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Newsline - March 22, 2004

Speaking at a joint session of the Economic Development and Trade and Finance ministries on 19 March, President Vladimir Putin said the main goal of the government's economic agencies over the next four years must be administrative and tax reforms and reducing poverty, ORT reported. The country needs an economic breakthrough and a new growth dynamic, Putin said. He added that Russia's current economic situation is good and that ambitious goals can be realized. He said the current 13 percent income-tax rate should not be changed, and repeated his position that state revenues from the exploitation of natural resources must be increased (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2004). He asked Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin to prepare reform suggestions to achieve this goal. VY

At the same Kremlin meeting on 19 March, which was televised by ORT, President Putin said the government's economic policies should cut the percentage of Russians living below the poverty line from the current 25 percent to 10-12 percent. Asked by President Putin when this result can be achieved, Economic Development and Trade Minister Gref said "it is desirable to reach it within four years." Putin then rebuked Gref, saying: "You yourself told me you have a concrete plan to reach this goal. Don't be shy. Say it will be done in four years." VY

Speaking on NTV on 19 March, Duma Security Committee Chairman Colonel General Vladimir Vasilev said he is concerned about a statement by Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero saying that he will withdraw Spain's 1,300 troops from Iraq this summer if the international military forces in that country are not put under UN control. Coming in the wake of the 11 March terrorist explosions in Madrid, Zapetero's statement seems like a concession to terrorists, Vasilev said. Regardless of the fact that this position is consistent with Zapetero's election-campaign statements, it creates the impression that the terrorists have achieved their goal and altered the political course of the country, Vasilev said. He added that "Russia recommended that the coalition, including Spain, not rush to send their troops to Iraq," but that withdrawing them as a result of a terrorist act is a bad idea. VY

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told ORT on 21 March that Moscow views the fastest-possible end to the foreign occupation of Iraq and the restoration of that country's sovereignty as the best solution to the Iraq problem. Lavrov particularly deplored the stepped-up attacks against coalition forces and civilians in Iraq. "Any act aimed at intimidating -- to say nothing of destroying -- innocent people must be considered a terrorist act," Lavrov said, adding that there was no terrorist activity in Iraq prior to the U.S.-led military intervention to oust former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Now is the time to resolve this problem, since no one is interested in watching the situation deteriorate further, Lavrov said. He added that Moscow is ready to make a contribution once the UN has taken over the central role in resolving the crisis. VY

Speaking at a meeting of security and intelligence chiefs in Moscow on 20 March, President Putin harshly condemned recent violence in Kosova and called the actions of ethnic Albanians there "ethnic cleansing," ORT and RTR reported. "Russia cannot watch indifferently what has been happening there. An appropriate, strong reaction is needed, in this case, in defense of the Serbs," Putin said. He asked Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov and Foreign Minister Lavrov "to formulate clearly Russia's position on this problem." Putin announced that Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu will fly to Serbia on 22 March to discuss Moscow's humanitarian and diplomatic assistance. Speaking at the same meeting, Shoigu said that he and the Defense Ministry are considering setting up displaced-persons camps in Serbia and Montenegro along the border with Kosova. VY

At the same meeting on 20 March, President Putin praised Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov for the role he played in defusing the recent crisis between the central Georgian government and the autonomous Republic of Adjaria, ORT and RTR reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16, 18, and 19 March 2004). Luzhkov told TV-Tsentr on 19 March that he traveled to Batumi no as a representative of the Kremlin, but as the head of a Russian region in order to avoid being reproached for interfering in Georgia's domestic affairs. Initially, Luzhkov said, Tbilisi was skeptical about his role, bearing in mind his reputation as a hardliner with close ties to Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze and the interests of Moscow's business community in Adjaria. However, the government eventually accepted him. "This is because I am not only an honorary citizen of Batumi, but of Tbilisi as well," Luzhkov said. Luzhkov said that he did not personally participate in the talks between Abashidze and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. VY

The Foreign Ministry on 20 March issued a statement of concern following a decision by Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada to allow rapid access by NATO military units to Ukrainian territory in the event of an emergency, Interfax reported. An unidentified ministry source told Interfax that Moscow is worried "by Ukraine's readiness to [allow] the use of its territory for NATO operations without consulting with Russia." VY

The State Duma adopted several bills on 19 March, the most important of which was a presidential bill establishing the procedure for the creation of a new federation subject based on the merger of Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug, Russian media reported. The bill was passed in its first, second, and third readings, according to "Kommersant-Daily" on 20 March. The bill received 423 votes in its first reading. Because it is a constitutional bill, it needed 300 votes to pass, RosBalt reported. Under the provisions of the bill, Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak will cease to exist as of 1 December 2005, and the new entity, Perm Krai, will come into being at the same time. An election for the governor of Perm Krai will take place on 4 December 2005. JAC

Perm Oblast Governor Yurii Trutnev was named natural resources minister on 9 March. According to the bill on the creation of Perm Krai, President Putin will appoint an acting governor for Perm Oblast who will serve until the December 2005 election, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 20 March. In December, residents of both regions approved the merger in referendums held to coincide with the State Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). According to "Kommersant-Daily," the Federation Council is likely to approve the bill on 24 March, so that Putin can sign it into law before 1 April. JAC

State Duma deputies on 19 March also approved in its first reading a bill amending the law on the government of the Russian Federation so that only Russian citizens can be named prime minister, Russian media reported. The vote was 424 in favor. According to, the government opposed the bill, which was introduced by State Duma Deputy Andrei Klimov (Unified Russia). Also on 19 March, deputies approved a bill amending the Criminal Procedure Code to increase from 10 to 30 days the amount of time individuals suspected of involvement in terrorism can be held without charge, Interfax reported. The vote was 372 in favor. The bill was introduced last year by then-People's Deputy group leader Gennadii Raikov. Deputies on 19 March rejected a bill that would have required political parties to participate in televised debates during legislative elections, RosBalt reported. The bill was introduced last fall by the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and the Communist Party to protest a decision by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party not to participate in televised debates in the run-up to the 7 December State Duma elections. The vote was 113 in favor, just half of the votes needed for the measure to pass. JAC

