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Newsline - February 2, 2004

The Audit Chamber has begun an audit of Sibneft that will last until 28 May, Interfax reported on 30 January. Auditor Vladimir Panskov informed Sibneft that a team of six investigators will investigate whether the oil company followed the law last year and during the first quarter of 1994 in remitting taxes and other payments, using tax and customs privileges, and claiming refunds for valued-added taxes on exports. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 2 February, however, that no law enforcement agencies have complaints against Sibneft or against its major shareholder, Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor Roman Abramovich. The paper noted that Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Verevkin-Rokhalskii said last November that the ministry's Federal Service for Economic and Tax Crime has no evidence that Abramovich "amassed his capital in a dishonest way." Verevkin-Rokhalskii made the comment during a meeting attended by officials from the Federal Security Service (FSB), State Customs Committee, Prosecutor-General's Office, Tax Police, and the Committee for Financial Monitoring. Probes by the Tax Police in 2000, the Prosecutor-General's Office in 2001 and the Audit Chamber in 2002 came to nothing, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. JB

Audit Chamber head Sergei Stepashin told RBK on 30 January that his agency will begin an audit of the administration of Chukotka Governor Abramovich in the next few days. Stepashin commented that auditors will see how big businesses, such as Sibneft, are fulfilling their social obligations. "How can one spend $300 million buying a soccer club in England?" Stepashin asked. Last year, Abramovich purchased London's Chelsea soccer club (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 August 2003). Shortly after the Chelsea purchase, Stepashin was quoted in the press as saying the deal was "an arrogant and demonstrative challenge to Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 2003). Audit Chamber official Sergei Ryabukhin told Ekho Moskvy on 30 January that the audit will be a routine check to see how effectively federal budget allocations to the okrug have been spent. According to "Vremya novostei" on 2 February, the Audit Chamber will look into whether a spurt of construction there -- including the building of a new ice-skating rink, movie theater, and fitness center in the capital of Chukotka -- during Abramovich's first term were undertaken using federal funds. Abramovich has already announced that he will not seek a second term. JAC

Yukos is considering legal action against Sibneft for the latter's last-minute withdrawal in December from a merger agreement, "The Observer" reported on 1 February. An unnamed source "close to Yukos" told the British newspaper that Governor Abramovich is interfering with the management of Sibneft -- which, he said "is now a subsidiary of Yukos" -- and thereby has "damaged confidence in the Yukos brand and affected its share price." Yukos will take "every step to resolve this through negotiation, but if that fails, judicial steps will be taken against Abramovich and Sibneft," the source said. A spokesman for Abramovich would not comment on the threat of legal action, but told "The Observer" that the core shareholders of both companies had agreed to abandon the merger. Yukos's board said after meeting in London on 29 January that the merger with Sibneft is "fully in place" and that the company "will not tolerate direct interference by any core shareholder in the functioning of the company" -- a clear reference to Abramovich, Reuters reported. JB

U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton met in Moscow on 30 January with Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii, deputy chief of the General Staff, to discuss U.S. President George W. Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), Interfax reported. Following the meeting, Baluevskii said the Russian side accepts two of the initiative's four proposals -- exchanging intelligence and "settling issues relating to the operational compatibility of Russia's forces and those of states joining in the U.S. initiative." Baluevskii said that "as a military man," he could not comment on the third proposal -- tightening national nonproliferation legislation. Russian can only consider the fourth initiative -- joint actions to arrest aircraft and ships suspected of carrying WMD components -- "after a political decision has been made for the Russian Federation to join the U.S. initiative," he said. Seven members of the Group of Eight have joined the PSI, but Russia has not (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004). JB

A Defense Ministry source who attended the meeting between U.S. Undersecretary of State Bolton and Colonel General Baluevskii told ITAR-TASS on 30 January that what he heard about the PSI proposal for intercepting planes and ships suspected of carrying WMD components was "far from satisfactory." The Russian side, the source said, "was unable to understand how the forceful interception of planes and ships that might be carrying weapons of mass destruction corresponds with international law" or who would pay for damages caused by a mistaken seizure. The source also said Russia has not been apprised of " the technical aspects" of how such operations would be conducted. Bolton, for his part, said after the talks that the Russian government is fully supportive of the PSI's objectives, "The Moscow Times" reported on 2 February. JB

State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Unified Russia) said on 1 February that the United States and Russia must have an "equal partnership." Kosachev told RTR that the U.S. presidential campaign and differences within the Bush administration are complicating U.S.-Russian relations. U.S. President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, he said, are "more comfortable partners" than Vice President Dick Cheney or Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, adding that "maintaining a dialogue" with Bush and Powell "meets Russia's interests." The Bush administration's "main illusion," Kosachev said, is that the United States is powerful enough to ensure its security unilaterally. "We are confident that those illusions which the United States currently harbors -- both overall regarding the world order that has emerged in recent years and regarding the potential of Russia -- will become a thing of the past and disappear, and our cooperation will be truly mutually beneficial and, the main thing, equal," Kosachev stated. U.S. and Russian interests "coincide absolutely" in the area of "strategic stability," including preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and missile technologies, he added. JB

The Russian military will hold strategic exercises this month that are expected to be the largest in almost 25 years, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 30 January. According to the newspaper, the exercises, which President Vladimir Putin will personally oversee, will involve mock combat launches of Topol intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) from the Plesetsk space center in northern Russia, a submarine-launched ballistic missile from the Barents Sea, and cruise-missile launches by Tu-160 strategic bombers flying over the North Atlantic, among other things. The exercises will resemble those conducted by the Soviet military in 1982, which became known as "the seven-hour nuclear war," "Kommersant-Daily" reported. This time, however, Moscow has a given Washington advanced notice of the exercises, describing them as part of the country's antiterrorism preparations. Some observers suggested the exercises have a political subtext. Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information, told AP on 30 January that the exercises "will make a great show" ahead of the 14 March presidential election. JB

