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Newsline - January 30, 2007


FOREIGN MINISTER WARNS OF MANIPULATED 'CIVIL WAR' AMONG PALESTINIANS
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the cabinet on January 29 that the upcoming meeting of the Mideast Quartet mediating group will seek to "help overcome the confrontation among the Palestinians, and first of all, between Fatah and Hamas," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). He added that "efforts to resume negotiations with Israel stumble over the threat of a civil war in the Palestinian territories.... The Quartet's task is [also] to...stop attempts that unfortunately are being carried out from outside to provoke disagreements between these groups." Lavrov believes that "Hamas is ready to recognize, in the platform of the government, earlier agreements with Israel and the decisions of the UN and the leaders of Arab League states." He also welcomed Saudi Arabia's recent offer to mediate between Hamas and Fatah. Lavrov will visit the U.S. capital soon to take part in a February 2 meeting of the Quartet, which includes Russia, the United States, the EU, and the UN. Also in Moscow on January 29, an unnamed "Defense Ministry source" was quoted by Interfax as saying that Saudi Arabia is considering the possible purchase of some "state-of-the-art T-90S tanks" from Russia. The source suggested that any deal would be simply "a positive gesture toward Russia" and involve only "a small number of tanks, about 100." The source added that Saudi Arabia is unlikely to move away from its traditional arms suppliers, namely the United States and France. PM

NUCLEAR PLANT IS SHUT DOWN
A spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry said on January 30 that the Balakovo nuclear power plant was automatically shut down the previous night due to an unspecified safety problem, Interfax and news.ru reported. The ministry noted that radiation levels are normal in and around the plant, which is northeast of Saratov on the Volga River. The spokesman added that the reactor has been disconnected from the grid and that the problem is being dealt with. Russia has 31 nuclear reactors at 10 plants, many of which are old. President Vladimir Putin has endorsed plans to build an additional 11 reactors in the Russian Federation as well as several more abroad, including Iran, India, and Vietnam (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, February 2, March 15, May 31, and June 12, 2006). Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, has argued that Russia must start work on two new reactors each year beginning in 2007 if it is to meet its goal in raising the share of atomic power in the national total from 16 to 25 percent. Kiriyenko has also said that Russia needs to build a total of about 40 additional nuclear reactors in order to meet that goal. PM

TAX PROBE LAUNCHED INTO PRIVATE OIL FIRM
The Russian daily "Kommersant" and Britain's "Financial Times" reported on January 29 and 30 respectively that Russian tax investigators recently "searched the offices and interviewed managers of RussNeft, a mid-sized...oil company, in a tax probe that is sending jitters through the energy sector." The Interior Ministry said in a statement that inspectors are looking into possible large-scale tax evasion. The "Financial Times" recalled that "it was a tax probe into Yukos, formerly Russia's most successful oil company, that led eventually to its bankruptcy and the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, its chief executive. Yukos's main production asset was later acquired in a forced auction by state-controlled Rosneft." The paper also cited unnamed "analysts [who] said the RussNeft investigation could be a result of pressure from state-controlled energy companies keen to acquire its assets" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006, and January 23, 2007). PM

MINISTER SAYS CIVILIAN AIRCRAFT INDUSTRY IS IN 'CRISIS'
Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, whom President Putin named in 2006 to head the new United Aircraft Company (OAK), said on January 29 that the civilian aircraft industry faces a "crisis," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, November 10, and December 14, 2006). He argued that "aircraft makers in Russia have even reduced themselves to switching from large-scale serial production to projects to manufacture individual civilian airplanes." Ivanov believes that the present situation could led to the "decline of the aircraft industry in general and cause us to lose our position in the global civilian aircraft construction industry in the not too distant future." He also noted that most Russian airlines fly planes that are "morally and physically obsolete, and whose overhaul is long overdue." To remedy the problem, airlines have been renting planes from abroad, but these, too, tend to be old, he added. PM

IS RUSSIA STILL TRYING TO ELBOW INTO EADS?
Forbes.com on January 29 quoted French media as saying that Russia is continuing to seek a 20 percent stake in the European aircraft manufacturer EADS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 23, and October 11, 12, and 13, 2006). The website added that Russian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Aleshin is scheduled to meet with French President Jacques Chirac soon to discuss the matter. Later on January 29, EADS "strongly denied" the reports, aero-news.net reported. In late 2006, European critics charged that any possible move by Russia to acquire a stake in EADS would amount to a hostile takeover and jeopardize the company's defense contracts with the United States. President Putin said that Russia is simply interested in a business deal. PM

