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Newsline - December 19, 2006


FINNISH EU PRESIDENCY HAS REGRETS ABOUT RUSSIA, BELARUS
Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, summing up the Finnish EU Presidency in a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels on 18 December, said that he is "not altogether sure that Russia is heading in the right direction," eu2006.fi reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 24, and 26, and November 13 and 27, 2006). He noted that "one of Finland's priorities was to strengthen the EU's policy towards Russia.... At the informal [October] summit in Lahti, we had a good discussion with Russian President [Vladimir] Putin, and the EU succeeded in speaking with one voice to Russia.... Russia is important for the EU [and] we are bound together by many ties, but it is fair to say that certain trends in Russia give us cause for concern.... We need to see a firmer commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and the market economy. We do not want Russia to go in an authoritarian direction. We are fully entitled to be concerned at the way things are going in Russia." Vanhanen added that "the construction of Europe is a work in progress while there are still democratic black holes like Belarus so close by. A disgrace to Europe. There should not be any such places left in Europe." Germany succeeds Finland in the rotating presidency on January 1. The Foreign Ministry, which is controlled by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), has drafted a plan independent of Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU-CSU). The ministry seeks to promote German and EU ties to Russia on the basis of an expanding network of interrelationships (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20 and December 1, 2006). PM

VISITS HIGHLIGHT RUSSIA'S INFLUENCE IN MIDDLE EAST
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad arrived in Moscow on December 18 on a two-day "working visit" for discussions on the Middle East with President Putin, news agencies reported. Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora recently traveled to Moscow to solicit Russian support in setting up an international tribunal to investigate the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, who opposed Syrian influence in Lebanon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2006, and "RFE/RL Iran Report," December 13, 2006). ITAR-TASS noted on December 18 that "Russia backs the idea of forming the tribunal but opposes its being used for pressure on Damascus." The news agency also reported that Assad's trip to Russia is "in the focus of attention of Arab media" on December 18. ITAR-TASS quoted the Beirut daily "Al-Safir" as saying that the Siniora and Assad visits "reflect the objective reality that Russia has become the main player in the Middle East and can considerably ease tension in a region that is full of conflicts." During his recent visit, Siniora invited the head of the Russian Council of Muftis, Ravil Gainutdin, to visit Lebanon and help stabilize the situation there, Interfax reported on December 18. PM

SIX NUCLEAR REACTORS SHUT DOWN IN MOSCOW
Six of the 12 reactors at Moscow's Kurchatov Research Institute for Nuclear Energy have been shut down and a seventh will soon also cease operation, RIA Novosti reported on December 18, citing Nikolai Ponomaryov-Stepnoy, a vice president of the institute. He noted that uranium is being removed from three of the six closed reactors and that the remaining three "pose no threat to human health." He added that some unspecified "areas at the institute are radioactively contaminated. The areas that were significantly contaminated with radiation have been already cleared by the specialists of the institute." According to mosnews.com, Moscow is the only capital in Europe with nuclear reactors operating on its territory. Russian ecologists have repeatedly called for the removal of all nuclear research reactors from the city to prevent radiation and health risks. PM

FRIEND OF PUTIN 'TAKES OVER' REN-TV
The daily "Kommersant" and news.ru reported on December 19 that the Abros Capital company, which is controlled by Yury Kovalchuk through the St. Petersburg Rossiya Bank, recently took an unspecified but apparently majority share of REN-TV. On December 18, the new board of directors elected Lyubov Sovershaeva of Abros as its head. The daily and website describe Kovalchuk as "a close friend" of President Putin and note that Sovershaeva was a colleague of Putin's in the early 1990s in the St. Petersburg municipal administration. Rossiya Bank is the biggest holder at federal TRK Petersburg TV, the paper noted. The Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders recently called attention to the extent to which the Russian state and state-run corporations have taken over virtually all of the most important electronic media and much of the print media as well, greatly limiting the amount of independent news and information available to the public (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). PM

