves, rather than publicly question government policy. Baghdasarian's unequivocal statements last month in support of Armenia joining the EU and NATO are believed to have angered President Robert Kocharian and triggered the recent defections from OY. Markarian dismissed Baghdasarian's call for NATO membership as "unacceptable." He also condemned OY's repeated demands that the government compensate the population for the devaluation during the early 1990s of savings accumulated in Soviet savings accounts. LF

SENIOR OSCE OFFICIAL VISITS ARMENIA
On the first leg of a visit to all three South Caucasus states, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Secretary-General Ambassador Marc Perrin de Brichambaut met in Yerevan on May 12 with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and on May 13 with President Kocharian, according to an OSCE press release (http://www.osce.org/item/19006.html). Those talks focused on the domestic political situation and OSCE-mediated efforts to promote a solution to the Karabakh conflict. De Brichambaut also formally inaugurated a project to recycle almost 900 tons of melange, a highly toxic component of Soviet-era rocket fuel, that will be converted into environmentally friendly low-grade fertilizer. He lauded that project as "an outstanding example of what practical cooperation between the OSCE and a participating state can achieve." LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITIONISTS SLAM REPEAT ELECTIONS
Ali Kerimli, leader of the Azadliq opposition bloc, which declined to participate either in the work of the new parliament elected on November 6 or in the repeat elections held in 10 constituencies on May 13, told journalists in Baku on May 15 that Azadliq does not recognize as legal and valid the results of the latter vote, which he said was not "free and fair," day.az and echo-az.com reported on May 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). Kerimli added that during the preparations for and conduct of the May 13 voting, the authorities ignored almost all recommendations made after the November ballot by the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Eldar Namazov of the opposition Yeni Siyaset bloc that also declined to field candidates in the repeat vote likewise told day.az on May 16 that the May 13 repeat voting was falsified. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI MINISTER AGAIN REMANDED IN PRETRIAL CUSTODY
A Baku district court has extended for a further five months the pretrial detention of former Economic Development Minister Farxad Aliyev, day.az reported on May 16. Aliyev was dismissed seven months ago and charged with plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership, which he denies. Aliyev has suffered serious health problems while in detention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12 and March 6, 16, and 24, 2006), as has former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiyev, who faces similar charges. Muradverdiyev lost consciousness in his cell during the night of May 14-15 but a doctor succeeded in resuscitating him, zerkalo.az reported on May 16. LF

GEORGIAN-ABKHAZ TALKS RESUME UNDER AUSPICES OF UN
In line with an agreement reached between Abkhaz and Georgian representatives in late March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006), the Coordinating Council established by the UN in late 1997 convened in Tbilisi on May 15 for the first time in five years, Georgian media reported. The meeting, which Georgian presidential representative Irakli Alasania characterized as "quite productive," focused on security issues, repatriation of Georgian displaced persons, and unspecified socioeconomic issues, and the two sides scheduled sessions of the council's three working groups to be held in the next few weeks. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who headed the Abkhaz delegation to the meeting, formally presented to the Georgian side Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh's new proposal for resolving the conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 12, 2006). The Georgian side similarly unveiled a new proposal drafted by Alasania and endorsed by the Interim Parliament Commission for Restoring Georgia's Territorial Integrity, Caucasus Press reported on May 15. LF

CENTRAL ASIAN MINISTERS ARGUE AGAINST IRAN JOINING SCO
Speaking in Shanghai at a meeting of foreign ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on May 15, the Kazakh and Tajik ministers ruled out the possibility of Iran joining the SCO, agencies reported. Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov told reporters, "So far this issue has not been discussed as the SCO is not able to expand indefinitely and there is no document which would regulate the membership of this or that state, including Iran," RIA Novosti reported. Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev said, "Kazakhstan finds it necessary to temporarily refrain from SCO enlargement through permanent members and observers because the organization lacks the legal basis...for admitting new members," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mohammadi said last month that Iran hopes to join the SCO this summer. Iran currently holds observer status in the SCO, as do India, Mongolia, and Pakistan. SCO members are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. DK