RUSSIA'S FIRST LOW-COST AIRLINE TAKES OFF
Russia's first-ever budget airline, "Sky Express," launched its maiden flight between Moscow and Sochi on January 29, news agencies reported. It plans to expand its routes to several other Russian cities, including Rostov-na-Donu, Perm, Yekaterinburg, Ufa, Anapa, and Chelyabinsk. "Sky Express" charges as little as $35 for a return ticket to Sochi, which is several times cheaper than competing airlines. CEO Rod Brandt, an American, said recently that there is already a strong demand in Russia for budget air travel, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 26. The airline sold 3,000 tickets by telephone and online in its first week and hopes to carry 600,000 passengers in the first half of 2007. Its goal is to have 3.5 million passengers in 2008. PM

PIRACY STUDY SINGLES OUT CHINA, RUSSIA
A survey by the International Chamber of Commerce, which was released on January 29, said that China and Russia top the list for business piracy and counterfeiting, international media reported. The study argued that lax government enforcement is the main reason for the problem. The report noted that "multinational companies are quick to turn away from markets where counterfeiting laws are toothless and unpopular." PM

ORTHODOX CHURCH SLAMS DARWINISM, GAY MARCH
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II said on January 29 that it is unacceptable for schools to "impose" the theory of evolution on pupils, RIA Novosti reported. He argued that "teaching the biblical theory of the world's creation will not harm students. If people choose to believe that they are descended from apes, let them, but without imposing their opinions on others." Also on January 29, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy head of the Moscow Patriarchate Department for External Church Relations, was quoted by Interfax as saying that the church supports the position of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov in opposing a Gay Pride parade in the capital in May, just as the mayor and church did in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). He also suggested that the concept of gay rights is a "perversion opposing the family" and foreign to Russian culture. Luzhkov said earlier on January 29 that Gay Pride parades are a "satanic act." Parade organizer Nikolai Alekseyev responded by saying that he will sue Luzhkov for insulting him and the "peaceful goals" of his protest. Interfax wrote that "Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993. Tolerance is slowly rising, with a handful of gay clubs opening in large cities since the Soviet Union collapsed, but the country has no high-profile homosexual politicians or business leaders." PM

REGIONAL LEADER STEPS DOWN
President Putin accepted on January 29 the resignation of Valery Maleyev as governor of the Ust-Orda Buryat Autonomous Okrug, according to kommersant.ru on January 30. Putin simultaneously named Irkutsk Oblast governor Aleksandr Tishanin to replace Maleyev as acting governor until January 1, 2008, when the Autonomous Okrug will be formally subsumed into Irkutsk Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2006). Maleyev was elected last October to represent Usta-Orda in the State Duma. LF

COMMUNISTS REREGISTERED FOR DAGHESTAN ELECTION
Daghestan's Central Election Commission registered on January 29 for the second time the party list of candidates from the Communist Party (KPRF) for the March 11 parliamentary elections, regnum.ru and RIA Novosti reported. The KPRF was barred from the ballot last week after all four candidates registered in the Rutul district withdrew; Daghestan's election law requires parties to field candidates in each of the republic's 53 districts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23 and 25, 2007). LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT SETS DATE FOR PARLIAMENTARY BALLOT
Robert Kocharian signed a decree on January 29 scheduling parliamentary elections for May 12, the date observers considered most likely, Noyan Tapan reported on January 30. Also on January 29, Tigran Torosian, speaker of the outgoing parliament, told journalists that a decision will be taken shortly on which international organizations will be invited to monitor the ballot, Noyan Tapan reported. He commented that "the sky will not fall in" if the ballot is not deemed to meet international standards for free and fair elections, but even so, Armenia would have "missed an important opportunity" in terms of democratic development. LF

ARMENIA CONFIRMS REPORT OF OIL REFINERY DEAL
A Russian press report that agreement was reached during President Kocharian's two recent meetings with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the construction of an oil refinery in southern Armenia to process Iranian crude is true, Kocharian's press spokesman Viktor Soghomonian told journalists in Yerevan on January 29, Noyan Tapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2007). According to the Russian daily "Kommersant" on January 26, the refinery will cost some $1.7 billion to build and have an annual capacity of 7 million tons, although Armenia's annual demand for oil does not exceed 250,000 tons. LF

MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRS ASSESS KARABAKH TALKS
In a joint statement released on January 29 by the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan, the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, which seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict expressed satisfaction at the outcome of their visit last week to Baku, Stepanakert and Yerevan, Noyan Tapan and day.az reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25 and 29, 2007). The co-chairs said the presidents of both Armenia and Azerbaijan displayed "a constructive approach" to finalizing "a set of basic principles" for resolving the conflict. They added that while the two presidents "are defending their national interests vigorously," they are doing so in a way that "allows the peace process to move forward." They went on to urge "all parties " to "sustain this momentum in the negotiations and to prepare their publics for the necessary compromises" that any formal peace deal will require. LF