PROSECUTORS WANT EX-MAYOR TO FACE CHARGES DESPITE 'SETTLEMENT' OVER FIVE DEATHS
The Prosecutor's Office of Stavropol Krai demanded on December 19 that the Kochubey Raion Court sentence Igor Tarasov, a former mayor of Pyatigorsk, in connection with a car accident in August in which five people died, news.ru reported. Tarasov earlier reached an "out-of-court settlement" with three survivors of the accident for a total of $114,000. The court ended its hearing on December 18 after the settlement was announced. The prosecutors charged on December 19 that the seriousness of the accident nonetheless necessitates a court verdict. PM

IS RUSSIA-TATARSTAN TREATY IN JEOPARDY?
Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov told journalists on December 18 that he will urge the upper house not to ratify the power-sharing treaty between the federal center and the Republic of Tatarstan that President Putin submitted to the State Duma last month, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2006). The Duma has not yet ratified it. Mironov argued that the treaty is not only unnecessary in light of the clear division of powers outlined in the Russian Federation constitution, but "politically dangerous." Presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Aleksandr Konovalov argued during a meeting last week in Ufa with the presidents of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, Mintimer Shaimiev and Murtaza Rakhimov, that such treaties are obsolescent, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 14. Rakhimov recently tasked his administration with drafting a treaty comparable to that between the federal center and Tatarstan. Writing in "The Moscow Times" on November 14, Nikolai Petrov construed that treaty as proof that some federation subjects "are more equal than others." LF

ANOTHER MUSLIM CLERGYMAN ASSAULTED IN NORTH CAUCASUS
Three masked men broke into the Cherkessk home of Ismail-hadji Bostanov, deputy mufti of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic, during the night of December 15-16 and shot and stabbed him before fleeing, according to caucasustimes.com as reposted on December 18 by kavkazweb.net. It was the fifth such attack this year on a Muslim cleric in Karachayevo-Cherkessia: an imam was fatally stabbed in Karachayevsk in August, and one week later a retired clergyman was attacked and killed in his own home. On December 18, the republic's parliament voted to convene an emergency session to which Interior Minister Nikolai Osyak will be summoned to face a vote of no confidence, kavkaz.memo.ru reported. LF

U.S. DIPLOMAT ADMONISHES AZERBAIJAN
Barry Lowenkron, who is an adviser on democracy and human rights issues to the U.S. Secretary of State, met in Baku on December 18 with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and President Ilham Aliyev to discuss bilateral cooperation, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on December 18 and 19 respectively. Lowenkron also visited the grave in a Baku cemetery of murdered opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov, where he publicly called on the Azerbaijani authorities to comply with their international commitments in the field of human rights and, specifically, to arrest and bring to trial those who killed Huseynov, zerkalo.az reported. Huseynov was shot dead in the stairwell of his apartment building last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2005). LF

COUP CHARGES AGAINST AZERBAIJANI EX-MINISTER DROPPED
The charges of plotting a coup d'etat brought in October 2005 against former Health Minister Ali Insanov have been dropped, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on December 18 and 19 respectively. Insanov, together with two former lower-level ministry officials, still faces charges of bribery, abuse of his official position, and misappropriation of state property. According to Insanov's lawyer, he suffers from serious health problems and can walk only with difficulty. Azerbaijan's Appeals Court rejected last month Insanov's appeal against the extension by six months of his pre-trial detention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 7, and 30, February 8 and 28, March 15, and November 3, 2006). LF

AZERBAIJANI NEWSPAPER, POLITICAL PARTY APPEAL EVICTIONS
The leader of the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the editor of the daily newspaper "Bizim yol" and the head of the independent journalists' organization Yeni Nesil have filed suit with Azerbaijan's Economic Court to demand compensation for damage to their property sustained during the forced eviction by police of all three organizations from the premises they rented in central Baku, day.az reported on December 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). LF

