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Newsline - July 14, 2006

President Vladimir Putin told journalists from countries belonging to the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries in Moscow on July 13 that outsiders should not attempt to engage in power politics in Ukraine, Russian television reported. He said that "you can't bet on any particular force [in Ukraine], painting it in a pro-Western color. I'm telling you again, there are neither pro-Western, nor pro-Russian forces [in Ukraine]. All of them are pro-Ukrainian, first and foremost. And this should be understood, just as our interests there should be respected, because almost 17 million ethnic Russians live there, and almost every second family in Ukraine has ties with the Russian Federation." On July 14 Putin said that the growing conflict in the Middle East should "stop immediately," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12 and 13, 2006). PM

U.S. President George W. Bush told a news conference in Stralsund, Germany, on July 13 that it is important for him and Chancellor Angela Merkel "to encourage [President] Putin, which we will do at the [July 15-17 G8 summit in St. Petersburg], to join us in saying to the Iranians, loud and clear, 'We're not kidding.... The world is united in insisting you not have a nuclear weapons program,'" international media reported. Bush added that "our job is to continually remind Russia that if she wants to have good relations, that she ought to share common values with us. Free press is a common value that we share, and I have expressed my opinion to...Putin." Bush noted that "we share concerns about the ability for [Russia's] people to go to the town square and express their opinion, and whether or not dissent is tolerated, whether or not there is active political opposition." He nonetheless warned against lecturing the Russian president, saying that one should make one's points with Putin "in a respectful way so you can then sit down and have a constructive dialogue" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and 12, 2006). PM

Chancellor Merkel told reporters in Stralsund on July 13 that "we all wish that Russia would take a path that leads to as many rights as possible for all people as well as to a vibrant political landscape," international media reported. She added that "Russia is far from having a multiparty [political] environment, although that is due to many factors, including historical ones" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 28, 2006, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2006). PM

The German utility E.ON Ruhrgas has concluded an agreement to transfer subsidiary stock in Hungary to Gazprom in exchange for its own 25-percent share in the giant Yuzhno-Russkoye oil and gas field, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on July 14. Gas from that field will reach Germany via the planned North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP). The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" commented on April 28 that Russia offers German businesses the "spectacular growth opportunities" that they increasingly lack at home. The same daily noted on July 14 that President Putin told Germany's ZDF television recently that it is in Germany's interest to have that direct pipeline connection to Russia, whereas it plays into American hands for Germans and other Europeans to be dependent on pipelines that pass through Ukraine, Belarus, or Poland. For its part, Hungary has conducted an ambiguous policy toward Gazprom. Early this year, Budapest called on Europeans to diversify their sources of energy supplies, but later it signed important agreements with Gazprom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, April 28, June 22, and July 13 2006). Commenting on the E.ON-Gazprom deal, Hungary's Economy and Transport Minister Janos Koka said that the government "cannot interfere with a transaction between two private companies," the "Financial Times" reported on July 14. PM

More than 100 members of the European Parliament have signed an open letter to President Putin on the eve of the G8 summit, in which they say that jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a "political prisoner" and that his trial in 2005 was a "travesty of justice," reported on July 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4 and 18, and May 11, 2006). The signatories stressed Putin's personal responsibility for Khodorkovsky's fate. Vytautas Landsbergis, who is a former president of Lithuania and the initiator of the letter, said that he fears for Khodorkovsky's life. PM

Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal opposition Yabloko party wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" of July 14 that "it's impossible to ignore that Russia is moving further and further away from democracy, and that an authoritarian system has been established here" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and 12, 2006). He argued that "Russia has no independent parliament, free speech, or independent judiciary. Elections are manipulated, and business is subordinated to government. The authorities don't respect civil rights or civil liberties. Laws are applied selectively, on a politically motivated basis. This also has a direct impact on foreign policy, which bears little resemblance to strategic partnership with the West." Yavlinsky added, however, that one should not expect the Western leaders to be tough with President Putin on internal Russian political issues at the G8 summit because they themselves "have too many sins on their own records" to do so. Yavlinsky believes that "the G8 summit is primarily a stability factor, a face-to-face meeting for the leaders of the states on which global security depends." PM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Paris on July 13 that Russia "excludes any possibility of the UN Security Council sanctioning the use of force against Iran," Russian news agencies reported. Lavrov added, however, that Moscow is "disappointed with the absence of a positive reaction from Iran" to the recommendations and proposals worked out recently by the UN Security Council and Germany on Iran's nuclear activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2006). He noted that if Tehran does not return to negotiations, "the Security Council will consider steps appropriate to the situation." Russian and Chinese diplomats reluctantly agreed with their Western colleagues on July 13 that Iran has delayed too long in responding to the council's proposals and that the matter should be referred back to that body. PM

