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Newsline

Newsline - January 8, 2008

POLAND WANTS TALKS WITH RUSSIA, GERMANY ON PIPELINE
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said in an interview with the Polish edition of "Newsweek" of January 7 that he wants to discuss the planned Nord Stream pipeline with Russian and German officials, international media reported. He said he hopes "to launch an in-depth discussion. We need to demystify the problem. We need to understand why the Russians are holding out for this project under the Baltic, which is three times more expensive than a gas pipeline crossing Poland, and what the conditions would be for changing it." The pipeline will traverse an area of seabed that contains much chemical and military waste, including toxins and live explosives. Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to Nord Stream on political or ecological grounds or both. Many Polish critics believe that the pipeline will enable Gazprom to continue to supply gas to Western European customers if Russia cuts off deliveries to Poland for political reasons. On November 6, soon after his election victory, Tusk told reporters that "this initiative, this project [Nord Stream], has not been prepared well." He has remained tough on the pipeline issue while seeking to accommodate the views of Berlin and Moscow on selected other issues. Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said in an interview with the daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" of January 5 that Poland will not make a decision on hosting part of a U.S. missile-defense system until after the 2008 U.S. presidential election lest it irk Russia by agreeing to the project now, only to find that a new U.S. administration is no longer interested in it. Moscow previously called on Warsaw and Prague not to decide on missile defense until after the U.S. vote in November 2008. Polish and Russian officials will hold talks in Warsaw on missile defense on January 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2 and 7, and December 12, 17, and 19, 2007). PM

RUSSIA CALLS ATTACKS ON ISRAELI SETTLEMENTS 'TERRORISM'
Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on January 7 that strikes from the Gaza Strip against Israeli settlements are "terrorism," mid.ru reported. At the same time, he stressed that Israeli cuts in fuel supplies and electricity to the population of the Gaza Strip are "unacceptable." Kamynin said that "a collective punishment of over a million Palestinians cannot provide an appropriate background for resuming a substantive Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). PM

CHIEF OF GENERAL STAFF TO STAY ON BEYOND RETIREMENT AGE
An unnamed "source with the Russian Defense Ministry" told Interfax on January 8 that General Yury Baluyevsky's period of military service will be extended to 2010, even though he has already passed the normal retirement age. The standard age limit in the army is 60, and Baluyevsky will turn 61 on January 9. The source said that "the country's leadership can extend the term of service for a general. It was prolonged for three years" at an unspecified point in 2007. Baluyevsky is chief of the General Staff and first deputy defense minister. PM

OPPOSITION ACTIVIST BEATEN IN MOSCOW
Maria Koleda, a 17-year-old Other Russia activist, was attacked and beaten by unknown assailants in Moscow on the evening of January 5, Ekho Moskvy reported on January 7. The attack was reported by Aleksandr Averin, a spokesman for the National Bolshevik Party, which is part of the broad Other Russia opposition coalition. Averin said two men approached Koleda outside her apartment building, asked her name, and then beat her, leading to a concussion and a broken finger. Averin added that Koleda suspects the assailants might have been police officers. RC

UNIFIED RUSSIA ISSUES NEW MEMBERSHIP GUIDELINES
The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has issued new procedures for those who would like to join the party, Ekho Moskvy reported on January 7. Under the guidelines, newcomers must first serve a period of at least three months as a party "supporter," working in a local party organization, before becoming eligible for full membership. Members must be Russian citizens of at least 18 years of age, and they must pay party dues and participate in party activities. Local, regional, and national party structures have the right to accept new members. RC

CHECHEN PROSECUTOR IN EXILE REOPENS INVESTIGATION OF EXECUTIONS
The press office of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) issued a statement on January 7 announcing that the investigation of certain high-profile "acts of terrorism" committed in Chechnya between 1996-99 has been reopened, chechenpress.info reported. The statement mentioned the killing of six Red Cross personnel in late 1996 and the execution in 1998 of one New Zealand and three British telecommunications engineers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 22, and 29, 1998, and April 19, 1999). It referred to witnesses' testimony indicating that former ChRI Information Minister Movladi Udugov and his brother Isa Umarov planned those killings and that members of the armed group subordinate to Apti Abitayev carried them out. Udugov and Umarov are believed to have played a key role in persuading resistance commander and former ChRI President Doku Umarov (no relation to Isa) to proclaim himself head of a North Caucasus emirate last fall (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2007). The Prosecutor-General's Office rejected as untrue reports posted on websites sympathetic to or controlled by Umarov and Udugov implicating field commander Uvais Akhmadov in the abduction and killing of the four engineers. LF

