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Newsline - December 22, 2003

A group of more than 700 Moscow residents gathered on 21 December to nominate President Vladimir Putin for re-election, RIA-Novosti reported. None of the participants appeared embarrassed that their event coincided with the birthday of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, reported, citing Ekspert-tsentr. On 19 December, the leadership of the Unified Russia party declared its support for Putin's candidacy, and an official declaration by the party itself is expected at the party's congress this week, according to the website. Putin stated earlier that he will run independently without a party nomination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003). JAC

The Democratic Public Assembly on 19 December gathered in Moscow and, according to Ekho Moskvy and, issued a declaration calling on voters either to boycott the presidential elections or to vote against all candidates. The declaration was reportedly signed by Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Boris Nemtsov, top Yabloko official Vladimir Lukin, For Human Rights leader Lev Ponomarev, and others. However, Interfax quoted SPS deputy leader Boris Nadezhdin as saying that no official declaration has been adopted or signed and that the SPS has not yet made a decision on whether it will participate in the election. However, most speakers at the gathering supported a boycott. JAC

At a Yabloko party congress on 20-21 December in Moscow Oblast, delegates voted against participating in the March presidential election and against holding a vote of confidence in the party's leadership, RIA-Novosti reported. Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii explained that the party will take part in all regional elections in 2004, including regional legislative assemblies, and said the party's "long-term objective is to create a major Russian democratic party uniting all democratic forces in Russia." According to Yavlinskii, the party decided not to participate in the presidential election because a political situation has emerged in Russia "in which free, equal, and politically competitive elections are impossible." "In the absence of independent courts, mass media, and sources of financing, real political competition, which is the essence of elections, cannot exist," he said. "Izvestiya" suggested on 21 December that another compelling reason for the party not to participate in the election was the difficulty it would face in gathering 2 million signatures in one month's time and in financing a national campaign. JAC

Murtaza Rakhimov won re-election to a third term on 21 December, according to preliminary results, Russian media reported on 22 December. With more than 96 percent of the ballots counted, Rakhimov had 78 percent of the vote, compared with 16 percent for former Mezhprombank executive Sergei Veremeenko, RIA-Novosti reported. Turnout was high. In one raion, more than 90 percent of eligible voters participated, and one polling station had 100 percent of its registered voter participate, according to "Gazeta" on 22 December and Rakhimov was supported by the presidential administration in the second round, according to "Gazeta." JAC

Acting Sakhalin Oblast Governor Ivan Malakhov won the second round of gubernatorial elections in Sakhalin on 21 December, according to preliminary estimates, Russian media reported. With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, Malakhov had 53 percent, compared with 34 percent for Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk Mayor Fedor Sidorenko. Malakhov assumed responsibility for leading the oblast after the death of Governor Igor Fakhutdinov in a helicopter accident in August. Malakhov was supported by the Unified Russia party, Rosneft, and local fishing interests. JAC

Unified Russia is considering whether to insist on the chairmanships of all 29 State Duma committees or to agree to divide them up proportionately according to each faction's size, Oleg Kovalev, head of the Regulation Committee in the last Duma, said on 19 December, ITAR-TASS reported. He also stated that the chairs of all the Duma's committees will be selected at the new Duma's first session on 29 December. Unified Russia is expected to nominate party leader and Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov as speaker and Lyubov Sliska as first deputy speaker, according to "Gazeta" on 19 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003). Sliska was first deputy speaker in the last Duma. According to the official results of the party-list voting announced by the Central Election Commission on 19 December, Unified Russia won 120 seats in the Duma, the Communist Party 40, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) 36, and the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc 29, "Izvestiya" reported. JAC

The new Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc's faction in the State Duma held a closed session on 19 December, at which they elected bloc leader Sergei Glazev as their leader, RosBalt reported. The faction also decided to nominate bloc co-leader Dmitrii Rogozin as a deputy speaker in the new State Duma. Sergei Baburin, who was a legislator in the second Duma, was elected deputy faction leader, and Sergei Proshchin was named faction coordinator. JAC

In a 20 December address marking the professional holiday of the security organs, President Putin said the day has symbolized courage and "selfless service to the motherland" for "many generations" of special-services employees, Interfax reported. The special services have accumulated decades of "professional experience" and "intellectual and technical potential," he said, adding that many of their operations have become models of "operational boldness" and "scrupulous analytical work" both at home and abroad. Putin said the special services' main task is to provide security for the state and protect Russians' rights and freedoms in "rigorous" accordance with the constitution and democratic principles. On 20 December 1917, the Soviet government passed a resolution creating the All-Russian Special Commission for Fighting Counterrevolution and Sabotage (VChK). Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev said on 19 December that his agency has caught five foreign spies this year, while stopping the espionage "and other subversive activities" of 14 other career spies and 37 agents of foreign governments, "The Moscow Times" reported on 22 December. JB

The FSB's Sverdlovsk Oblast branch announced on 19 December that it has launched a criminal probe into the sale of commercial secrets from the Uralmash heavy-machinery plant by factory employees, NTV reported. Uralmash, which is owned by businessman Kakha Bendukidze's United Heavy Machinery (OMZ), said in a statement that it uncovered the espionage itself and informed the FSB about it, "The Moscow Times" reported on 22 December. "Gazeta" on 22 December quoted a Uralmash source as saying the factory possesses no state secrets or other information that would interest the special services. The newspaper said the probe might have been triggered by the merger of OMZ and Siloviye mashiny, a turbine producer that is 70 percent owned by Vladimir Potanin's Interros holding, which was announced on 18 December. However, the real reason for the FSB's probe of Uralmash, "Gazeta" suggested, is unhappiness on the part of siloviki and the Atomic Energy Ministry over OMZ's acquisition earlier this year of a controlling stake in Atomstroieksport, Russia's monopoly exporter of nuclear-power equipment and services. JB

Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 20 December that Libya's 20 December decision to give up weapons of mass destruction is a "responsible step" that will facilitate "the strengthening of the international nonproliferation regime and also efforts to strengthen security in Middle East and on the African continent," Interfax reported. Ivanov praised Tripoli for agreeing to sign the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) giving the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) permission to carry out comprehensive inspections of its nuclear facilities, for agreeing to adopt the Chemical Weapons Convention, and for agreeing to the terms of the Missile Technology Control Regime, which bans weapons systems with ranges of more than 300 kilometers. According to Ivanov's statement, Russia in recent years has "unfailingly" urged Libya's leadership to take such steps. Ivanov also predicted Libya's move will become an "important contribution" to the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Ivanov discussed Libya's moves in a telephone conversation with British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, RIA Novosti reported on 21 December. JB

