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Newsline - March 19, 2007

Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov told a meeting of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy think tank on March 18 that Russia is against using the issue of Iran's nuclear program "as an instrument of pressure, being used as an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran," reported. Still, Ivanov called on Iran to address concerns about its nuclear program. "Over 18 years, work has been carried out in Iran that has not been under International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] control," he said. "And we insist that these concerns be lifted. If this issue is closed, then Iran will have every right to develop peaceful nuclear programs." Ivanov also called the Bushehr nuclear-power-plant project an "independent matter," insisting it is being carried out "under the strict control of the IAEA." Ivanov said there is no bias against Iran, just lawful demands. "Considering that Iran did not respond to the IAEA's appeals, the issue proceeded to the political level -- the UN Security Council," he said, adding that "if Teheran does not have military plans" then it has "absolutely nothing to worry about." Ivanov concluded by saying that it is necessary "to put the clock back," reported. "Iran needs to stop work to enrich uranium," he said. "Then, a pause will be taken in UN [Security Council] and it will be possible to sit at the negotiating table." Russian officials have recently said Russia will not play "anti-U.S. games" with Iran if it refuses to cooperate with the IAEA and complained that Iran is behind in its payments for the Bushehr nuclear power plant (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 7, 13, 15, and 16, 2007). JB

The daily "Kommersant" on March 17 quoted "a high-ranking source in the Kremlin" as saying that Stanislav Vavilov, chairman of the Federation Council's Committee for Legal and Judicial Affairs, will probably become the new Central Election Commission (TsIK) chairman, replacing Aleksandr Veshnyakov (see "RFE/RL Newsline" March 14, 2007). While Veshnyakov said that the TsIK's 15 members will choose a new chairman, deputy chairman and secretary by "secret ballot" on March 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline" March 15, 2007), "Kommersant" reported that the commission will only get to pick its secretary, and that the Kremlin will select the TsIK chairman and his deputy. According to "Kommersant," Vavilov told journalists in June 2006: "I support with both hands having the current president remain for a third term. This issue can be resolved through a referendum." That contrasts with Veshnyakov, who opposed various Kremlin initiatives and, in September 2006, dismissed as unlawful an appeal to conduct a referendum on lifting the two-term limit for Russian presidents. Yet not everyone is predicting Vavilov will become TsIK chairman. Sources inside the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party told "Kommersant" that the Kremlin will opt for a more "neutral figure" like Vladimir Churov, a State Duma deputy from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) who worked under Vladimir Putin on the St. Petersburg mayor's office's international affairs committee in the early 1990s. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta," meanwhile, noted on March 19 that Vavilov and Churov are the front-runners to become the TsIK chairman, but that the position will become less influential than the TsIK deputy chairman and secretary posts. Citing State Duma and presidential administration sources, the newspaper reported that the front-runner to become TsIK deputy chairman is Igor Borisov, head of the Russian Public Institute for Voting Rights, whom it described as a convinced "gosudarstvennik," or a person who believes in a strong state, who spent years in the military. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that Maiya Grishina, deputy head of the legal department of the TsIK's apparatus, is likely to be named the TsIK's secretary. The daily also quoted sources which predicted that it will be the courts, not the TsIK, will be make decisions "capable of influencing the course of election campaigns." JB

The Other Russia opposition movement held a demonstration in St. Petersburg on March 18 to protest the official results of the city's legislative assembly elections as well as Gazprom City, the controversial planned business center that will include the headquarters of Gazpromneft, the gas monopoly's oil subsidiary, and a 77-story skyscraper. RFE/RL's Russian Service ( reported on March 18 that more than a thousand people took part in the protest, which was sanctioned by the city authorities, and that Other Russia members were joined by members of Yabloko, the Red Youth Avant-Garde, Communists of Leningrad, and other groups, who demanded the resignations of President Putin and St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko. The website described the security measures taken for the protest as "truly unprecedented," with a number of OMON riot police even greater than those deployed for the "March of the Discontented," which was held in St. Petersburg on March 3 without the city authorities' permission. "OMON, brought in from other regions (in particular, from Nizhny Novgorod and even North Ossetia), cordoned off everything possible," reported. "All entrances and approaches were blocked with cars, vehicular traffic was paralyzed." The website reported that the protest was relatively incident-free, with only five members of the National Bolshevik Party and two Social Democratic Youth Union activists detained. JB

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who heads the Russian People's Democratic Union and has announced he will run for president next year, said on March 17 that, apart from him, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, or United Civic Front leader Garry Kasparov could potentially become the unified opposition presidential candidate. "Besides me, no one else has spoken about their plans to run for president yet, but I think that, if we talk about a sole candidate from the rightist and leftist opposition, this could be Grigory Yavlinsky, Garry Kasparov, or Vladimir Ryzhkov," Interfax quoted Kasyanov as telling journalists. He also said that the organizations comprising the Other Russia movement are developing a procedure for selecting the sole opposition candidate. "I think this procedure could be finalized by the end of spring," he said. Kasyanov attended a meeting of the Other Russia's youth movements that was held on March 17 in suburban Moscow, "Kommersant" reported on March 19. The Moscow City Court ruled on March 16 that Kasyanov must return a luxury country house that he bought from the state in 2005. He has been investigated for fraud and abuse of office, charges that he says are politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). JB