GEORGIAN, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS EXCHANGE BARBS
In a December 18 interview with Interfax, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov enumerated action by Georgia that he claims have exacerbated bilateral relations, including violating or reneging on previously signed agreements, verbal attacks on the Russian authorities, provocations against Russian peacekeepers deployed on Georgian territory, and attempts to "mobilize the West against us by alleging imminent aggression by Russia." Lavrov expressed concern that the Georgian authorities have "clearly decided" to use force against the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and he appealed to the Georgian leadership to abandon its "anti-Russian policy." Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili for his part told journalists in Tbilisi on December 18 that the normalization of bilateral relations is contingent on Russia recognizing that neighboring states have the right to select those principles on which they wish to build their statehood. Georgia has selected "those principles on the basis of which the whole democratic community is built, particularly Europe," Bezhuashvili added. LF

UNRECOGNIZED STATES APPEAL FOR INTERNATIONAL RECOGNITION
Meeting in Moscow on December 18, the Inter-Parliamentary Assembly that unites parliamentarians from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Moldova's Transdniester Republic appealed to the international community to recognize as legal and valid the outcome of referendums held in recent months in which voters affirmed their support for independent statehood, regnum.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18 and November 13, 2006). They stressed the importance of the right of nations to self-determination, and condemned what they termed "violent" and "inadmissible" actions against their citizens by the Georgian and Moldovan leaderships. The assembly also drafted a joint statement, to be discussed at its next session, rejecting demands for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in the three conflict zones and their replacement by an international contingent, the Georgian television station Rustavi-2 reported on December 18. LF

KYRGYZ GOVERNMENT RESIGNS
The government of Prime minister Feliks Kulov submitted its resignation on December 19, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported, and President Kurmanbek Bakiev accepted it. Kulov said the government decided to resign in order to accelerate the holding of parliamentary elections. Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections in 2005, but the new constitution adopted in November includes changes to the structure of the parliament, raising the number of seats from 75 to 90 and the method for electing deputies, which will be done by party lists instead of the single-mandate system. "The most important thing now is that in order to push through reforms, there is a need to elect a new parliament," Kulov said. DW

NEW KYRGYZ SECURITY COUNCIL SECRETARY NAMED
President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a decree on December 18 appointing Osmonali Guronov secretary of Kyrgyzstan's Security Council, akipress.org reported. Guronov, who occupied the post of interior minister until his dismissal in early November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2006), replaces Alik Orozov, who had headed the Security Council since Miroslav Niyazov's resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2006). DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT CALLS FOR END TO 'IMMUNITY' FOR U.S. TROOPS...
Speaking on Kyrgyz television on December 18, Kurmanbek Bakiev said that U.S. service personnel "who commit offenses on our soil and cause injuries to Kyrgyz citizens should assume responsibility under our laws," Interfax-AVN reported. Bakiev noted that he has asked the Foreign Ministry to develop "amendments to the intergovernmental agreement concluded between Kyrgyzstan and the United States under which U.S. troops enjoy diplomatic immunity." A U.S. serviceman shot a Kyrgyz citizen dead at the U.S. air base at Manas Airport on December 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006). The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek issued a statement on December 18 saying that the U.S. serviceman involved in the shooting incident will face legal action "taken in accordance with the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice and applicable regulations," AP reported. Also on December 18, U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch presented a diplomatic note to Kyrgyz authorities stating that U.S. servicemen in Kyrgyzstan do not enjoy "immunity" from prosecution for crimes committed in Kyrgyzstan, but are rather under U.S. jurisdiction, Kabar reported. DK

HUMANITARIAN AID TO TAJIKISTAN DECLINES IN 2006
The total amount of humanitarian aid Tajikistan received in the first 11 months of 2006 reflect a more than $10 million decline compared to last year, Interfax reported on December 18, citing data from the country's State Statistics Committee. Humanitarian aid from January to November totaled $63.1 million compared to $75.3 million in 2005. The report listed humanitarian aid donors -- in order of percentage contribution -- as the United States (51.8 percent), Russia (11.2 percent), Latvia (10.2 percent), Kazakhstan and Germany (4.8 percent each), the Netherlands (2.5 percent), Iran (2.1 percent), China (1.9 percent), Lithuania (1.4 percent), and the United Arab Emirates (1 percent). DK