LDPR RESETTLEMENT PROPOSALS TRIGGER OUTRAGE IN KABARDINO-BALKARIA
Proposals by Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) to deport to Georgia all non-Russian residents of the North Caucasus have triggered a storm of protest in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on January 4 and 6. Arguing that Russia needs Christian states on its southern border, the LDPR proposed in its campaign program for last month's election to the Russian State Duma resettling the Chechens and Ingush in northern Georgia, thus removing any chance of a resumption of hostilities between Chechnya and Moscow; resettling in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia the Circassians, Balkars, and Karachais; and resettling Ossetians from the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania to South Ossetia, which would gain independence from Georgia. Daghestan would gravitate into the influence of Iran. Those changes would leave three more-or-less mono-ethnic federation subjects -- the Stavropol, Rostov and Krasnodar guberniyas -- on Russia's southern border; Russian troops would be deployed to the present-day North Caucasus republics, which would be left without any civilian population. Professor Khadjismel Tkhagapsoyev of the KBR state university asked why the Russian prosecutor-general has not reacted to the discriminatory measures the LDPR proposed with regard to Russian citizens. Cherkess Congress leader Ruslan Keshev pointed out that the LDPR proposals recall the forced deportation of the Circassians to Turkey in the 19th century. The LDPR polled less than 1 percent of the vote in Kabardino-Balkaria in the December Duma elections, according to regnum.ru on December 3. LF

RESIDENTS STAGE MORE PROTESTS OVER POWER CUTS IN DAGHESTAN
Several groups of between 30-40 residents of Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan, again blocked traffic intersections on January to protest power outages at a time when temperatures have plunged to minus 10 degrees Celsius, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on January 7, quoting an unnamed Interior Ministry official. Several people were injured when police used force to disperse similar protests late last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2008). LF

INGUSH VILLAGERS VOTE NO CONFIDENCE IN PRESIDENT, APPEAL TO PUTIN
Some 100 residents of the village of Kantyshevo in Ingushetia's Nazran Raion, most of them unemployed, passed a vote of no confidence in Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov at a meeting on January 7, the independent website ingushetiya.ru reported. The villagers also adopted an appeal to President Vladimir Putin listing untrue claims by Zyazikov of alleged economic progress and warned that the population has been "reduced to despair" by Zyazikov's tolerance of corruption and embezzlement by senior republican officials. LF

JAILED AZERBAIJANI YOUTH ACTIVIST COMPLAINS OF INTOLERABLE CONDITIONS
Ruslan Basirli, who was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in 2006 on charges of colluding with Armenian intelligence to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 15, 2005, and "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and 13, 2006), plans to begin a hunger strike on January 12 to protest his transfer from a cell he shared with two other prisoners to a larger cell with inferior conditions, day.az reported on January 8. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION ALLEGES ELECTION FRAUD, BUT CALLS OFF PUBLIC PROTEST
Representatives of the nine parties aligned in the opposition National Council on January 7 accused the Central Election Commission of manipulating the returns from the January 5 preterm presidential election to give incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili the 50 percent-plus-one vote required to avoid a runoff against National Council candidate Levan Gachechiladze, civil.ge reported. As of early January 8, with votes counted from 3,070 of a total of 3,512 polling stations, Saakashvili leads with 52.1 percent of the vote followed by Gachechiladze (24.98 percent), Davit Gamkrelidze, Badri Patarkatsishvili, Shalva Natelashvili, Giorgi Maisashvili, and Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia. Gachechiladze publicly accused Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili on January 8 of rigging the ballot and demanded his resignation, civil.ge reported. Three NGOS that monitored the ballot -- the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, and New Generation-New Initiative -- have between them lodged a total of almost 450 separate protests against procedural violations. Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican party, which is a member of the National Council, listed a series of discrepancies between the vote protocols signed by heads of individual polling stations and the data posted by the election commission. A second Republican party member, Levan Berdzenishvili, said the opposition refuses to acknowledge the validity of the official returns, Caucasus Press reported. The National Council nonetheless decided on January 7 to cancel a street demonstration planned for January 8 to protest the perceived falsification of the ballot, and vowed that it will challenge the official results in court, Caucasus Press reported. LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S PRESIDENT MEETS WITH CHINESE OFFICIAL
Nursultan Nazarbaev has met in China, where he is vacationing, with Tang Jiaxuan, a special envoy of Chinese President Hu Jintao and former Chinese foreign minister, centrasia.ru reported on January 7 citing Kazinform. The two men discussed ways to further strengthen bilateral relations, which Nazarbaev singled out as a foreign-policy priority, and to expand economic cooperation in the non-raw-materials sector, including transport and machine-building. LF