AZERBAIJANI PARTY MOVES FROM 'RADICAL' TO 'CONSTRUCTIVE' OPPOSITION
The Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) has formally decided at a session of its Supreme Council to moderate its position and embark on a dialogue with the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), day.az reported on January 27. DPA First Deputy Chairman Sardar Jalaloglu has repeatedly called in recent months for such a dialogue (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," December 22, 2006). He told day.az on January 25 that the DPA "has no intention of modifying its political position," but hopes for a "new phase" in its relations with the authorities. In a lengthy interview with the online daily echo-az.com on January 27, leading DPA member Yaqub Abbasov confirmed that talks on cooperation between the DPA and YAP are under way. He denied that there has been any "cardinal change" in the DPA's position, arguing that the only way to overcome the current polarization in Azerbaijani politics is for the opposition to "mobilize" and engage in "normal, constructive dialogue" with the authorities. At the same time, Abbasov admitted that "our allies in the opposition camp reacted with incomprehension" to that proposal and "even insulted us." DPA Supreme Council Chairman Akif Shahbazov told day.az on January 19 that Jalaloglu has alienated most of the party's original 26 founding members and should not think he can continue indefinitely his campaign to wrest control of the party from its self-exiled chairman, Rasul Quliyev. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZES REGIONAL OFFICIALS
Addressing the ruling council of his United National Movement on January 27, Mikheil Saakashvili criticized several regional officials for misuse of budget funds to purchase expensive automobiles or lavishly refurbish their offices, Georgian media reported. He said that those officials proceed on the assumption that having contributed to the party's 2006 local election victory, they are free to act as they please, according to "Kommersant" on January 29. Saakashvili singled out Bakur Balanchivadze, the mayor of Kutaisi, Georgia's second-largest city, who has since resigned, as have municipal council heads in Tsqaltubo, Khoni, and Samtredia, and Telavi governor Gocha Mamatsashvili, rustavi2.com reported on January 29. The daily "Alia" reported on January 25 that a purge is under way within the National Movement and that the party is not currently accepting any applications from would-be new members. LF

OSCE EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER SOUTH OSSETIA SHOOTING
In a statement released on January 29, Spanish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Angel Moratinos expressed concern over two recent incidents in the South Ossetian conflict zone. He stressed that it is of "vital importance that meaningful peaceful dialogue between all parties to the conflict be resumed as soon as possible to look for effective ways of reducing tension." Three South Ossetian policemen were wounded early on 28 January when unidentified perpetrators opened fire on their post; one of them died on January 29, Caucasus Press reported. On January 15, two members of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the conflict zone were injured by a land mine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17 and 29, 2007). LF

OSCE MEDIA OFFICIAL CALLS FOR KAZAKH 'INSULT LAWS' TO BE REPEALED
Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, has called on Kazakhstan to repeal its media law criminalizing the criticism of state officials, AKIpress reported on January 29. In a statement, Haraszti criticized Article 318 of the Kazakh criminal code, or Kazakhstan's so-called "insult laws," as being "contrary to modern democratic practice." Opposition Kazakh journalist Kazis Toguzbaev was handed a two-year suspended sentence on January 22 for the "infringement on the honor and dignity of the president" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007). The sentence stems from Toguzbaev's publication of several critical articles posted on www.kub.kz that criticized Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in connection with the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006). In his statement, Haraszti specifically stressed that "for the sake of free public discussion, public officials, especially [heads of state,] should exercise a greater degree of tolerance towards criticism, even if that criticism is expressed in a negative or harsh manner." RG

KAZAKH, TAJIK SECURITY OFFICIALS MEET TO DISCUSS COUNTERTERROR COOPERATION
Kazakh National Security Committee Chairman Amangeldy Shabdarbaev met on January 29 in Astana with visiting Tajik State Committee on National Security Chairman Khayriddin Abdurahimov to discuss bilateral cooperation in counterterrorism operations, according to "Kazakhstan Today." The two officials reviewed plans to expand cooperation in related areas, including combating drug trafficking and "other manifestations of extremism." A new intergovernmental agreement was also signed during the meeting establishing a training program for Tajik border guards at the Kazakh National Security Committee's Military Institute. RG

NEW KAZAKH DEPUTY ENERGY MINISTER NAMED
Almasadam Satkaliev has been appointed a new deputy minister of energy and mineral resources, Interfax reported on January 29. Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov formally appointed the 37-year old Satkaliev on 24 January, replacing Byrlyk Orazbaev. RG

NEW KYRGYZ PREMIER FORMULATES POLICY PRIORITIES WITH PRESIDENT
New Kyrgyz Prime Minister Azim Isabekov met late on January 29 with President Kurmanbek Bakiev to formulate the government's "priority tasks" for the coming six months, focusing on economic issues, energy development, and measures to combat corruption and improve tax collection, the 24.kg website reported. The new premier was overwhelmingly confirmed by the parliament on January 29, ending a political crisis after the president's previous two attempts at reappointing outgoing Prime Minister Feliks Kulov failed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 25, 26, and 29, 2007). Following the January 29 confirmation of the new premier, President Bakiev issued decrees dismissing Kulov as acting prime minister and formally naming Isabekov as the new Kyrgyz prime minister, Interfax reported. RG