TAJIK PRESIDENT REPLACES SUGHD PROVINCE MAYORS
Imomali Rakhmonov signed a decree on December 18 replacing the mayors of six cities in Tajikistan's northern Sughd province, Avesta reported. Olimjon Jalolov was removed as head of the provincial capital Khujand and replaced by Muhammadjon Mamadkhonov. The heads of a number of provincial districts were also replaced. DK

FRENCH DEFENSE MINISTER OFFERS FUNDS TO REBUILD TAJIK AIRPORT
Michele Alliot-Marie met with President Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on December 18 to discuss cooperation between the two countries' defense ministries, Tajik Radio reported. Alliot-Marie said that France's Defense Ministry can allocate 7 million euros ($9.16 million) in grants and 17 million euros in favorable loans to rebuild the Dushanbe airport, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. She said, "The funds can be used to build a new terminal as well as to reconstruct the parking lot." DK

BELARUS OPENS ELECTION CAMPAIGN FOR LOCAL COUNCILS
Campaigning began in Belarus on December 15 for the January 14 elections to local councils (soviets), Belapan reported on December 18, citing Mikalay Lazavik, secretary of the Central Election Commission (TsVK). The elections are held on three levels: for village, district and city, and regional councils. The TsVK has registered 23,791 candidates to compete for 22,658 seats. Lazavik said that candidates should print their campaigning materials only in Belarus and only with state money -- each candidate will receive 31,000 rubles ($14.5), 124,000 rubles, and 248,000 rubles to campaign on the village, district, and regional level, respectively. "If candidates use their personal money or funds from foreign sponsors in their campaigns," they will be disqualified, Lazavik warned. Amendments to the Electoral Code also oblige candidates to obtain local government permission for public meetings with voters. The election campaign will overlap with early voting, which begins a few days before the elections. AM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER COMPLAINS ABOUT LACK OF PRESIDENTIAL COOPERATION
Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said on December 18 that the Presidential Secretariat is avoiding working with the government on the state budget for 2007, Interfax reported. President Viktor Yushchenko recently vetoed the 2007 budget bill and proposed that parliament amend it to incorporate suggestions from the Presidential Secretariat. "Regretfully, over the past weekend the Finance Ministry was working without the participation of the Presidential Secretariat," Yanukovych said. "I don't want us to build policy [based] on speculation about who loves the people the most -- I would rather that we did proper work and then the citizens appreciated it," he added. AM

OPPOSITIONIST OFFERS HELP IN RESOLVING 'FULL-SCALE POLITICAL CRISIS' IN UKRAINE
Yuliya Tymoshenko, the head of the eponymous opposition bloc in the Verkhovna Rada, offered on December 18 to help resolve what she described as the "full-scale political crisis" in Ukraine, Interfax reported the same day. "The opposition wants to take a specific role -- to be the initiator of the settlement of the crisis," Tymoshenko said. She cited the absence of a 2007 budget and "complete chaos in the law enforcement bodies" as signs of a crisis, adding that the Interior Ministry is "at war with the Presidential Secretariat" over the positions of deputy ministers. Tymoshenko urged Verkhovna Rada speaker Oleksandr Moroz to call a meeting of caucus leaders where the opposition could suggest ways to resolve the crisis. She also urged Prime Minister Yanukovych and President Yushchenko to join the talks. AM

COUNCIL OF EUROPE COMMISSIONER SAYS AIDS, CORRUPTION, XENOPHOBIA UKRAINE'S MAIN PROBLEMS
Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, has said that Ukraine's main problems are the spread of AIDS, corruption in the justice system, and xenophobia, Interfax reported on December 18. Hammarberg recently visited Ukraine in order to study the human rights situation. The full report by the Council of Europe Human Rights Committee will appear in April 2007. Hammarberg advised the Ukrainian government to cooperate with nongovernmental organizations in trying to counter the spread of AIDS as well as protecting HIV-infected people. He added that cracking down on corruption in the courts will restore the public's confidence in the justice system. Xenophobia, according to Hammarberg, requires changing Ukrainian legislation to provide for harsher punishments for hate crimes. AM