President Putin on 30 January decried the level of crime and corruption and called on the Prosecutor-General's Office to improve its work, Interfax reported. Nearly 3 million crimes were registered in Russia in 2003, more than one-third of which remain unsolved, Putin told a meeting of the prosecutor-general's board. "The criminal community has a destructive effect on all spheres of public life, from the economy to morals," he said, adding that Russia's high crime rate "also has a negative impact on its international reputation." Putin said "systematic and qualified work" is needed to fight corruption, and that the absence of a separate anticorruption law is no excuse for "ineffective work" given that existing anticorruption legislation is "quite vast and uncompromising." He also said the efforts of the Prosecutor-General's Office "should be directed at stopping lawlessness" and should be "more preventive," but that its powers should not be used to interfere "in economic or any other operations." The system must also not allow people in pretrial detention to "rot behind bars" indefinitely. JB

Investigators from the Udmurtia FSB directorate and the republic prosecutor's office conducted a raid on the election headquarters of would-be presidential candidate and Motherland leader Sergei Glazev in Izhevsk on the evening of 30 January, seizing documents and a computer, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 2 February. Glazev told Ekho Moskvy on 31 January that he is "bewildered" by the array of dirty tricks being used by "those close to the authorities" to stop him from running for president. Glazev linked the raid with the earlier television reports alleging that his campaign workers were trying to buy voters' support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2004). Glazev said that FSB officers are looking for anything that could be used as evidence to support the allegations. An unidentified law enforcement official in Udmurtia told on 31 January that a criminal case on suspicion of falsifying election documents has already been opened. JAC

The founding congress of the Motherland People's Patriotic Union (RNPS) was held in Moscow on 30 January, and Motherland Duma faction leader Glazev was elected its chairman, Russian media reported. The other leader of the Motherland bloc, Duma Deputy Speaker Dmitrii Rogozin did not attend the congress. Rogozin told RTR it had been organized behind his back and took place when it was known he would be attending a PACE meeting in Strasbourg. Rogozin called the holding of the congress "a political dirty step," ITAR-TASS reported. "Vremya novostei" reported on 2 February that the congress appeared to be hurriedly assembled, and delegates were summoned by telephone just before it was convened. The daily concluded on 2 February that the legitimacy of the congress might be questioned, since there was no representative of the Justice Ministry present nor was it convoked by the Motherland Supreme Council. JAC

Delegates at the fourth extraordinary congress of the Party of Pensioners voted on 1 February to replace party leader Sergei Atroshenko, RosBalt reported. State Duma Deputy Valerii Gartung will serve as temporary acting chairman. Delegates also voted to dismiss the party Central Committee Chairman Vladimir Ponomarenko. Delegates voted no confidence in the Central Committee, and will elect new members at the next extraordinary congress on 1 May. Gartung told RosBalt that delegates were disappointed by the party's 3.1 percent finish in the 7 December 2003 State Duma elections. The party ran in a bloc with the Party of Social Justice. Atroshenko, who was not present at the congress, said the Justice Ministry might not accept the legality of decisions adopted by the congress, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 2 February. JAC

An unidentified party functionary told "Kommersant-Daily" on 2 February that Atroshenko "sold" the party before the elections to businessman Vladimir Kishenin, who heads the Party of Social Justice. The source charged that the presidential administration ordered Kishenin to pursue a strategy designed to take votes away from the Communist Party. According to "The Moscow Times" on 4 December, Kishenin admitted on the campaign trail that he once served in the KGB. JAC

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has dismissed Deputy Communications Minister Nikolai Pozhitkov, RIA-Novosti reported on 30 January. Pozhitkov will now represent the legislature of Orenburg Oblast in the Federation Council, replacing Viktor Nefedov, who was elected to the Duma from the Unified Russia party list in December. JAC

Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Kosachev expressed incomprehension on 29 January over Chechen presidential representative Akhmed Zakaev's ongoing visit to Germany, Interfax reported. Kosachev said he cannot understand why Zakaev was invited to Germany, given that the Prosecutor-General's Office has issued a warrant for his arrest. Zakaev was invited to meet with German parliamentary deputies. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko told Interfax on 30 January that "the purpose of Zakaev's visit is obvious: to discredit the efforts made by the Russian administration to achieve a political settlement in Chechnya." Pro-Moscow Chechen Deputy Premier Ziyad Sabsabi told Interfax that no importance should be attached to Zakaev's visit to Germany, as "he does not know the true situation" in Chechnya. LF

Five members of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov's personal security detachment were shot dead on the morning of 1 February by 10 armed assailants who forced their way into a house in the village of Alleroi, Russian media reported. Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, who heads his father's security guards, said the attackers will be apprehended within seven days, and that he has offered a reward of $200,000 for information about their whereabouts. He said the leader of the group of attackers, Akhmed Avturkhanov, was wounded in the attack. LF

Boris Aleshin told journalists in Yerevan on 30 January that Moscow might transfer to private management the five enterprises it received from Armenia under a November 2002 agreement settling Yerevan's $100 million debt, ITAR-TASS reported. He said the handover of one of those enterprises, the Hrazdan thermal-power plant, is now complete, and that officials from the two countries' energy ministries signed an agreement earlier on 30 January establishing a new company to manage the plant. Aleshin denied that Moscow plans to curtail the operations of the Medzamor nuclear-power station, which generates some 36 percent of Armenia's electricity. Also on 30 January, Armenian and Russian officials signed an intergovernmental agreement abolishing a number of restrictions on bilateral trade, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

The trial began on 30 January at Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes of seven people charged in connection with the 15-16 October clashes in Baku between police and opposition supporters protesting the falsification of the outcome of the 15 October presidential election, Turan and reported on 30 and 31 January, respectively. The seven defendants, who are charged with participating in mass disorders and resisting authority, unanimously retracted their pretrial testimony, which they claim was extracted from them under torture. They also demanded that a television crew from the quasi-independent television station ANS-TV be required to leave the courtroom because of that station's coverage of the clashes in question. The court is simultaneously hearing the cases of three groups of defendants, 24 people in all. LF