During a meeting with Federation Council leaders on March 16, ostensibly devoted to the country's demographic problems, President Putin stressed the need to work responsibly with budget funds and fight against corruption, the daily "Vedomosti" reported on March 19. Putin told the meeting's participants -- Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov and his deputies, along with the heads of the upper parliamentary chamber's committees and commissions -- that Federation Council senators must work responsibly on the federal budget, especially on the eve of the State Duma elections later this year, ensuring that "every budget ruble is spent as intended" and not misused by "bureaucrats and embezzlers." Nikolai Tulaev, chairman of the Federation Council's Commission for Rules, told "Vedomosti" that Mironov called for intensifying the fight against corruption, which he described as a "disease that is corroding the state" and a "serious obstacle" to various goals, including resolving demographic problems. Mironov called for the confiscation of property from corrupt officials and members of their family if the property was acquired with embezzled funds. According to Tulaev, Putin backed Mironov's idea and urged the senators to think about how to codify it legally. "Vedomosti" noted that Putin issued a decree in February setting up an interagency working group to draft legislation enforcing the UN Convention Against Corruption and the Council of Europe's anticorruption conventions. He named Kremlin administration deputy chief Viktor Ivanov to head the interagency group. "Vedomosti" quoted Aleksei Makarkin of the Center for Political Technologies as saying that the corruption issue works to the benefit of A Just Russia, the pro-Kremlin party that Mironov heads. "In supporting Mironov, Putin is continuing a policy of balancing interests," Makarkin said, adding that Putin does not want Unified Russia to become a dominant party that can dictate conditions to the Kremlin. JB

Viktor Kress was sworn in on March 17 for a fifth consecutive term as governor of Tomsk Oblast, and reported on March 17 and 19 respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 12, 2007). In his inauguration speech, Kress owned up to "fatigue," but added that he agreed to a fifth term as governor out of a feeling of responsibility to the oblast's population. Also on March 17, the Tomsk Oblast Duma elected on March 11 convened for its first session and reelected Boris Maltsev for a fourth term as speaker, reported. Maltsev's candidacy was put forward by the regional branch of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which won 27 mandates in the 42-seat legislature. LF

Meeting on March 17 in Grozny with republican prosecutor Valery Kuznetsov, pro-Moscow administration head Ramzan Kadyrov expressed concern that Chechen citizens continue to be abducted, even though the incidence of such crimes has decreased, according to and the Chechen government website, Kuznetsov said that during the first two months of this year, his agency was informed of 32 such abductions and opened criminal cases with regard to 15; in each case the victim was found. Kadyrov further called for an investigation into the activities of the federal Interior Ministry's Grozny-based Operational-Search Bureau, which he described as superfluous given that the situation in Chechnya is now "peaceful" and "conducive to constructive work." The Council of Europe's Antitorture Committee released a statement last week detailing cases of abduction, torture, and ill-treatment by the bureau's staff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). Police and security forces subordinate to Kadyrov in his previous capacity as prime minister are likewise suspected of abducting, torturing, and even executing civilians. LF

The referendum on Kadyrov's suggested changes to the republic's constitution should take place by the end of this year, according to Chechen Election Commission Chairman Ismail Baykhanov as quoted on March 19 by Baykhanov said his commission has drafted a law on referendums, which has been sent to parliament. The proposed amendments include replacing the present bicameral parliament with a unicameral one in which all deputies will be elected from party lists, abolishing the requirement that the republic head be universally elected (Article 65), and removing the mention of "sovereignty" in Article 1, according to Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, speaker of the parliament's lower chamber. Those proposed amendments must be approved by no fewer than two-thirds of the members of the Constitutional Assembly before being submitted to a referendum, but the parliament has not yet passed legislation on setting up the assembly. LF

Artur Rasizade delivered his traditional annual report to the Milli Mejlis on March 16 on the work of the cabinet over the previous 12 months, and reported. In that report, which lasted a little over 15 minutes, Rasizade gave an overall positive assessment of economic trends over the past three years, i.e. since the election of Ilham Aliyev as president in October 2003. Rasizade noted that in 2006 gross domestic product (GDP) amounted to 17 billion manats ($19.5 billion) and per capita GDP to $2,400; and that virtually all sectors registered double-digit growth. Deputies representing the majority Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP) expressed general approval of the report and advocated endorsing it. But independent deputy Guseyn Abdullayev criticized it as a "fiction" devoid of hard statistical data and an insult to the Azerbaijani people; he further described the government's performance as "unbelievably bad," according to Abdullayev reportedly responded with verbal insults to an injunction to "shut up" from Fazail Agamaly, chairman of the small pro-government Ana Vaten party, whereupon the two men got into a fistfight and had to be forcibly separated. Opposition deputies Panah Huseynov and Musa Quliyev also criticized Rasizade's report, which was nonetheless endorsed by a vote of 103 in favor and five against with five abstentions. In a commentary published in the electronic daily on March 17, Rauf Mirkadyrov contrasted Rasizade's "Olympian calm" with warnings by "The Economist" in its March 8 edition that notwithstanding the oil-fuelled economic boom, monthly inflation in Azerbaijan in the wake of the January price hikes is close to 10 percent and the country already shows the first signs of succumbing to "Dutch disease." LF

Speaking on March 15 in Baku at the formal presentation of a book by parliament deputy Elmira Ahundova, former Information Minister and YAP Deputy Chairman Siruz Tebrizli harshly criticized presidential-administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev, accusing him of deliberately misinforming President Aliyev about the true situation in the country, and reported on March 16. Tebrizli described socioeconomic conditions as atrocious, with "no gas, no electricity, and no water supplies." He appealed to all those who support Aliyev to join a demonstration in Baku on March 18 organized by the opposition Musavat party "so the president can see how many people are unhappy with the present leadership" (see below). Tebrizli also defended former Health Minister Ali Insanov, who is currently on trial on charges of large-scale embezzlement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16 and 28 and March 8 and 14, 2007). Insanov embarked on an indefinite hunger strike on March 17 to protest what he termed bias on the part of the court, reported on March 18. Tebrizli on March 15 recalled that Insanov was one of the original 91 signatories to an appeal to Heydar Aliyev (Ilham's father and predecessor as president) in the early 1990s to create a political party. Nine years ago, Tebrizli made headlines by alleging that YAP had degenerated into a "party of faceless bandits" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 24, 1998). YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Siyavush Novruzov was quoted by on March 17 as saying Tebrizli's criticisms of Mehtiyev and of YAP Executive Secretary Ali Akhmedov are unfounded, and that his description of socioeconomic conditions was inaccurate. He said unspecified disciplinary measures will be taken against Tebrizli. In a March 17 interview with, YAP First Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Qurbanly similarly rejected Tebrizli's statements as untrue, and again denied that there is any "crisis" within the party's ranks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007). LF