SERBIAN PARTY OFFICIAL SAYS NO DEAL REACHED TO KEEP PREMIER IN POWER
Dusan Petrovic, vice president of the Democratic Party (DS), said on December 18 that no deal has been reached with Vojislav Kostunica to keep him in office as prime minister after Serbia's January 21 elections, B92 and FoNet reported the same day. Petrovic told the daily "Blic" that the DS, which is led by President Boris Tadic, will propose its own candidate for prime minister after the elections. "We will not give any names before the elections, because we do not deal with functions but with taking over responsibilities," Petrovic said. He added that the DS is prepared to lead a coalition of pro-European parties that excludes the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS). There has been speculation among political analysts about a deal between Tadic's DS and Kostunica's Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) that would keep Kostunica as prime minister. BW

SERBIAN DIPLOMAT SAYS BELGRADE CAN'T HELP DETAINED BOSNIAN SERBS IN U.S.
A Serbian diplomat in Chicago has told the daily "Vesti" that Belgrade cannot intervene in the case of Bosnian Serb immigrants arrested in the United States, AKI reported on December 18. U.S. authorities arrested 26 Bosnian Serbs last week on suspicion they kept secret their military past when they entered the United States as refugees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2006). Some of the arrested are being investigated for participating in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Reuters reported on December 16. The Serbian consul in Chicago, Desko Nikitovic, said Serbia can't help the detainees because most are Bosnian citizens. "Unfortunately, this is a huge operation in which only Bosnia-Herzegovina can intervene with Washington. No one needs to spoil the relations between our two countries, which have been improving," Nikitovic told "Vesti," according to AKI. BW

SERBIAN OFFICIAL ANNOUNCES TRANSIT OF NATO TROOPS
Deputy Foreign Minister Bratislav Djordjevic announced on December 16 that the first transit of NATO troops will pass through Serbia in January, B92 and Beta reported the same day. "We're talking about the transit of the logistics units for the NATO operations in Kosovo and Bosnia," Djordjevic told the daily "Blic." "For the time being, there will be no landing of aircraft at the Belgrade airport, but NATO planes will be using our airspace," he added. Djordjevic said that in late 2006 or early 2007 Serbia and NATO will sign a technical arrangement detailing the exact routes and the manner in which NATO convoys will move through the country. Serbia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program last week and the alliance was scheduled to open a liaison office in Belgrade on December 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2006). BW

SWEDISH MAN CONVICTED OF BOSNIAN WAR CRIMES
A Swede who served as a mercenary in a Croatian militia unit during Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1992-95 war was convicted in Sweden of war crimes on December 18, AP reported the same day. The Stockholm District Court found Jacky Arklov guilty of abusing and torturing prisoners. The court did not hand down a prison sentence because Arklov is already serving a life term for killing two police officers in Sweden. It did, however, order him to pay between 70,000-425,000 kronors ($10,100- $62,000) to 11 victims. "This is the first time in modern times that a person has been convicted in a Swedish court of violating international law," the court said in a statement. BW

MOLDOVA AND RUSSIA REPORTEDLY AGREE TO GAS DEAL
Moldovan Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Greciani and Russian Education and Science Minister Andrei Fursenko announced on December 18 that Moscow and Chisinau have reached a long-term gas deal, RBC reported the same day. Greciani and Fursenko are co-chairmen of the Russian-Moldovan commission on trade and economic cooperation. The deal provides for a gradual increase in the price of natural gas to European levels by 2011. Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said on December 14 that Chisinau expected to sign a long-term contract with Russia's Gazprom by December 25 that would maintain the current $160 per 1,000 cubic meters price for natural gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2006). BW