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder assured visiting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Berlin on 30 January that Germany will send specialists to advise on reforming the Georgian customs service and to train diplomats, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported the following day. Economic Cooperation and Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul pledged 26 million euros ($32.4 million) for Georgian economic development and to help combating corruption. LF

President Saakashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 1 February that discussions are under way of constitutional amendments that would reintroduce the institution of a government headed by a prime minister in what he termed "the normal European practice of sharing power among the branches of power," Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. Saakashvili said the absence of a government "is tantamount to sabotage," and that he considers former parliament speaker Zurab Zhvania the optimal candidate for prime minister. He said the proposed amendments will not weaken the parliament, which "will be similar to or even stronger than parliaments in Western Europe." Zhvania told Caucasus Press on 2 February that there are no differences of opinion between himself and Saakashvili on the issue, and that they both advocate a strong president and a strong government (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 January 2004). LF

President Saakashvili signed a decree on 2 February appointing Petre Tsiskarishvili, a member of his National Movement, as deputy interior minister, Georgian media reported. Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze proposed Tsiskarishvili in December 2003 as one of his deputies, but then acting President Nino Burdjanadze refused to confirm the appointment because of a scandalous incident one year earlier in which Tsiskarishvili physically assaulted a fellow parliament deputy, causing injuries that required hospital treatment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 November 2002). Saakashvili at that time threatened to expel Tsiskarishvili from the National Movement parliament faction. LF

Some 700 street vendors congregated on 31 January outside the state chancellery to protest a newly introduced prohibition on street trading in Tbilisi, which they say will deprive them of their livelihood, Caucasus Press reported. President Saakashvili rejected the traders' request for a meeting to discuss their demand for a one-year moratorium on the ban to give them time to find alternative employment. LF

The Asar party -- which was registered in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2003) and is led by President Nursultan Nazarbaev's eldest daughter, Darigha -- held its first congress on 31 January, reported. According to party Political Council member Yerlan Karin, among the suggestions for party activities that were put forward at the congress was encouraging a dialogue among the government, the opposition, and society to draw up a joint reform program. Karin also introduced to congress participants an initiative intended to ensure clean elections, and promised that the party's newly established parliamentary faction (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2004) will take an active role in assessing draft legislation on the media and on elections that is making its way through the parliament. Karin said the draft media law neither meets Kazakhstan's needs nor guarantees free access to information. BB

Speaking to a meeting on 30 January in Bishkek commemorating the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Assembly of the Peoples of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akaev said the study of the state and official languages of the country -- Kyrgyz and Russian -- should be encouraged, but the study of Kyrgyz should be voluntary, not compulsory, Interfax reported. Akaev called on the assembly, which is credited by the authorities with playing a major role in maintaining ethnic harmony in Kyrgyzstan, to help the Kyrgyz language become a language of interethnic communication. Under the new language law, all government officials are supposed to be able to conduct official business in Kyrgyz. BB

Imomali Rakhmonov has appointed Colonel General Gaffor Mirzoev to head the country's Narcotics Control Agency, Interfax reported on 2 February. The agency's former director, Major General Rustam Nazarov, was downgraded to first deputy director. Mirzoev was head of the Presidential Guard until Rakhmonov removed him and turned the Presidential Guard into a National Guard (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2004), a move that Mirzoev, a distinguished commander on the government side during the 1992-97 Tajik civil war, protested publicly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004). In addition to his new post, Mirzoev apparently has received a promotion from the rank of lieutenant general. BB

The most recent round of talks between Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan on the division of the Caspian seabed concluded in Ashgabat on 30 January, reported. According to the semiofficial report, neither delegation provided journalists with information about the talks, but Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhnyi told Interfax after the talks that Moscow was encouraged by the fact that the Turkmen side was willing to talk with their Azerbaijani interlocutors. Kalyuzhnyi said he is convinced this willingness indicates that Turkmenistan might accept the position on division of the Caspian seabed that has been worked out by Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan. Turkmenistan has been inclined toward the Iranian position. BB

The Turkmen authorities deported 92 Armenian citizens from Ashgabat to Yerevan on 31 January, reported on 2 February, citing Interfax. The deportees were reported to have been living illegally in Turkmenistan for several years. Their return was organized by the Armenian Embassy in Ashgabat and the Turkmenistan office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and was financed by the Dutch and British governments. The organizers described the deportation as voluntary, suggesting that it was lack of funds and lack of proper exit documents that prevented the Armenians from leaving earlier. In November, 116 illegal Armenian residents of Turkmenistan were returned to their homeland by the IOM and the Armenian Embassy. BB

The office of Uzbekistan's permanent representative to the UN and other international agencies in Geneva said a recent amnesty in honor of the 11th anniversary of the Uzbek Constitution did not result in the release of 21 women sentenced for Islamist extremist activities as had been reported, reported on 1 February. According to the statement, only five such women were released. The higher figure had been provided to by long-time Uzbek human rights activist Mikhail Ardzinov, and the agency published it on 19 January. Another Uzbek human rights activist, Hazratkul Hudoiberdi, told that he is trying to determine who is correct, but he is inclined to believe the Uzbek authorities. BB

According to a poll conducted by the Minsk-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) and the Gallup-Baltic Surveys of Lithuania in December among 1,494 adult Belarusians, 27 percent of respondents said they would like to see President Alyaksandr Lukashenka re-elected for a third term in 2006, Belapan reported on 30 January. At the same time, 61 percent of respondents said Lukashenka should be replaced by "someone else." According to NISEPI head Aleh Manayeu, the poll shows that most Belarusians are waiting for changes in the country and are ready to support them in parliamentary and presidential elections. Manayeu added, however, that the democratic opposition does not take into account people's real expectations and proceeds from its own political priorities. He cited the opposition's conviction that Russia poses a threat to Belarus as an example of such a divergence: The poll revealed that while 72 percent of respondents reject the idea of Belarus's incorporation into Russia, 50 percent opt for an economic union with Moscow and just 34 percent say they would welcome Belarus's accession to the European Union. JM