In an interview with on 18 March, Institute for Applied Politics Director Olga Khryshtanovskaya discussed the recent restructuring of the government. She noted that the total number of government departments has increased, but they have changed their architecture. According to Khryshtanovskaya, there are now two governments, one for show and one for domestic consumption, which is geared more toward current operations. The 17 ministries make up the "show" government, which is directed mainly toward the West. She noted that there used to be 16 departments subordinated to the president, and now there are 21. There used to be 50 departments subordinated to the prime minister, and now there are 77. She concluded that the number of levels in the government has increased and the system has become more complicated. However, "a logic has emerged, since parallel departments used to exist." JAC

Representatives of various leftist parties and public associations participated on 20 March in a meeting of the Congress of Patriots of Russia in Moscow, RIA-Novosti reported. Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov was not there, but several of his rivals were, including former State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev and State Duma Deputy Gennadii Semigin (Communist). According to RosBalt, 14 parties and about 52 organizations were represented at the meeting, including the Agrarian Party; the People's Party; the Motherland party, which is headed by Duma Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin; the Party of Pensioners; Seleznev's Party of Russia's Rebirth; and Working Russia. JAC

According to RosBalt, the Congress of Patriots of Russia was organized by the executive committee of the People's Patriotic Union (NPSR), which is chaired by Duma Deputy Semigin. Semigin told reporters on 20 March that he does not rule out the possibility that Communist Party leader Zyuganov will be replaced at the Communist Party's congress in June, Interfax reported. Semigin linked the party's poor performance in the December Duma elections with Zyuganov's leadership methods. He also accused Zyuganov of telling lies about him and said that while his executive committee has financed NPSR's regional branches, it does not give money to regional structures of the Communist Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 January 2004). JAC

Arkhangelsk held a day of mourning on 20 March for the 58 victims of a 16 March apartment-building explosion in the city, ITAR-TASS reported. The previous day, two bomb experts with sniffer dogs searched a building that houses the election headquarters of oblast gubernatorial candidate Nikolai Kiselev following an anonymous telephone threat, RosBalt reported. The threat proved false, Regnum reported. Kiselev, the director of local dairy, is challenging incumbent Governor Anatolii Yefremov (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 17 March 2004). JAC

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov announced more appointees to the federal government on 19 March. He named State Communications Inspectorate Deputy Director Valerii Bugaenko to head the new Federal Communications Oversight Service, which is subordinated to the Transportation and Communications Ministry, RIA-Novosti reported. Former Rossiya state television and radio company head Nikolai Shipel was named director of the Federal Air Transportation Agency. Former Deputy Transportation Minister Vyacheslav Ryksha will head the Federal Sea and River Transportation Agency. Former Deputy Communications Minister Dmitrii Milovantsev will serve as director of the Federal Communications Agency. Former Deputy Agriculture Minister Anatolii Mikhalev will head the new Federal Agriculture Agency, which is a part of the Agriculture Ministry. On 20 March, Interfax reported that Fradkov appointed former Pension Fund Deputy Chairman Vyacheslav Prokhorov to head the Federal Health Care and Social Development Agency. Boris Simonov, former director of the department for innovation and development at the Industry and Science Ministry, is the new director of the Federal Intellectual Property, Patents, and Trade Marks Service. JAC

Prime Minister Fradkov on 20 March named former Deputy Media Minister Mikhail Seslavinskii to head the new Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency, which is subordinated to the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry, Russian media reported. Seslavinskii, 40, has also served as a State Duma deputy and as director of the former Federal Television and Radio Broadcasting Service. In an interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 20 March, Seslavinskii said: "The agency naturally has the function of creating the economic and social conditions for our industry, in which free and independent mass media can develop vigorously." NTV General Director Nikolai Senkevich and National Telebroadcasters Association President Eduard Sagalaev welcomed Seslavinskii's appointment, RIA-Novosti reported on 19 March. Former Media Minister Mikhail Lesin turned down an offer to head the agency and has left government, although he remains chairman of the board of state-controlled ORT television, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 March. RC

Under the recent government restructuring, responsibility for registering media outlets was transferred from the old Media Ministry to a new Federal Registration Service within the Justice Ministry, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 20 March. The daily reported that the ministry has refused to comment about the new service, which will also be responsible for registering political parties and public organizations and will most likely be overseen by Deputy Justice Minister Yevgenii Sidorenko. "Moskovskie novosti" Editor in Chief Yevgenii Kiselev was cautious about the development, telling the daily that the Justice Ministry in the past has used considerations of "loyalty" in deciding whether to register political parties and could do so in the future regarding media outlets. "Vremya novostei" on 18 March reported that the restructuring of the old Media Ministry could cause problems for broadcast outlets whose licenses are set to expire soon. The future of the Federal Tenders Commission, which made recommendations to the Media Ministry regarding the issuance of broadcasting licenses, is still uncertain, the daily reported. Commission members have not been informed that it has been disbanded, but "Rossiiskaya gazeta" last week published information that all scheduled license tenders have been suspended. RC

Robert Kocharian told journalists in Yerevan on 19 March that he considers it inexpedient to amend the constitution to provide for the election of the mayor of Yerevan, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The mayor of Yerevan is currently appointed by the president. Kocharian reasoned that the capital is home to one-third of Armenia's population, and that "a great potential for conflict" could emerge if a mayor were elected who represented a political party in opposition to the president and government. Robert Nazarian, whom Kocharian fired from the post of mayor in July, argued several months later that the mayor's powers are limited, and that the office will remain ineffectual until the municipality is headed by an elected mayor who is accountable to the population. LF