TAJIK OFFICIAL ANNOUNCES DROP IN ELECTRICITY EXPORTS FROM TURKMENISTAN, UZBEKISTAN
In Dushanbe, Rashid Gulov, an official of Tajikistan's Barqi Tojik state electricity company, said on January 7 that electricity supplies from neighboring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have been cut by half, according to the Russian news agency Regnum. Gulov noted that the disruption in supplies has resulted in the imposition of "strict restrictions of electricity" in Tajikistan. The latest restrictions reduced the amount of electricity from an average of four-five hours a day to between two and three hours. Gulov added that the cut was due to higher consumption and rising demand in both neighboring countries, but that once the current cold weather eases, more electricity supplies will be freed up for export to Tajikistan. After the recent reductions, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan supplied up to 5 million kilowatt hours of electricity to Tajikistan daily, a roughly 50 percent reduction from only a week earlier. RG

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION COMMUNISTS FACE LIQUIDATION
Belarus's Justice Ministry has filed suit with the Supreme Court for the liquidation of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists (PKB), RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on January 7. The ministry charges that the PKB, which on August 2, 2007, was suspended for six months by the Supreme Court, took a number of steps prohibited by law during the suspension period. The ministry says that the PKB took part in organizing the European March for Freedom and its regional structures took part in some mass events. The PKB leadership described the liquidation suit as a "politically motivated action aimed at yet another discrediting of the PKB." In October, the Supreme Court upheld the ministry's suit filed to close down the opposition Women's Party Hope. AM

BELARUSIAN POLICE DETAIN SMALL-BUSINESS ACTIVIST
Police officers in Barysau, Minsk Oblast, on January 8 detained Viktar Harbachou, leader of the unregistered organization For The Free Development of Enterprise, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Harbachou's wife, Svyatlana Harbachova, told the broadcaster that an unknown man provoked an incident while they were getting off a train and ran away when the police arrived. Harbachova believes that the incident was deliberately contrived in order to prevent her husband from taking part in an upcoming protest. Belarusian small-business owners have called a demonstration for January 10 in central Minsk to protest the presidential decree that, as of January 1, bars them from hiring employees other than three family members. AM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER CONGRATULATES GEORGIA ON FAIR ELECTION
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on January 7 congratulated Georgian presidential candidate Mikheil Saakashvili on holding a free, democratic, and fair presidential election, UNIAN reported. "In Ukraine we are well aware of how important it is for all the responsible politicians to respect the democratic choice of their people," Tymoshenko told Saakashvili, who is believed to have won in the first round. Saakashvili invited Tymoshenko to attend the inauguration ceremony, which will take place in Tbilisi on January 20. AM

SERBIAN PRESIDENT, PREMIER TAKE DIFFERENT TACKS ON EU...
"Serbia's integration with the EU strengthens our country in every way," Serbian President Boris Tadic told Serbs on January 6. Speaking in an interview with the daily "Press," Tadic also linked Serbia's future relations with the EU to Serbia's prospects of retaining sovereignty over Kosova, saying that ties with the EU would strengthen Serbia and that "only a strong Serbia can protect its interests where Kosovo is concerned. Giving up on the European path literally means giving up on Kosovo." Tadic's statement stands in strong contrast to an ultimatum issued to the EU by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who said on January 3 that the EU must give up either its plan to tighten ties with Serbia or its plan to send a mission to Kosova and create a "quasi-state" there. The EU "cannot at the same time break up Serbia and sign the SAA [Stabilization and Association Agreement] with Serbia," Kostunica argued (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 2008). AG