President Leonid Kuchma on 1 February bluntly rejected the idea of running for a third presidential term, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported, publishing a transcription of Kuchma's interview with the 1+1 television channel. "Indeed, the Constitutional Court's resolution allows me to run in this year's election," Kuchma said. "However, the last word is naturally for me to say. But I have already repeatedly presented my position." Kuchma also denied the speculations that he may name a presidential successor. "Ukraine is not Russia," Kuchma said. "We have never had tsars. We have had hetmans [Ukrainian Cossack military leaders]. But they, as everybody knows, were elected. Therefore, boys, go ahead and fight!" JM

Oleksandr Zadorozniy, permanent representative of the Ukrainian president in the Verkhovna Rada, said on 30 January that last week's resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) warning Kyiv against pushing the current political reform by unconstitutional means (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004) is an "ultimatum," UNIAN reported. Zadorozhniy said the resolution is "absolutely absurd" and does not reflect the situation in Ukraine in either a factual or legal sense. He added that the resolution was drafted "by two crazy ladies who do not understand Ukrainian developments at all," in an apparent reference to PACE monitors Hanne Severinsen and Renate Wohlwend (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 22 January 2004). According to Zadorozhniy, the PACE intends to impose opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko as a new president on Ukraine. JM

Justice Minister Ken-Marti Vaher on 30 January presented the ministry's main priorities for the next three years, BNS reported. The ministry's primary goal will be step up efforts to seize illegal drugs and to apprehend and convict dealers. Vaher said the ministry will focus on arresting the leaders of criminal groups and seeking to punish them under harsher penalties established late last year, including confiscation of property. According to the second priority, efforts to combat corruption will be aided through the use of specialized teams comprising prosecutors and police officers that will work with district prosecutor's offices beginning this year. In addition, the ministry will establish a corruption hotline and a website to raise public awareness of the problem. The third priority will be a campaign intended prevent violence against children, domestic violence in general, and juvenile crime. SG

Prime Minister Einars Repse was overwhelmingly elected to another two-year term as New Era's chairman during the party's annual general meeting in Riga on 31 January, BNS reported. Repse was approved by a vote of 251 in favor to five against, with two abstentions. Repse told the meeting before the vote that the current government crisis was spurred by his "not letting oligarchs to the trough and cutting short the shady deals they began." He spoke in favor of amending the Latvian Constitution to empower the prime minister, not just the president, to dissolve parliament and call new parliamentary elections. Repse also called for restructuring campaign-finance regulations "so the parties are not financed by certain oligarchs but compete [on the basis of] their election programs." Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete said at the meeting that one of the tasks of New Era deputies elected to the European Parliament in June will be to ensure to it that it officially condemns the crimes of communism, as it did the crimes of Nazism. SG

The 10th congress of the Lithuanian Union of Political Prisoners and Exiles (LPKTS) party decided in Kaunas on 31 January to merge with the Homeland Union, BNS reported. The decision was passed with the approval of 395 of the 467 delegates in attendance. Under the agreement, at least three members of the LPKTS will be included on the Homeland Union's list of candidates for the European Parliament elections in June, and 20 percent of the Homeland Union's candidates in this fall's parliamentary elections will be taken from the ranks of the LPKTS, which has 61 chapters and approximately 46,000 members. Although Homeland Union will be the accepted shorthand, the name of the merged organization will officially be changed at a 7 February joint congress to Homeland Union -- Conservatives, Political Prisoners and Exiles, Christian Democrats. SG

Prime Minister Leszek Miller told the Sejm on 30 January that the recent replacement atop the Treasury Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2004) had nothing to do with wealthy businessman Jan Kulczyk, Polish media reported. Miller stressed that his cabinet has not concluded any transactions related to Kulczyk. Miller was responding to allegations by opposition lawmakers that previous Treasury Minister Piotr Czyzewski lost his job because he opposed the sale of the G-8 group of electricity producers to Kulczyk Holding. "You have nominated a telephone-answering machine as treasury minister [Zbigniew Kaniewski], one on which instructions to be implemented get recorded," Law and Justice lawmaker Ludwik Dorn told Miller during the Sejm debate. JM

Poland's Main Statistical Office says the country's jobless rate is 20 percent, not 18 percent as previously estimated, Polish media reported on 30 January. The new estimate includes the results of the 2002 national census, which suggest that the economy employs 1.7 million fewer people than was previously thought. JM

Residents of four villages voted overwhelmingly in nonbinding referendums on 1 February to reject the possibility of hosting underground repositories for nuclear waste, CTK reported. The villages of Budisov and Naramec in southern Bohemia voted against the government plan by majorities of 82 and 95 percent, while those of Destna and Lodherov in southern Moravia voted against the plan by over 93 percent and 99 percent, respectively. Three other villages in areas cited by the government as possible locations for such a facility have also rejected the possibilities by large majorities in similar, largely symbolic votes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 November 2003). Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, who visited the southern Moravian village of Namest nad Oslavou the same day in an apparent attempt to convince inhabitants to agree to host a nuclear storage site, said that such a small number of people cannot be allowed to decide an issue of major importance for the country. Spidla said the Czech Republic intends to continue developing nuclear energy and the waste must be stored somewhere. "I can state with full responsibility that the repositories are technologically advanced and safe," he said. MS

President Rudolf Schuster announced on 30 January that he will seek a second term in the direct presidential election slated for April, TASR and CTK reported. Schuster's candidacy was supported by four parliamentary deputies representing the opposition Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS), 10 lawmakers from the opposition Smer (Direction) party, and independent deputy Jozef Elsner. A candidate must receive the support of 15 lawmakers or 15,000 eligible voters to register. Schuster said he has also collected 56,685 voter signatures. Journalist Julius Kubik, who lives in Switzerland and has dual citizenship, announced his candidacy on 30 January. He is largely unknown to the electorate. MS