Heike Talvitie met in Baku on 19 March with Azerbaijani parliamentarians, the head of the former Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh, and the leaders of Azerbaijan's three main opposition parties, Turan and reported on 19 and 20 March, respectively. The talks focused on the EU's recent decision to extend its New Neighbors program to encompass the three South Caucasus states (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 January 2004), the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict, and the political situation in Azerbaijan in the wake of the October 2003 presidential election. LF

Ali Masimov, who served as a deputy prime minister in 1992-93 under the Popular Front regime headed by President Abulfaz Elchibey, announced at a 19 March press conference in Baku the founding of his political party, the Union of Free Democrats, Turan and reported on 19 and 20 March, respectively. Masimov expressed regret that in the 12 years since Azerbaijan became independent, political and economic power has become concentrated in the hands of a small group of people, reforms have stalled, and serious problems have arisen in the sphere of human rights. He said his party will espouse universal national and religious values, and that it aims to fill what he termed the political vacuum that emerged following the disputed October 2003 presidential election. Masimov expressed his readiness to cooperate with other opposition parties and to promote cooperation between those parties and the authorities in order to tackle the problems facing the country. LF

In line with the agreements reached on 18 March in Batumi during talks between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, David Akhalaya and Vasil Sanadze were named on 19 March as presidential representatives responsible for overseeing the work of the customs posts at the Sarp border crossing with Turkey and Batumi port, respectively, Georgian media reported. But the head of the Sarp border crossing refused on 22 March to allow Akhalaya to embark on his duties on the pretext that he has not yet been formally introduced to Abashidze, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Two former Turkish government ministers met on 20 March in Tbilisi with President Saakashvili at the behest of the Turkish government to offer Ankara's assistance in improving relations between the central Georgian authorities and Abashidze, ITAR-TASS reported. Former Turkish Foreign Minister Yasir Yakis told journalists after those talks that although the 1921 Treaty of Kars, under which Turkey pledged to protect Adjaria, remains in force, Ankara would never deploy troops to the region to back Abashidze in a future standoff with Tbilisi, ITAR-TASS reported. The former ministers met with Abashidze in Batumi on 21 March. LF

Abashidze also assured Saakashvili on 18 March that all obstacles to campaigning in Adjaria by opposition political parties for the 28 March parliamentary ballot will be removed, and on 20 March Caucasus Press reported that Abashidze's son, Giorgi, who is mayor of Batumi, made available premises for the opposition movement Our Adjara to meet with voters. But on 22 March, Caucasus Press quoted a spokesman for Our Adjara as saying that the movement's election posters are torn down as soon as they are displayed, and that the local media, which Aslan Abashidze controls, refuse to give them airtime or to publish their campaign advertisements. LF

Police in Kutaisi reportedly undertook a crude attempt on 19 March first to arrest the chairman of the city council, David Benidze, then to plant drugs in his office during an interrogation and search, according to a 20 March press release issued by the Industrialists/New Rightists election bloc. Benidze is a member of the New Rightists. He managed to escape from the police officers -- some of whom were allegedly drunk -- who tried to arrest him on suspicion that he had endorsed dubious expenditures from municipal funds amounting to 320,000 laris ($156,600). David Gamkrelidze, a leading member of the Industrialists/New Rightists alliance, accused the Georgian authorities of trying to "square accounts" with the opposition, Caucasus Press reported. LF

At a ceremony in Tbilisi on 20 March, the 180 parliamentary candidates from the National Movement and Burdjanadze-Democrats signed a document pledging to work in the legislature that will be elected on 28 March for the abolition of deputies' immunity from prosecution, Georgian media reported. President Saakashvili alleged that "there are persons in the current parliament who are involved in murders and kidnapping, not to mention the misappropriation of millions of laris." Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze reasoned that "people who plan to make laws don't need immunity," Caucasus Press reported. LF

A Tbilisi district court on 20 March sentenced Basil Mkalavishvili and seven of his supporters to three months' pretrial detention, Georgian media reported. Mkalavishvili's lawyers immediately appealed that ruling. His parishioners held a press conference the same day, at which they claimed his arrest earlier this month was illegal and threatened to stage repeated demonstrations unless he is released pending trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2004). LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev delivered his annual state of the nation address before a joint session of parliament on 19 March, covered live by both Khabar TV and Kazakh Television. Nazarbaev focused primarily on social issues in his 94-minute address, discussing housing, health care, education, and social security. "We do not want to lag behind," Nazarbaev said. "We need to marshal our strength, harnessing the thoughts, energy, and intellectual ability of our people and our specialists." Nazarbaev also made a strong pitch for individual initiative over reliance on the state. "Each person should provide for himself and for his family by constantly improving himself and becoming more professional," he said. "The less the state interferes in his daily affairs, the better it will be for him." "Gazeta SNG" in a 19 March commentary described Nazarbaev's speech as "not a sensation, ...ceremonial, de rigueur, and dull." DK

President Nazarbaev on 20 March appointed Umirzak Shukeev, former akim (governor) of Kustanai Oblast, as the akim of the Kazakh capital, Astana, RIA-Novosti reported. Sergei Kulagin, former akim of Akmola Oblast, will replace Shukeev in Kustanai Oblast. In addition, Mazhit Esenbaev was appointed akim of Akmola Oblast. Esenbaev previously served as a presidential adviser. DK