Meeting in Berlin on July 5, diplomatic representatives abroad of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) drafted a manifesto addressed to participants of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg reaffirming the readiness of the Chechen resistance to embark on immediate and unconditional peace talks to end the ongoing war and stabilize the situation across the North Caucasus. The manifesto, signed by ChRI Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev and posted on July 13 on the resistance website, stresses that while the Chechen people regard independence as the most fundamental guarantee of their security, they would agree to talks on an unspecified alternative solution in line with international law. It stresses the Chechen leadership's rejection of "all forms of violence" against civilians, including acts of terrorism. Former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov issued a similar appeal for peace talks on the eve of the G8 summit in Canada in June 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2002). LF

The widow, son, and daughter of Maskhadov, who was killed in Chechnya in March 2005, have appealed to G8 participants to intercede with the Russian authorities to hand over his body for burial, together with the bodies of other slain Chechens whom the Russian authorities have similarly branded as "terrorists." The appeal, reported on July 11 by Caucasus Press and posted on July 14 on the Chechen resistance website, stressed that the international community acknowledged that Maskhadov was elected president in January 1997 in a free and fair ballot. It accuses the Russian authorities of having murdered Maskhadov weeks after his February 2005 announcement of a unilateral cessation of hostilities and offer to begin peace talks (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 11, 2005). Maskhadov was buried in an unmarked grave in accordance with the amended 2002 Russian law on combating terrorism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2005). LF

Robert Kocharian tasked senior officials on July 13 with drafting within two months a program of measures to expedite Armenia's integration with European and Euro-Atlantic structures, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian discussed Armenian participation in the EU's European Neighborhood Policy with Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Trade and Economic Development Minister Karen Chshmaritian, and parliament speaker Tigran Torosian. Sarkisian briefed the meeting on his talks in Brussels in mid-June on Armenia's implementation of its Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO. LF

The presidents of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, together with senior government officials from the United States and Europe, congregated on July 13 in the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan for the formal inauguration of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) export pipeline for Caspian oil, international and Azerbaijani media reported. Addressing the ceremony, Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler hailed the successful completion of the BTC project as "a geopolitical victory which will be in the service of peace for regional states as well as the whole world," according to on July 14. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said the BTC pipeline "is much more than simply an economic or even a political energy project. This is a historical precondition for laying a firm foundation for freedom, independence and the future success of our countries," according to Civil Georgia on July 13. The first tanker of crude from Azerbaijan's offshore Caspian oil fields left Ceyhan early last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2006). LF

Two people were killed on July 14 and two others injured when a homemade bomb exploded outside the home in Tskhinvali of Bala Bestayev, who heads a militia formation subordinate to the Defense Ministry of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, and Caucasus Press reported. The explosive device was reportedly identical in manufacture to the one that killed South Ossetian National Security Council Secretary Oleg Alborov on July 9 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2006). Also on July 14, Georgian parliamentarian Giga Bokeria told journalists in Tbilisi that the Georgian leadership anticipates unspecified Russian "provocations" in South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Following a five-week hearing, the Georgian Constitutional Court rejected on July 13 an appeal by Valeri Gelashvili, a member of the opposition Republican Party, against the parliament's decision in late March to strip him of his deputy's mandate, Caucasus Press reported. Two weeks after Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava implicated Gelashvili in arson, the parliament majority ruled that his business activities were incompatible with his status as a parliament deputy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and April 3, 2006). LF