...AS SERBIAN DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER REJECTS ULTIMATUM
Prime Minister Kostunica's ultimatum to the EU has been explicitly rejected by his deputy, Bozidar Djelic, who told "Blic" that Serbia "will sign" an SAA, the first step toward possible membership, with the EU "if the EU invites us," the daily reported on January 5. The EU's leaders are expected to decide whether to sign an SAA with Serbia and what next steps to take about Kosova when they meet on January 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Djelic and President Tadic both belong to the government's largest party, the Democrats (DS). With the exception of the Liberal Democratic Party, Serbia's major parties are united in opposing independence for Kosova and the crossparty solidarity was reflected in a strongly worded resolution on the issue of Kosova's status passed by the Serbian parliament on December 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2007). In his interview with "Press," Tadic reiterated his commitment to trying to maintain Serbian sovereignty over Kosova, saying, "I will never accept Kosovo's independence, and everyone must be aware that any unilateral solution would destabilize the region and have unforeseen consequences." But, he said, he would also never allow "our youth to go to war ever again" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 2008). AG

SERBIAN PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL VOWS TO DEFEND WAR CRIMES SUSPECTS
Tomislav Nikolic, one of the two major contenders for the Serbian presidency, vowed on January 6 to protect war crimes suspects indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) if he becomes president. "Victory by me will mean that Serbia will join the defense of those who are facing the Hague tribunal," he said. "Those who currently fear they may be caught will have no reason to fear," Nikolic said on the eve of the Serbian Christmas. Nikolic's opposition to the UN's war crimes tribunal is well-known, but his statement highlights what will be at stake when Serbs vote on January 20 and -- if a runoff is needed -- on February 3. The EU has conditioned the official signing of an SAA with Serbia on the capture of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military commander during Bosnia-Herzegovina's civil war, and a victory by Nikolic would add new urgency to the dilemma facing the EU -- whether to insist on Mladic's capture or drop that precondition and accelerate Serbia's integration with the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Carla Del Ponte, who left her post as the ICTY's chief prosecutor in December, has urged the EU to maintain a tough line, saying that she is "convinced that the arrest of the remaining four fugitives will only be achieved" before the ICTY is due to close its doors in 2008 if the EU maintains its policy of "conditionality" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2007). Nikolic told the four remaining fugitives from the ICTY to "hang in there just a little longer," a clear indication that he believes Serbia can withstand EU pressure until the ICTY no longer exists. In addition to Mladic, the other three men wanted by the ICTY are: the Bosnian Serbs' political leader Radovan Karadzic; a Bosnian Serb police commander, Stojan Zupljanin; and a Croatian Serb leader, Goran Hadzic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). The founder of Nikolic's Serbian Radical Party (SRS), Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial at The Hague, and formally remains the party's leader. AG

SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH LAMBASTES WEST OVER KOSOVA
In a strongly worded letter to the faithful to mark Orthodox Christmas, the Serbian Orthodox Church on January 6 attacked the world's "power-mongers" for seeking to snatch Kosova from Serbia. According to the Serbian news agencies Beta and Tanjug, the message, which was read out at services across Serbia on January 7, stated that "the power-mongers of this world are throwing dice for our...land and shamelessly insulting our feelings and our dignity. Today, for their own interests in the Balkans and Europe and by trampling all the provisions of international law...they want to snatch away from the Serbian nation its cradle, heart, and soul, which will forever remain in Kosovo-Metohija." The message also described Kosova -- or Kosovo-Metohija, as Serbs refer to it -- as "our holy land, the heart and soul of the Serbian people." "May all those who are most brutally violating all the standards of divine and human justice stop and ponder," the message concluded. Belgrade lost control of Kosova in 1389 and regained authority over it only in 1912, but the Serbian Orthodox Church's monasteries and churches managed to maintain the Serbs' spiritual life in Kosova throughout the centuries of Ottoman rule. Among the many messages issued in Serbia to mark Christmas were wishes for the recovery of the Serbian Orthodox Church's leader, 93-year-old Patriarch Pavle, who has been in hospital since November and was unable to officiate at any services. AG