The opposition Musavat party convened a demonstration in Baku on March 17, with the permission of the municipal authorities, to protest the price rises for gasoline, gas, and electricity introduced in January, Reuters and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10 and 16, 2007). Participants appealed to the authorities to write off all arrears owed by the population for communal services, to crack down on corruption, and to ensure transparency in spending oil revenues. Police estimated the number of protest participants at 600-700, while calculated the figure at 1,500-2,000, more than at Musavat's two previous protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29 and February 20, 2007). It is not clear whether the higher turnout was due to more clement weather or to popular response to Tebrizli's appeal. LF

Robert Simmons, who is NATO's special representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, told a press conference in Baku on March 16 that as a result of recent arms purchases, Azerbaijan has exceeded the quota for heavy weaponry it was allocated under the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), reported on March 17. Simmons said the issue will be referred to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna. APA on March 16 quoted Simmons as accusing Armenia too of exceeding its CFE arms quota, but Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian denied any such violation and suggested Simmons may have been misquoted, according to on March 17. Simmons also noted on March 16 that Azerbaijan has not yet formally announced any desire to join NATO, but will sign a further Individual Partnership Action Plan following the successful completion of the current one, reported on March 17. Simmons met in Baku on March 14, 15, and 16 with President Aliyev, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Emergency Situations Minister Kyamaleddin Haydarov, and Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiyev. LF

Era TV journalist Yulia Isakova told Interfax-Kazakhstan on March 16 that Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev has apologized to her for the expulsion of an Era TV crew from a recent press event (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). Isakova, who had filed a lawsuit against Ertysbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2007), said: "I am personally very satisfied with the meeting we had. We managed to settle the conflict out of court. We are withdrawing the lawsuit." Prime Minister Karim Masimov recently urged Ertysbaev to apologize for the incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). DK

The number of children infected with the HIV virus in South Kazakhstan province has reached 101, Interfax reported on March 17, citing data from the region's AIDS Prevention Center. Nataliya Babina, a doctor with the center, told Interfax that "9,737, or 98.5 percent of the children who contacted with HIV-stricken children have been examined." The HIV/AIDS outbreak in South Kazakhstan province, which is believed to have been caused by tainted-blood transfusions, took place in 2006 and has claimed the lives of eight children. Twenty-one people are on trial in connection with the outbreak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 2007). DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev attended a memorial ceremony in the village of Kara-Jigach, in the Aksy district of Jalal-Abad province, on March 17 to commemorate six people killed in a clash between protesters and police there in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18 and 19, 2002), Kabar reported. Bakiev told attendees that an ongoing investigation is under his personal supervision but warned that some individuals are trying to use the incident for political purposes. Bakiev was the prime minister at the time of the event, and resigned as a result. Security forces fired on the demonstrators, who were calling for the release from jail of parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov. Beknazarov, who is currently a member of parliament and in opposition to Bakiev, also attended the memorial. Beknazarov said that he does not believe Bakiev's claims that those responsible for the Aksy shootings will be called to account, reported. "Kurmanbek Bakiev did not give a time for completing the investigation of this tragedy and punishing the criminals," he said. In this regard, Beknazarov called for the removal of Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev. DK

Toktogul Kakchekeev, a spokesman for the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office, announced on March 16 that a Kyrgyz investigation has concluded that the shooting death of a Kyrgyz citizen at a checkpoint at the U.S. military base outside Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006) was a murder, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kakchekeev noted that while Kyrgyz investigators believe the U.S. serviceman exceeded the limits of self-defense, he cannot be charged because U.S. service personnel at Manas Air Base enjoy immunity. The United States is still investigating the incident, AP reported. DK

France has sent three Dassault Rafale fighter planes to Tajikistan to boost its military presence in that country, Avesta reported on March 17. The French military contingent is located in Dushanbe and consists of 400 service personnel, three Mirage fighters, and three transport planes, the news agency reported. The French forces are providing support for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operations in Afghanistan. Avesta quoted an anonymous source as saying that the three additional fighter planes were deployed in light of the worsening security situation in Afghanistan. DK

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki in Ashgabat on March 16 that Iran and Russia are Turkmenistan's "true and diligent partners," ITAR-TASS reported the next day. Noting that Turkmenistan "relies on true and diligent partners, particularly in the sphere of energy interests," Berdymukhammedov said that "Russia and Iran are on the list of such partners." He continued, "We hope that China will join in when a pipeline to that country has been laid." During his meeting with Berdymukhammedov, Mottaki suggested that Iran and Turkmenistan form a joint committee by June to handle border affairs, IRNA reported. DK

At a cabinet meeting on March 16, Berdymukhammedov rebuked Enebai Ataeva, minster of culture and television and radio broadcasting, for the low quality of programming on state-run television, reported. Berdymukhammedov said that there is a shortage of "genuinely interesting programs with a high artistic level" and that Ataeva will be sacked if she fails to remedy the problem. DK

Berdymukhammedov has appointed Education Minister Hydyr Saparliev deputy prime minister in charge of education, science, health care, culture, sports, and media, reported on March 16. The new education minister will be Mukhammetgeldi Annaamanov, who was previously rector of the Turkmen Economics Institute. DK

Six opposition parties and a group of small business owners on March 17 agreed to hold the Second Congress of Pro-Democratic Forces on April 21-22, Belapan reported, quoting Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, chairman of the organizing committee for the congress. A statement announcing the date of the congress is expected to be signed on March 19. Bukhvostau said that the signatories of the statement will participate in the congress, adding that it will be open for signing by other political groups and nongovernmental organizations. The March 17 meeting was not, however, attended by former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who told Reuters that he does not want to have anything to do with this congress. "This will be a congress of party groups and not of democratic forces as a whole. If leaders at the top do not want real unity, I will organize it from the bottom," Milinkevich added. Initially, the congress was planned for mid-March, but Milinkevich objected to the idea of a rotating leadership in the opposition, which was proposed by other opposition party leaders for the congress agenda (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). The agenda for the congress approved on March 17 reportedly includes the opposition's strategy for 2007-08, its action plan and economic proposals, and a "transitional-period constitution." JM