Slovak pollsters and pundits predicted on 30 January that none of the 12 registered presidential candidates has a chance of winning the contest in the first round, where victory requires an absolute majority of voters, CTK and TASR reported. According to Pavel Haulik, director of the MVK polling agency, the candidates with the best chance to advance to the 17 April runoff are Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan (supported by the senior coalition Slovak Democratic and Christian Union), Movement for a Democratic Slovakia Chairman and former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, President Schuster, and extraparliamentary Movement for Democracy (HZD) Chairman Ivan Gasparovic. The most recent Focus poll showed Kukan leading the field with the support of 25.7 percent of respondents, followed by Meciar (18.5 percent), Schuster (17.4 percent), and Gasparovic (12.4 percent). Haulik said that roughly one-quarter of voters are still undecided. MS

Monika Lamperth told Hungarian reporters upon her return from the United States on 31 January that she asked U.S. officials to ease visa procedures and, ultimately, to remove visa requirements for Hungarian citizens, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Lamperth said Hungary does not intend to impose countermeasures in retaliation for U.S. restrictions, the daily added. Lamperth reportedly reached agreement with U.S. officials that a joint team of experts will review the U.S. practice of issuing visas for Hungarians, the daily reported. MSZ

Hungarian State Radio has suspended journalist Istvan Lovas's regular participation in the "Vasarnapi Ujsag" (Sunday News) program for remarks directed at the government that he made at a forum in Nagykoros on 28 January, "Magyar Nemzet" reported on 31 January. According to a report published in the "Nepszava" daily, Lovas said of those in power: "I would put a hole in their skin, if weapons were in our heads." The radio will investigate the context and circumstances of the remark before it takes a final decision on Lovas's possible suspension, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. MSZ

Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric -- who heads Bosnia's Islamic Community -- marked the festival of Kurban Bayram (Eid Al-Adha) by saying in Sarajevo on 1 February that Muslims should welcome both their spiritual salvation from the East and their material progress from the West, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In Zagreb, Ceric's counterpart for Croatia Sefko Omerbasic slammed what he called the "treatment of Islam in Europe, which considers itself the cradle of human freedoms and democracy, and where only a few countries, including Croatia, have [officially] recognized Islam," Hina reported. Referring to the continuing delays in building a mosque in Slovenia, Omerbasic criticized what he called "the fierce opposition to the construction of a mosque in a neighboring country that will soon become a member of the European Union and which is home to 50,000 autochthonous Muslims." Ceric's public remarks frequently reflect a positive attitude toward the United States and the West as a result of Washington's support in ending the 1992-95 war. Omerbasic often mirrors the anti-Western views of Islamic leaders prominent before fall of communism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 August 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003). PM

Carla Del Ponte, who is the chief prosecutor of the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, told Croatian Television on 31 January that only "very few" indictments remain to be issued against Croatian citizens in connection with the 1991-95 conflicts, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and Hina reported. She said the tribunal will transfer some unspecified cases to Croatian courts in the spring, adding, however, that fugitive former Croatian General Ante Gotovina must be tried in The Hague. She added that she hopes her upcoming report to the UN Security Council on Croatia's cooperation with the tribunal will be favorable. Meanwhile in Virovitica, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said his government attaches great importance to its cooperation with the tribunal, which Zagreb knows is necessary if it is to be admitted to the European Union (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 January 2004). PM

On 31 January, several Macedonian NGOs formed a 120-seat "parliament" in Skopje, electing Vlado Dimovski chairman, "Dnevnik" reported. Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski welcomed the move, saying the NGO body might serve as a "correcting factor" to the government's policies and promote democratization. UB

The authorities in Bitola released Bishop Jovan on 30 January following three weeks of detention, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 May 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January 2004). In 2003, Jovan switched his allegiance from the Macedonian Orthodox Church to the rival Serbian Orthodox Church. He was detained for allegedly inciting national and religious hatred. PM

Avdil Jakupi "Jackal," whom Macedonian authorities sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison, surrendered to KFOR peacekeepers at an unspecified location in Kosova on 30 January, a KFOR spokesman confirmed in Prishtina three days later, AP reported. Jakupi is a suspected leader of the shadowy Albanian National Army (AKSH) and has been linked to several violent incidents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 September 2003 and 28 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 and 12 September 2003). A second reported AKSH member, Adnan Abazi, surrendered with Jakupi. KFOR questioned the two men before handing them over to the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK). Macedonia has issued an international arrest warrant for Jakupi and is expected to seek his extradition shortly. PM

Milan Lancuzanin "Kameni" surrendered to the Novi Sad district court on 31 January, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He is a former paramilitary commander sought by Serbian authorities in connection with the killing of up to 200 non-Serbian prisoners near Ovcara in 1991. It is not clear if he is one of the eight men already indicted in the case or one of an additional 16 still under investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2004). Lancuzanin told the court that he did not previously appear before it because he was in the hospital. He is a member of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) whom party leader Vojislav Seselj nicknamed "Duke." PM

In Belgrade on 31 January, several leaders of the G-17 Plus political party and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) said they have reached an impasse in their coalition negotiations with the Democratic Party, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 and 30 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). Democratic Party leader Zoran Zivkovic argued, however, that there is still scope for talks. On 1 February, DSS leader Vojislav Kostunica said a parliamentary speaker will be elected during the coming week by his coalition with the support of either the Democrats or former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). SPS Vice President Milorad Vucelic said his party will soon reach an agreement with the DSS-led coalition to support the election of a speaker and appointment of a government because of what he called "national interests." PM