EU PRESIDENT SEES BOSNIA AS 'BIGGEST THREAT' TO STABILITY
Divisions within Bosnia-Herzegovina about the future of the state pose a "more serious" threat to stability in the Balkans than the undecided future of Kosova, Janez Jansa, the prime minister of Slovenia, which currently holds the presidency of the EU, told reporters on January 7. "For Kosovo it's clear what will happen, it's more a question of how to do it," AFP quoted Jansa as saying, in a comment that suggests he believes Kosova will gain independence from Serbia. "For Bosnia the question is: Are the Dayton agreements working? First we have to see if the Dayton agreement works," Jansa said, but he argued that, in his view, in the long term, "it's not possible to have a state that cannot rule itself and needs international governors." The Dayton accords ended Bosnia's civil war and maintained the administrative divisions that emerged during the war. However, those divisions became the subject of intense dispute in 2007, with some arguing for the dismantlement of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous region established during the war. Those disputes set back the timeline for forging closer ties with the EU and led to a major confrontation with the high representative of the international community, which has overseen Bosnia's postwar recovery since 1996. While several agreements achieved late in 2007 appear to have eased tensions, there remain fears of fresh standoffs between Bosnia's three major ethnic communities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). There is also a fear that independence for Kosova could stoke secessionist sentiment among Bosnian Serbs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, and December 3 and 4, 2007). Slovenia assumed the rotating presidency of the EU on January 1, and has made clear that the Balkans will feature prominently in the agenda it will set during the six months that it will chair EU meetings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, November 15 and 16, and December 19, 2007). Jansa has previously expressed guarded optimism about the prospects for the Balkans in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007) AG

ALBANIA LAUNCHES NEW PRIVATIZATION CAMPAIGN
2008 "will be marked by a privatization wave," Albanian President Sali Berisha said on January 5, the news service Balkan Insight reported. Among the assets due to be sold are the country's sole oil refinery, the national power generator, and a major insurance house. It is hoped that the sales of the energy companies will help alleviate the country's acute energy problems, which have been particularly grave in recent winters and summers. The recurrent blackouts have held back Albania's strong recent growth and have led to sharp exchanges between the government and the opposition, which in December called a rally to protest against the government's handling of energy policy. Energy Minister Genc Ruli claimed in a speech to parliament on December 17 that the energy situation has improved dramatically and predicted that imports will result in fewer power cuts this winter. However, the importance of making further progress fast was highlighted in early January by Deputy Prime Minister Gazmend Oketa, who told the January 5 edition of "Rilindja demokratike" that energy is one of the government's two priorities in 2008, together with securing an invitation in April to join NATO. Along with energy, corruption is currently one of the two focuses of the opposition's attacks on the government, and Berisha can expect significant scrutiny of plans announced on January 5 to issue tenders to build new hydroelectric plants. The issue of government corruption is very much in the headlines at present, as Foreign Minister Lulzim Basha is facing investigation into abuse of power during another major recent tender, the construction of a highway to the border with Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 28, 2007). In late 2007, Transparency International found that more than any other Europeans (outside the former Soviet Union), Albanians believe their society is rife with corruption. AG

THERE IS NO END NOTE TODAY


U.S. PLANS TO TRANSFER PRISONERS TO AFGHAN FACILITIES REPORTEDLY STALL
"The New York Times" reported on January 7 that political, legal, and security problems have stalled efforts to transfer prisoners held by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to a high-security facility run by the Afghan military. As a result, although the U.S.-run detention center at Bagram Air Base is badly overcrowded with some 630 prisoners, the detainees will remain there for the time being. U.S. officials say that efforts to hand over prisoners to the Afghan government have run into unforeseen problems, resulting in the growing number of prisoners held by the U.S. military. The completion of a new Afghan National Detention Center has been complicated by resistance to the plan among some Afghan government ministries, the daily reported. At the same time, the Afghan government has failed to assure the United States that it will treat the detainees humanely and abide by elaborate security conditions. MM