On March 18, to mark the anniversary of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's controversial reelection for the third term on March 19, 2006, young people in more than 60 European cities gagged hundreds of statues and displayed the message "Give a Voice to the People of Belarus," the Young European Federalists (JEF) announced in a press release on March 19. "Youths from every corner of Europe are on the streets tonight to demand a democratic, free, and united Europe," JEF Vice President Asa Gunven commented on the action. "This is European integration and international solidarity in action! It is time for Europe's leaders to also exchange words for action and take an active part in changing the reality for our muzzled European neighbors. A message shouted loud in 60 cities across the borders of Europe must not be neglected." JM

Vasyl Tsushko said at a news conference in Kyiv on March 17 that he has ordered police to take measures to prevent the People's Self-Defense movement organized by former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko from staging the so-called March of Justice from the provinces to Kyiv this coming spring (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007), the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported. "Those terminators [from People's Self-Defense] are mobilizing their forces against Kyiv. According to our information, they engage senior graders from schools [as well as] students of vocational and technical schools by offering $25 each," Tsushko said. "We now have a spring relapse of political schizophrenia, and we need to stop this schizophrenia," he added. Meanwhile, Lutsenko participated in rallies on March 17 in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, where he campaigned for his movement and called on people to get ready for the March of Justice. The rally in Kharkiv attracted 10,000, and in Dnipropetrovsk 5,000. JM

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov have both called for talks on the future of Kosova to be reopened under the mediation of a new UN envoy. Current envoy Martti Ahtisaari gave his proposal for the final status for the UN-administered Serbian province of Kosova to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 15. He is believed to have called for Kosova to be granted independence under international supervision (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). Lavrov said on March 16 that new talks are necessary and proposed, according to the Serbian newspaper "Politika," that "if Martti Ahtisaari thinks that he has done everything he could have, it is almost certain that a person can be found that will do this." His comments were echoed on March 18 by Ivanov, the head of Russia's Security Council and a former foreign minister. According to a March 18 report by Interfax, Ivanov told Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy that "if Martti Ahtisaari believes that his mission has been accomplished, then he should be thanked for that. This issue should be discussed, see how the talks are going between the parties, and if there is no agreement -- as we understand, there is none -- the talks should continue and a new special envoy should be appointed." Ivanov called for the talks to be held "without any time pressure." The call for a continuation of talks is not new, but there have been no previous public calls for Ahtisaari to be replaced. AG

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov's comments were welcomed by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on March 17, the news agency FoNet reported the same day, and Ivanov's speech will have added to Belgrade's satisfaction. However, the comments did not resolve the uncertainty about whether Russia will use its veto when the Ahtisaari proposal is brought before the UN Security Council. Ivanov said that "Russia will not assume or share responsibility for ill-considered decisions" that attempt to impose a solution that is to the detriment of one of the parties, a comment that could be interpreted either as meaning that Russia will use its veto or that it will abstain. Lavrov was explicitly noncommittal. "We cannot be more Serbian than the Serbs themselves; we cannot say that in any case we will block any decision that will not suit both parties," Interfax quoted Lavrov as saying on March 16. A senior U.S. official, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, on March 12 argued that it should not be assumed that Russia, which has worked "very closely and collaboratively" on Kosova's status, will veto the proposal, while Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic has sought to cool Serbs' hopes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 13, 2007). Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku said on March 16 that "I believe Russia will understand that it is not worth rejecting the plan as this would jeopardize relationships with the international community," KohaVision TV reported the same day. The call for extended talks but reticence about a veto may strengthen the argument that Russia is banking on persuading UN Secretary-General Ban to send back the proposal for further deliberations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 2007). Ahtisaari is currently in South Africa, the current chairman of the Security Council. Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu will on March 19 meet with Ban in New York. AG

Interfax's report on Ivanov's speech noted that he stressed that the current situation in the region does not pose a threat to regional or international security. That assessment differs sharply from the view of his predecessor as foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who said on March 16 that independence for Kosova could spark armed conflicts in a number of former Soviet republics. "It was so incredibly difficult to put out fires in the post-Soviet territory, and they may flare up again if Kosovo is granted independence," Primakov told Interfax. Like Ivanov and the Serbs, Primakov called for further talks, a call he has made before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). Now an academic, Primakov's words still carry particular weight as he was long one of Russia's most powerful men and as he was foreign minister in the years leading up to the outbreak of violence in Kosova. Meanwhile, the Serbian National Council of Kosovo, which groups more hard-line members of the Serbian community, said that security in the UN-administered province has "significantly deteriorated, above all in the sense of security for Serbs and the establishment of the rule of law" since violence in March 2004 that left 19 people dead, FoNet reported on March 17. The Serbian National Council blamed international authorities in the region -- which include NATO -- for failing to provide security, while Ivanov said that NATO bears responsibility "if extremist groups are emerging" in Kosova. AG

Prime Minister Kostunica said on March 17 that the project of an independent Kosova is entirely founded on violence and ethnic cleansing, Radio-Television Serbia reported the same day. The violence committed by Albanians against ethnic Serbs in March 2004 was an attempt to complete the ethnic cleansing begun in 1998 by ethnic Albanian separatists, Kostunica said. March 17 was the third anniversary of the outbreak of violence that left 19 people dead, displaced roughly 4,000, destroyed hundreds of homes, and destroyed or damaged several dozen Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches. According to local media reports, Serbian President Boris Tadic on March 16 called for the organizers and perpetrators of what he described as a "pogrom" to be brought to justice and for the international community to resist the demands of extremists for independence for Kosova. Nebojsa Popovic, the head of Belgrade's economic policy for southern Serbia and Kosova, said that the failure, as he put it, to apprehend the perpetrators of the violence is a sign of a crisis of institutions in Kosova and proof that the rule of law is not functioning in Kosova, Radio-Television Serbia quoted him as saying on March 16. So far, 26 people have been found guilty of involvement in the violence, and five more ethnic Albanians were charged on February 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). AG