Igor Rogov, chairman of Kazakhstan's Constitutional Court, announced in Astana on July 13 that the court has ruled that amendments broadening the powers of the country's ombudsman are unconstitutional, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Rogov said that the amendments, which would have given the ombudsman the right to play a role in court cases and appeal court decisions, incorrectly used the term "legislation" to mean not only laws but also resolutions issued by the executive branch. Rogov said that this usage, if applied to legal proceedings, represents a violation of the constitution. Previously, the Supreme Court and Prosecutor-General's Office earlier expressed their objections to the amendments. DK

Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov told a cabinet meeting on July 13 that the Kazakh government will allocate 437 million tenges ($3.7 million) in emergency reserve funds to strengthen the border with Uzbekistan, Khabar reported. The money will go to the construction of border-crossing facilities, improved transportation infrastructure for border troops, and protective fences. Additionally, 58 homes in the border zone will be destroyed and their residents relocated; the funds will provide compensation. DK

Boris Anokhin, a spokesman for Russia's Federal Corrections Service, announced in Astana on July 13 that Kazakh authorities have extradited Zelimkhan Sampiev to Russia, Interfax-AVN reported. Russia suspects Sampiev, who was arrested in Kazakhstan in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2006), of involvement in a June 2004 attack in Ingushetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2004). Anokhin described the extradition as "a vivid example of interaction between the law enforcement agencies and special services of our states." DK

A second round of Kyrgyz-U.S. talks on a new agreement for the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan continued in Bishkek on July 13, Interfax and reported. No official details were available on the negotiations, which resumed on July 12. A source told Interfax, "The delegations are considering some details and Kyrgyz suggestions concerning a new agreement on the terms of the base's deployment in Kyrgyzstan, including financial aspects." News agency cited anonymous Kyrgyz sources as saying that the talks were "extremely fruitful." Kyrgyzstan is seeking to raise annual lease payments for the base from current levels of $2.7 million to over $200 million. DK

Prime Minister Feliks Kulov said on July 12 that recent instability in southern Kyrgyzstan is linked to events in Afghanistan, reported the next day. "Recent events in the country's south don't represent the weakness of the authorities," Kulov said. "They are echoes of what is still happening in Afghanistan. As before, drugs are coming out from there, there's extremist influence, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has support there." On May 12, 13 people were killed in a border incursion from Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006), and only days ago, a policeman was shot and killed in the southern city of Jalalabad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2006). Kulov stressed that "recent events in the country's south can't help but put investors on guard." DK

Rustam Nazarov, head of Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency, told journalists on July 13 in Dushanbe that drug seizures in the first half of 2006 rose by 45 percent year on year, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Total seizures were 2.5 tons, including 1.2 tons of heroin, with half of the drugs seized on the border with Afghanistan and half seized inside Tajikistan. Nazarov said that his forces conducted three joint operations with Afghan law-enforcement personnel, confiscating a total of 135 kilograms of narcotics, including 91 kilograms of heroin. Nazarov noted that, according to the United Nations, 19 percent of the total volume of Afghanistan's drug production is smuggled north through Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. DK

A court in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, on July 13 sentenced former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin to five and half years in prison, Belarusian media reported the same day. Kazulin was charged with hooliganism and disorderly conduct. The hooliganism charge relates to two confrontations with the Belarusian authorities, on February 17 when Kazulin tried to hold a press conference in the National Press Center as a newly registered presidential candidate, and on March 2 when Kazulin attempted to register for the Third All-Belarusian People's Assembly. The charge of disorderly conduct is connected with a March 25 demonstration at which Kazulin was beaten and arrested. The public prosecutor demanded a six-year prison sentence, while the defense insisted Kazulin should be acquitted on all counts. The judge ordered all members of the public from the courtroom before making his ruling, announcing his verdict with only the prosecutor, the defendant, and the court secretary present. AM

Kazulin, who was not given an opportunity in court to make a final statement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2006), made public his final defense on July 13 through his attorney, Ihar Rynkevich, Belapan reported on July 13. "It is obvious that the authorities are in a panic about the truth, and it became completely obvious during the trial that they are attempting to cover up the March 25 armed violence against [the opposition] and the humiliation of their own people," Kazulin wrote in a speech that Rynkevich read out to reporters shortly after sentence was passed. "I oppose the system," Kazulin wrote, adding that "today the entire country is turning into a prison" and "one should now demand freedom not for Kazulin but rather for all political prisoners and the Belarusian people." Rynkevich said Kazulin plans to lodge an appeal. AM