Askar Akaev spoke out at a 19 March business forum in Bishkek against Kyrgyzstan's shadow economy, reported. Akaev expressed concern over the widely held perception that Kyrgyzstan is one of Central Asia's most corrupt countries. He also said a "flexible and rational fiscal policy should help to pull a considerable sector of the Kyrgyz economy out of the shadows," Kabar news agency reported on 19 March. Akaev stressed that improvements to the Tax Code are needed to reduce the size of Kyrgyzstan's shadow economy, saying he hopes parliament will consider a "new and more progressive tax bill" this fall. According to, participants in the forum estimated the size of the shadow economy in Kyrgyzstan at 20 percent to 60 percent of GDP. DK

The Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case against Sodiq Muhammadokhunov, a field commander in the Popular Front during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 19 March. Muhammadokhunov is accused of involvement in organized crime, murder, drug trafficking, and economic crimes. The former field commander, aka Sachan, more recently served as a deputy in the Soghd Regional Assembly, although his mandate was suspended at the request of the Prosecutor's Office. DK

Tajikistan and Iran have reached an agreement under which Iranian radio and television will be rebroadcast in Dushanbe, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 19 March. Tajik Communications Minister Said Zubaydov and Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting head Ali Larijani have signed a memorandum of understanding to set up an antenna in Dushanbe to relay broadcasts from one Iranian television station and one radio station. A group of Iranian experts is slated to arrive in Dushanbe in two-three weeks to provide technical support for the project. DK

Following a telephone conversation between Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma, the latter's press service said on 20 March that his planned visit to Ashgabat to sign a long-term agreement on supplies of Turkmen natural gas to Ukraine has now been scheduled for early May, ITAR-TASS reported. In December, the two presidents agreed that Kuchma's visit should take place in February; then, on 28 January, they postponed it until April. LF

A joint U.S. and EU mission led by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Pifer and Irish Foreign Ministry official Barbara Jones visited Minsk on 18-19 March for meetings with government officials and representatives of the Belarusian opposition, Belapan reported. A joint statement on 19 March said the mission "noted with regret that Belarus has failed conspicuously to make progress toward meeting its OSCE commitments and thereby realizing an improvement in its relations with the European Union and the United States," according to the U.S. Embassy's website ( Such commitments include "Belarusian authorities' willingness to make progress in implementing common values of democracy, respect for human rights, and freedom of speech." Pifer told a news conference the same day, "The goal of this joint EU-U.S. mission was to come and reinforce that message, which is that if Belarus wants to move out of its position of self-isolation it can, but it needs to take those steps in terms of political change," according to RFE/RL. Pifer recalled that two years ago, Washington proposed a step-by-step approach in relations with Minsk whereby the United States pledged to respond with enhanced bilateral relations if Minsk took real steps in the area of political liberalization. JM

A congress of the opposition Popular Rukh of Ukraine (NRU) resolved on 20 March to set up an electoral bloc of nearly 40 parties to support Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko in the upcoming presidential election, UNIAN reported. In particular, apart from the Popular Rukh, the bloc is expected to include the Ukrainian Popular Party, the Reforms and Order Party, the Solidarity Party, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, and the Yabluko Party. The congress obliged NRU leader Borys Tarasyuk to work out a deal with interested parties on the creation of the bloc. JM

The Foreign Ministry confirmed on 22 March that last week it expelled two low-level Russian diplomats who were serving in Estonia, international media reported the same day. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ehtel Halliste provided no further details when she made the announcement on 22 March, AP reported. The news agency cited the daily "Eesti Paevaleht" as speculating that the diplomats might have attempted to test Estonia's ability to protect secret data. BNS on 19 March cited the daily as reporting that one diplomat left on 18 March and the other the following day. The expulsions come in the wake of Lithuania's recent expulsion of three Russian diplomats on suspicion of espionage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 March 2004), prompting Russia to state that it will respond in kind, although it has not yet done so. SG

Latvia has asked the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg to dismiss as groundless a case filed by leftist For Human Rights in a United Latvia leader Tatyana Zdanoka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2004), BNS reported on 19 March. Zdanoka's suit alleges that a stipulation in Latvia's law for elections to the European Parliament prevented her from contesting the upcoming elections because of her former membership of the Communist Party. However, Latvia has told the ECHR that the law in question does not include a stipulation contained in Latvia's parliamentary and local-election laws banning former KGB agents and people who continued to be members of the Communist Party after January 1991 from running for office. Zdanoka told BNS that the government's request that the ECHR dismiss the case is "absurd," saying her rights have been restricted and characterizing the Latvian action as an attempt to delay the proceedings in which she is seeking 75,000 euros ($92,500) in moral damages plus legal fees. SG

The not yet officially registered movement "For Justice and a Democratic Lithuania" organized rallies in behalf of President Rolandas Paksas in some 40 cities and towns on 20 March, "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 22 March. Soviet-era dissident Antanas Terleckas, 75, urged a rally in Vilnius to gather near the parliament building on the day of the eventual impeachment vote and said he is prepared to storm the building if parliament votes to impeach Paksas. Aldona Balsiene, who heads the Solidarity labor movement, said the parliament must heed the wishes of the population, adding that "the president must remain." The rally in Vilnius approved a resolution urging all parliamentary deputies not to participate in the impeachment vote. SG

The "Gazeta Wyborcza" website ( reported on 22 March that more than 30 lawmakers of the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) are preparing to leave the SLD and sign a declaration on the creation of a new left-wing political party on 28 March. The group is reportedly led by Sejm speaker Marek Borowski and includes some prominent SLD members. Rumors of a possible split in the SLD have been circulating in the Polish media since an SLD congress on 6 March accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Leszek Miller from the post of SLD chairman and replaced him with Krzysztof Janik (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). Miller said at a meeting with regional SLD leaders from Mazowsze Province on 21 March that a split within the SLD cannot be ruled out. Some participants in that meeting moved for Borowski's exclusion from the SLD, accusing him of working against the interests of the party. JM