Dutch Europarliamentarian Arie Oostlander said on 30 January that the European Parliament's rapporteur for Romania has accepted his proposal that her draft country report include an amendment that accession negotiations with Romania be suspended, Romanian Radio and Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 26 January 2004). Romanian Radio on 31 January cited Baroness Emma Nicholson as saying she has not seen the "exact formulation" of Oostlander's proposed amendment, but "by and large" would agree to support an amendment to the draft she submitted to the Europarliament's Foreign Affairs Committee. She said negotiations with Romania should focus on the need to accelerate judicial reform. The draft is to be debated by the Europarliament in February and voted on in March. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said on 30 January that he does not believe the proposed amendment will negatively affect Romania's accession negotiations. Visiting French European Integration Minister Noelle Lenoir said on 30 January that Oostlander's amendment does not reflect the opinion of all Europarliamentarians, Mediafax reported. MS

The Hungarian Civic Union (UCM) on 31 January decided to run on lists separate from those of the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania in the 2004 local and parliamentary elections, Romanian Radio and Mediafax reported. At its first congress held in Odorheiu-Secuiesc, the 230 UCM delegates approved a resolution establishing the UCM as an independent organization that will promote the territorial and administrative autonomy of Transylvania's Hungarian minority. Reformed Bishop Laszlo Toekes said the UDMR has "insolently" rejected demands that it promote autonomy and has transformed itself into "a yoke...on Transylvania's Hungarians, imposed from both Bucharest and Budapest." The gathering was attended by FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Laszlo Kover, who conveyed FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban's greetings. Kover said political competition among Transylvania's Hungarian minority should be encouraged, but warned against a Vojvodina-like split that might endanger accession to parliament. UDMR Chairman Bela Marko said in reaction to the decision that "we knew from the start that behind all these machinations are the intentions of Bishop Toekes to set up his own organization.... I believe that those who wish to rupture the political unity of Hungarians in Romania will be severely sanctioned by the Romanian Hungarian community." MS

President Vladimir Voronin said on 30 January that the authorities will no longer pay special attention to "provocations" by the opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic," Infotag and Flux reported. In an interview with the Moldovan supplement of the Russian daily "Trud," Voronin said that from now on, no special police forces will be allocated for PPCD-staged protest demonstrations. "Police must be catching bandits and hooligans, not fuss about an opposition ready to break the law," Voronin said. "If they wish to have fun and shut slogans in [Chisinau's] central square -- let them shout. We will see on election day how much their shouting is worth." Many observers believe that the change of tactics might be a response to Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer's appeal last week to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission to examine whether the Moldovan authorities' handling of protest demonstrations is in line with European practice. MS

Dimitrii Rogozin, head of the Russian parliamentary delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said on 30 January in Strasbourg that Russia is opposed to the presence of EU or OSCE peacekeeping troops in Transdniester because "nobody should influence the Transdniester peace settlement process," RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service reported. Rogozin told journalists that one should no longer speak of a Russian "military presence" in the separatist region. The Russian troops still stationed there, he claimed, are peacekeepers or forces guarding the Russian arsenal in the region. Rogozin refused to say when the process of evacuating the Russian arsenal in Transdniester will be completed. Meanwhile, ITAR-TASS on 30 January cited Russian Ambassador at Large Aleksandr Novozhilov as saying in Chisinau that the mediators in the Transdniester conflict should not "start from scratch" in drafting a new plan for Moldova's federalization. Novozhilov rejected criticism of Russia's federalization proposal by members of the European Parliament, who said it could impede the process of Moldova's democratization, as "absolutely groundless demagogy." MS

Lidia Shuleva told parliament on 30 January that she expects the state Privatization Agency to sign a contract with Viva Ventures by 20 February under which the Vienna-based consortium will acquire a 65 percent stake of the state-owned Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTK) for $287 million, reported. Under the agreement, Viva Ventures, which is owned by the U.S.-based Advent International investment fund, will not be allowed to sell the stake for three years, according to Shuleva. Shuleva dismissed the opposition's arguments that the deal is "extremely unfavorable" to the state, underscoring that the contract will be in compliance with the terms set by the Supreme Administrative Court. Transport and Communications Minister Nikolay Vasilev said that under the deal Viva Ventures will gradually cut the number of BTK employees to 24,000 in 2004, 22,000 in 2005, and 20,500 in 2006, BTA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September and 2 and 8 October 2003). UB

Parliament on 30 January adopted the government's crime-fighting strategy, exclusively on the strength of votes from the governing National Movement Simeon II and its coalition partner (NDSV), the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), reported. One of the key elements of the new strategy empowers the state to confiscate illegally acquired assets and property (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 22 December 2003). Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov and Finance Minister Milen Velchev stressed that the strategy will be successful if the Interior Ministry closely cooperates with the Financial Intelligence Agency as well as the tax and customs agencies. Both the conservative opposition coalition United Democratic Forces and the Socialist Party (BSP) voted against the anticrime strategy. The opposition charged that the government lacks the political will to curb crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January 2004). UB

As Iran marks the 25th anniversary of its Islamic Revolution on 1-10 February, called the Ten Days of Dawn, the country is caught in one of the greatest political crises in its history. Iran's Interior Ministry -- which is responsible for holding elections -- has called for their postponement in light of the current dispute over candidates' eligibility, an action that has been deemed permissible by a presidentially appointed constitutional expert. The Iranian president, however, has vowed that the elections will take place as scheduled, on 20 February, and the Guardians Council, which is responsible for supervising elections, has said the same. The likelihood of the elections occurring under the current dubious circumstances leads to speculation about voter turnout and the level of political-party participation in the election.

Hojatoleslam Hashem Hashemzadeh-Harisi, who serves on the presidentially appointed Committee for the Implementation and Supervision of the Constitution, told Radio Farda on 30 January that it would be permissible to postpone the parliamentary elections. "If the executives at the Interior Ministry and the Guardians Council agree, they can postpone up to one month, or 20 days, or 10 days. They also have the authority not to postpone them, but the 7th Parliament has to be ready by the end of May 2004." Hashemzadeh-Harisi continued: "If they at their discretion decide to postpone the elections, there will not be any legal problems, because we have time until the end of May to get the final results for the 7th Parliament. There is no particular or legal time frame set for the elections -- just an agreement to conduct them on the months proceeding to May 2004."