TAJIK SECURITY OFFICIALS UNCOVER BUNKER ALLEGEDLY LINKED TO ISLAMIST EXTREMIST GROUPS
Khairullo Saidov, the head of the Sughd region's Prosecutor-General's Office, announced on January 29 that Tajik security forces have uncovered a 15 meter-long underground bunker near the northern city of Isfara reportedly linked to extremists from the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Hizb ut-Tahrir groups, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. An unspecified quantity of explosives, food, and other supplies was found in the bunker. Another underground bunker was found last year in the same region that contained "extremist literature in Russian, Tajik, and Uzbek," according to the Avesta website. RG

HUMAN RIGHTS GROUP CALLS FOR RELEASE OF JAILED UZBEK ACTIVIST
The rights group Human Rights Watch called on January 29 for the immediate release of jailed Uzbek activist Umida Niyazova, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Niyazova was arrested by Uzbek police at the Tashkent airport on December 21 on her return from a visit to Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006) and was charged with illegally crossing the border and bringing "extremist literature" into the country. In a statement on www.hrw.org, Human Rights Watch stated that Niyazova was detained on "politically motivated charges" aimed at preventing her from engaging in human rights work in Uzbekistan. RG

BELARUSIAN HUMAN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION SHUTS DOWN OFFICE
The Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BKhK), one of the few remaining nongovernmental organizations in the country, vacated its office in Minsk on January 29, Belapan reported. The BKhK office was located in the building that belongs to the Presidential Property Management, which in December canceled a rental lease for the BKhK. If the BKhK fails to lease new premises it may lose its registration and go into liquidation. BKhK Executive Director Aleh Hlushak told journalists that his organization will look for another legal address in the capital or some provincial city. "The organization has not ceased its operations and continues to work, even with obstacles," Hlushak added. JM

UTILITY TARIFFS IN BELARUS GO UP
The Belarusian government on January 29 resolved to raise gas and electricity tariffs for the population by 20 percent as of January 1, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Heating bills for the population will increase by 12 percent. JM

UKRAINIAN DIASPORA WANTS POLAND TO REDRESS FORCIBLE RESETTLEMENT OF ETHNIC UKRAINIANS IN 1947
The World Ukrainian Congress, an umbrella organization for the Ukrainian diaspora in the West, has sent an open letter to the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, and the United Nations, urging these organizations to press the Polish government into condemning and redressing the forcible resettlement of ethnic Ukrainians in 1947, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on January 29. In April and May 1947, the Polish government conducted a military operation called Akcja Wisla, which relocated some 150,000 Ukrainians from their native areas in southeastern Poland to the country's northern and western territories, which were newly acquired from the defeated Third Reich. In addition, several thousand Ukrainian civilians were interned in a labor camp in Jaworzno. "We appeal to the President of Ukraine and Ukrainian communities throughout the world: join your Ukrainian brethren who suffered this injustice in commemorating this tragedy with requiems and conferences. To the President of Ukraine in particular we say: make this issue a component of contemporary Ukrainian-Polish relations. To our communities throughout the world we say: bring this matter to the attention of your governments so that they may impress upon the government of the Republic of Poland the need to address and redress in good faith and with reasonable tangibility," the World Ukrainian Congress said in a statement published on its website (http://www.ukrainianworldcongress.org). JM

NATO CALLS ON SERBIA'S NEIGHBORS TO SUPPORT KOSOVA SOLUTION...
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on January 29 urged Serbia's Balkan neighbors to back proposals by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari on the future of the breakaway province of Kosova, the AP reported the same day. Ahtisaari is due to present his proposals on February 2. De Hoop Scheffer said "NATO allies" support Ahtisaari's proposals and "timelines" "I think it is important that all countries in the region do the same thing," he added. He also told reporters in Brussels that NATO's 16,000-strong peacekeeping force in Kosova "is prepared for all eventualities. "Let nobody in Kosova have any illusions that they should test KFOR," he said. "That goes for the majority and the minority." De Hoop Scheffer's comments were echoed in Pristina by the head of UN forces in Kosova, Roland Carter, who added that a clear decision on Kosova's future is "utterly necessary" because there is a "certain nervousness" among people, the independent Serbian news agency FoNet reported on January 29. In a visit to Tirana on January 29, Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev joined Albanian President Alfred Moisiu in calling for a "rapid" resolution of Kosova's status, local agencies reported the same day. They said a speedy decision would help preserve peace and stability in the Balkans. AG