Tilman Schmit-Neuerburg, a spokesman for the German Embassy in Minsk, which represents Finland's EU presidency in Belarus, told the news agency Belapan on July 13 that the embassy has urged Finland to check the veracity of a claim by a senior Belarusian official that he visited Portugal in early July despite being barred from entering the EU. Alyaksandr Zimouski, the head of the Belarusian State Television and Radio Company, is one of more than 30 senior Belarusian officials on an EU blacklist drawn up in response to alleged fraud in the March 19 presidential election and a crackdown on opposition supporters. Zimouski said on July 11 that he headed a Belarusian delegation to a meeting of the European Broadcasting Union held in Portugal, Belapan reported the same day. Schmit-Neuerburg said the European Broadcasting Union may be among the international organizations allowed to invite blacklisted officials to its events. AM

Addressing the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, on July 13, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko urged its members to abide by the principles of European parliamentary culture, warning that otherwise they would "cast doubt on their legitimacy and I would have to act appropriately," Interfax reported the same day. The announcement on July 11 of the formation of a new coalition capable of forming a parliamentary majority prompted scuffles in the chamber (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2006). Yushchenko again indicated that he believes the new coalition formed by the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party is unconstitutional (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2006). Yushchenko told the Verkhovna Rada that "the withdrawal of some deputies from the coalition of democratic forces, which resulted in its disintegration, is inconsistent with the Constitution and the procedures of the Verkhovna Rada." The "anti-crisis" coalition was formed when the Socialist Party withdrew from a coalition with its Orange Revolution allies, Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. Yushchenko called on lawmakers to settle the coalition issue legally, nominate a prime minister, and not make "hasty decisions." AM

The Our Ukraine bloc in the Verkhovna Rada issued a statement on July 13 claiming that the formation of the "anti-crisis" coalition followed a scenario scripted from abroad, presumably implying Russia. "Our impression is that the authors of these scenarios are seeking to destabilize Ukraine, that they need a cheap show ahead of the G8 summit," the statement reads. The leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized states is being held in St. Petersburg, Russia on July 15-17. Tarasyuk said that Our Ukraine views foreign involvement as an attempt to interfere in Ukraine's internal affairs. He added that Our Ukraine will take whatever steps are needed to thwart similar scenarios being enacted, but he provided no further details. AM

Tetyana Mokridi, a member of parliament for Our Ukraine, denied on July 13 that Our Ukraine is holding talks with the Party of Regions about the possibility of broadening the "anti-crisis" coalition, Interfax reported. Mokridi said Our Ukraine leaders have decided not to enter the coalition, adding that that decision has been approved by the party's members of parliament. AM

The chairman of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency, Sulejman Tihic, sent a complaint to the Regulatory Communications Agency about the failure of Serb Republic Radio-TV, BN television and other broadcasters to observe July 11 as a day of mourning for the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, FENA news agency reported on July 13. "These radio and television stations acted in the same way last year, on the 10th anniversary of this most serious crime in Europe since World War II," Tihic said. He asked the Regulatory Communications Agency to impose the most stringent sanctions against broadcasters that do not comply with the decisions of the Council of Ministers. RK

The government of Bosnia-Herzegovina supported a proposed agreement on the sale of Sarajevo-based oil company Energopetrol to the Croatian-Hungarian consortium INA-MOL, the Croatian news agency Hina reported on July 13. The government ordered that necessary steps be taken to ensure that the terms of the agreement go into force. Once the agreement is signed, INA and MOL will take over a 67 percent stake in Energopetrol, the federation will retain 22 percent, while the remaining 11 percent will be owned by small shareholders. Under the agreement, INA-MOL consortium will additionally invest 76.7 million euros ($97 million) into the Bosnian company, assume its existing debts, and maintain its present work force. RK

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic underscored the "extraordinary contribution to the attainment of the independence of Montenegro" by Albania, the Albanian news agency ATA reported on July 13. In a message addressed to the chairman of the Albanian Socialist Movement for Integration (LSI) Ilir Meta, Djukanovic stressed that relations between Albania and Montenegro are splendid and they should be further intensified. "I believe that conditions are being created for a new moment to build a prosperous and European Montenegro, which will be a home to all citizens regardless of their religious or ethnic affiliation," Djukanovic said. RK

Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen energy security as the main theme of this year's summit of the Group of Eight industrialized countries, which he will chair -- the first Russian president ever to do so. But while energy security, the fight against infectious diseases, and education top the formal agenda, a range of other issues are expected to dominate the talks.