PREMIER SAYS KAZAKHSTAN TO JOIN BTC PIPELINE IN JUNE
Daniyal Akhmetov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on May 15 that Kazakhstan plans to sign an agreement in June for Kazakhstan to ship oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, AP and Kazinform reported. Earlier reports said that agreement would be signed in April, then in May. Akhmetov said that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev, were expected to sign the agreement at a summit of the Council on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia next month in Almaty. Kazakh legal experts are reviewing a draft of the agreement, Akhmetov said. U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman expressed strong support for the shipment of Kazakh oil through the BTC pipeline when he visited Kazakhstan in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2006). DK

RELATIVES OF SLAIN KYRGYZ WOULD-BE DEPUTY MEET WITH POLITICIANS, UNBLOCK ROAD
Relatives and supporters of Ryspek Akmatbaev, the would-be member of parliament who was gunned down on May 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006), met with Kyrgyz officials on May 15 to press their demand for the resignation of Prime Minister Feliks Kulov and a thorough investigation of Akmatbaev's murder, Kabar reported. Akmatbaev's mother, Sabira Soodalieva, said that she and others met with State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov, Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev, and Myktybek Abdyldaev, first deputy head of the presidential administration. Soodalieva said that she and other Akmatbaev supporters plan to meet with President Kurmanbek Bakiev on May 16. They will then decide whether to block roads in Balykchi, an action they undertook on May 13-14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). As of May 15, the Bishkek-Balykchi highway was clear, akipress.org reported. Akmatbaev, who has been linked to organized crime in news reports, won a seat in parliament in an April by-election, but the Central Election Commission refused to register him as a deputy pending the outcome of an ongoing criminal investigation of him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2006). DK

TAJIKISTAN SENTENCES NINE WOMEN FOR HIZB UT-TAHRIR MEMBERSHIP
A court in Khujand has sentenced nine women to prison terms ranging from five to 10 years for membership in the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on May 15. The women were found guilty of calling for the violent overthrow of Tajikistan's current form of government. Five women who were found guilty of holding leadership positions in Hizb ut-Tahrir received 10-year sentences, while four other women were sentenced to five-year terms. DK

TAJIK PRESIDENT SAYS AFGHAN DRUG PRODUCTION HAS 'TRIPLED'
Imomali Rakhmonov said on May 15 that drug production in Afghanistan has "tripled" since September 2001, Reuters reported. Rakhmonov commented, "Various donors write reports about Afghanistan saying the crop is lower but the yield is higher. Who needs all these reports? A billion in aid won't solve the problem, you need to create jobs in Afghanistan." Rakhmonov stressed that Tajikistan is doing its part to guard its 1,344-kilometer border with Afghanistan, jailing some 800 officials in the last five years for their involvement in the drug trade, Khovar reported. He also said that Tajikistan has seized and destroyed more than 60 tons of narcotics -- half of it heroin -- over the last 10 years, Avesta reported. DK

TURKMENISTAN TO BUILD SEISMOLOGY STATION TO TRACK NUCLEAR TESTS
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has approved the construction of a seismological station near the Turkmen-Iranian border to monitor underground nuclear tests, AP reported on May 15. Turkmenistan plans to build the station in compliance with its obligations under the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty. The report did not say when the station would be constructed. DK

U.S. PRESIDENT IMPOSES TRAVEL BAN ON BELARUSIAN OFFICIALS
President George W. Bush has issued an order barring President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and other members of the Belarusian government from entering the United States, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on May 15. The travel ban extends to members of the Belarusian government who are accused of involvement in alleged electoral fraud in the March 19 presidential election, human rights abuses, or corruption that undermines the transition to democracy in Belarus. The travel ban also applies to people who have, through business dealings with Belarusian government officials, derived significant financial benefit through policies that have damaged democratic institutions in Belarus. The list of individuals affected by the travel ban and its duration is to be determined by the U.S. secretary of state. JM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONIST COMPLETES TWO-YEAR PRISON SENTENCE
Opposition activist Valery Levaneuski was freed from a correctional facility in Ivatsevichy, Brest Oblast, on May 15 after finishing his two-year prison term, Belapan reported. Levaneuski and his associate Alyaksandr Vasilyeu were sentenced to two years' incarceration in September 2004 on charges of defaming President Lukashenka in a May Day leaflet featuring the phrase: "Come and say no to someone's holidaying in Austria, skiing there, and living well at your expense." Vasilyeu was released under an amnesty granted in July 2005, while Levaneuski was denied early release. JM