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 20 March in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that Poland will carry out its mission in Iraq to a "successful end," PAP reported 21 March. Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski, who visited Polish troops in Iraq on 21 March, said the Polish-led multinational division in Iraq will manage even if Spain withdraws its contingent from the division, as Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has suggested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2004). "We are in a position to cope with this, because this process is accompanied by the goal of increasing the operational capabilities of the Iraqi security forces," Polish Radio quoted Szmajdzinski as saying. "So it's not a situation from which there is no way out, but I'm not saying that anyone will pull out for certain." JM

Police detained two Pakistani nationals in Warsaw on 21 March in connection with "a terrorist threat," "Gazeta Wyborcza" reported on 22 March, quoting Warsaw deputy police chief Jan Pol. "Our action is connected with a terrorist threat," Pol said. The detainees reportedly had maps with airports, a Warsaw synagogue, the Czech Embassy, and the Warsaw police headquarters marked on them. Poland stepped up security measures following the 11 March bomb attacks in Madrid. On 19 March, the first official posters were displayed on buses and trams in Warsaw informing residents how to behave and whom to notify in the event of a terrorist attack. JM

The Czech Supreme Court ordered criminal prosecutors to reopen an investigation into secret-police (StB) agent Pavel Minarik's alleged involvement in a communist-era plot to bomb the Munich headquarters of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, CTK reported on 20 March, citing a report the same day by Czech Television. Minarik is suspected of having sent at least three proposals for carrying out an attack on the broadcaster while serving as a station employee from 1969-76, the news agency reported. A bomb blast damaged the station's Munich headquarters in 1981. Minarik was sentenced to four years in prison in 1993 in connection with the case, but a Brno court quashed the case on the grounds that the prosecution failed to prove intention to injure anyone or the extent of the resulting damage. The new verdict means "his [Minarik's] criminal prosecution continues," according to Supreme Court Chairwoman Iva Brozova. AH

The prime ministers of nine of the so-called Vilnius 10 states vowed at the close of a two-day conference in the Slovak capital on 19 March to support the integration of Ukraine and Turkey, as well as Balkan, Caucasian, and Black Sea countries into Euro-Atlantic structures, TASR reported. The leaders of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovakia signed the document (Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop was not in attendance), in which they say they will back the democratic ambitions of the EU's "new neighbors" and cooperate closely with those countries, the news agency added. At the same conference on 19 March, Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas urged the EU and NATO to alter their policies toward Eastern European nonmember states, TASR reported. Brazauskas said neither organization has a clear vision of how to behave toward the region. AH

Slovak Defense Minister Juraj Liska told visiting NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on 19 March that his country will not withdraw troops from peacekeeping or stabilization efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosova, TASR reported the same day. "Nothing can discourage us from fighting terrorism," Liska was quoted as saying. AH

Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) Chairwoman Ibolya David told some 2,500 supporters at Budapest's National Sports Hall on 20 March that the party's slogan for the European parliamentary elections is "For a normal Hungary," "Nepszabadsag" reported on 22 March. In a reference to the domination of the Hungarian political landscape by the ruling Socialist Party and the opposition FIDESZ party, David urged support for a joint list of candidates for the European Parliament that includes members of her party, the Independent Smallholders' Party, the Hungarian Democratic People's Party, and the Entrepreneurs' Party. She said such backing would represent a rejection of "a two-party system imposed by others." She said the "Hungarian silent majority" rejects the "spectacular" political wars that divide the country even as secret and immoral bargains are made behind the scenes, the daily reported. MSZ

The internationally administered province of Kosova is observing a day of mourning on 22 March for the 24 victims of recent interethnic clashes between ethnic Albanians and members of the Serbian minority, international and regional media reported, citing UN sources on casualties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 March 2004). About 850 people were injured, 22 of them seriously. Among the injured are 55 KFOR peacekeepers and over 100 police. About 3,226 people, mostly Serbs, were forced to flee their homes. The Kosovar government has promised to reconstruct the 116 homes and 17 Serbian religious buildings affected by the violence. RFE/RL's Albanian-language broadcasters said the violence appears to have begun spontaneously but was quickly spread and exploited by extremists not connected to any mainstream political party or organization. Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service noted the role played in the violence by unemployed young toughs. PM

On 21 March amid tight security, about 8,000 Albanians attended the funeral in Cabra of two Albanian boys, whose still-not-fully-explained deaths sparked the recent violence, international and regional media reported. A third boy is missing and presumed dead. Kosova's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi told the boys' families: "Your dignified stand makes us proud, and we share your pride. You have set an example for all Kosovars of how to show dignity at a difficult time." About 200 Serbs watched the funeral from the other side of the Ibar River. PM

Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova said in a statement on 20 March that "attacks on civilians and foreign soldiers are completely unacceptable and contrary to Kosova's vital interests," RFE/RL reported. "Once again, we would like to [stress] that the destruction of religious, cultural, and public buildings and houses is unacceptable to the people of Kosova, and again I would like to say that we condemn it," Rugova said. Prime Minister Rexhepi denied recent charges by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica that local Serbs are victims of a deliberate "pogrom," Reuters reported. Rexhepi stressed that Kostunica has contributed to the explosive atmosphere by his talk in recent weeks of partitioning Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004; and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2003, and 13 and 20 February 2004). Elsewhere, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that "nobody in Kosovo should think -- and that goes more specifically for the majority community in Kosovo, the Albanians -- that by inciting violence they will bring their political ambitions closer," dpa reported. PM