...AND URGES DIALOGUE BETWEEN MACEDONIAN GOVERNMENT, OPPOSITION
NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer also called on Macedonia's government and opposition "to keep the doors open for communication, or the country's image will be affected." He was speaking after a meeting with Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski in Brussels on January 29. The ethnic-Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) decided on January 27 to boycott the Macedonian parliament, saying parliament was undermining the Ohrid Agreement that in 2001 ended violence between Macedonian forces and ethnic-Albanian separatists. The DUI's coalition partner, the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), has also joined the boycott. NATO inspectors recently visited Skopje to review Macedonia's bid for NATO membership. During the January 26 visit, NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Defense Policy and Planning John Colston said "NATO is impressed with the steps that have been taken to address the key areas of reform of the defense structure, the judiciary, the police, and the economy," local news agencies reported the same day. However, he stressed that Macedonia needs to demonstrate "continuing progress" and described 2007 as a "very important year." Macedonia hopes to be invited to join the alliance in 2008. AG

UNESCO TO RESTORE SEVEN SITES IN KOSOVA
UNESCO agreed on January 29 to restore seven cultural-heritage sites in the UN-administered Serbian province, AP reported the same day. The projects will be paid for from funds totaling $10 million promised by international donors in May 2005, the Serbian independent radio station B92 reported. In a press statement, Kosova's chief UN administrator, Joachim Ruecker, called the sites "a truly remarkable testament to Kosovo's distinctive history, and their protection and preservation is integral to the process of improving and consolidating relations between the different communities." The sites are two mosques, three Orthodox churches, a monastery, and a Turkish bathhouse. Riots by ethnic Albanians damaged or destroyed more than 30 churches in Kosova in 2005. The Serbian Orthodox Church says about 110 churches have been destroyed or damaged since 1999, B92 reported. A number of mosques were destroyed in 1998-99 during the Serbian crackdown on ethnic-Albanian separatists that triggered an intervention by NATO forces and eventually led to the transfer of authority in the region to the UN. AG

SERBIAN PARTIES BEGIN COALITION TALKS
President Boris Tadic began talks on January 29 aimed at the formation of a new coalition government, local media reported the same day. He first met with the leader of the representatives of the party that emerged from the January 21 poll with the most votes, the nationalist Serbian Radical Party. The party refused to name a candidate for the post of prime minister, Radio Belgrade reported. Tadic then met with the leaders of the Democratic Party, which won more votes than any other party in the moderate bloc. The Democrats want economist Bozidar Djelic to be the new prime minister, while one of its likely partners, the center-right Popular Coalition, wants Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to retain his position. AG

ALBANIA CALLS FOR RESTARTING OF BULGARIAN NUCLEAR REACTORS
Meeting in Tirana on January 29 with his Bulgarian counterpart Sergei Stanishev, Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha called on Bulgaria to reconsider a halt of electricity production by two reactors at its Kozloduy nuclear power plant, the Bulgarian news agency Fokus reported the same day. Albania's energy problems have been exacerbated since two of Kozloduy's reactors were shut down at the end of 2006 at the insistence of the European Union, which Bulgaria joined this month. Albania has been subject to daily blackouts since November, and the head of the Albanian Energy Corporation (KESh), Andi Beli, has in recent days extended the length of blackouts in Albania's two major cities. "We cannot yet allow ourselves the luxury of doing away with power cuts," Beli said in comments reported by the newspaper "Gazeta Shqiptare" on January 25. Before the closure of the two reactors, Bulgaria was the largest supplier of electricity in the region. Two of the plant's six original reactors remain in service. Local agencies report that three agreements were signed during Stanishev's visit: on rescheduling Albania's debt to Bulgaria, on cooperation in education, and on joint counterterrorism and police efforts. AG

RIFT EMERGING BETWEEN IRANIAN PRESIDENT AND CLERICS
The Iranian dailies "Ayande-yi No" and "Etemad" have commented this month on increasingly fragile relations between theologians in Qom -- Iran's main center of religious studies -- and the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whose populist approach has not proved entirely palatable to clerics concerned with public morals and political stability.

"Ayande-yi No" noted on January 15 that the "roots" of the differences are mainly "cultural," but observers have warned that this estrangement could cost the government a lot of public support. Both dailies cited several episodes since Ahmadinejad's election in mid 2005 that have apparently undermined relations.

One was his decision in April 2006 to allow women into sports stadiums to watch soccer games in mixed crowds, which senior clerics deplored as encouraging indecency.

Another incident was the president's presence in Doha at the opening of the Asian Games in December, where he reportedly witnessed displays that included dancing women -- considered indecent by strict Muslims.

Another, undated incident cited was the reported attendance by Vice President Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai at a private party in Turkey, where again there was dancing. The vice president apparently did not leave, "Ayande-yi No" reported, citing iranews.org.

For his part, Mashai has accused two legislators of conducting a smear campaign against him by distributing video footage from the party. He said they edited the video to give the impression that he stayed for the entire party, though he said he left when the dancing started.

Clerics were then puzzled by the president's letter, or letters, to Pope Benedict XVI, presumably because this was a religious matter not directly related to presidential prerogatives and because some of Benedict's comments on Islam last year made him controversial to many Muslims.