G8 leaders are expected to approve a draft statement aimed at encouraging investment and competition in the energy sphere.Russia, the club's top energy exporter, has ambitious plans to expand oil and gas sales to Europe and gain a foothold in the Western energy industry.

Other G8 members are likely to reiterate calls on Russia to reform its huge gas sector. In particular, they want Russia to ratify an Energy Charter it signed in 1994 that would require it to open its gas-export-pipeline network to Charter signatories -- an idea Russia is resisting.As the director of the Heritage Foundation in Moscow, Yevgeny Volk, notes, nuclear nonproliferation will also stand high on the summit's agenda.

"Nonproliferation of nuclear weapons will be discussed, especially issues connected to Iran's nuclear program and North Korea's recent missile tests," Volk says.

Observers expect the United States to attempt to win the support of Russia, which opposes the U.S.-led drive to slap sanctions on Iran and North Korea for their respective weapons programs.

Foreign-policy issues, in particular the standoff between Israel and the new government formed by the Palestinian radical group Hamas, will take up much of the discussion time at the upcoming G8 summit.

While Western leaders have sought to isolate Hamas unless it renounces violence, Russia favors negotiations with the group and in March hosted Hamas leaders for talks in Moscow.

Washington has also said it intends to discuss the so-called frozen conflicts in Georgia and Moldova. But criticism of Moscow's continued support for separatist movements in these countries is likely to irritate Russia, which considers former Soviet states its traditional sphere of influence.

Western worries that Russia is drifting away from democracy under Putin could also yield a few prickly debates.

The United States has been particularly vocal in denouncing what many see as Putin's increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Vice President Dick Cheney recently accused Russia of backsliding on democracy and using its energy resources as tools to blackmail its neighbors, and Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) has called on world leaders to boycott the St. Petersburg summit.

In a sign that he is anticipating more criticism, Putin told Western journalists on July 12 that he is ready to listen to what he called "well-intentioned criticism" but that he will not allow anyone to pressure Russia out of alleged concern for Russian democracy.

Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, predicts that concerns over Russia's democratic record will be raised only behind closed doors.

"A matter of importance for Russia is to what extent one can expect Russia's internal policy, the state of affairs with democracy and human rights, to be brought up," Lipman says. "Everything suggests that this will not be discussed in public. There are rumors and reports that [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush will raise this issue in private. But things that are not done in public do not have much significance."

Traditionally, economic issues do not figure prominently at G8 get-togethers. Yet this year's summit could see a breakthrough on Russia's longstanding bid to join the World Trade Organization.

Russian officials say a bilateral deal with the United States -- the last obstacle to Russia's membership bid being submitted to WTO states for approval -- could be clinched at the summit.

But should the much-awaited deal fall through, the summit will still represent a major coup for Putin, who has vowed to restore the clout once enjoyed by the Soviet Union.

The Heritage Foundation's Volk says that for the Kremlin, the St. Petersburg G8 summit seals Russia's resurgence as a key world player. "I think prestige is the most important issue for Putin at this summit, the confirmation that Russia is a full-fledged G8 member, the acknowledgement that Russia has restored its position in the world," Volk says.