HOW MANY COALITION DRAFTS DO UKRAINE'S ORANGE FORCES HAVE?
Socialist Party Secretary Yosyp Vynskyy told journalists on May 15 that the three allies of the 2004 Orange Revolution coalition -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, and Our Ukraine -- have agreed on a draft coalition agreement on forming a new government following the March 26 parliamentary elections and will sign it "in the coming few days," Interfax-Ukraine and the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) reported. According to Vynskyy, the draft agreement stipulates that the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc will receive 50 percent of the government posts, the Socialist Party one-seventh of them, and Our Ukraine the remaining amount. Meanwhile, Our Ukraine spokesman Tetyana Mokridi said on May 16 that Our Ukraine continues working on a coalition accord, but she failed to explain how this accord is related to that mentioned by Vinskyy. Moreover, "Kommersant-Ukraine" on May 16 quoted Roman Zvarych of Our Ukraine as saying that the bloc is working on its "own" coalition document. "Yes, Vynskyy has handed me something in a red file, but I don't know what precisely. We have our own draft agreement prepared," Zvarych said. JM

PLOT TO ASSASSINATE BOSNIAN SERB PRIME MINISTER EXPOSED
A Serbian organized crime group was planning to kill Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, Reuters and dpa reported in May 15. The plot, allegedly involving five people, was first revealed by the newspaper "Nezavisne novine" on May 15 and confirmed by government officials the same day. "The information is correct, it came from Belgrade," Local Governance Minister Nebojsa Radmanovic told reporters in Banja Luka. "We know that those who introduce new ideas are condemned by retrograde and criminal forces, but the possibility of an assassination attempt on [Dodik] was not something we would have predicted," he added. Dodik's reformist government came to power in March after the cabinet of nationalist Prime Minister Pero Bukejlovic lost a confidence vote in parliament over its economic policy in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2006). He then launched an anticorruption drive that included a purge of government bodies and state-owned companies. BW

EU TELLS SERBIA TALKS CAN RESUME QUICKLY ONCE MLADIC IS ARRESTED
In a statement released on May 15, EU foreign ministers said Brussels is prepared to quickly resume talks with Serbia as soon as war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic is arrested, dpa reported. "If the necessary conditions are met and negotiations can resume rapidly...a swift conclusion of the negotiations...is still within reach," the statement said. The European Union broke off talks with Serbia and Montenegro on a Stabilization and Association Agreement on May 3 after Belgrade failed to meet an April 30 deadline for arresting Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). BW

MONTENEGRIN PRIME MINISTER URGES VOTE FOR INDEPENDENCE...
Saying that Podgorica should no longer be forced to suffer for Serbia's actions, Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic on May 15 urged voters to back independence, dpa reported the same day. "Montenegro is the hostage of Serbia," Djukanovic said in an interview with dpa. He added that Podgorica is being forced to bear "the consequences for things that we had nothing to do with," an apparent reference to the EU decision to cut off talks with Serbia and Montenegro over Belgrade's failure to apprehend Mladic. "That's why we have to take full responsibility for our European future into our own hands," he said. Montenegrins will vote in a referendum on independence on May 21. BW

...AS SERBIAN PREMIER PLEADS WITH EU TO HELP KEEP COUNTRY TOGETHER
Speaking in Berlin on May 15, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica urged EU members to help him keep Serbia and Montenegro united, AP reported the same day. Kostunica, who was in the German capital to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel, said Serbia is facing difficulties as it tries to push through reforms and at the same time prevent the union from breaking up. "This is an appeal to all Europeans to see the danger posed to Serbia by these factors and to help us to solve these problems," he said. While saying that he understands the EU's preoccupation with arresting Mladic, Kostunica claimed that his country's territorial integrity is just as important. BW

KOSOVAR PREMIER APPEALS FOR END TO ATTACKS ON SERBS
Prime Minister Agim Ceku on May 15 urged Kosova's majority ethnic Albanians to work to reduce tensions with the minority Serbs, AFP reported the same day. "We have to make the first step today, to conquer...the fear that Serbs who live here represent a danger for us," Ceku said in a radio address. "They do not. Reducing this fear is the foundation for creating reciprocal trust and feelings of confidence." The appeal follows a spate of attacks against Serbs in Kosova, in which two Serbian men were shot and wounded at a gas station, an Orthodox church was vandalized, and a UN bus carrying Serbs was stoned. BW