On 19 March, about 15,000 people participated in a Belgrade march led by Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, Prime Minister Kostunica, and members of the government to protest what they described as deliberate violence against Kosova's remaining 100,000 Serbs, international and regional media reported. Some banners called for equality in Kosova and the right of all refugees and displaced persons to go home. Some other signs, however, read: "Let's go to Kosovo" and "Kill Albanians." In a message apparently for domestic consumption, Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Boris Tadic said Belgrade does not want to respond to "violence with violence" but might be forced to "review its policy" on sending troops into Kosova. He previously noted that his country has only a limited right under the terms set down in UN Security Council Resolution 1244 to send troops into the province. In August 2003, he called suggestions of sending the Serbian military into Kosova "playing with fire" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 29 August 2003). Several top Russian officials recently gave strong diplomatic support to Serbia, blaming the Albanians and the Western powers for the violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline Part 1). President Vladimir Putin called the attacks "ethnic cleansing." PM

Unnamed European diplomats told the "Financial Times" of 20 March that unspecified U.S. and German intelligence experts warned NATO "weeks ago" that violence could be imminent in Kosova. The diplomats added that France is "highly embarrassed" by the clashes in its northern sector of the province. German Defense Minister Peter Struck told "Bild am Sonntag" of 21 March that peacekeepers will have to remain in Kosova for "significantly longer" that originally planned. German Lieutenant General Holger Kammerhoff, who commands KFOR, told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 22 March that probably everyone was surprised by the violence, adding, however, that KFOR reacted quickly and professionally. He suggested that former ethnic Albanian guerrilla networks of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) had much to do with the spread of the violence. He stressed that the ultimate solution to Kosova's problems will be political, and not military, in nature. Germany's 3,800-strong contingent is based in Prizren and is the largest single one in KFOR. PM

Speaking to Reuters on 20 March, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke said that putting off resolving the question of Kosova's final status was a big mistake that ultimately led to violence. He called for status talks to begin soon. German General Klaus Reinhardt, who is a former commander of KFOR, said that there can be no privatization, foreign investment, or new jobs without a decision on Kosova's political future. Wolfgang Petritsch, who is the international community's former high representative in Bosnia and a trained Balkans expert, said he was not surprised by the violence, adding that "decisive steps must be taken now" to resolve the status question. Unidentified diplomats in Prishtina told the news agency that the "once taboo" talk of dividing Kosova into Albanian and Serbian regions is "now very much in the air." The diplomats suggested that extremists on both sides could be trying to force a partition through faits accomplis. U.S. expert Morton Abramowitz wrote in "The Washington Post" of 19 March that the recent violence shows that the concept of a multiethnic Kosova has failed, as have the ideas of leaving important Balkan political matters to the EU and of promoting a united state of Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosova. PM

Arben Xhaferi, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH), has withdrawn his candidacy for the 14 April presidential elections because of possible legal problems, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 20 March. The PDSH feared that Xhaferi's candidacy could be challenged by his opponents because of a constitutional provision under which candidates must have permanently resided in Macedonia for at least 10 of the past 15 years. Xhaferi, who lived in Prishtina, Kosova, before returning to his native Macedonia, reestablished his residency only in 1999. The PDSH nominated Zedi Xhelili, a lawmaker, as its new presidential candidate. Meanwhile, a spokesman for former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, who is an independent presidential candidate, claimed that the constitutional provision does not apply to Boskovski, "Dnevnik" reported. Boskovski officially resided in Croatia between 1987 and 1999, when he reestablished residency in Skopje (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 and 18 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 March 2004). UB

Doris Pack, who is the European Parliament's chief representative for Southeastern Europe, told "RFE/RL Newsline" in an e-mail on 20 March that Croatia should not be "held hostage" for not handing over former General Ante Gotovina, who has been indicted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. Pack stressed that Croatia recently stepped up its cooperation with the tribunal, adding that two Croatian former generals -- Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac -- agreed to go to The Hague earlier this month. "If Gotovina is such a good Croat as many people in Croatia believe him to be, he should free Croatia from this burden and surrender now," Pack wrote. She noted that Gotovina could be anywhere because he is a former member of the French Foreign Legion and reportedly has a French passport. The Croatian government denies that Gotovina is in that country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 16 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 January 2004). UB

World Bank representative in Romania Owaise Saadat has warned that the release of further bank funds is contingent on Romania speeding up judicial and administrative reforms and concluding major privatizations in line with EU standards, Mediafax reported on 19 March, citing Reuters. Saadat said Romanian authorities must fulfill 17 conditions prior to the bank's 30 June board meeting. According to Saadat, the final $210 million tranche of a PSAL II structural-adjustment-program loan will only be released as scheduled in June if Romania finalizes the sale of the state-owned gasoline company Petrom, two gas distributors, and two electricity companies. In addition, the disbursement of a $150 million loan from the PAL programmatic adjustment program meant for public-administration reform is dependent on improving the efficiency of public services. Saadat also said the World Bank's agenda on judicial reform is identical to that of the EU. The European Parliament recently recommended that Romania step up efforts to implement judicial and public-administration reforms. ZsM

Romanian Humanist Party (PUR) Chairman Dan Voiculescu on 19 March announced that U.S. political strategist Dick Morris will manage his party's campaign for the local and parliamentary elections in June and November, respectively, Mediafax reported. Morris earlier agreed to manage the presidential campaign of Lia Roberts, the Romanian-born chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). Voiculescu said the Humanist Party, which does not have a presidential candidate, has not yet decided if it will back Roberts. ZsM

The Moldovan Audiovisual Coordinating Council (CCA) on 18 March again refused to legally register the Chisinau-based Antena C radio and Euro-TV television stations on procedural grounds, Flux reported. Antena C Director Vasile State said employees of the two stations are prepared to go on hunger strike if the registration is not granted. The CCA on 3 February suspended the broadcasting licenses of the municipal stations, which were often critical of the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4, 10, and 25 February 2004). ZsM

General Nikola Kolev, the Bulgarian Army's chief of General Staff, warned on 19 March that if parliament fails to adopt proposed draft amendments to the law on armed forces, Bulgaria will not be able to send a third battalion to Iraq, reported. Under current legislation, only volunteers can be deployed for military missions abroad. After the army encountered difficulties securing volunteers for its second Iraq contingent, draft amendments were submitted to parliament in February. Recent media reports have said the army is 200 volunteers short as it tries to assemble its third, 500-strong contingent due to be deployed in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004; and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). UB