These incidents, the daily noted, have prompted Qom's silent disapproval -- and, at times, public criticism -- and have given the impression the president takes religion, public morals, and the Qom religious authorities lightly. A cleric and member of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Khorsand, was cited by "Ayande-yi No" on January 15 as saying it "was a mistake" to write to a pontiff who seemed to have insulted Muslims. "If the seminaries and religious authorities [marajeh] had been consulted," Khorsand said, the letter would not have been written.

"Ayande-yi No" stated that observers believe this estrangement may harm the government, given the respect most Iranians are said to have for Qom theologians. "The mass of [Iranians] are religious, and when there is a growing distance between the government and the seminaries, [Iranians] will move toward the theologians," the daily quoted Mohsen Gharavian, a pupil of Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi -- considered a religious mentor to the president -- as saying.

Mohammad Gharavi, a spokesman for the conservative Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, was quoted by "Ayande-yi No" as saying the government should take issues that concern the clergy more seriously.

"The Muslim people, theologians, and seminary elders cannot tolerate the repetition" of such incidents as those cited above, Gharavi said. "Etemad" reported on January 14 that Gharavi stressed in a fax sent to the paper that he said the above in a private capacity, not as a spokesman for the Society of Qom Teachers.

"Ayande-yi No" added that the government has a religious-affairs adviser, who also acts as a liaison with Qom. This government's liaison is Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Naser Saqa-i Biria, a pupil of Mesbah-Yazdi. In spite of his ties with the influential Mesbah-Yazdi, the daily notes that he has failed to maintain cordial relations between Qom and the presidency.

The distance between clerics and the government was highlighted recently by the president's absence in Qom on January 9. Past presidents have generally attended ceremonies in the city commemorating an uprising that took place there in 1978.

The daily contrasted this absence with the fact that the last president, reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami, was usually welcome in Qom despite the criticisms senior theologians leveled against his liberalizing social and cultural policies.

"Etemad" quoted Mohsen Gharavian as saying that Saqa-i Biria lived for several years in the United States and enjoys "a lower status in the Qom seminary," in spite of his 25-year association with Mesbah-Yazdi.

Ahmadinejad "does not have suitable and good advisers, at least in the seminary," Gharavi of the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers concluded, "Etemad" reported on January 14.

The respect Qom clerics enjoy among Iran's officialdom is shown in the visit nuclear-dossier chief Ali Larijani paid to Qom on January 19 to explain to senior theologians the state of the nuclear issue.

For now, the concerns of clerics seem to center on morals or "culture." Hojjatoleslam Khorsand was cited by "Etemad" as saying that "in cultural issues, a policy of tolerance and laxity is not acceptable." He urged Ahmadinejad not to overlook incidents like the party in Turkey.

That incident was again cited on January 21 by Ahmad Karimi, the secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Society of Guilds and Bazaar Associations, speaking to ILNA. "The president must safeguard the system's Islamic positions," he said. "The theologians are, like us...concerned about the safeguarding of values. I ask the president to respond over Mashai's conduct, and not to overlook that."

AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER ATTENDS AFGHAN-EU TROIKA MEETING...
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta took part in an EU troika meeting in Berlin on January 29, according to a statement from the Afghan Foreign Ministry. The discussions focused on security, development, counternarcotics, the Afghanistan Compact (see below), and the Afghan-Pakistani relationship. Spanta reportedly requested greater EU involvement in his country's stabilization, reconstruction, and democratization processes. The EU troika -- currently comprising the European Commission and the current and future EU presidencies -- includes German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, and Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country will take over the rotating EU Presidency on July 1. AT

...AS EU ANNOUNCES FOUR-YEAR AID PACKAGE FOR AFGHANISTAN
The EU on January 29 announced the details of a $775 million, four-year aid package for Afghanistan, AFP reported. The United States recently announced a plan to spend $10.6 billion over the next two years in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007). EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said Afghanistan's judicial sector will be a main funding target in an attempt to combat corruption, along with efforts to encourage Afghan farmers to grow crops other than opium poppies. The EU is expected to place experts in the Afghan Justice Ministry, the Supreme Court, and the Attorney-General's Office in the coming months. Solana said in Berlin on January 29 that it is "very likely" that the EU will dispatch police advisers to Afghanistan. AT

AFGHAN ELDERS, POLICE ACCUSED OF SIPHONING OFF AID
"The Daily Telegraph" website (http://www.telegraph.co.uk) on January 29 quoted unnamed U.S. and British officials as saying that half of all of aid sent to Afghanistan fails to reach its target and is instead stolen by corrupt tribal elders or security officials. Nurullah, a police intelligence officer in Kandahar Province, reportedly warned tribal leaders that donated equipment is not for their homes but "for the mosques and the whole village." An unidentified official at the U.S. Department of Defense told "The Daily Telegraph" that at least half of the equipment supplied by the United States to Afghanistan -- including thousands of trucks and cars -- is stolen by the police. AT