THERE IS NO END NOTE TODAY


NEO-TALIBAN COMMANDER DISCUSSES STRATEGY IN AFGHANISTAN
Mullah Abdullah Sarhadi, who claims to be a close associate of former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, said his movement's goal from its "beginning" has been "the establishment of an Islamic system and the supremacy of the Koran," Dubai-based Geo News Television reported on December 17. Speaking with Geo from an unspecified location, Sarhadi said the Taliban are "ready to confront the infidels of the entire world." According to Sarhadi, after a sluggish beginning the Taliban are now fighting "the enemy very steadfastly...waging guerrilla warfare" in every subdistrict, district, and province of Afghanistan. Because of Taliban activities, "the Americans, the Jews, and Christians are now winding up their occupation" of Afghanistan. According to Sarhadi, Mullah Omar has appointed leaderships in each district who are responsible for supervising military operations and acting as his representatives. On a personal note, Sarhadi added that when the Taliban regime was facing defeat in late 2001, he was captured in northern Afghanistan and eventually transferred to the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Sarhadi did not disclose when he was released from U.S. detention. AT

FIVE ENGINEERS KIDNAPPED IN SOUTH-CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN
The Afghan Interior Ministry said in a statement issued on December 18 in Kabul that five engineers working for the Rural Development and Rehabilitation Ministry were abducted by unknown kidnappers in Ghani Province on December 17, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. A search operation is under way to find the missing persons. Mullah Mohammad Anas Sharif, purporting to be the Taliban commander in Ghazni, claimed responsibility for kidnapping the engineers, saying that their fate will be decided by the Taliban leadership, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on December 18. According to Sharif, the five are being investigated regarding their positions in the Afghan government and their past activities. AT

AFGHAN GENERAL DETAINED FOR SPYING FOR PAKISTAN
General Khair Mohammad was detained recently on charges of spying for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), AFP reported on December 18. An unidentified spokesman for the Afghan national intelligence agency told AFP in Kabul on December 18 that Khair Mohammad has been arrested "over an act of treason," adding that the general has "confessed to working for ISI." According to the spokesman, the general worked in the Afghan Defense Ministry and provided ISI agents information about the ministry's structure and names and contact numbers of high-ranking officials. Khair Mohammad reportedly also provided information about Western military headquarters in Kabul. The general allegedly met with ISI agents three times in the Pakistani city of Peshawar and also maintained "regular" contact with a diplomat at the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul. Khair Mohammad has reportedly confessed to receiving thousands of dollars from his handlers. AT

KABUL DAILY ASSAILS DRUG BARONS
The government-run daily "Anis" said in an editorial on December 18 that drug traffickers are the "main and real enemies" of Afghanistan. "Thanks to their boundless illegal wealth, [drug lords] have penetrated the highest levels of the government structure" and "have established relations with senior government officials," the commentary added. Counterterrorism and counternarcotics strategies "will not succeed" unless the Afghan government and NATO forces take joint action "to arrest" the drug lords "and bring them to justice," "Anis" asserted. According to the commentary Afghans, while hearing about the arrest of drug lords, have not witnessed any trials of the "members of the drug mafia." If noted drug lords "along with their powerful supporters" are brought to justice, "Anis" wrote, Afghans will truly "trust their government." While Afghanistan's narcotics problem has worsened lately, NATO has tried to sidestep the issue, leaving the Afghans to deal with an overwhelming situation, the daily wrote. AT

IRANIAN INTERIOR MINISTRY ANNOUNCES SOME POLL RESULTS
The Interior Ministry announced on December 18 definitive results of elections in Tehran for the Assembly of Experts, the body that oversees the office of Iran's supreme leader, IRNA reported. It named the 16 candidates with the most votes, IRNA reported, without specifying if there are 16 seats for Tehran, and thus, if all gained a place in the 86-seat assembly. Ex-president and Expediency Council chief Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani was first in the Tehran constituency, with just over 1.56 million votes. He was followed by Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Meshkini, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, and Ayatollah Qorban Ali Dorri-Najafabadi. All of these men are currently members of the assembly and all are considered conservatives. The media have interpreted hard-line Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi's results -- with just under 880,000 votes -- as a show of preference for the more moderate positions represented by Rafsanjani, who suffered notable losses in previous parliamentary and presidential elections. Hussein Marashi, a member of the Executives of Construction, a party associated with Rafsanjani, told ISNA on December 17 that Rafsanjani's decisive election will boost domestic unity and Iran's international credibility, showing the world that "people who think rationally and have roots...still enjoy good public acceptability" in Iran. VS