Bulgarian Helsinki Committee Chairman Krasimir Kanev said on 21 March that the committee's annual report on Bulgaria noted improvements regarding discrimination and police violence, largely resulting from the adoption of an antidiscrimination law and the introduction of new rules for the Interior Ministry, BTA reported. However, the committee's report states that one-third of those held in police custody in 2003 were mistreated, reported. The Helsinki Committee was critical of the Bulgarian authorities for extraditing asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Georgia, Iran, and Iraq without first reviewing their cases, thus breaching international law. The committee also noted restrictions of freedom of speech, citing cases in which the Council on Electronic Media took television broadcasts off air, and in which journalists were sentenced for libel and/or slander. According to the committee, the SEM is failing to carry out its tasks as a media regulatory body and is serving corporate interests. UB

The tensions that have bedeviled relations between the central Georgian government and Aslan Abashidze, autocratic leader of the Adjar Autonomous Republic, since the ouster last November of President Eduard Shevardnadze escalated dangerously on 14-15 March, only to be defused at least temporarily as a result of talks in Batumi on 18 March between Abashidze and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

The crisis erupted on 14 March, when Adjar armed special troops backed by armored personnel carriers refused to permit Saakashvili's motorcade to enter Adjaria. Saakashvili responded by demanding that Abashidze guarantee him and members of the Georgian government freedom to enter and travel around Adjaria; observe freedom of expression and campaigning in the run-up to the 28 March parliamentary election and ensure that the ballot is democratic; disarm illegal armed groups; and cede to Tbilisi control over customs, borders, communications, finances, and the port of Batumi. It is that flow of revenues, estimated at $200 million-$300 million, that has helped Abashidze to retain power for the past decade.

Saakashvili warned that if Abashidze failed to comply with those demands within 24 hours, he would impose a total economic blockade on Adjaria. Abashidze for his part condemned Saakashvili's ultimatum, telling Russian journalists in Batumi on 15 March that ultimatums are inappropriate when dealing with one's own citizens. At the same time, Abashidze again affirmed his readiness to meet with Saakashvili to discuss resolving the tensions between them in accordance with the law, Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze said Saakashvili is free to come to Adjaria, but accompanied by only two or three armed bodyguards, not an armed entourage of several hundred. Even before Abashidze's public refusal to comply, Saakashvili had issued orders to close the airport in Batumi, and the border crossing to Turkey at Sarp, and to inspect all cargo entering Adjaria via the port of Batumi, Russian and Georgian media reported.

Abashidze for his part has consistently rejected Saakashvili's repeated allegations that he is trying to split Georgia, countering that he too seeks to resolve the tensions that have arisen in relations between the central and the Adjar government peacefully, within the framework of the Georgian Constitution. That avowal, however, means little because the Georgian Constitution adopted in 1995 does not define the basis for relations between the central government and the regions, except insofar as it grants the president of Georgia the right to appoint and dismiss members of "local" governing bodies.

It is not clear whether Saakashvili's 14 March ultimatum was an emotional response to the humiliation of being refused access to Adjar territory, or a cool tactical move based on the assumption that the international community would take his side and censure Abashidze. Nor is it clear whether Saakashvili was really prepared to risk the use of force less than two weeks before a national election in which his National Movement appears poised to win an overwhelming majority.

Saakashvili has repeatedly argued, both before and during the crisis of recent days, that as president he has both a right and a moral obligation to protect Georgia's territorial integrity, and to ensure that laws and human rights are observed throughout the country, and its territory. "Our main task in Adjaria is to defend democracy and human rights," ITAR-TASS quoted him as saying on 15 March. He has also stressed the need to ensure that the population of Adjaria can vote freely without intimidation in the 28 March parliamentary ballot. But he has also used harsher language, stressing the need for all Georgians to stand united to eradicate "banditism, feudalism, and treachery." At the same time he insists that Adjaria should be firmly subordinated to the central Georgian government, which should control the Adjar land and sea borders and the port of Batumi and the republic's revenues. Saakashvili rejected, however, as "a dirty lie" reports that his ultimate goal is to abolish Adjaria's status as an autonomous republic.

Statements over the past few days by both Saakashvili and Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze suggest, however, that of all the central government's various objectives, the holding of free elections on 28 March is the most immediate.

The question thus arises: Did the Georgian leadership set out deliberately to provoke a crisis in relations with Abashidze in the hope of engineering a humiliating defeat for Abashidze's Union for Democratic Revival (DAK) in the nationwide parliamentary ballot to be held in March? It remains unclear whether that party was the primary target of the Georgian leadership's refusal to comply with a Council of Europe proposal to lower the threshold for parliamentary representation from 7 percent to 4 or 5 percent.

Following his talks with Abashidze in Batumi on 18 March, Saakashvili brushed off the standoff of the past few days as "a misunderstanding, not a conflict." He said that Abashidze agreed to his demands, and that consequently the "restrictions -- there was never any blockade" imposed on Adjaria would be lifted at midnight. Saakashvili added that Abashidze agreed to release opposition representatives detained for participating in protests in Batumi calling for his dismissal. Georgian media had reported that reprisals against anti-Abashidze groups were continuing. The daily "Rezonansi" on 16 March quoted Nato Imnadze, whose father, Adjar parliament speaker Nodar Imnadze died in a shootout in Abashidze's office in May 1991, as saying that opposition supporters were being "terrorized," and that many of them had evacuated their families to locations elsewhere in Georgia.