ICG REVIEWS AFGHANISTAN COMPACT
In a briefing published on January 29, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) examined progress one year after the Afghan government and the international community committed themselves to a "shared vision of the future" for a "stable and prosperous Afghanistan," known as the Afghan Compact (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 8, 2006). The ICG notes that Kabul and more than 60 states agreed at the London Conference of January-February 2006 on "three critical and interdependent areas or pillars of activity" over five years: security; governance, rule of law, and human rights; and social and economic development. "In the face of rising violence, the government and its international backers risk favoring shortsighted, quick fixes that work around the new democratic institutions," ICG analyst Joanna Nathan said. "This weakens the very institutions the country needs for its eventual stability." Samina Ahmed, director of ICG's South Asia Project, said that "state-building and counterinsurgency efforts must be seen as complementary." The country's "security issues must be faced, but policies must also be framed that keep long-term institution-building in mind, because that is the only path to lasting stability," Ahmed said. The briefing says that the Afghanistan Compact's overseer, the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board comprising Afghan ministers and major international players, should contribute to momentum and ensure coordination through more regular meetings of its influential members and the establishment of an independent secretariat with a liaison to draw the Afghan legislature, the National Assembly, into the process. AT

IRANIAN LEADERS MEET WITH RUSSIAN ENVOY
Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov met with Iranian leaders in Tehran on January 28, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, discussing the nuclear dossier and regional politics, IRNA and ISNA reported on January 29. Ivanov gave Khamenei a message from President Vladimir Putin, in which he stressed the continuation of bilateral cooperation in all areas, especially to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant on the Persian Gulf coast. Ahmadinejad urged in his meeting with Ivanov an "increase in consultations and visits" by senior officials of both countries to help expand bilateral ties, ISNA reported. He said the United States has "entirely failed" in Iraq and is unable to resolve its problems there, even with more troops. He said Iran is willing to discuss the nuclear conflict without preconditions, but that France, Great Britain, and Germany -- its previous EU negotiating partners -- have undermined Iran's trust and wasted time. "If the aim of talks...is to impose unfair conditions and deprive Iran of its evident rights, then they are...unacceptable," ISNA quoted him as saying. Ivanov said Russia believes talks are the only way to resolve the problem, and it would cooperate in any way to help find a political solution and "examine various proposals" leading to a "common viewpoint acceptable to negotiating parties," ISNA reported. VS

NUCLEAR OFFICIAL DENIES IRAN IS EXPANDING ENRICHMENT
The deputy head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Saidi, said in Tehran on January 28 that Iran is not currently installing 3,000 centrifuges to be used for uranium enrichment, the Mehr news agency reported. He thus contradicted an assertion to the contrary made the previous day by Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, and reported by agencies. The move would be a step toward larger-scale enrichment, part of the atomic fuel-production cycle Western states want Iran to halt until the nature of its contested nuclear program is fully verified. Saidi spoke to Mehr on the sidelines of a January 28 press conference given by Igor Ivanov and Ali Larijani. He said "we shall make an announcement when the installation of 3,000 centrifuges begins." He told Mehr that at present UN inspectors can visit Iranian installations every 15 days, in line with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Asked if he thought Iran will abide by the UN Security Council's demand that Iran halt enrichment-related activities 60 days after the December 23 resolution, he said "enrichment suspension is not in Iran's policies." VS

IRANIAN PUBLICATION SAYS IT WOULD BE EASY TO KIDNAP U.S. FORCES
The "Sobh-i Sadiq" journal, published by Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), reports in its latest issue that it would be very easy to kidnap U.S. military personnel around the world in response to what it sees as a similar move against Iranians by U.S. forces in Iraq, Radio Farda reported on January 29. The broadcaster cited an item published in the journal on January 29 alleging that the United States has a list of Iranians to be arrested or kidnapped in order to obtain information on Iran's nuclear program, arms purchases, or political activities. The item, written by Reza Zaker -- which Radio Farda speculated could be Ali Reza Zaker-Isfahani, the head of the Iranian presidency's Strategic Research Center -- observed that given the dispersion of U.S. personnel across the world, kidnapping and transferring them "to any desired point is easier" than buying a lot of "cheap Chinese" items. The article cited observed that past kidnappings or killings of U.S., British, or Israeli forces or security personnel in Iraq and elsewhere by individuals with inferior training provides "a clear message for them not to entertain vain designs." VS

IRANIAN ACTIVISTS PROTEST HANGINGS
Two Iranian rights groups have protested against Iran's hanging of four convicted bombers in Ahvaz, southwestern Iran, on January 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007), adding that these are just some of the executions Iran has perpetrated in recent months, Radio Farda reported on January 29. The Society for the Defense of Human Rights in Iran (Kanun-i defa'i hoquq-i bashar dar Iran) and the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization (Sazman-i hoquq-i bashar-i Ahvaz) said in statements that in addition to the four hanged on January 24, two "Ahvaz Arabs" were executed in Karun prison -- presumably in Ahvaz -- "in recent days," three on December 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006), and "two other people in the months preceding that, which shows an intention to create fear and terror in the region," Radio Farda reported. The two groups called for an end to the suppression of ethnic Arabs in the southwestern Khuzestan Province and similar oppression in "other areas of the country." They also urged international bodies to react to rights abuses in Iran, for Iranian officials to end executions and torture in Iranian prisons, and to release political prisoners, Radio Farda reported. VS