Kosova's Serbian community marked the anniversary of the deadly riots of 2004 on March 17 by ringing church bells at exactly midday, by lighting candles, and by attending church services, local media reported. AFP reported on March 17 that Bishop Artemije of Raska-Prizren told a congregation of several hundred in Gracanica that "today, when Kosovo's fate is being decided by the world powers, we will not agree to the partition of Kosovo from Serbia," adding that "whatever they decide and undertake, we have to remain determined." Artemije told the Beta news agency on March 16 that reconstruction work has begun on just seven or eight of the dozens of churches and monasteries destroyed in the violence. He argued that the money spent was a matter of political marketing rather than a sign of a genuine commitment to the reconstruction of Serbian religious and cultural sites. The UN's plan for the region envisages that Serbian religious and cultural sites would be protected by international troops and an exclusion zone established around them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). According to AFP, Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu issued a statement on March 17 saying that "it is very important for us to remember [the March 2004 violence] as a bad event and story which will never be repeated." AG

Authorities in southern Serbia say that have uncovered what they believe was a training camp for Islamist extremists, AP and Serbian television reported on March 18. AP described the camp as an Al-Qaeda training camp, while Serbian television referred to it as a camp for Wahhabis, the austere form of Saudi Arabian Sunni Islam from which the Islamism of Al-Qaeda emerged, but which is also widely applied in the Balkans to any form of political Islam. Four men were arrested, and AP quoted a local judge, Camil Cubic, as saying that police are searching for a fifth suspect. Details were not released, but all those arrested have surnames common in the former Yugoslavia and Serbian television said they are all local men. Explosives, ammunition, military clothing, weapons, tents, food, and water were among the items found at the alleged camp, in a cave at an undisclosed site somewhere in the Novi Pazar, Sjenica and Tutin areas of the Sandzak region. Sandzak, which Serbia annexed from the Ottoman Empire in 1912 along with Kosova and Macedonia, straddles Serbia and Montenegro. In its Serbian section, Sandzak is predominantly populated by Bosnian Muslims, while Serbs narrowly outnumber Bosnian Muslims in Montenegrin Sandzak. The timing of the discovery is sensitive. First, Sandzak borders Kosova, which is closer than ever to independence. Second, splits in the Muslim leadership in the former Yugoslavia are widening (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2007). And, third, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where local tensions with supposed "Wahhabis" have been commanding headlines for months, the head of the European Union forces warned on March 8 that "extremism and organized crime" make the country "very fertile soil for terrorism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). AG

Montenegrin police on March 18 detained and questioned a number of relatives of Radovan Karadzic about the whereabouts of the former Bosnian Serb leader, who is wanted for war crimes and genocide. Reports differ on the number arrested. Karadzic's sister, his niece, and son-in-law were questioned, Karadzic's brother, Raco, told the daily "Vijesti." However, AP reported that Karadzic's wife and two distant relatives were also detained, citing another of Karadzic's brothers, Luka. There has been no comment by the Montenegrin police. NATO troops raided the homes of Karadzic's daughter and son in Bosnia in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). The Serbian broadcaster B92 reported on March 10 that a NATO commander, Major General Richard Wightman, believes Karadzic is not in Bosnia. Karadzic was born in Montenegro, and UN prosecutors have in the past said they believe he is in the mountains that run along Bosnia's borders with Serbia and Montenegro. AG

Russia has promised to pay off its Soviet-era debt to Macedonia by building gas pipelines within Macedonia, Macedonian news agencies reported on March 16. The deal was reached on March 16 during a three-day visit to Moscow by Deputy Prime Minister Zoran Stavrevski and Economy Minister Vera Rafajlovska. Makfax suggested the deal involves four pipeline-construction projects, including pipes encircling the capital Skopje, a pipeline running between Klechovce and Stip, and a pipeline from Skopje to Tetovo. The reports did not state the worth of the pipeline deals or other details, including whether Russia would own stakes in the pipelines. The projects will involve Gazprom. In the 1990s, Russia delayed the payment of its $1.5 billion debt to Yugoslavia on the grounds that it first needed the country's successor states to agree on a division of the debt. Russia has in the past year paid off all its Soviet-era debt to the Paris Club of creditor states. AG

The successor states of the former Yugoslavia agreed on March 16 to a timeline for the division of Yugoslavia's 100 or so diplomatic properties, the Slovenian news agency STA reported the same day. Diplomatic residences will be handed over to their new owners by mid-2007, with embassies and consulates to be transferred by the end of the year. The division of assets has yet to be agreed. STA and the Croatian news service reported that 49 properties have so far been allocated. Slovenia has received its full entitlement of 14 percent of the properties, including the embassy in Washington. AG

A court in the eastern Croatian city of Vukovar on March 16 issued an international warrant for the arrest of Veljko Kadijevic, the Yugoslav minister of defense between 1988 and 1992, the news agency Hina reported the same day. The son of a Croatian mother and Serbian father, Kadijevic was the man who ordered troops of the former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) to enter the city. Thousands died in the fighting and Vukovar was the scene of a large-scale war crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). A local prosecutor, Nikola Besenski, said he issued the warrant because a domestic arrest warrant issued in 2000 produced no results and because of "recent media reports on Kadijevic's whereabouts abroad." It is not clear to what reports Besenski was referring. However, the arrest warrant may now throw the spotlight on the United States. Kadijevic reportedly moved to the United States in 2003, and the Serbian daily "Blic" on March 13 claimed that he is currently an adviser to U.S.-led forces serving in Iraq. Kadijevic, who was born in 1925, fought as a partisan in World War II before going on to become a general. Kadijevic was cited in the international war-crimes indictment of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, for having, in the words of the indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, "commanded, directed, or otherwise exercised effective control over the JNA and other units acting in coordination with the JNA." AG

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is currently courting Iraqi political parties and blocs in an attempt to forge a new national-unity government. Allawi has criticized the government of current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for its sectarian nature and claims he has a plan to end sectarianism in Iraq. He says he has presented his plan to the United States, Britain, and regional states, and has received positive responses. There are suggestions, however, that it is short on substance and is little more than an attempt to grab the reins of power.