The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is to be reinstated in the Afghan capital, Kabul, Tolu Television reported on July 13, quoting an unmanned deputy minister within the Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs. The source told Tolu that the move will enable the government to "prevent the uncontrolled spread of corruption with a sensible understanding of realities under Islamic principles." The Department of the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice was first established under the Mujahedin government headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani and gained international infamy under the Taliban as the main instrument for applying draconian measures adopted by that regime in Afghanistan. Tolu reported that the Afghan cabinet has proposed the reestablishment of the department and the country's National Assembly is expected to approve the proposal. Tolu quoted an unidentified Kabul resident as saying he has witnessed "problems by some unbridled young people" and would thus be "happy if the department could tackle these [problems], but not in an extreme way," so as to avoid being rejected by the public. AT

A land mine reportedly hidden on a bicycle injured six people in Mazar-e Sharif, the provincial capital of Balkh, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on July 13. Pajhwak Afghan News quoted Mazar-e Sharif police spokesman Sher Jan Dorrani as saying that the explosion left one man dead and "several" others injured. In a telephone conservation, purported Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif said the same day that the "Taliban carried out an attack," which he described as targeting the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Mazar-e Sharif, "destroying a vehicle and killing five ISAF troops," the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. There has been no independent indication that the blast in Mazar-e Sharif targeted ISAF vehicles or personnel. Mazar-e Sharif is not a stronghold of the neo-Taliban, although northern Afghanistan has recently witnessed stepped-up attacks against ISAF troops and aid workers. AT

The Afghan Interior Ministry has reported that seven "prominent" Taliban commanders have been killed and two others have been injured in an attack in Oruzgan Province, the official Radio Afghanistan reported on July 13. The commanders, who have not been identified, were reportedly killed in a house in the village of Zarafshan. AT

President Hamid Karzai has ordered an official inquiry into reported casualties among civilians during air strikes by U.S.-led coalition forces near Tarin Kot, the provincial capital of Oruzgan, on July 10, the official Radio Afghanistan reported on July 13. Karzai has appointed a delegation to examine physical damage during the operation. The delegation is being led by Mawlawi Mohayuddin Baluch, a Karzai adviser on religious affairs, and includes several senior Afghan military officers and a representative of the National Security Department. The delegation is to report to Karzai in five days. The air strike in question was part of the ongoing Operation Mountain Thrust, which forces from the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and the Afghan National Army are carrying out in Oruzgan and the neighboring Helmand, Kandahar, and Zabul provinces. Coalition sources have said they are not aware of any civilian casualties resulting from bombing campaigns near Tarin Kot, but women hospitalized with apparent shrapnel wounds claim a number of other noncombatants were killed in their village during the coalition air strikes. AT

As hostilities resulting from Hizballah's kidnapping of Israeli soldiers and rocket attacks against Israel entered their second day, the Israeli Foreign Ministry on July 13 voiced concern that the soldiers will be sent to Iran. "We also have specific information that Hizballah is planning to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran," according to the Israeli government's press office. The statement noted Lebanon's responsibility, and it added that Syria's support for Palestinian rejectionists contributes to the situation. As for Iran, it is Hizballah's "main benefactor" and provides "funding, weapons, and directives." "For all practical purposes, Hizballah is merely an arm of the Tehran jihadist regime." The statement noted that Iranian and Syrian support for groups like Hizballah, Hamas, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is ideologically motivated and also serves as a diversion from other international issues. Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, was in Damascus on July 12 and, according to KUNA, he met with Hamas leader Khalid Mishaal as well as leading figures from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and other groups. He was to meet with a Hizballah delegation, KUNA added, but the Lebanese could not come. BS

Tehran immediately rejected the charge by Israel that it may acquire the two Israeli soldiers from Hizballah. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Israel is "talking absurdities." Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad vowed to help Syria -- which has a mutual-defense pact with Iran -- if it is attacked. He said in a statement read on Iranian television: "If the occupying regime (Israel) commits another stupid move and attacks Syria, this will be considered as an attack against the whole Islamic world and that regime will receive a fierce response." PMB

President Ahmadinejad said on July 13 in the East Azerbaijan city of Sarab that events in Lebanon will serve as a test of international organizations, state television reported. Iran will see how countries that emphasize human rights react now, he said. "There are also some countries, who claim to be democracies and supporters of freedom and human rights, which keep silent when this regime [Israel] bombs Lebanon in front of their eyes and slaughters people in their houses. They keep silent and they support murderers with their silence." Countries that stay silent will be viewed as Israel's "accomplices," he said, and will be judged accordingly. In the capital on July 13, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Larijani condemned Israeli retaliatory measures, IRNA reported. Larijani said Israeli attacks on Lebanon and on Gaza show that it seeks insecurity. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned Israeli actions on July 13, IRNA reported. He also spoke out against international "silence" on the matter. BS