COURT RETURNS DISPUTED HARBOR TO MOLDOVAN VILLAGE
A Moldovan court ruled on May 15 that the village of Varnitsa is the rightful owner of a disputed harbor facility on the Dniester River, Interfax reported the same day. On April 21, in a move that drew criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), police and security officials from the breakaway Transdniester region seized the harbor. They claimed it is part of the Bendery River port, which is under Transdniester's jurisdiction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2006). Peacekeepers are patrolling the harbor, but Moldovan officials say they should return it to Varnitsa's control. BW

COULD AFGHAN, IRAQI INSURGENCIES FORGE OPERATIONAL TIES?
Speculation about ties between insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq has resurfaced in the face of continuing attacks on military and other targets in Afghanistan. The fears are stoked by a growing number of suicide missions, videotaped testimonials, greater use of improvised weapons, and the neo-Taliban insurgency's claim of responsibility for the recent beheading of a hostage.

The commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan recently acknowledged that "the enemy" has changed tactics in the past year. U.S. Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry said in Washington on May 10 that attackers are increasing their reliance on improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombings.

He attributed the increased bloodshed -- particularly in the three southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan -- to the fact that "institutions of the state" remain weak rather than the enemy becoming "stronger." Eikenberry ascribed the heightened violence to more than just Taliban and international terrorists. He also blamed purely criminal acts, tribal feuds, and drug traffickers.

The Afghan government refers more elliptically to "enemies of peace and stability." Self-described Taliban forces tend to claim responsibility for most of the violence, but some such claims have proven false in the past. For the sake of discussion, the perpetrators of the violence carried out in the name of the Taliban might best be described as "neo-Taliban."

While the neo-Taliban have acknowledged that there are foreign fighters among their ranks, there is no evidence to suggest concerted cooperation between Al-Qaeda and the neo-Taliban -- at least not in southern Afghanistan. The south has not historically welcomed Arabic influence or provided Arabs a foothold -- even throughout Afghan resistance to Soviet forces or the subsequent Taliban rule over much of the country.

Purported Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif was quoted by the Rome-based daily "La Repubblica" as saying recently that his movement has no "operational ties" to Al-Qaeda. But he added that the two movements have "tactical alliances based on given circumstances and territorial situations." That "tactical alliance" could be a reference to what Eikenberry described as training and facilitation provided by Al-Qaeda to Afghan insurgents.

Mohammad Hanif described suicide operations as part of the "various techniques in a war of liberation." When volunteers seek to conduct suicide missions, he said, "we support them...[and] view them as martyrs." The Afghan government has tended to proclaim that suicide operations are not part of Afghan culture -- suggesting they are the work of foreign elements. But an increasing number of those suicide bombers are reportedly Afghans.

Also mirroring suicide operations in Iraq, the neo-Taliban have begun recording the testimonials of suicide bombers, along with their grisly crimes. In at least one instance, reminiscent of the work of the Jordanian Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's group in Iraq, the videotaped execution of an Afghan accused of spying for the United States was posted on an Arabic jihadist website. But it does not provide evidence of any operational relationship between al-Zarqawi's group and the neo-Taliban in Afghanistan. In fact, according to spokesman Mohammad Hanif, the Taliban have no "specific strategy" but rather "adopt different tactics according to circumstances."

While links between the neo-Taliban in southern Afghanistan and al-Zarqawi's terrorists in Iraq still appear remote, there is much to indicate direct cooperation between al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda, which operates in the Afghan-Pakistani borderland. Postings on a jihadist website recently highlighted the desire within Al-Qaeda to link the Afghan and Iraqi theaters of fighting. A discussion on the website described Iran -- which sits between those two countries -- as an obstacle to connecting the Iraqi and Afghan fighting.

U.S. General Eikenberry has echoed the generally held view that there is no conclusive evidence of any mass migration of fighters from Iraq to Afghanistan. The use and increasing sophistication of suicide bombings, beheadings, and IEDs might be attributed to training provided by Al-Qaeda elements to the neo-Taliban. It might also be ascribed to what Eikenberry called a major challenge in this technological age -- the sharing of operational tactics and weapons knowledge through the Internet. U.S. sources with knowledge of the explosive devices used in both Afghanistan and Iraq maintain that there is no evidence of shared materials.