VIOLENCE CONTINUES IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
More than a dozen Afghans were reported killed in the latest insurgency-related violence in southern Afghanistan in recent days, Afghan and international news media reported on January 7. Afghan border police commander General Abdul Raziq reported that a suicide bomber on a motorcycle attacked a border police patrol on January 7 in Kandahar Province, killing a policeman. Raziq said that clashes and a roadside bomb elsewhere left nine people dead, including four civilians. He added that five other policemen were seriously wounded when a suicide bomber struck their vehicle in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar Province. In neighboring Helmand Province, police unsuccessfully tried to defuse a remote-controlled roadside bomb on January 7 in Nad Ali district; two policemen and two civilians were killed in the blast, and four were wounded, according to provincial police chief Mohammad Hussain Andiwal. In the Zhari district of Kandahar, three Taliban militants were killed in a battle between police and NATO troops on January 6, the Interior Ministry said in a statement. MM

U.S. REPORTS NAVAL STANDOFF WITH IRAN IN PERSIAN GULF
The U.S. military reported a "significant" confrontation early on January 6 between five boats belonging to Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and three U.S. Navy ships in international waters near the Strait of Hormuz, international news agencies reported on January 7. The Iranian boats made "threatening" moves, approached a U.S. ship, and sent a radio transmission suggesting an Iranian vessel was about to ram a U.S. ship, CNN reported. The Iranian boat in question reportedly turned away as the U.S. ship prepared its guns and officers "were in the process" of ordering it to fire. Iranian boats were also seen dropping unspecified white boxes into the water near U.S. ships, officials told CNN. According to the U.S. military, the IRGC took control of Iranian naval forces in the Persian Gulf in November. An unnamed Pentagon official on January 7 qualified the incident as "the most serious provocation of this sort...we've seen yet," AP reported. White House spokesman Tony Fratto urged the Iranians to avoid repeating such an action, as it could "lead to a dangerous incident in the future," AP reported. VS

IRAN'S PRESIDENT PRESENTS BUDGET IN LEGISLATURE
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad presented the state budget for the Persian year to late March 2009 at an open session of parliament on January 7, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. The budget showed an increase of 17 percent from the previous year, and Ahmadinejad promised to transfer some of Iran's oil revenues to the people, though without specifying how. He spoke again of the need to simplify the budget format, Fars news agency reported. The proposed budget of some $285 billion (2,710 trillion rials) is up from $248 billion the previous year. Ahmadinejad indicated that spending for large-scale construction and development projects has increased. The budget is based on revenues Iran would earn if it sold each barrel of oil for $39.7, though its crude oil is currently sold at closer to $90 a barrel. Critics of the Ahmadinejad government have blamed persistent inflation over the past two years on increased state spending and the injection of oil money into the economy. Presidential allies have countered that inflation is partly "stoked" by malicious press speculation or by economic interest groups. VS

HEAD OF UN NUCLEAR INSPECTORATE TO VISIT IRAN
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei is to visit Iran on January 11-12 as part of an ongoing program of cooperation intended to provide answers to IAEA questions about Iran's activities, news agencies reported. Iranian politicians have been more upbeat about Iran's nuclear program since a U.S. intelligence report released in December indicated that Iran probably halted its suspected nuclear-weapons program in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13 and 18, 2007). Iran says this corroborated its assertions that it has a civilian program and has never sought to produce weapons. IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told the media on January 7 without elaborating that el-Baradei's visit is to "provide assurance about Iran's past and present nuclear activities." The IAEA was to have concluded its inquiries into Iran's program by the end of 2007, but unnamed diplomats in Vienna, where the IAEA is based, have said that it has faced unspecified obstacles, AP reported on January 7. VS

IRANIAN COURT ORDERS AMPUTATION OF CONVICTS' HANDS, FEET
A court in the southeastern Sistan-va-Baluchistan Province announced on January 6 that it ordered the amputation of the right hands and left feet of five men convicted of armed activity and kidnapping, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. The five convicts were identified by their family names as Jalali, Rudini, and Pahlavan, with two named Rigi. The sentence was carried out in the town of Zahedan. While amputation is a legal sentence in Iran, according to dpa there have been no reports of it being used in recent years. VS