Aleksandr Rumyantsev said on 21 December that Russia is pleased with Iran's decision to sign the Additional Protocol to the NPT allowing comprehensive inspections of its nuclear facilities, IRNA reported. Asked about an agreement yet to be signed by the two countries concerning the return to Russia of spent nuclear fuel from the Bushehr nuclear-power plant, Rumyantsev said Russia needs more time to study Iranian amendments to the agreement. Rumyantsev seemed to cast doubt on the future of a 10-year program that Russia approved in July to build as many as six reactors at the Bushehr plant and other sites in Iran. According to IRNA, he said that Russia had "made the offer" in order to announce its "technical capacity" to launch the project. Deputy Foreign Minister Yurii Fedotov said on 19 December that Iran's signing of the Additional Protocol "will create a favorable international atmosphere for the implementation of cooperation projects between Moscow and Tehran," ITAR-TASS reported. JB

Sergei Ivanov and General Nikolai Solovtsov, commander of Russia's missile forces, attended a ceremony in Tatishchevo, Saratov Oblast, on 21 December to mark the activation of a fourth Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) unit. Ivanov said the activation of the regiment and its six Topol-M systems "shows the unwavering commitment of this country's leadership to maintaining our strategic nuclear potential," ITAR-TASS reported on 21 December. He also said Russia is not only supporting its nuclear arsenal, but "qualitatively improving it," "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 22 December. Ivanov called the Topol-M the best missile complex in the world and said it will be "constantly improved." "Only such a weapon can guarantee Russia's sovereignty," Ivanov said. JB

A high-level Iraqi delegation arrived in Moscow on 21 December for talks with President Putin and Russian business leaders set to begin on 22 December, Russian and Western media reported. The delegation is headed by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, who holds the Iraqi Governing Council's rotating presidency and heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). It includes Jalal Talabani, a council member who formerly held the rotating presidency and heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Al-Hakim said prior to flying out of Damascus for Moscow that his goal is to strengthen relations between Iraq and Russia "in various areas," NTV reported on 21 December. "Russia is a great power, and I am sure it will be playing an important role in Iraq's restoration," he said. Talabani said the delegation's goal is to strengthen Iraqi-Russian relations and achieve "better understanding between Moscow and Baghdad," "The Moscow Times" reported on 22 December. NTV reported that al-Hakim will meet on 22 December with LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov. JB

Yevgenii Primakov, the former prime minister and foreign intelligence chief, said in a 21 December interview that the interests of the United States and Russia in Iraq currently coincide, Interfax reported. "Russia in interested in the stabilization of the situation in Iraq now, regardless of our feelings about the American operation in Iraq, which remain negative," Primakov told ORT. A U.S. defeat in Iraq would be "extremely disadvantageous" to Russia, Primakov said. Igor Morozov, a Federation Council member and veteran intelligence officer who worked in Iraq, told Interfax that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should be tried in Iraq, not before an international tribunal or by the United States. Morozov also said it would be naive to think that Hussein's arrest will lessen resistance to United States and coalition forces, because "quite a bit" of the Iraqi population finds the American presence in Iraq intolerable. Both Primakov and Morozov said the United Nations should have a major role in restoring Iraq. JB

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 19 December, FSB Director Patrushev said that the most recent suicide bombings in the North Caucasus and Moscow were masterminded by radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev, Interfax reported. LF

Russian forces in Daghestan resorted to air strikes on 20-21 December in a bid to neutralize the Chechen militants who killed several border guards in Daghestan's Tsunta Raion on 15 December, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 17 December 2003). A spokesman for the North Caucasus Military District said on 20 December that the men are heading toward the border with Georgia. On 21 December Daghestan officials said one group of Chechens is surrounded near the village of Mikali. LF

Three ethnic Russian Armenian citizens pleaded not guilty on 19 December to charges of espionage on behalf of Azerbaijan and told a Yerevan court that they gave incriminating pretrial testimony under duress, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. They say they should be acquitted and released as the prosecution has failed to submit any evidence of their guilt. The three, including two brothers, are accused of passing to the wife of one of the brothers military and other information that she allegedly then relayed to Azerbaijani intelligence. All four were arrested in August 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 28 August 2002). LF

Under an agreement signed in Yerevan on 18 December, the EU will provide 4 million euros ($4.85 million) to enhance operational safety at Armenia's Medzamor nuclear-power station, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 19 December. Medzamor Director Gagik Markosian said the agreement suggests that the EU has finally dropped its long-standing insistence that the plant be closed in 2004. The Armenian authorities have consistently rejected that demand on the grounds that no alternative generating capacity exists to Medzamor, which provides some 40 percent of Armenia's electricity. Armenian Energy Minister Armen Movsisian announced earlier last week that the United States will also provide $7 million to upgrade safety at Medzamor. LF

Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze met for several hours in Batumi 20 December with visiting Georgian Minister of State Zurab Zhvania, but the two men failed to reach agreement on opening polling stations in Adjaria on 4 January to enable the republic's voters to cast their ballots in the extraordinary presidential election, ITAR-TASS and Georgian media reported. Abashidze said he would agree to do so on condition that the interim Georgian leadership moved to correct specific constitutional violations. He argued that the Supreme Court's decision to annul the results of the party-list vote in the 2 November parliamentary ballot was unconstitutional as only the Constitutional Court is empowered to do so. He also said the preliminary registration by the Central Election Commission of candidates for the 4 January ballot is unconstitutional. At the same time, Abashidze rejected as "nonsense" and "absolutely groundless" allegations by some Georgian politicians that Adjaria plans to secede from Georgia. Zhvania told journalists on his return to Tbilisi the same day that he might make a second trip to Batumi very soon. LF