Supporters of Allawi's plan have all complained that their parties have been shut out of decision-making processes within al-Maliki's government. While several parties hold high-level seats, their leaders say that power rests in the hands of a small group of Shi'ite leaders who control key facets of the government.

A key element of Allawi's plan is to form a national-unity government not based on sectarian quotas. He has said that he supports the appointment of qualified persons based on competence rather than affiliation. It is debatable, however, whether Iraq's political parties are mature enough -- or patriotic enough -- to put the country's interests before their own aspirations. Moreover, Allawi's own track record offers little promise of change: his interim administration was based on quotas.

Allawi supporter Izzat al-Shabandar told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in January that a "sectarian spirit controls the political process in Iraq because the Shi'ite community's amirs are clinging to power, since they believe this is their right that they lost several centuries ago, while the Sunnis' amirs fear the Shi'a control over everything." While many believe al-Maliki himself is not sectarian, they are not confident in his ability to fashion a nonsectarian government.

Allawi told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on January 20 that part of the problem in Iraq today is that the government does not want to amend de-Ba'athification (al-Maliki has promised to review the de-Ba'athification process). Meanwhile, former Ba'athists do not want to sit at the table with the current government because they do not recognize it as legitimate, he said. Allawi has met regularly with former Ba'athist and "resistance" leaders since 2004.

He then told Al-Iraqiyah television on February 27 that he has lobbied with the U.S. military to release several supporters of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, as well as former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad, who he said cooperated with the United States and Iraqi parties "before and during" the 2003 war. Hashim is currently being tried in the Anfal case for crimes against the Kurds.

As for his Iraqi National List, Allawi said, "They [the government] want to marginalize us for many reasons, including the fact that we differ with them over the issues of militias, the sectarian-sharing system, and the building of the modern state." He added: "We also differ with them on the issue of Iraq's Arab and Islamic affiliation. We believe that Iraq is part of the Arab and Islamic nations. It appears that the government and many other parties do not want Iraq to have an Arab or an Islamic wing." Because of his bloc's position, several of its members have been targeted for arrest, he added.

Allawi's plan emerged some weeks after "moderate" parties attempted their own restructuring of the political landscape, according to Arab media reports. Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said attempts were made in December to bring together his Iraqi Islamic Party, the Kurdistan Coalition, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and al-Maliki's Al-Da'wah Party. "Al-Maliki was unable to persuade the party to join because of its alliance" with al-Sadr's supporters, al-Hashimi told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on January 18.

Parliamentarian and Al-Da'wah member Haidar al-Abadi told the daily in a separate interview published the same day that his party's refusal to join was based on the fact that it believes in the current political process, while other parties do not. He accused the disgruntled parties of having no vision, and said al-Maliki is committed to political reconciliation.

"The prime minister [al-Maliki] has sent envoys to Cairo, Amman, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries.... The envoys have met with Ba'athist groups and other groups that are far from the Ba'ath [Party]. The only party they did not meet with is Al-Qaeda," al-Abadi said.

All those parties claimed they wanted a role in the political process, al-Abadi said, adding: "But the problem is that we should determine...who is responsible for the acts of violence. So far, this has not been determined." He noted that some of the parties claimed to represent armed groups, but those groups turned out to be small and uninfluential.

In addition, the government was unwilling to meet demands that the political process go back to square one -- a demand that Allawi appears to be advocating at the moment. Al-Maliki's alternative, it appears, will come in the form of his upcoming cabinet reshuffle.

Allawi told the Amman daily "Al-Dustur" in an interview published on January 22 that the plan has four points: declaring martial law for a period of two years; forming a ministerial security group headed by a competent, nonsectarian prime minister and including the ministers of defense, interior, national security, and justice, along with the head of the intelligence service; working to build national institutions, combat militias, and purge state institutions of those militias; and holding a UN-sponsored regional conference similar to the Sharm el-Sheikh conference that was held in November 2004.

The Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference would co-sponsor the conference. Allawi told the daily he has elicited and received the support of Jordan's King Abdullah II and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Allawi has said he also advocates bringing troops from Arab countries -- though not including Iraq's neighbors -- to maintain security in Iraq. The same idea was floated under Allawi's interim government, but was opposed by several political parties.

Allawi spokesman Ibrahim al-Janabi told "Al-Dustur" on January 20 that the former prime minister presented his plan to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as an alternative to the Baghdad security plan during a recent meeting in Baghdad and that Rice welcomed the plan.

Regarding Iraq's neighbors, Allawi told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on February 27, "Syria and Saudi Arabia are ready to help Iraq," and "Iran is likely to contribute to Iraq's stability."

Sunni Arab politician Salih al-Mutlaq told RFE/RL last week that several political parties would support Allawi's national-unity front. "There were about 32 political groups in it. At that time, Al-Tawafuq [the Iraqi Accordance Front] was part of it, Allawi's group was part of it, Al-Fadilah, some of the Sadrists, the Ba'athists, the old army leadership, the Arab tribe organizations, some influential political groups from the south, especially [Ayatollah Mahmud al-Hasani] al-Sarkhi's group, the [Iraqi] Turkoman Front, the Kurdish movement, apart from the two Kurdish parties. So we only excluded the two Kurdish parties -- to be negotiated with them later because they have their own project, which is a non-Iraqi project nowadays.... And we excluded SCIRI because it's looking for sectarianism in Iraq and its aim is to divide Iraq."

Adnan al-Dulaymi, the head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the major Sunni bloc, announced at a March 6 press conference in Baghdad that his front intends to join Allawi's new front, which would be called the Iraqi National Front. Later that day, he told Al-Sharqiyah television: "Correcting the course of the Iraqi political process is the demand of all Iraqis. Everybody wants the course of the political process to be corrected."

The next day, the Al-Fadilah Party withdrew from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance. "We consider the first step of saving Iraq is to dismantle these blocs and to prevent blocs [from] forming on a sectarian basis," Al-Fadilah leader Nadim al-Jabiri told reporters. The party has yet to announce whether it intends to join Allawi's front.