Provincial governors-general met for four hours at the Interior Ministry on the evening of 28 January and subsequently announced that organizing a "free and fair election" for 20 February is "impossible," IRNA reported. The announcement added that "public trust, convergence of ideas, and the nation's participation in the elections are all seriously at stake under the current conditions." "Setting a new date for the elections seems to be quite essential under the current conditions," the governors-general concluded.

Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari in a 29 January letter to Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati also urged postponement of the parliamentary elections, ISNA reported. Postponement, Musavi-Lari said in his letter, "will allow us and the esteemed Guardians Council to create suitable conditions for holding true and healthy elections." Musavi-Lari had said on 27 January that there is no possibility of holding "free, healthy, and competitive elections" on 20 February, IRNA reported.

The same day, however, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami ended speculation that the government might not hold the elections. "The government's plan is to hold healthy, free, and competitive elections and we will definitely hold such an election," Khatami said, according to IRNA. "To shut down the elections means to shut down democracy, and God does not want such a thing for our people." Khatami repeated this after the 28 January cabinet meeting, saying, "God willing, the election will be held on time," IRNA reported.

Iran's Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Minister Admiral Ali Shamkhani said on 29 January, "Iran will hold exciting elections on the scheduled date, disappointing its enemies and proving once more that there is no such thing as a deadlock in the political life of the Islamic Republic," ISNA reported.

In a 30 January letter to Musavi-Lari, Jannati rejected the request to postpone the elections. In a second letter to Jannati, Musavi repeated his request - "I again propose the election's postponement be put on the agenda" -- IRNA reported on 31 January.

Government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh had told ISNA on 26 January that the government will organize the elections only if they would be "competitive, fair, and healthy." "In other words, it means that in all constituencies there should be real competition and not a stage-managed one, to allow all the people who are willing to compete legally and within the framework of the law and the constitution of the Islamic Republic to do so," Ramezanzadeh said. He called for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to "become more involved."

If the elections take place as scheduled, there are two crucial and outstanding issues: party participation and voter turnout.

The 1 February submission of resignations by 116 members of parliament added uncertainty to the debate over the role of parties in the elections. Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani told the first congress of the Moderation and Development Party (Hizb-i Ettedal va Toseh), which took place on 29 January, that the hue and cry raised by parties would result in public skepticism about the political process, IRNA and ISNA reported. Rohani said parties are obliged to encourage public activism and national unity. He seemed to criticize the parties by saying that if they introduced the most qualified candidates for public offices then there would be no need for other filters.

The 2nd of Khordad Front Coordination Council -- which heads the 18-organization reformist grouping named after the date of Khatami's election on 23 May 1997 -- announced with regret on 31 January that it would not participate in the parliamentary elections, IRNA and ISNA reported. The reformist Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mubarez) announced on 24 January that if the current trend in the election process continues, then it will "officially withdraw from participating" in the elections, "Entekhab" reported on 25 January. The party added that the results of this "rubber-stamp selection" would be unacceptable and it would not approve of them. Ebrahim Asqarzadeh, secretary-general of the Islamic Iran Solidarity Party (Hizb-i Hambastegi-yi Iran-i Islami), said in the 21 January "Aftab-i Yazd" that his organization does not see "the minimum conditions" for participating in the elections.

The extent of public participation and its impact on the final tally is also open to debate. An Interior Ministry poll described in the 24 January issue of "Mardom Salari" found that almost 60 percent of respondents are inclined to vote, while almost 29 percent of respondents said they will not participate in the balloting.

Deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Khatami predicted on 26 January that the conservatives can win if public turnout is 25 percent and the conservative and reformist factions will break even if there is a 25 percent-40 percent turnout, IRNA reported. "In case the public voting turns out to exceed 40 percent, the victory of the reform faction would be guaranteed," the deputy speaker added.

The conservatives will not have any rivals for 202 legislative seats, according to the 24 January "Mardom Salari." Mustafa Tajzadeh, a leading figure in the Islamic Iran Participation Party and the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, put that figure at 180 in an interview that appeared in the 23 January "Financial Times." Tajzadeh said the best-known reformists have been disqualified from competing for the other 110 seats.

Tajzadeh said one of the conservatives' objectives after taking power is to disqualify cabinet members.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai said on 31 January that civilians, including children, were killed in a U.S. air strike on 18 January, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. U.S. military sources initially rejected the claims by local Afghan leaders that women and children were among those killed in the air raid near Chahar Chino in the central Afghan province of Oruzgan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 January 2004), adding that only five armed militants were killed. Karzai contradicted that statement, saying that "now that the investigation [of the incident] is complete," it indicates that there were "casualties unfortunately...of civilians, of children and men and women." Karzai placed the number of casualties at "about 10 people." The Afghan leader pledged that he will talk to family members who suffered losses and "try to seek ways to help them." A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan indicated on 31 January that the coalition has received the Afghan report and will study it, AFP reported. AT

Six members of a single family and two other Afghans were killed when a land mine destroyed their vehicle in the village of Deh Rawud in Oruzgan Province on 30 January, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 1 February. No suspects have been identified, although AIP hinted at a possible neo-Taliban link, saying such elements are based in Oruzgan Province. Abdul Rahman, head of Chahar Chino district in which Deh Rawud is located, said that "planting mines and targeting public vehicles is evil and should be condemned." AT

Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai said on 30 January that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is alive and is still in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan, AP reported the next day. He said the location of bin Laden's hideout is "not known," adding that he could be "inside or outside the [Afghan] border." Karzai did not indicate the source of such information, saying only that recent video recordings testify to the fact that bin Laden is alive. AT