Four former members of a special security unit created by former State Security Minister Igor Giorgadze have been arrested in Tbilisi on charges of illegal weapons possession, Interfax and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 and 22 December respectively. Their lawyer, Guliko Gabaidze, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the charges are illegal insofar as all four men are employed by a private security agency and therefore permitted to carry firearms. She added that her clients are "victims of the political persecution of Giorgadze," who has been barred from contesting the 4 January presidential election on the grounds that he has not lived permanently in Georgia for the past two years and is wanted by Interpol on charges of masterminding the August 1995 car-bomb attack on then-Georgian parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze. LF

Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze told journalists in Tbilisi on 19 December that unidentified political forces in Georgia and abroad are preparing to launch an armed coup, Georgian media reported. But acting President Nino Burdjanadze subsequently commented that there are "no grounds for alarm," Caucasus Press reported the same day. On 20 December, Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze said that "we have information that certain forces might try" to destabilize the situation in the run-up to the 4 January presidential election, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Caucasus Press on 19 December quoted a spokesman for the Georgian Foreign Ministry as denying Russian media reports that the ministry has apologized to Moscow for failing to arrest self-exiled Russian tycoon Boris Berezovskii when he visited Tbilisi earlier this month using a passport in another name. In an interview with "Izvestiya" on 18 December, Georgian Foreign Minister Tedo Djaparidze said that Tbilisi has acknowledged "making a mistake" in admitting Berezovskii and that the officials responsible will be punished (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 18 December 2003). LF

Asar, the political party headed by Darigha Nazarbaeva, eldest daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was registered by the Kazakh Justice Ministry on 19 December, and "Kazakhstanskaya pravda" reported the following day. The party was formally established on 25 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 October 2003). Along with other documentation required for registration, the party leadership provided the ministry with a list of 77,000 members. The law on political parties adopted in 2002 requires that a party seeking registration prove it has at least 50,000 members. In a press statement, the party described its ideology as political centrism based on tolerance, moderation, realism, and pragmatism, and its goal as furthering the modernization of Kazakhstan through democratic transformation and improving the welfare of the country's citizens. Asar is the ninth party to be registered under the 2002 law. BB

A group of Kazakh political figures and journalists have signed a petition calling on the Kazakh parliament to vote against a controversial draft law on the media that opponents say would give the government the right to persecute independent media in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003). The petition, which states that a law opposed by the majority of the country's journalists cannot be adopted, was published in the weekly "Respublika-Assandi Times," itself a former victim of government harassment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 May 2003) on 19 December. The lower house vote on the draft is scheduled for 24 December. BB

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has sent a draft law to parliament that would remove criminal penalties for libel and slander from the Kyrgyz Criminal Code, KyrgyzInfo and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 19 December, quoting presidential press secretary Abdil Segizbaev. The president's draft also proposes that anyone filing a claim for monetary damages in a libel or slander case should have to pay a deposit of 5 percent of the damages requested. Independent media and independent journalists have frequently been sued for criminal slander by government officials who claimed their honor and dignity had been offended and demanded huge sums in damages. Democracy activists have characterized these cases as intended to silence the independent media. President Akaev has tried without success in previous years to persuade the parliament to decriminalize libel. BB

The upper house of Kyrgyzstan's parliament at its session in 18 December confirmed the presidential appointment of Temirbek Akmataliev as acting minister of ecology and emergency situations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003), RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Inhabitants of the Aksy Raion in southern Kyrgyzstan had appealed through their parliamentary representative, Azimbek Beknazarov, to President Askar Akaev and the upper house soon after Akmataliev's appointment not to confirm him because, Beknazarov said in his letters on behalf of his constituents, they believe that Akmataliev, who was interior minister when police killed five demonstrators in the raion in March 2002, bears at least some responsibility for the shootings. Akmataliev has denied that he was involved. BB

On a two-day visit to Tajikistan, Cyril Svoboda met on 19 December in Dushanbe with his Tajik counterpart Talbak Nazarov and with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, CTK reported. Topics discussed included the situation in Afghanistan, cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime, and opportunities in Tajikistan for Czech investors. Svoboda told journalists that the Czech Republic will participate in the first stage of the reconstruction of a major cement works in Dushanbe. LF

Leonid Komarovsky, the U.S. citizen arrested in Turkmenistan for having had some alleged role in the November 2002 purported coup attempt against President Saparmurat Niyazov and later deported to the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 4 December 2002 and 25 April 2003), has denied that he had anything to do with a book on the coup that was recently published in Ashgabat, reported on 21 December. In May, Komarovsky told "Izvestiya" that he intended to "declare war" on Niyazov and write a book describing conditions in Turkmenistan under Niyazov's rule, according to the Turkmen opposition website on 11 May. But Komarovsky now asserts that what has been published in Ashgabat is not what he wrote, and he demanded that his name be removed from the book on the coup and from another on Turkmenistan that was put out by the same Ashgabat publishing house. BB

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Uzbekistan on 19 December for a three-day visit that focused on joint efforts to combat international terrorism as well as on expanding trade and economic ties, Interfax and other news agencies reported. Erdogan met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on the first day of his visit and the two leaders issued a joint statement pledging closer military cooperation in the fight against terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. Karimov told a press conference after the meeting that he wants to focus on combating terrorist ideology and crushing the centers where terrorist acts are planned and terrorists are trained under the guise of religion. An intergovernmental agreement on fighting terrorism, which Karimov described as a serious program, was signed on 19 December. He said it covered primarily the training of Uzbek antiterrorist units in Turkey. BB

The Chamber of Representatives consented to the appointment of Syarhey Sidroski as Belarus's prime minister in a 91-11 vote on 19 December, Belapan reported. Sidorski has been acting prime minister since his appointment on 10 July in the wake of Henadz Navitski's dismissal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 July 2003). AM

The U.S. State Department accused Belarusian authorities of "favoring certain religions and placing others at a disadvantage," Belapan reported on 19 December, quoting the "International Religious Freedom Report 2003" released the previous day. "The status of respect for religious freedom worsened" in Belarus in 2003, the report concludes. The law on religions enacted in October 2002 restricts religious freedom "for those groups specified as occupying a traditional place in society, the Belarusian Orthodox Church, Jews, Muslims, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans," the report charges, while an agreement signed by the government and the Russian Orthodox Church in Belarus is said to provide the latter with "privileges not enjoyed by other faiths." The report also notes that the authorities continue to "harass many other denominations and religions," in particular "repeatedly rejected the registration applications of many Protestant denominations, the Belarusian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, and some Eastern religions." "The [Belarusian] Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the government restricts this right in practice," the report says. AM

Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Kuleba and Romanian Ambassador to Ukraine Alexandru Cornea signed an agreement on 18 December on a new visa regime between their countries, Interfax reported. The agreement provides for visa-free travel for the holders of service and diplomatic passports, as well as for crews of ships and aircraft. Kuleba noted that the document does not provide for a deadline for introducing the new procedures, however. "This will happen no earlier than 1 July 2004," he said. Romania is introducing visas for Ukrainians in conjunction with its intention to join the European Union in 2007. AM

The Swedish government decided on 19 December to provide financial support of 1.35 million kroons ($107,000) for activities promoting integration in Estonia in 2004, LETA reported. The funds are earmarked for the "Integrating Estonia 2002-2004" program, which has been financed jointly since 2002 by Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The program targets workforce mobility, vocational training, language training, school-curricula development, media education, and citizenship awareness. Sweden has provided more than 25 million kroons toward integration activities in Estonia since 1993. Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation Carin Jamtin said the work of the Estonian state in integrating the Russian-speaking population has yielded good results and continued support from Sweden seems natural and effective. SG

Janis Straume, the chairman of the nationalist For the Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK party, one of the four parties in the current ruling coalition, announced on 19 December that his party's board has asked its parliamentary deputies to prepare amendments to require Latvian citizenship of all teachers and headmasters of schools in the country, BNS reported. Straume said many teachers in minority schools have recently acted disloyally toward the Latvian state, adding that advocating the need for two state languages discourages youths from learning Latvian. Education and Science Minister Karlis Sadurskis of the New Era party responded that such a proposal is worth considering, but he noted that noncitizens teaching at Latvian schools "have certificates of top-level proficiency in the state language" and could easily obtain citizenship. Their decision not to become naturalized citizens is probably due to personal reasons, he said. Since one of the aims of the Latvian education system is to bring up loyal citizens, Sadurskis added, it would be preferable to have Latvian citizens in teaching jobs. The Association for the Protection of Latvian Russian Schools opposed the proposal, according to BNS, asserting that it would heighten opposition to the planned education reform. SG

Several thousand, mostly elderly, supporters of embattled President Rolandas Paksas gathered in and around the Trade Union Palace in Vilnius on 20 December to found the "For the President and a Just Lithuania" movement, "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 22 December. The group marched to the Trade Union Palace after the management of the Vilnius Concert and Sports Palace canceled a rental contract for that venue the previous day, citing organizers' failure to meet their obligations. Some of the group's supporters had reportedly come by bus from Kaunas and other Lithuanian cities. Speakers condemned the parliament, which is holding impeachment proceedings against Paksas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003), with some calling for the ouster of parliamentary Chairman Arturas Paulauskas. The rally formally declared the founding of the movement and elected a coordination council that includes parliamentary deputies Julius Veselka and Rolandas Pavilionis, Liberal Democratic Party Chairman Valentinas Mazuronis, presidential adviser Gintaras Surkus, and writer Vytautas Petkevicius. Some 500 policemen looked on but did not intervene. SG

Polish rail workers' National Protest and Strike Committee (KKP-S) ended their nationwide labor stoppage on 21 December, according to Polish Radio (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003), although the disgruntled employee group said its members will remain on strike alert. The KKP-S also said it will not sign a government-proposed accord on the restructuring of state-owned Polish Railways. Such an accord was signed on 19 December by six railway unions not belonging to the KKP-S, PAP reported. The KKP-S fears the Polish Senate will not support the Sejm's 19 December decision to provide regional railways with 550 million zlotys ($140 million) of additional funding, according to Polish Radio. "I hope the accord will be signed by the remaining trade unions," Deputy Prime Minister Marek Pol said on 19 December. "If protests continue, this accord will not come into force. Regional routes have today been guaranteed such money as they have never seen, and doubtless will never see again," Pol said. AM

The Sejm on 19 December voted 225-190 with four abstentions to pass the 2004 budget bill, PAP reported. The budget projects revenues of 154.5 billion zlotys ($40 billion) and expenditures of 199.8 billion zlotys. The budget bill still must be considered by the Senate. AM

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said on 20 December that he "does not rule out" the possibility that relations with the United States will suffer as a result of last week's government decision to negotiate the lease of 14 Gripen fighters from Sweden (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16, 17, and 18 December 2003), CTK reported. Svoboda, speaking at the end of a visit to the Tajik capital Dushanbe, added that he hopes that this does not happen. The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Prague, Craig Stapleton, suggested that mutual relations would suffer if the Czechs spurned U.S.-designed fighter jets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2003). Czech Deputy Prime Minister Petr Mares, who is also chairman of the junior coalition Freedom Union-Democratic Union (US-DEU), said on 19 December that Sweden should improve its offer during the coming negotiations if it wants the deal to come through. Mares emphasized that the decision to opt for the Swedish-British-made fighter is not final and that the Czech negotiating team has been tasked with improving the terms that Sweden has offered. MS

Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka welcomed the return of the last of the country's personnel from a field hospital in the southern Iraqi town of Al-Basrah at Prague's Ruzyne Airport on 22 December, CTK reported. Meanwhile, some 80 Czech military police arrived in Iraq on 21 December to begin their tour of duty at a military base in Shaiba, some 25 kilometers west of Al-Basrah. MS

Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda told a radio audience on 20 December that Slovakia achieved its two main goals in 2003 -- NATO and EU integration, TASR reported. Among the disappointments of 2003, he noted continuing tension within the ruling coalition and an excise-tax hike that the government felt compelled to impose at midyear. Dzurinda said he expects the next year to be quieter and better, and he predicted that real wages will rise in 2004. MS

The National Bank of Slovakia cut key interest rates unexpectedly by 25 basis points, or 0.25 percent, on 19 December, according to local and international news agencies. The basic rate and the two-week repurchase rate were cut from 6.25 to 6 percent, while the overnight refinancing and sterilization rates are now 7.5 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively. The decision appeared to surprise the market, where a consensus expected a rate cut in early 2004, according to dpa. The central bank said there is neither inflationary pressure nor the threat of such pressure in the near future. Export growth is likely to slow in 2004, the bank warned, creating a drag on the economy. "If this trend continues, economic activities could be reduced and pressure for a drop in prices could become excessive in the future," the National Bank said in an official statement. MS

Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs, who is also chairman of the senior coalition Social Democratic Party, on 21 December criticized the opposition FIDESZ party's support of demands for autonomy by ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Mediafax reported, citing MTI. Kovacs said any move that risks a split within the Hungarian community in Transylvania is dangerous. However, Kovacs added that he backs the idea of regional autonomy for Transylvania's Hungarian minority. He said such a solution has proven viable in many West European and East-Central European countries, and could prove viable for Romania as well (see also Romania items below). MS

The trial of 36 suspects in the 12 March assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in a special high-security courtroom in Belgrade began on 22 December, local and international media reported. Fifteen of the suspects who are still on the run, including the alleged mastermind Milorad Lukic "Legija," will be tried in absentia. Commenting on doubts that the trial might fail because of the large number of absent indictees, Justice Minister Vladan Batic said the alternative would be to wait until they are arrested. He added that he believes Serbian authorities have gathered enough evidence to successfully try the suspects regardless of their whereabouts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November and 8 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March and 9 May 2003). The 36 defendants include suspected underworld figures and members of an elite police unit who allegedly sought to form a "criminal enterprise" to bring down Djindjic's Western-oriented government, AP reported, citing the indictment. The trial is generally regarded as a key test of the country's court system. UB

Prime Minister-designate Ivo Sanader of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) presented his government to the media on 21 December, "Vjesnik" reported. Sanader's cabinet includes ministers from the Democratic Center but not, as was expected, from the Social Liberal Party (HSLS). Sanader said he regrets that he could not reach a compromise with the HSLS, adding that he will continue negotiations with that party and that he wishes to cooperate with HSLS legislators. The Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) is expected to lend parliamentary support to Sanader's government in return for key parliamentary posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 10 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003). Sanader nominated former Croatian Ambassador to the United States Miomir Zuzul as foreign minister, Marijan Mlinaric as interior minister, and Berislav Roncevic as defense minister. Newly elected Democratic Center Chairwoman Vesna Skare-Ozbolt is proposed as the new justice minister, while independent Dragan Primorac would be the next minister for science, education, and sports. The parliament was expected to vote on the government on 22 or 23 December. UB

The November census showed that the Montenegrin population comprises some 673,000 people, roughly 41 percent of whom are ethnic Montenegrin, 30 percent Serbian, 9 percent Bosnian, 7 percent Albanian, 4 percent Muslim, 1 percent Croatian, and 0.5 percent Romany, the daily "Vijesti" reported on 19 December, quoting sources from the census commission. The commission was scheduled to announce the results officially on 22 December. The number of ethnic Montenegrins has thus decreased by some 107,000 since the 1991 census, the daily reported, while it said the number of Serbs has grown by about 144,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 August and 3 November 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 January 2001). UB

Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who favors Montenegrin independence, commented on reports of the unofficial census figures, saying he does not pay much attention to citizens' nationality, according to MINA. "As far as I am concerned, Montenegro was and still is a civic state; and on that basis, we have to continue conducting a successful multiethnic toleration policy in Montenegro," Djukanovic said. President Filip Vujanovic also downplayed the significance for national policy of ethnicity. "We have to move together to a European future, independent of what we call ourselves, which god we pray to, or which nation we adhere to," Vujanovic said. Opposition People's Party Chairman Dragan Soc said the results dealt a blow to separatist aspirations, as they are "a clear message that Montenegrin identity cannot be built on anti-Serb feelings," MINA reported. UB

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said on 19 December that his cabinet was responsible for Romania's greatly improved economic performance in 2003 and that the government's main tasks for next year are finalizing EU accession negotiations and preparing for local, parliamentary, and presidential elections, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Nastase also counted reduced corruption, an improvement in Romania's business environment, a successful social policy, and initial reform of the health system among his government's purported successes. He said his ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) has managed to overcome the legacy of the 1996-2000 center-right governments and expects the economy to post 5.5 percent economic growth in 2004, an increase in investment of 13 percent, and a drop to single-digit inflation. MS

Prime Minister Nastase hinted in an appearance on Pro TV on 21 December that Romanian authorities might declare Hungarian-opposition politicians "persona non grata," Mediafax reported. Nastase said it is "impermissible" for Hungarian politicians visiting Romania to talk about modifying that country's borders or to support the idea of territorial autonomy for Transylvania, which is home to a large ethnic Hungarian population. A dialogue can only be based on mutual respect for values and interests, he said, adding that "we shall make it clear" to those who "lack the proper respect for Romania's national identity, its institution, parliament, and constitution that they have no business here." The prime minister was presumably directing his warning at former Hungarian Prime Minister and FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban and his deputy, Laszlo Kover, who recently expressed support for Reformed Bishop Laszlo Toekes's demand for autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Nastase also reiterated his threat to take legal action against members of the Hungarian minority who set up organizations that actively seek autonomy, saying such efforts are not protected by the right to express opinions freely because they endanger state interests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 19 December 2003). MS

Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) Chairman Bela Marko said in the Transylvanian city of Targu-Mures on 21 December that the support expressed recently by FIDESZ for the autonomy of Transylvania's Hungarians and for the National Council of Transylvanian Hungarians (CNMT) was "an unwise move," Mediafax reported. Marko said the move encourages a split within Transylvania's Hungarian minority, whose unity "is absolutely necessary in order to secure a number of rights." Marko also said that if FIDESZ continues to make such "uninspired" moves, the UDMR will have to make "huge efforts" to safeguard the unity of the Hungarian minority (see also Hungary item above). MS

The National Anticorruption Prosecution (PNA) announced on 19 December that it has closed its investigation into the case of former European Integration Minister Hildergard Puwak, Mediafax reported. The PNA said it concluded that Puwak did not break the law and that the 160,000 euros in EU funds allocated to members of her family were correctly spent for the purpose for which they were allocated. Puwak, who is a vice chairman of the ruling PSD, resigned in October after allegations in the media that she used her influence to channel EU funds to companies headed by her husband and her son and that those funds were misspent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 3, 5, 15 September and 21 October 2003). MS