IRANIAN REFORMIST SATISFIED WITH NATIONWIDE POLL RESULTS
Safdar Husseini, the reformist coalition's provincial campaign coordinator, said in Tehran on December 18 that reformers have thus far won most seats for municipal councils in the country's 22 provinces, ILNA reported. He said that of 1,524 people who had definitely won council seats in 265 cities and towns by December 18, 605 are reformers, 438 "fundamentalist" or conservative, 52 from the Sweet Scent of Service -- the list of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's allies -- and 429 are independent. But he said many independents have "reformist leanings" but ran as independents due to "local considerations and the atmosphere in the provinces," ILNA reported. He said reformers could work with them. He cited a list of provincial winners from the respective factions, distinguishing between "fundamentalist" conservatives and presidential allies. He said the "government list appeared in all towns and provinces with the government's name...so we can examine [the rejection of] this list as a phenomenon." He said the various polls have shown a "reformist outlook" in most votes. Husseini was a finance minister in the second government of President Mohammad Khatami. VS

A REFORMER AND A CONSERVATIVE TO ENTER IRANIAN PARLIAMENT
Conservative Hasan Ghafurifard and reformist Soheila Jelodarzadeh were elected members of parliament for Tehran constituencies in midterm polls on December 15, ISNA reported on December 18. Ghafurifard was elected with 801,452 votes and Jelodarzadeh with 529,307 votes, beating conservative Asadollah Badamchian, who was third with just under 295,000 votes, IRNA reported. Jelodarzadeh was a member of the last, reformist-dominated parliament. Ghafurifard told ISNA the real winners are "the people" and the loser "the West," which he said is pressuring Iran. He said he owed his election to "making contact" with electors in the Tehran suburbs of Islamshahr and Shahr-i Rey, and that he would voice their concerns more forcefully in parliament. VS

STUDENTS FEAR BACKLASH OVER PROTESTS IN TEHRAN
Students from Tehran's prestigious Amir Kabir University are concerned that officials or state agents will take retaliatory action against students who protested and heckled when President Ahmadinejad spoke at the university last week, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and "The Guardian" reported on December 16 and 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006). Yashar Qajar, a member of the university Islamic Student Association, told Radio Farda on December 16: "I think harsh measures may be taken," not just by university disciplinary bodies but also through the courts. "The Guardian" stated on December 18 that some protesting students have gone into hiding in fear for their lives. These include one student who brandished a placard calling Ahmadinejad a fascist, and three others who burned his picture. They fear they are being sought out by unspecified agents or militants from the Ansar-i Hizbullah, a group known for its violent disruption of liberal and reformist gatherings. The daily upped its estimate of demonstrating students during the presidential speech from 50 or 60 to "hundreds," apparently citing witnesses. The president, it added, citing an unnamed witness, was visibly distressed by the display of hostility. VS

FORMER IRAQI MINISTER ESCAPES FROM PRISON
Former Iraqi Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samarra'i escaped from prison on December 17, the MENA news service reported on December 18. Faris Karim, deputy head of Iraq's Public Integrity Commission, said that al-Samarra'i escaped with the assistance of members of a foreign security company he hired to protect him before his arrest. Al-Samarra'i was electricity minister in former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's cabinet, and was convicted in October on corruption charges and sentenced to two years in prison. He is accused of squandering $2 billion in public funds for contracts to rebuild Iraq's electrical infrastructure. This was his second attempt to escape from police custody. In October, a few days after his conviction, he fled but was later apprehended at the Baghdad International Airport carrying a Chinese passport. Several Iraqi politicians rejected the reports of Samarra'i's escape; instead, they accused U.S. forces of storming the prison and freeing him, Al- Baghdadiyah satellite television reported on December 18. Al-Samarra'i is a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen. SS