Recent media reports suggest that Allawi has been courting the two major Kurdish parties in recent press reports. Al-Iraqiyah spokesman Izzat al-Shahbandar told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that Allawi discussed the front when he and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad visited Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, during the first week of March. Allawi also reportedly met with representatives of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan the same week.

The fact that Allawi and Barzani are now both in Saudi Arabia is no coincidence, al-Shahbandar said. "I believe that this visit was coordinated so as to have both Allawi and President Barzani in Riyadh....within the framework of the joint efforts of Dr. Allawi and President Barzani to back the Iraqi national plan," he noted.

Should Allawi succeed in forming his front with the support of the Iraqi Accordance Front (44 parliamentary seats), the Kurdistan Coalition (55 seats), and Al-Fadilah (15 seats), he will prove a strong rival to the current government. Allawi aide Falah al-Naquib told London's "The Times" that with Al-Fadilah and the Kurds, the front should have 140 of the 275 seats in parliament, the daily's website reported on March 14. The ruling Shi'ite alliance currently has 113 seats following the departure of Al-Fadilah.

The problem with Allawi's plan is that in essence, he advocates a step backward. His call for the imposition of martial law is tantamount to a call for a prime minister, heading a war council, with unique powers that essentially cannot be checked by other governmental bodies. Two elements of the plan -- Arab troops and de-Ba'athification -- are likely to be greeted by Sunni Arab groups but encounter stiff resistance from Shi'ite political parties, meaning he would trade one opposition for another.

The participation of the Arab League, which has never proven to be an effective body, will produce little change, and again, satisfy the Sunni Arab groups and agitate the Shi'a. In addition, opinion polls show that public support for Allawi is about equal to that for al-Maliki.

A more productive alternative might be to work with al-Maliki to amend the current political landscape, which will help bring about the required policy changes.

Allawi told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television on February 27 that he supports al-Maliki, but needs to see changes made in the prime minister's administration. Allawi said al-Maliki told him privately that he is against militias and power sharing. "If [al-Maliki] tries to entrench the power-sharing system, we will not stand by him," Allawi said, adding, "If the policy of exclusion, punishment, and the use of militias continues, we will not be able to take part in the executive authority."

Qari Mohammad Yusof, speaking for the Taliban from an undisclosed location on March 18, said that they have handed over Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo to a third party as part of a deal being worked on for his release, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Mohammad Yusof told AIP: "Our talks on releasing the Italian journalist were successful. As a result of these talks, our detained spokesmen Ustad Yaser and Latifullah Hakimi were handed over to a third party. In return, we also handed over the Italian journalist, along with his Afghan colleague, to the third party." Mastrogiacomo will reportedly be released once the third Taliban spokesman, Mohammad Hanif, is also handed over "to the third party." The Taliban announced on March 6 that they had abducted Mastrogiacomo and two Afghan guides in southern Afghanistan and charged them with spying for British forces stationed in the country. They demanded that Italy withdraw its forces from Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 8, and 12, 2007). Yaser and Hakimi (also known as Abdul Latif Hakimi) were arrested in August and October 2005, respectively, in Pakistan while Mohammad Hanif was arrested in January 2007 in Afghanistan. Mastrogiacomo is a correspondent for "La Repubblica." Italy has approximately 2,000 troops serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. AT

The Italian government has denied reports that Mastrogiacomo has been released, Rome's RAI Television Network reported on March 18. The Italian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 18 saying that all the conditions for the journalist's release have been met but asked the media to remain silent in order not to complicate the work of nongovernmental organizations involved in the discussions. "In these situations, you understand very well that the less that is said the better," Prime Minister Romano Prodi said, confirming his Foreign Ministry's request. AT

General Abdul Rahim Wardak, speaking before the Security and Defense Commission of the Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders) in the Afghan National Assembly on March 17, said that contrary to expectations, the strength of the Taliban has increased, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. "Given the circumstances, we have to be ready for the worst possible situations," Wardak warned, adding that the Afghan security forces will attack the opposition in the spring. Regarding the Afghan National Army (ANA), Wardak said that each month between 600 and 2,000 soldiers are recruited and he hopes that by the end of this month there will be 46,000 ANA soldiers, and by March 2008 the army will have 65,000 troops. AT

A vehicle parked along the road exploded close to an ISAF convoy in Kandahar Province on March 17, killing an Afghan child and severely injuring three other civilians, including two children, an ISAF statement announced. "This is another example of the Taliban extremists' callous disregard for human life, indiscriminately killing civilians in their attempts to target ISAF and Afghan government forces," Major General Ton van Loon said. Both ISAF and the Taliban routinely attempt to portray the other side as being careless in causing civilians casualties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 14, 2007). AT

Bahrainian Defense Minister Khalifa bin Ahmad al-Khalifa has said Persian Gulf states could "defend themselves" against Iran in the event of a conflict between Iran and Western powers over Iran's contested nuclear program, AFP reported on March 18, citing remarks by Khalifa published that day by the daily "Al-Hayat." He said such a conflict between Tehran and Western powers would impact Persian Gulf littoral states, and they would respond "with force" if Iran, for example, blocked the Straits of Hormuz to prevent the flow of oil in response to U.S. strikes against it. Western states are pressuring Iran to curb its nuclear program. Iran refuses and there has been speculation about the possibility of strikes against Iran by the United States or Israel. Iranian officials have not yet clearly stated if they will block the outflow of oil from the Persian Gulf, though Iran's oil minister has said in the past that Iran's policy is not to interfere with the world's oil supplies. Separately, the United States and Israel are holding a biennial air-defense exercise called Juniper Cobra in March, though it is smaller than in the past, due to existing tensions with Iran, Reuters reported on March 18, citing "Israeli security sources." The exercises include some troops maneuvers and computer simulations of the destruction of ballistic missiles fired at Israel, Reuters reported. VS