Victor Stepaniuc, leader of the Party of Moldovan Communists' (PCM) majority grouping in parliament, told RFE/RL on 19 December that Romanian President Ion Iliescu and the Social Democratic Party that rules in Romania have more in common with Stalinism than does the PCM. Stepaniuc was responding to a recent statement by Iliescu in which he said the PCM is reviving the Stalinist concept of a "Moldovan nationality" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2003). Stepaniuc denied that his party's "Concept of the State's Nationalities Policy" implicitly raises territorial demands on the Romanian province of Moldavia, as claimed by Iliescu. "The question," he said, "should be inversed -- that is to say, does Mr. Iliescu pretend that the Moldovan Republic has nothing in common with historical Moldavia" (see also item below). MS

Moldovan lawmakers approved the final reading on 19 December of the controversial "Concept of the State's Nationalities Policy" after introducing minor amendments, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 18 December 2003). The preamble of the document now states that the Republic of Moldova is the rightful successor to the principality of Moldavia established in 1359. The document was approved with the support of the ruling PCM majority and three independent lawmakers. Deputies representing the Braghis Alliance abstained, while lawmakers representing the Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) walked out before the vote under threat of expulsion by parliamentary speaker Evgenia Ostapciuc, who ordered their removal in order to silence their vociferous protests. PPCD Chairman Iurie Rosca said after the vote that the document is part and parcel of the Russian effort to "maintain control over former colonies." Rosca added: "We are duty-bound to demonstrate that...the Putin Doctrine, which is entrenched in imperialism and aggression, will fail in the Republic of Moldova." MS

Romanian Prime Minister Nastase said on 20 December that "extravagant formulations" will not help Moldova solve its current problems, Mediafax reported. Alluding to the "Concept of the State's Nationalities Policies" approved by the Moldovan parliament the previous day, Nastase said that inventing "a nonexistent language [presumably Moldovan] and...historians whose only task is legitimizing and inventing a pedigree for current leaders leads nowhere." Moldova, Nastase said, should apply European standards to its nationalities problem, as Hungary, Poland, and Romania have done. Nastase also said the source of Moldova's internal problems is not Bucharest, whose authorities fully recognize the existence of two sovereign political entities -- Romania and Moldova -- in what was the historical Greater Romania. "Maybe the authorities in Chisinau should look in a different direction" when searching for the source of trouble, Nastase said in a clear allusion to Russia. MS

At a meeting attended by Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Governor Georgi Tabunshik, the Gagauz-Yeri Popular Assembly on 19 December elected PCM member Stepan Yesir its new speaker, Infotag reported. Yesir's candidacy was backed by a majority group formed in the recently elected legislature by the PCM and the group of independents calling itself For a Prosperous Gagauz-Yeri Within a Renovated Moldova. That group controls a combined 25 seats in the 35-member Popular Assembly. Thirty-three deputies voted in favor of Yesir and two abstained. MS

Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski responded on 21 December to recent criticism of the official anticrime effort, insisting his government has the political will to combat organized crime, BTA reported. Saxecoburggotski said the results so far of that effort are another matter, since the executive branch cannot curb crime alone. He said the government's primary goal in 2004 is thus to improve coordination among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government. The new anticrime strategy adopted on 18 December will help achieve that aim, Saxecoburggotski said, and provides for legislative changes that will make it easier for authorities to confiscate illegally acquired assets, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5, 9, 10, 12, 15, and 19 December 2003 and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2003). UB

Bulgarian lawmakers overwhelmingly adopted a resolution on 19 December supporting the idea of the relocation of U.S. military bases to Bulgaria, the "Sofia Morning News" reported. Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev said after the 200-to-four vote that his party supports the idea despite the fact that some ministers have inspired "unrealistic expectations of economic prosperity" following to the possible stationing of U.S. troops in Bulgaria (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2003). UB

Daghestan regularly ranks alongside neighboring Chechnya for the highest incidence of terrorist acts in the Russian Federation. Yet even by Daghestani standards, recent months have seen an intensified terrorist offensive. Moreover, recent terrorist incidents differ from the Daghestani pattern, in which assassinations and explosions figure among the means by which local elites settle disputes.

Since the early 1990s, many attacks upon Daghestani elites have been instigated by other Daghestani elites, who have sometimes resorted to violence to eliminate rivals or settle scores. In the past, much of the violence in Daghestan has occurred within the relatively narrow confines of political and economic in-groups. For the most part, these patterns of intra-elite violence did not threaten the security of the population, and did not aim at the destabilization of the republic, since wholesale instability is contrary to most elite interests.

Recently, however, terrorists have been targeting police officers and ordinary citizens. Contrary to Daghestan's longstanding patterns of violence, it appears that these attacks have been organized by peripheral groups of extremists with broader objectives for the destabilization of Daghestani society.

After Daghestan was invaded by extremists from Chechnya in 1999, Daghestan's National Assembly banned the Islamist fundamentalists whom locals call "Wahhabis." Many Wahhabis were arrested and others fled. Yet while Wahhabism has not regained the social and political significance it had achieved by 1999, it has survived on the periphery of Daghestani society. Wahhabis have reorganized as they have returned to Daghestan or have completed their prison sentences. Realizing that current conditions allow them no opportunity for political or a military ascendance, it appears that they have revised their agenda in terms of vengeance and destabilization.

The summer and early autumn of this year saw the murders of more than 10 Daghestani law enforcement officials who were engaged in the struggle against terrorism. All of them were working in the Department to Combat Criminal Extremism and Terrorism, the Administration for Combating Organized Crime, the Criminal Investigation Department, and other law enforcement agencies combating local religious extremists. Their deaths bring to nearly 20 the total number of Daghestani law enforcement officials murdered in the preceding 12 months, including two consecutive chiefs of the Department to Combat Criminal Extremism and Terrorism. The same period has seen numerous unsuccessful attempts on the lives of law enforcement officials, especially those connected with these same departments.

On the morning of 27 August, Magomedsalikh Gusaev, Daghestan's popular minister for nationalities, information, and external affairs, was killed as he was being driven to his office. Two unknown assailants fled after placing a magnetized mine on the roof of his Volga sedan when it slowed along Prospekt Akushinskogo. Moments later the device was detonated. It was not the first attempt on his life, for Gusaev had many enemies in Wahhabi camps.