Iran's Guardians Council, which is responsible for supervising elections and is at the center of the controversy that prompted 116 parliamentarians to resign on 1 February (see next item and End Note, below), refused on 31 January to postpone the parliamentary elections that are scheduled for 20 February, IRNA reported. "The issue of postponement was discussed and was not agreed," Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in a letter to Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Musavi-Lari, whose agency is responsible for conducting elections. Musavi-Lari, who has urged a postponement in view of the current political crisis, repeated his request in a 1 February letter to Jannati, IRNA reported. "I again propose the election's postponement be put on the agenda," Musavi-Lari wrote. BS

One hundred and sixteen Iranian legislators submitted their resignations on 1 February after the Guardians Council reinstated the candidacies of just three incumbents for the upcoming elections, IRNA reported. The approved legislators are Zanjan's Abolfazl Shakuri, Isfahan's Nasser Khaleqi, and Dasht-i Azadegan's Abdolzahra Alemi, IRNA reported on 31 January, citing the newspaper "Sharq." In all, 1,160 previously disqualified prospective candidates have been reinstated, according to IRNA. "Approving of the right of such a high number of parliamentary hopefuls to run is nearly unprecedented in the history of the Iranian parliament," the Guardians Council said in a statement. The supervisory boards linked with the Guardians Council on 11 January rejected the eligibility of some 80 members of the legislature and 3,533 of the total 8,144 applicants. BS

Thousands of Iranians participating in the holy pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) on 31 January participated in a "Disavowal of Pagans" event, IRNA reported. They issued a statement condemning Israel's alleged killing of Palestinians, the alleged hegemonic policies of the United States and United Kingdom, and the activities of the United States in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. The statement also described the peaceful use of nuclear energy as a country's right and called for a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free Middle East. Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri, who is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's hajj affairs representative, said that "opposition to the arrogant powers led by the U.S." is the theme of the Disavowal of Pagans event and Muslim support for the Palestinian uprising is the event's most important message. BS

Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin said on 30 January that his organization will try to kidnap Israelis so it can trade them for imprisoned Palestinians, "The Jerusalem Post" reported. According to the U.S. State Department, Hamas is a terrorist organization that is backed by Tehran. Another Iranian-backed organization, Lebanese Hizballah, on 29 January exchanged one Israeli businessman and the remains of three Israeli soldiers for 400 Arab prisoners and the remains of others. On 29 January, Hamas claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed at least 10 people, "The Toronto Star" reported on 31 January. In an unprecedented move, the Israeli government made available a graphic video of the bombing's aftermath ( One of the Israeli prisoners who was released on 29 January is Sheikh Abd-al-Karim Obeid. "We salute all the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran who are a source of glory and pride for Muslims." Obeid said in a 31 January interview with Iranian state television. "Islamic Iran is the main base of opposition to the global arrogance, especially the Great Satan, America." BS

Suicide bombers struck the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in separate attacks in Irbil on 1 February, killing at least 56 people and wounding some 200, international media reported. The twin attacks at the two parties' offices were reportedly timed five minutes apart. An unidentified PUK member told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) that the bombing at the PUK offices came during Id Al-Adha celebrations. "Today we were celebrating the Id feast and people came to congratulate us on this occasion -- among them, Turkomans and Kurds, and friends from the KDP," the PUK member said. "We always have been against terror and terrorism. We believe in humanity between Arabs, Kurds and for all. And these terrorists are monsters." U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad that a number of groups could be responsible for the bombing. "We have no group at this point who has claimed responsibility," Kimmitt said. "It could be Ansar Al-Islam, it could be Al-Qaeda, it could be any of a number of foreign terrorist groups operating or attempting to operate inside Iraq." KR

A number of senior Kurdish leaders were killed in the 1 February attacks in Irbil, RFI reported. The leaders killed include Akram Mintik, governor of the Irbil Province; Sami Abd al-Rahman, deputy prime minister for the KDP's Kurdistan Regional Government; Shawkat Shaykh Yazdin, minister for the Council of Ministerial Affairs; and Agriculture Minister Sa'd Abdullah. The KDP's deputy finance minister, the deputy governor of Irbil, and the director of the Irbil police department, were also killed in the two blasts, Kurdistan Satellite television reported, citing a 1 February statement released by KDP head Mas'ud Barzani. Barzani said the KDP "will not retreat an inch from its [goal of Iraq's] liberation [through a] democratic and peaceful policy, and...for the voluntary union of Iraq, the unity of Iraq, and democratic construction." KR

Iraqi Governing Council members on 31 January began debating a proposed interim constitution that would create a three-member presidency, reported on 1 February. The interim document will reportedly serve as the basic document until October 2005, when a nationwide referendum would be held on a permanent constitution. "It's very much of an early working draft," Governing Council legal adviser Salem Chalabi said of the document. "To me, there's still some way to go and there are political deals that have to be struck still." Under the plan, an assembly of 250-275 representatives would elect a three-person presidency, and the presidents would choose a prime minister by unanimous decision. The document calls for women to comprise at least 40 percent of the assembly and the constitutional convention. Chalabi said that figure would likely be reduced to 20 percent. The document also calls for Islam to be the "principal source amongst other sources of legislation." KR

Four Palestinians were killed overnight on 31 January when a mortar struck their apartment building in Baladiyah, international media reported. It is unclear whether the Palestinians were specifically targeted in the attack, in which one Iraqi was also killed, AP reported. The regime of deposed President Saddam Hussein settled thousands of Palestinian refugees in the Baladiyah neighborhood in the 1970s, providing them with housing and other subsidies. Palestinians were among some of the regime's staunchest supporters. Iraqi homeowners whose property was "rented" to the Palestinians against the homeowner's will and at outrageously low prices by the Hussein regime frequently targeted the refugees after the regime fell for either compensation or eviction. KR

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz on 1 February made his third trip to Iraq in less than one year to assess the security situation there ahead of one of the largest troop rotations in U.S. history, Reuters reported the same day. Some 130,000 U.S. troops will soon leave Iraq and be replaced by 105,000 soldiers. Wolfowitz said the rotation will be an "enormous undertaking," and that while in Iraq he intends to "visit with our commanders and troops and get a sense of what they see" on the ground. KR