MEMOS SHOW FORMER IRAQI LEADER ORDERED CHEMICAL ATTACKS
During the December 18 session of the Anfal trial, Iraqi prosecutors presented documentary evidence demonstrating that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, international media reported the same day. One document was a 1987 memo by Iraqi intelligence seeking authorization from Hussein to use mustard and sarin gas against the Kurds. It also refers to the use of "special ammunitions," a term prosecutors claim referred to chemical weapons. Another memo showed that Hussein ordered military intelligence to study the possibility of a "sudden strike" using chemical weapons against Iranian and Kurdish forces. An internal memo by Iraqi military intelligence confirmed that it had received approval from Hussein's office for a strike using special ammunitions and that no strike would be made without first informing the president. Hussein and six co-defendants are accused of killing up to 180,000 Kurds in the 1980s. SS

IRAQI RED CRESCENT CLOSES OFFICES IN BAGHDAD
The Iraqi Red Crescent Society announced on December 18 the suspension of its work and the closure of its offices in Baghdad, international media reported the same day. On December 17, armed gunmen wearing Iraqi Army uniforms stormed the organization's headquarters in Baghdad and seized around 30 aid workers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2006). "We have frozen or stopped temporarily activities in Baghdad, but this is not affecting civilian needs. This was logical because our main staff is still kidnapped," Iraqi Red Crescent Society Secretary-General Mazin Abdallah said. Meanwhile, the MENA news service reported on December 18 that around 17 of the abducted relief workers have been released. Abdallah said 13 aid workers, two visitors to the group's office, and two guards belonging to the Dutch Embassy were released. SS

IRAQI PRESIDENT CALLS ISTANBUL CONFERENCE 'DANGEROUS'
President Jalal Talabani on December 17 harshly criticized the Conference for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq that was held in Istanbul on December 13-14, describing it as "a conference that incites sectarian tensions," "Al-Adala" reported. Talabani found it strange that "on the one hand Turkey is calling on Iraq and Kurdish leaders to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK], while at the same time convening a conference that calls on its participants to fight and inciting sectarian violence." The conference brought together approximately 100 prominent Sunni intellectuals, politicians, and activists from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and various other Muslim countries. The aim of the conference was to garner wider support for Iraq's Sunni Arab population in the midst of the current sectarian violence. SS

NEW U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY WARNS AGAINST FAILURE IN IRAQ
At his official swearing in on December 18, new U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that failure in Iraq would be a "calamity," international media reported the same day. "Failure in Iraq at this juncture would be a calamity that would haunt our nation, impair our credibility, and endanger Americans for decades to come," he said. Gates said he intends to go to Iraq soon to get "unvarnished" views from U.S. military commanders and to see what can be done to improve matters. President George W. Bush praised Gates, calling him "the right man" for the challenges of Iraq and the wider fight against terrorism. Gates served as CIA director from 1991 until 1993, during the administration of former President George Bush. SS

IRAQI TURKOMANS THREATEN TO BOYCOTT KIRKUK REFERENDUM
The Iraqi Turkoman Front announced on December 15 that it will not participate in the Kirkuk referendum, slated to take place sometime in 2007, if conditions continue to worsen, "Zaman Online" reported on December 17. During a visit to Ankara, front leader Sadettin Ergec said that Turkoman and Arab groups in the oil-rich city will not participate in the expected referendum or census if the "normalization" of Kirkuk is not achieved. Ergec said the demographic makeup of the city has been altered, adding that UN and Iraqi authorities recorded 12,000 people being forced to leave Kirkuk, while 227,000 Kurds have flooded the city to vote. The normalization process is a three-step plan to reverse the "Arabization" policy of former President Hussein. During the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Kurds, Turkomans, and Christians were expelled from the city and replaced with Arab settlers. Ergec said that the ethnic divisions and the Kurdish strategic interest in Kirkuk have the potential to turn the city into a major battlefield. SS

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