The prospect of a coordinated operational alliance between Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly concerns NATO and other countries with troops in Afghanistan. But that nightmare scenario would seemingly require Iranian cooperation to provide a transit route. Contributors to jihadist websites have pinned their hopes on a further deterioration of relations between the West and Iran. Such a development could prompt Tehran to cooperate in the effort to establish contact between antigovernment fighters in Afghanistan and those in Iraq.

In the absence of Iranian assistance, Al-Qaeda and its neo-Taliban allies are seemingly limited to shared tactical knowledge and training with al-Zarqawi's terrorist group in Iraq. For now at least, they would appear unable to synchronize their operational capabilities -- if such a desire exists.

AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER CHIDES PAKISTAN...
In an exclusive interview with REF/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul on May 15, Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said Pakistan is not doing enough to catch Taliban leaders. "I'd mainly like [to emphasize] that although Pakistan has arrested several Al-Qaeda leaders, there has not been any significant action to arrest Taliban leaders," he said. Spanta recently claimed that his government has information that Osama bin Laden is in Pakistan, adding that Pakistani authorities "could certainly catch" the Al-Qaeda leader if they wished (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). Islamabad had hoped that the newly appointed Spanta would take a more conciliatory stance toward Pakistan; but less than a month into his tenure, Spanta's rhetoric suggests that Kabul's grievances with its neighbor are a matter of official policy rather than a manifestation of anti-Pakistani sentiments from former United Front (aka Northern Alliance) leaders (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 28, 2006). Spanta's predecessor, Abdullah Abdullah, was a member of the United Front, which Islamabad has accused of harboring hostility for Pakistan. AT

...AND OFFERS TO MEDIATE BETWEEN TEHRAN AND WASHINGTON
Spanta also told Radio Free Afghanistan on May 15 that his country is ready to play a role in helping to reduce tensions between the United States and Iran over Tehran's nuclear activities. "We want the tensions between [the U.S. and Iran] to be decreased and disagreements to be resolved in the framework of international laws, and also the expectations of the International Atomic Energy Agency," Spanta said. "In this regard, we have said that Afghanistan is ready, if it can, to have a role in reducing the tensions." Spanta stressed that there has been no request for his country to act as a go-between. "We have not been entrusted with mediation, we just wanted to have a role in this regard," Spanta said. "If someone will eventually ask to convey a message from one country to the other, then we would definitely do so." Iran's Fars News Agency recently reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai is due to travel to Iran with a high-level delegation in June. Spanta said Kabul's relations with Tehran are based "on the principle of cooperation and mutual trust." AT/AH

AFGHAN CHIEF JUSTICE SAYS HE WON'T APPEAR BEFORE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari has indicated that he will not appear before the Wolesi Jirga to answer questions as part of a confirmation process, RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan reported on May 14. The confirmation hearings for President Karzai's nine nominees to the Supreme Court began on May 15, with a vote expected on May 17. Shinwari has indicated that he will not be present during the procedure based on a Shari'a ruling (Islamic jurisprudence). It is unclear what Shari'a ruling Shinwari has in mind. Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, the speaker of the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), has asked three of the nominees -- including Shinwari -- to present proof of their qualifications (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2006). Critics view the conservative Shinwari as having been at the forefront of assaults on freedoms, especially in the media, since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. He is a member of the unofficial Islamist coalition in the parliament, a group that Karzai relies on to counterbalance other opposition groups, especially the unorganized groupings led by Qanuni. AT

ICG REPORT ENCOURAGES FORMATION OF POLITICAL PARTIES IN AFGHANISTAN
A report released by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) on May 15 recommends that Afghanistan's National Assembly revise the country's electoral law and its law on political parties to replace the single, non-transferable-voting (SNTV) system with a party-list system and otherwise strengthen the role of parties, a press release from ICG indicated (http://www.crisisgroup.org). The report, titled "Afghanistan's New Legislature: Making Democracy Work," criticizes President Karzai for allegedly doing "all he can to marginalize" political parties. In absence of political parties, Karzai "will have to assemble ad hoc support on every issue," the ICG report adds. While praising the functionality of the National Assembly in its opening months, the report calls for swift implementation of the procedure meant to facilitate parliamentary procedures through the formation of parliamentary groups in the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) and political groups in the upper house (Council of Elders, or Meshrano Jirga). The ICG report also laments the presence of "warlords, commanders, and drug traffickers" among members of parliament and calls for those who have committed or are still committing "atrocities -- in many cases with remarkable continuity" to be held accountable, which would require a reformed judiciary (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 3, 2006). AT