MILITANT LEADER KILLED IN SOUTHERN IRAQ...
Iraqi officials announced on January 29 that the leader of the Army of Heaven militant group was killed in a firefight that day near the holy city of Al-Najaf, international media reported. There was some initial confusion about the identity of the leader, but Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd al-Husayn Abtan named him as Dia Abd al-Zahra Kadim from Al-Hillah, south of Baghdad, AP reported on January 29. Iraqi officials contend that the Army of Heaven was planning to attack Shi'ite pilgrims during the religious festival of Ashura (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). Iraqi Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim said that that the fierce fighting in the Al-Najaf Governorate is winding down, stressing that U.S. and Iraqi forces had killed more than 160 militants, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on January 29. "The [military] operation destroyed those who attempted to carry out the attack. The losses [among the Army of Heaven] are estimated at 160, while almost 50 others were wounded. Others were held captive and are now in detention, some of whom are Arab nationals," Jasim said. SS

...AS IRAQI OFFICIAL SAYS GROUP LINKED TO AL-QAEDA
Al-Najaf Deputy Governor Abd al-Husayn Abtan said on January 29 that the Army of Heaven is linked to Al-Qaeda, Al-Sharqiyah satellite television reported the same day. The group was seeking to assassinate Shi'ite religious authorities and to take over the holy shrine of Imam Ali in the holy city of Al-Najaf, Abtan said. He pointed out that, judging by the group's fighting capabilities, members seem to have received serious military training. He said that, like Al-Qaeda, the group included foreigners, adding that a Sudanese and a number of Afghans were arrested, while two Egyptians escaped. Meanwhile, Abu Abbas, a spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam al-Mahdi Army, denied that the militia had any links to his group, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on January 29. "It seems the authorities are trying to mix things up and assail the Imam al-Mahdi's followers," Abbas said. SS

'CHEMICAL ALI' CLAIMS IMMUNITY FROM PROSECUTION
During the January 29 session of the Anfal trial, Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the former secretary-general of the northern bureau of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, insisted before the Iraqi High Tribunal that it has no right to try him, international media reported the same day. Al-Majid, aka Chemical Ali, contended that he has the same immunity from prosecution given to U.S. forces. His lawyers challenged the tribunal's jurisdiction by pointing to Coalition Provisional Authority Order No. 17, which grants immunity to U.S. troops in Iraq from the Iraqi legal process. However, prosecutor Munqith al-Farun countered that while U.S. troops may have immunity in Iraq, they may be tried by the U.S. military. Al-Majid and six codefendants face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in the killing of an estimated 180,000 Kurds in 1987-88. SS

IRAQI KURDS AND AL-SADR'S MOVEMENT DISCUSS ALLIANCE
A delegation from radical Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr's political bloc met with members of the Kurdish leadership, including Kurdish Regional President Mas'ud Barzani, on January 29 in Irbil to discuss forming an alliance, Kurdistan satellite television reported the same day. The two groups discussed strengthening ties between the Kurdish region and the Al-Sadr movement, as well as the need for further cooperation to move Iraq's political process forward and to improve national unity. The Al-Sadr movement delegation was led by Nasar al-Rubay'i, the head of the movement's political bloc in parliament, and included parliament deputies Falah Hasan Shanshal, Baha al-A'raji, and Salih Hasan al-Agili. On January 21, al-Sadr's political bloc ended a two-month boycott of the parliament and government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). SS

DEPUTY PREMIER ACCUSES U.S., IRAN OF VIOLATING IRAQ'S SOVEREIGNTY
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said on January 29 that Iraq's sovereignty and stability are being jeopardized because the United States and Iran are competing for influence in the country, Al-Sharqiyah satellite television reported the same day. "I have to admit Iraq has become a zone of conflict and competition among various regional players and international players," Salih said. "The tensions are there and, undeniably, there is a spillover effect that complicates Iraq's political and security transition." Salih urged Tehran and Washington to resolve their disagreements and to view Iraq's interests and progress as a point of understanding. SS

IRAQI PRESIDENT SAYS COMMITTEE TO FIGHT TERRORISM MAY INCLUDE IRAN
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani announced on January 29 that a three-way committee including representatives of the United States, Iraq, and Iran could be formed to fight terrorism in Iraq, KUNA reported the same day. "Our Iranian brothers have expressed a readiness to work alongside U.S. and Iraqi soldiers in order to fight terrorism," Talabani said. During a joint news conference with British Defense Minister Des Browne, Talabani said he is optimistic such a committee will be created. SS

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