During the invasions of 1999, Gusaev successfully resisted propaganda disseminated by Chechen ideologue Movladi Udugov by creating a highly effective information center. Thereafter he emerged among the most influential proponents of the campaign to eliminate Wahhabism from Daghestan. For his efforts, Gusaev was sentenced to death by a sharia court in Chechnya in 1999. Radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev, who led the invasions of Daghestan, was affiliated with the court. A website operated by Chechen militants published occasional references to the death sentence.

On 7 August, Gusaev published a commentary about the war on terrorism in "Daghestanskaya pravda." Gusaev criticized the double standard that has been applied by Western countries toward Russia's antiterrorism efforts in the Caucasus. Gusaev believed that instability in the northeast Caucasus, and particularly Chechnya, is international in its origin and consequence, and that international instigation had preceded and exacerbated the "semblance of a national liberation movement."

Gusaev argued that terrorists, operating with support from international Islamist organizations, are seeking to destabilize the Caucasus and Caspian Sea regions for several reasons, including the control of natural resources. He also observed that this was contrary to the interests of local peoples, of Russia, and of the West. He argued that a center to combat terrorism should is be created in Daghestan and implied that this center should be coordinated with, and at least partially funded by, Western antiterrorism efforts. Three weeks after publishing these views, Gusaev was dead.

Numerous statements by Daghestani authorities have associated Rappani Khalilov, a Daghestani Wahhabi leader, with the murders of Gusaev and other officials. However, it is likely that Khalilov, who is thought to be in Chechnya, has acted primarily as an instigator and financier for recent events. Daghestani authorities believe that the series of assassinations and explosions has been organized by Khalilov's lieutenant, Shamil Abidov (aka, Shamil Abuev). Back in 2000, Abidov allegedly established a terrorist training program inside a Wahhabite madrasa in the Daghestani mountain settlement of Gubden. According to a spokesman from the Daghestani Interior Ministry, Abidov trained three groups, each with up to 30 agents, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 1 October.

By the time police discovered the operation, Abidov had vanished, and his trainees were dispersed throughout Daghestan. According to Daghestani officials Abidov was dispatched by the leaders of the United Assembly of the Peoples of Chechnya and Daghestan with the task of eliminating law enforcement officers and officials who oppose Wahhabism in Daghestan.

Robert Bruce Ware is an associate professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and conducts fieldwork in the Caucasus.

The 10 committees tasked with reviewing the proposed draft constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2003) completed their discussions on 21 December, Afghanistan Television reported. According to the report, the committees concluded their work in unison and without any problems. AT

The most divisive debate in the constitutional assembly centered on the overall system of government, and that discussion seems to have gone according to the wishes of the Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, the Kabul daily "Erada," reported on 21 December. Delegates representing former mujahedin parties had demanded a parliamentary system, while the Karzai-supported draft envisaged a strong presidential system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 18 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 November 2003). According to "Erada," delegates endorsed Karzai's views, although they advocated some additional limitations on the president's powers. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad on 20 December hinted that the assembly has "a preference for a presidential system," the BBC reported the following day. The constitution is seen by most observers as tailored for Karzai, who has stated that he will only run in the presidential election in 2004 if the new constitution creates a presidential system. AT

Malalai Joya, a female delegate to the Afghan Constitutional Loya Jirga from Farah Province who received threats after a 17 December speech in which she objected to the presence of former mujahedin leaders in the assembly and called them criminals who should be tried in an international court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 18, and 19 December 2003), has said that she is working without any problems, Radio Afghanistan reported on 20 December. According to the report, Joya said that she worked in her committee in a democratic environment. Joya was briefly thrown out of the assembly hall on 17 December and was relocated from the housing complex reserved for delegates to an undisclosed location under UN protection. AT

Five Afghan soldiers were killed on 20 December in Spin Boldak, Kandahar Province, in an attack on an Afghan border post that was blamed on neo-Taliban fighters, Reuters reported on 21 December. Two Afghan soldiers were killed and two others were wounded in Gardo Serai, Khost Province, on 20 December when the vehicle they were traveling in was blown-up by a remote-controlled device, the Pakistani daily "Dawn" reported on 22 December. The neo-Taliban have been blamed for the Khost attack as well. One civilian was killed and five were wounded in a bomb blast near the customs house in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, on 20 December, Hindukosh news agency reported on 21 December. Security officials in Nangarhar blamed "enemies of the people" -- a reference to the neo-Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and supporters of former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- for that attack. AT

Citing an anonymous "source close to the Interior Ministry's State Elections Headquarters," IRNA reported on 20 December that more than 8,000 people have registered as candidates for the 20 February parliamentary election. Some 1,753 people are registered in the capital Tehran, which has 42 seats in the 290-seat legislature. Registration of prospective candidates took place from 13-19 December. BS

The director-general of the Interior Ministry's Office of Election Affairs, Mohammad Ali Moshfeq, said on 21 December that the investigation of prospective candidates' backgrounds will last until 29 December, state television reported. Rejected candidates will be informed the next day, and they can complain to election-supervisory boards from 31 December-3 January, he said, adding that supervisory boards will consider complaints until 10 January. If complainants are still dissatisfied with the boards' explanations of rejections, they may appeal to the Guardians Council from 11-30 January. Moshfeq went on to say that individuals whose candidacies are initially approved but then rejected by the Guardians Council may lodge complaints from 31 January-2 February. The Guardians Council will have until 9 February to explain such rejections to the Interior Ministry. On 10 February, Moshfeq said, the State Election Headquarters will announce the candidate list, and campaigning will begin two days later and continue until 19 February. "They will wait for the people to determine their fate on Friday, 1 Esfand [20 February]," Moshfeq concluded. BS

Ayatollah Ali Meshkini discussed the controversial role of the Guardians Council in vetting candidates for elected office during his 19 December Friday prayers sermon in Qom, which was broadcast on state television the next day. He urged the council to be firm on candidates' qualifications and used an anecdote from his youth: "I remember from our life in the village when I was small. Ladies poured the flour into a sieve to stop rubbish -- something, a rat excrement -- from going through. Sometimes the sieve was damaged and had holes in it. The rat excrement would go through and spoil the dough. I ask the Guardian Council to sieve properly and purify the things." BS