The international police force Interpol decided on March 15 to issue "red notices" -- international arrest warrants -- for six Iranian and Lebanese politicians suspected of involvement in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds, Radio Farda reported on March 18, citing the Interpol website and Argentinian dailies. Interpol decided to postpone a decision over warrants for three other officials allegedly involved in the bombing -- Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjanii and Ali Akbar Velayati -- who were Iranian president and foreign minister, respectively, at the time of the bombing; and Hadi Soleimanpur, Iran's then-ambassador in Buenos Aires (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10 and 13, 2006). The postponement was due to objections by Iranian officials and is in line with Interpol regulations, though it went against lobbying by Argentinian officials and their negotiations with Interpol in recent months, Radio Farda reported. Interpol's Executive Committee decided on March 15 to issue the notices for six people including Ali Fallahian, a former Iranian intelligence minister, and Mohsen Rezai, currently Expediency Council secretary. It is not immediately clear if this means they would be arrested by police, should they travel outside Iran. Iran has denied involvement in the bombings. VS

Shahram Jazayeri-Arab, who was convicted on large-scale theft and corruption charges, was reportedly arrested on March 18 after fleeing police on February 21, Radio Farda reported. He has been sent to Tehran's Evin prison, Radio Farda reported, citing comments to Mehr agency by Tehran's chief prosecutor, Said Mortazavi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22 and 27, 2007). Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei told Mehr the same day that Jazayeri-Arab was arrested in "one of the countries on the Persian Gulf" by Intelligence Ministry operatives working with the Iranian judiciary and Foreign Ministry, "with due regard for legal norms." The judiciary faced sharp criticism following his escape, but Mohseni-Ejei thanked judicial officials for their cooperation in capturing Jazayeri-Arab. VS

Iran's parliament voted on March 15 for the finalized version of the annual state budget for the Persian year beginning on March 21 after making amendments required by the Guardians Council, the body of jurists that must verify the legality of parliamentary bills, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on March 17. The council made 11 objections to the draft budget. One included the introduction of the Bill on the Management of State Services into the budget, which it had not approved. That bill apparently regulates state-sector salaries and their increases. "Etemad-i Melli" observed that the Guardians Council did not take issue with the pricing of gasoline in the coming Persian year, a matter that has divided parliamentarians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007), and legislators did not debate the issue on March 15. The daily reported that the Guardians Council sent its objections late on March 14, a parliamentary committee amended the bill early the next day, and legislators approved the amendments in about an hour. It noted haste among legislators to pass the bill and end the session in order, perhaps, to begin a 23-day recess for the Persian new year, Norouz, which begins of March 21. VS

Two public-opinion polls published in the British media this week give insight into Iraqi opinions of the political and security situation in their country. A BBC/ABC/ARD poll conducted by D3 Systems has found that only 18 percent of Iraqis have confidence in U.S. and coalition forces, while confidence among respondents in the government is almost evenly split, the BBC reported on March 19. Eighty-six percent of 2,000 respondents said they feared a member of their household will become a victim of violence. Sixty-seven percent said reconstruction efforts have not been effective. Another poll of 5,019 Iraqis over the age of 18, carried out in February by Opinion Research Business and published on March 18, found only 27 percent believe Iraq is caught up in a civil war. Forty-nine percent of respondents said life under current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is better than under Saddam Hussein, while 26 percent said life was better under Hussein, and 16 percent said both leaders were "as bad as each other," "The Sunday Times" reported. Fifty-three percent said the security situation would improve in the weeks after a withdrawal by international forces, while 26 percent said it would worsen. KR

Iraqi security forces seized a weapons cache and found four cars bearing explosives residue during a raid on Sunni parliamentarian Zafir al-Ani's home, Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Qasim al-Musawi told reporters on March 18, international media reported. Al-Ani is a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front. Seven men were detained in the raid, though six of them were released within 48 hours. Al-Ani told Al-Sharqiyah television in an interview the same day that all the seized arms were provided to him and licensed by the government. "As for the accusations of having TNT and DNT explosives...this is just a lie," al-Ani said. He contended that had the vehicles carried explosives, sophisticated bomb detectors and dogs used at coalition checkpoints would have detected that sooner. "I am sure that al-Musawi will hold another news conference to apologize," al-Ani told Al-Arabiyah television in another March 18 interview. Sunni politicians have claimed on several occasions that they are unfairly targeted by Iraq's Shi'a-dominated security forces. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki addressed a range of issues at a March 16 press briefing at Baghdad International Airport after an attempted trip to Kurdistan, Al-Iraqiyah television reported. His plane was unable to land in Al-Sulaymaniyah due to bad weather. Al-Maliki said he intended to give a grant of about 1 million dinars (about $784) to each Iraqi family who lost a loved one in the Halabjah massacre in 1988 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). The town will also get its share of reconstruction funds in the future, he said. Al-Maliki also said that the western, largely Sunni Al-Anbar Governorate, which he visited last week, is no longer a safe haven for terrorism. "Thanks to the courage of the people of Al-Anbar, the tribes and politicians...the security situation there stabilized," al-Maliki said. KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki told reporters on March 16 that talks are ongoing among political parties to reshuffle the cabinet. "Names are proposed and deliberations are continuing. When we talk about change, we seek to look for the best that can provide the desired and required service in this or that ministry. That is why we are a bit late. Time drags on because we are looking for the best," he said. "When we get the names of the ministers nominated by their lists and blocs, we will immediately go to parliament." KR

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the international community to support Iraqi reconstruction at the International Compact with Iraq meeting in New York on March 16, according to a UN press release. "Unlike the other initiatives, the compact focuses on Iraq's long-term economic development, while also stressing progress in the political and security fields through a mutually reinforcing relationship," Ban told participants at the meeting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28, 2006). Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi formally presented the compact document, committing his government to meeting benchmarks that include fighting corruption and improving Iraq's human rights record. Abd al-Mahdi said the compact will be formally launched in April. Ibrahim Gambari, the secretary-general's special adviser on the compact, told reporters after the meeting, "We cannot wait until every situation is settled on the security aspect before we move to support the government of Iraq in their commitment to economic reform, to the enactment of the hydrocarbon law, the investment law, and the fully funded budget for 2007." KR