AFGHANISTAN GETS NEW NATIONAL ANTHEM
Acting Minister of Culture and Youth Sayyed Makhdum Rahin released the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan's new official anthem at a ceremony in Kabul on May 14, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. In a statement released on the occasion, President Karzai predicted that the old anthem, which was created by the pre-Taliban mujahedin government, will be considered an important national song. The new anthem, whose text is only in the Pashto language as prescribed in the constitution, is based on a poem by Abdul Bari Jahani and was composed by Babrak Wassa. The anthem was recorded by the Beethoven orchestra in Bonn, Germany. AT

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER REJECTS ANY NUCLEAR FREEZE
Manuchehr Mottaki said in a meeting with the British and French ambassadors and a German charge d'affaires in Tehran on May 15 that Iran would "certainly" reject any EU proposal that includes "any demand for a suspension or halt" to fuel-making or related activities in its nuclear program, ISNA reported the same day. EU officials met in Brussels on May 15 to discuss the deal the EU would offer Iran to curb its nuclear program. Mottaki said in Tehran that Iran's recent advances in enrichment and related technology are "an evident reality and irreversible," and the EU would have to make proposals "on the basis of realities," ISNA reported. Separately, Iranian parliamentarians visited the Natanz nuclear plant on May 15, Mehr reported. Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said Iran's enrichment progress "has been highly notable compared to last year," and Iran will soon announce "more news" on technological progress. Iran, he added, will hold onto its achievements, and "nuclear research in Iran cannot be suspended with any deal, treaty, or protocol." VS

IRANIAN MINISTER PROMISES RESPONSE TO BANDITS...
Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi said on May 15 that Iran will deal with "people who create insecurity" or "engage in terrorist activities, and we shall act to stop them," ILNA reported. He was speaking after an attack by bandits that killed 12 people in southeast Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). He said security forces need more resources to strengthen security and curb banditry along Iran's frontiers. He noted that about half of Iran's frontier is not controlled. On May 14, deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar said the authorities should consider asking troops to help police with border security, ILNA reported. Purmohamdi said even troops would "need equipment, bases, and roads to safeguard borders," and "a lack of necessary resources" is the main problem in creating security. He said "terrorist activities and organized crime" are threatening Islamic states, and "the enemy has bluntly declared it is waging a soft war against [Iran], but we shall make vigorous efforts to counter their actions." He said the government plans to have full control of Iranian borders within four years, ILNA reported. VS

...AND IS BLAMED FOR COUNTRY'S LACK OF SECURITY
Tehran representative Imad Afrugh said on May 15 that "the responsibility for all the insecurity in the country lies with the interior minister, and he must answer for this," ILNA reported. Afrugh said it is not acceptable that bandits could "so easily move around, block the road, and provoke such a calamity," referring to the recent attack. "Power brings responsibility," he said. Legislators have reportedly been asked to sign a motion to question Purmohammadi in parliament, though legislator Elias Naderan said on May 15 that this initiative is not directly related to the recent incident, ILNA reported. Separately, the reformist Democracy Party issued a statement in Tehran on May 15, saying the ministry should deal with "terrorist incidents," not busy itself altering election regulations "under the influence of certain right-wing legislators," ISNA reported. Iranians expect the ministry to assure their security, it stated, especially "given the appointment of experienced security and military forces to various positions in that ministry." It added, "if the...minister is unable to assure the people's security, he should resign." VS

WAGE INCREASES BRINGING JOB CUTS IN IRAN?
A wave of job losses and unpaid wages have angered Iranian workers, and some are blaming a government decision to raise the minimum wage last March for the layoffs, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Iranian agencies reported on May 15. Recent examples include some 500 workers from two textile firms in the central city of Qom who have not been paid for five months; 540 workers from an electronics firm in the northern city of Gilan who demonstrated on May 14 over 22 months of unpaid wages; and 33 employees of a slaughterhouse in Kermanshah who were not paid when their company closed, Radio Farda reported on May 15. Legislator Qasem Azizi told ISNA on May 14 that the government is to blame for sharply raising wages as of March 20, which forced employers to lay off workers in order to cut costs. Who could afford a mandatory 25 percent wage increase, he asked, when firms face competition, price freezes, and stagnant sales? A textile-industry representative said on May 9 that government-imposed pay raises have led textile factory owners to sack 10,000 workers since late March. VS