Kurdish members of the Iranian parliament met with Kurdistan University students at the Sanandaj campus on 21 December, ILNA reported. The parliamentarians -- Bahaedin Adab, Jalal Jalalizadeh, Abdullah Sohrabi, Mohammad Rezai, Salaheddin Alai, and Masud Husseini -- and the students discussed the Sixth Parliament's performance and the prospects for the Seventh Parliament. The legislators urged the students to vote and warned that boycotting the election or apathy would benefit the conservatives. BS

President Askar Akaev of Kyrgyzstan spent two days in Tehran on 20-22 December before departing for Shiraz and then Bishkek, IRNA and ITAR-TASS reported. Akaev met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, speaker of parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. Khamenei said the Soviet Union could not ignore Central Asians' rights forever, nor can Israel ignore Palestinians' rights indefinitely because their resistance will end the occupation. Khamenei added that the United States entered the region on the pretext of fighting terrorism and that this is not in the interest of the Afghan nor Iraqi people. Khatami told his guest that the level and volume of mutual trade is unsatisfactory given Iranian and Kyrgyz potential, and he ascribed this problem to bureaucratic delays. Karrubi expressed Iran's desire to expand bilateral cooperation, and he praised Bishkek's role in regional and international affairs. On 21 December, the two sides signed seven memoranda of understanding -- on trade, tariffs, and trade centers; visa regulations; legal affairs; cultural and artistic cooperation; and housing and urban development. BS

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said on a 19 December Arabic television program that expelled Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) members will be extradited to three different countries, according to AFP. (On the Iraqi Governing Council decision to expel the MKO, which is currently based at Camp Ashraf, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 December 2003.) "We are working in cooperation with the Governing Council to determine how to organize their departure and where to send them," Bremer said. "They cannot go to Iran.... They have to go elsewhere." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 21 December described the U.S. decision as "unacceptable," IRNA reported. He also said that European states have been warned of the adverse consequences that hosting MKO terrorists would have for bilateral relations. Assefi said the United States is being selective on the terrorism issue: "The U.S. has detained a group of people accused of collaborating with the Al-Qaeda in Guantanamo and, on the other hand, allows another group of terrorists to walk freely around the world." BS

U.S. officials have said that Kurdish representatives on the Iraqi Governing Council have submitted a bill to establish a federal Iraq without waiting for the constitutional convention promised for 2005, AFP reported on 20 December. All five Kurdish members of the council support the bill, including the heads of the two main former rebel factions, Jalal Talabani and Mas'ud Barzani, said Bakhtiar Amin, assistant to Mahmud Othman, another of the bill's five proponents. Amin said the Governing Council decided to form a committee to debate the issue before the end of February. "We presented this text because we want to enter into the details of the question of federalism now and don't want to put off the subject until after the new constitution is adopted," he said. The bill put forward by the council's five Kurdish members foresees the expansion of Kurdish autonomy from the three northern provinces that rebel factions ruled in defiance of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to include the oil-rich province of Tamim around Kirkuk and parts of the ethnically mixed provinces of Nineveh and Diyala. MH

Iraq's U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer confirmed on 19 December that his convoy was hit by an explosive device and came under small-arms fire on 6 December, the day that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was visiting Baghdad, Reuters reported. No one was hurt in the attack. Rumsfeld, who was making his third visit to Iraq since deposed President Hussein's fall in April, was not in the convoy at the time of the ambush. A Coalition Provisional Authority official told Reuters that an inquiry into the incident is under way and that U.S. authorities are investigating whether the guerrillas planned to kill Bremer or were targeting any Western convoy. Bremer, a counterterrorism expert, travels in an armored civilian-vehicle convoy accompanied by a large group of heavily armed guards with automatic rifles. MH

Al-Jazeera reported on 21 December that hundreds of Iraqis, including some resistance leaders, have been arrested following the capture of deposed President Hussein, according to U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers. Myers also reported that Hussein is not cooperating with U.S. authorities who have been interrogating him since he was captured on 13 December near his hometown of Tikrit. "We've put our best interrogators on him," Myers said. "The only word I have is that he is not being cooperative." He told CNN that some information came from a briefcase that was seized when U.S. forces found Hussein. Although U.S. troops have been cracking down on anticoalition fighters in the week since Hussein was captured, top officials have warned that violence is expected to continue. MH

An oil-pumping station in northern Iraq and pipelines carrying crude to refineries came under attack on 21 December, exacerbating the fuel shortages facing ordinary Iraqis, Al-Jazeera reported on 22 December. Unidentified attackers fired mortar shells late on 21 December at a pumping station 25 kilometers west of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The station feeds the domestic network and export pipelines to Turkey and Syria, security official Abd al-Karim al-Juburi said. Iraqi police also said they have arrested four Iraqis who planned to launch a rocket attack against U.S. forces based at Kirkuk Airport and to blow up a fuel reservoir near Iraq's largest refinery at Baiji, 180 kilometers north of Baghdad. A U.S. military spokeswoman in Baghdad said she had no information about the Kirkuk incident. Earlier, the U.S. military denied reports of an attack on a pipeline between Baiji and Tikrit, and said the fires raging there were the result of burning "residual fuel." Three antitank rockets hit a pipeline south of Baghdad on the night of 19 December causing "significant" leakage, according to Asam Jihad, spokesman for Iraq's interim Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum. Jihad also said an explosive device hit a pipeline in the Mashahda region, 50 kilometers north of the capital. MH

At a news conference on 17 December, Marek Belka, the Polish official currently in charge of Iraq's economy, said that despite U.S. restrictions on countries allowed to compete for U.S.-funded Iraqi reconstruction contracts, no country is excluded from Iraq's reconstruction process, Al-Jazeera reported on 22 December. The United States recently sparked international controversy when it announced its intention to bar companies from countries that refused to join the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq from competing for 26 prime contracts to rebuild the country. The ban applies to firms from France, Germany, Russia, and other countries, while bids for $18.6 billion worth of contracts will be restricted to companies from occupation partners. However, Belka said "countries excluded by the Pentagon are already present in Iraq. For example [the German group] Siemens is a subcontractor of a [winning] U.S. company and of one of the first tenders." MH