DETAINED STUDENT RELEASED IN IRAN
Ali Azizi, a student of Tehran's Amir Kabir University arrested in November, has been released, the daily "Etemad" reported on January 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2007). It was not immediately clear if bail was posted for his release from Evin prison. Separately, the family of Emadeddin Baqi, the detained head of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights, received a visit in Tehran from a former reformist interior minister, Abdullah Nuri. They discussed Baqi's reported ill-health and recent hospitalization. Nuri was interior minister in the government of Mohammad Khatami until he was dismissed in June 1998 by a mainly conservative parliament. He later spent time in jail for critical public comments and press activities, and was once beaten by right-wing vigilantes in the street while a minister. VS

U.S., IRAQI FORCES LAUNCH OPERATION AGAINST AL-QAEDA
Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the head of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, announced on January 8 the start of a new operation targeting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to a U.S. military press release. Operation Phantom Phoenix will consist of a "series of joint Iraqi and coalition division- and brigade-level operations to pursue and neutralize remaining Al-Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist elements," the statement said. "Phantom Phoenix will synchronize lethal and nonlethal effects to exploit recent security gains and disrupt terrorist support zones and enemy command and control," it added. "The nonlethal aspects of this operation are designed to improve delivery of essential services, economic development, and local governance capacity," the statement noted. No further details were released. KR

IRAQI AWAKENING LEADER KILLED IN TERRORIST ATTACK
Colonel Riyad al-Samarra'i, the head of Al-Adhamiyah Awakening Council, was killed outside the Sunni Waqf (Endowments) Office in Baghdad when a suicide bomber embraced al-Samarra'i and blew himself up. Al-Samarra'i was a Waqf employee. A second explosion came from a car bomb that exploded only meters away from the scene of the first attack. The state-run Al-Iraqiyah news channel reported 14 dead in the two attacks and 26 wounded. Al-Samarra'i's son was reportedly among those killed. In a December 29 audio statement, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called on Iraqis to attack the leaders of the awakening councils, formed by Sunni Arab tribes to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq (see "Iraq: Bin Laden Appeals To Muslims To Support Al-Qaeda," rferl.org, January 4, 2008). The bin Laden statement followed a December 4 announcement by Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Umar al-Baghdadi of the start of a campaign to specifically target awakening council members. The campaign is to run until the Islamic calendar date 20 Muharram, which is at the end of January. KR

IRAQI PRESIDENT'S SON TO ASSUME MINISTERIAL POSITION IN REGIONAL GOVERNMENT
Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, will reportedly take a ministerial position in the Kurdistan regional government (KRG), "Jamawar" reported on January 7. Qubad is currently the KRG's representative to the United States. Muhammad Mala Qadir, a senior member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told "Jamawar" that Qubad may be assigned to head the KRG's foreign relations department. "Jamawar" also reported that the decision to leave Nechirvan Barzani as the KRG's prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008) was made after Talabani's party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), failed to agree on a candidate for the post. Meanwhile, the "Sbay" website reported on January 7 that senior PUK members are unhappy with the decision to leave Barzani, a Kurdistan Democratic Party official, at the helm for another term. Under a power-sharing agreement, Barzani was to vacate his seat and a PUK official was to serve the next two-year term. One PUK official, who asked not to be identified, told the website that Talabani "asked us to put our recommendations in writing [for the post]. Apart from a few members, we all thought that the post should be filled by a PUK candidate for the next two years. It seems the decision was made beforehand [by Talabani]; therefore, our views were not considered." KR

FORMER IRAQI PREMIER COMMENTS ON KIRKUK
Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari told Al-Sharqiyah television in an interview broadcast on January 7 that politicians working on the issue of Kirkuk should consider the city's special status. Under Article 140 of the constitution, Kurds displaced from Kirkuk should be returned to the city, and Arabs settled in the city under Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign should be returned to their homes in the south, after which a referendum is to be held to determine whether Kirkuk should be incorporated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. Iraq's Kurdish leaders agreed last month to a six-month extension on the implementation of Article 140, which was to have been completed by the end of 2007. The United Nations will now oversee the implementation process. "We should deal with this issue cautiously, frankly, and transparently," al-Ja'fari said. "The entire issue, including the demographic change in the city, should be tackled in a fair, clear way that will satisfy the majority." Al-Ja'fari suggested the issue not be addressed at all for the next six to 12 months, so that sectarian tensions over the status of Kirkuk subside. KR

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