DEFENSE WITNESSES TESTIFY IN FORMER IRAQI LEADERS' TRIAL
Defense witnesses continued to take the stand on May 16 in support of former regime members in the Al-Dujayl trial of Saddam Hussein and seven other defendants, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Only three defendants appeared in court: Mizhar Abdullah al-Ruwayid; his father, Abdallah Kazim al-Ruwayid; and Muhammad Azzawi. All three were low-ranking local Ba'ath Party members in Al-Dujayl at the time of the incident. The first witness to testify was a brother of Mizhar al-Ruwayid (and son of Abdallah), who said neither his father nor his brother were present during a roundup of civilians by security forces following a failed assassination attempt against Hussein in 1982. Five witnesses testified on behalf of defendant Ali Dayih Ali at the May 15 session of the trial. Ali summoned former Interior Minister Sa'dun Shakir to testify on his behalf at the trial, but Shakir refused to be questioned, citing personal reasons. KR

IRAQI PRESIDENT CONCERNED OVER ESCALATION IN AL-BASRAH
President Jalal Talabani told reporters at a May 15 press briefing in Baghdad that the Presidency Council has formed a committee to look into the deteriorating security situation in Al-Basrah, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi will head the committee. Talabani called the assassinations, threats, ongoing attacks, and "security chaos" in the southern city an urgent situation. Eight Iraqi policemen were killed by tribesmen in a revenge attack on a local police station on May 15 after men wearing police uniforms killed Al-Basrah chieftain Hasan Jarih al-Karmashi. Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad Musbih al-Wa'ili on May 13 accused two representatives of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of inciting violence in the governorate, RFI reported the same day. He also accused Iran of interfering in governorate affairs. Al-Wa'ili said he has suspended Al-Basrah's police chief and called on Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi to dismiss the commander of the army's 10th Division for incompetence. The governor appears to have the support of tribal leaders in the city against rogue militias operating there. KR

SUNNI GROUP CONDEMNS U.S. RAIDS SOUTH OF IRAQI CAPITAL
The Muslim Scholars Association condemned on May 15 U.S. military raids south of Baghdad, saying some 25 civilians were killed in two days, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The U.S. military announced on May 15 that more than 25 suspected terrorists were killed in a coordinated air and ground attack in Al-Yusufiyah on May 14, with four others detained. Local residents told "The Washington Post" that civilians were killed in the raids, the daily's website reported on May 16. U.S. military spokesman Robert Mulac denied the allegations. The area around Al-Yusufiyah is a known stronghold for Sunni insurgents linked to fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. A U.S. military helicopter was shot down near the town on May 15, killing the two pilots on board. KR

SENIOR AL-ZARQAWI AIDE ARRESTED WEST OF IRAQI CAPITAL
A senior aide to Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi was arrested in Al-Ramadi on May 14, the Iraqi Interior Ministry announced on May 15, KUNA reported the same day. Salah Husayn Abd al-Razzaq was in possession of Al-Qaeda documents and pictures of himself with al-Zarqawi at the time of his arrest. A separate ministry statement announced the arrest of Al-Qaeda terrorist Umar Ahmad Salih, a.k.a. Abu Jibril, in western Baghdad on May 15. He was in possession of rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, mortars, three barrels of TNT, remote-control devices, bulletproof vests, protective masks, and a car laden with explosives, the statement said. KR

IRAQ'S JUSTICE MINISTRY ANNOUNCES RELEASE OF 418 DETAINEES
The Justice Ministry announced the release of 418 detainees from prisons controlled by multinational forces on May 15, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. The detainees were released after a panel cleared them of insurgency charges. Meanwhile, the multinational forces announced on May 15 that they released 151 male detainees from coalition-run facilities the same day. The announcement said that more than 38,500 detainee cases have been reviewed since August 2004, and more than 19,400 prisoners recommended for release. The U.S.-led coalition announced in a separate May 15 press release (http://www.mnf-iraq.com) that the Iraqi Central Criminal Court convicted 14 detainees this month of various crimes, "including possessing illegal weapons and joining terrorist groups." Twelve of the detainees were sentenced to life in prison, one to six years, and another to 15 years in prison. The statement added that the Central Criminal Court has tried 1,053 suspected insurgents to date and convicted 948 "with sentences ranging up to death." KR

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