One day after the governments of China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and United States decided to refer the Iranian nuclear case to the United Nations Security Council, Iranian President Ahmadinejad said in Sarab on July 13 that the U.S. aims to "create discord," state television reported. On the other hand, "We are all trying to calm the situation and establish a constructive, fair, and legal dialogue aimed at resolving the issues." Ahmadinejad said Iran and the Europeans could resolve the crisis, and a subject that has been problematic for so many years cannot be resolved so quickly. He added that Iran only wants time to consider the international proposal that it received on June 6. In Tehran on the same day, Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki also said time is needed to study the international proposal Iran received, IRNA reported. He warned that haste will harm all the interested parties. BS

Operations by the Iranian and Turkish armed forces against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) personnel are continuing, Roj TV from Denmark reported on July 12. The PKK attacked an Iranian military post in Zeman Griwi village in Kamyaran, while the Iranian military shelled an area between Kamyaran and Hewraman. Meanwhile, General Hassan Karami, the police commander in West Azerbaijan Province, said PKK forces have suffered significant losses recently, "Kayhan" reported on July 11. He added that many PKK members are surrendering. BS

Legislator Kazem Jalali said on July 12 that the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee has approved a bill that would increase the voting age, Mehr News Agency reported. The current voting age is 15, and the bill would raise the minimum age of voters to 18. However, according to Jalali, this change applies only to municipal council elections. As elections for councils and for the Assembly of Experts are scheduled to coincide this year, it is not clear how smoothly the voting process will go. BS

U.S. forces released Sheikh Ahmad al-Shaybani and 28 followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from detention on July 13, international media reported. Al-Shaybani was arrested during clashes between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army in Al-Najaf in 2004. Al-Sharqiyah television reports that the detainees' release is expected to lead to the release of kidnapped parliamentarian Taysir al-Mashhadani. Her abductors, believed to be linked to al-Sadr, have called for the release of 25 jailed Shi'a in return for the parliamentarian's release (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2006). KR

Iraqi parliamentarians called on July 13 for al-Sadr's representatives to sit down for talks with leading Sunni Arab leaders in an effort to help ease tensions between the two groups, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on July 14. Parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani told reporters following the closed-door session that the talks will help smooth tensions. "Without transparency, we can't reconcile with each other," al-Mashhadani said. The session also heard from the interior and defense ministers, who said their efforts to halt attacks in the capital are hampered by poor intelligence, inferior equipment, and communications problems, the daily reported. KR

Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad al-Ubaydi told Al-Sharqiyah television on July 13 that security in Iraq can only be achieved through political negotiations. "Security is everyone's responsibility, and it is first and foremost a political responsibility," al-Ubaydi said. "We must make concessions to one another, one segment to the other. We must sacrifice our personal interests and belongings for the sake of citizens and the homeland." Regarding the seriousness of the challenge, he said: "Let everyone know that Iraq is fighting a war, a war in which countries are interfering and supporting [differing sides] financially and in other ways. The world's terrorism in its entirety is in Iraq, and no one thinks the task before us is an easy one." KR

The U.S. Congressional Budget Office announced on July 13 that the war in Iraq has cost $291 billion to date. The report said that since March 2003, $254 billion has been allocated to the Department of Defense and other agencies for military operations, while $14 billion has been allocated to train and equip Iraqi security forces. Another $22 billion has gone to reconstruction and relief operations, as well as diplomatic and consular operations, embassy construction, economic support, and foreign aid. Another $1 billion will have gone to veterans' benefits by the end of fiscal year 2006. The report also projected the cost of the war over the next 10 years under two different scenarios. The first calls for troop levels to be reduced to 140,000 in 2007 and to decline rapidly thereafter until all were withdrawn by year end 2009, at a cost of another $166 billion from 2007 to 2016. In the second scenario, the number of troops would decline less rapidly from 170,000 in 2007 to 40,000 by the end of 2010 through 2016, costing the United States $368 billion for military operations between 2007 and 2016. KR