Saakashvili has thus emerged from the confrontation the clear victor, having extracted the required concessions from Abashidze and avoided bloodshed. By contrast, Abashidze's position has been seriously weakened, not least because of repeated statements in Moscow that the Russian military contingent in Batumi would not intervene in the standoff to support him. One of Saakashvili's close supporters, David Berdzenishvili, was quoted by "Novye izvestiya" on 16 March as saying he is 100 percent convinced that Abashidze's party will suffer a crushing defeat in the 28 March elections, making him "politically bankrupt." And Georgia's Prosecutor-General Irakli Okruashvili announced on 16 March that charges of treason have been brought against several senior Adjar officials, including National Security Minister Soso Gogitidze, Deputy Interior Minister David Bakuridze, and Kobuleti administration head Tariel Khalvashi, for their role in preventing Saakashvili from entering Adjaria on 14 March. Okruashvili has also asked the Georgian parliament to lift the immunity from prosecution of Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze. The arrest of his national-security and interior ministers would seriously limit Abashidze's ability to control the situation in the run-up to the election.

A purported assassination attempt against the powerful Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan failed on 21 March, Afghanistan Television reported. Herat's deputy chief of intelligence, Abdul Wahid Tawalaki, said some of the assailants were detained and that they implicated General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, the commander of the Afghan Army's 17th Division, as having allegedly ordered the killing of Ismail Khan, "The New York Times" reported on 22 March. Unnamed sources quoted from Herat by Peshawar-based Islamic Press on 21 March said Nayebzadah had "staged a coup d'etat" against Ismail Khan. AT

Afghan Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Mirwais Sadeq and five other people were killed near Nayebzadah's house just hours after the reported attempt on Herat Governor Ismail Khan's life on 21 March, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 21 March. Sadeq was Ismail Khan's son. Sadeq was passing by Nayebzadah's house when his vehicle was ambushed, according to the governor's spokesman, General Mas'un. But Nayebzadah told Radio Free Afghanistan on 21 March that Ismail Khan's loyalists tried to attack his house and that Sadeq was killed in the ensuing firefight. Nayebzadah claimed that Ismail Khan is seeking his own "personal government" in Herat, while Nayebzadah described himself as serving the interests of the central government in Kabul. Nayebzadah and Ismail Khan are onetime allies, and both are members of the Jamiat-e Islami party. More recently, Ismail Khan has proven unwilling to submit to the central authority of the Afghan Transitional Administration, while Nayebzadah has allied himself with the central government. AT

The purported assassination attempt on Ismail Khan and the killing of his son on 21 March led to battles between Ismail Khan's forces and 17th Division troops loyal to General Nayebzadah, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Casualty reports from Herat Province differ considerably, ranging from 10 to more than 100. General Mas'un told Radio Free Afghanistan on 22 March that the number of casualties in the battles -- which raged in Herat until around 9:30 p.m. local time on 21 March -- could not exceed 10. He said some troops loyal to Nayebzadah have surrendered but a few others are still inside the 17th Division military compound. Mas'un described the situation in Herat as calm. Mas'un attributed the reports of large number of casualties to "propaganda" by Nayebzadah. "More than 100 people have been killed on both sides," Nayebzadah told Reuters on 21 March. AT

Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi said a delegation headed by Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim is in Herat to bring about an end to the fighting there, Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 22 March. Around 1,500 troops of the Afghan National Army are also on their way to Herat to establish security, Azimi added. Fahim's mission, according to Azimi, is to establish a cease-fire and also investigate the circumstances around the death of Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Sadeq. If the Afghan forces are unable to establish a cease-fire, Kabul will seek the support of coalition forces and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Azimi told Radio Free Afghanistan. A spokesman for the U.S. force in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, called the fighting in Herat an "internal" matter for the Afghans, adding that he has no information about any plans for involvement by U.S. forces, AP reported on 22 March. In a statement released on 21 March, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Herat evacuated the German diplomatic staff as well as the Italian ambassador to Kabul, who was visiting Herat. AT

Tehran has condemned the 22 March assassination by Israeli forces of Hamas founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, IRNA reported. Yassin was killed by missiles fired from Israeli helicopters as he left a mosque in Gaza. The Israeli Defense Forces and Shin Bet are preparing for a Palestinian response, "The Jerusalem Post" reported, and prison authorities are bracing for riots and violence. Hamas spokesman Abdel Aziz Rantisi warned, "the ground will shake in Israel," and Hamas threatened the United States because its support for Israel allegedly made the attack possible, "The Jerusalem Post" reported. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) vowed to wage "war, war, war on the sons of Zion" and to respond within 24 hours. Iranian Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani condemned the assassination and said Yassin's martyrdom will encourage the Palestinians to retaliate, IRNA reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi referred to the assassination as "state terrorism," IRNA reported. "Undoubtedly, such a move would unveil the ugly and unpleasant face of them [Israelis] before all the world people," Assefi added. The U.S. State Department has declared Hamas, the PIJ, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade "foreign terrorist organizations," and asserts Hamas and the PIJ receive aid from Iran. BS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in his 20 March Norouz message to the Iranian people that the new year -- 1383 -- will be the "year of accountability" for the government, state television reported. He said the executive, legislative, and judicial branches must inform the public on "what they have done with regard to rendering services to the entire nation, creating science, establishing justice, and alleviating poverty and discrimination in society." He added that they should provide information on "their contribution toward the movement for seeking justice and the movement for combating corruption." Khamenei preceded these comments with a review of the previous year. He said the year 1382 began with the "jackbooted soldiers [sarbazan-i chakmeh poosh] of Great Satans" on Iran's borders, that in the summer U.S. and Israeli intelligence organizations tried to create social unrest in Iran, in the autumn the United States propagandized against Iran's nuclear efforts, and in the winter an earthquake struck Bam. He said the year ended with people participating enthusiastically in the parliamentary elections, thereby foiling the enemy's plots. BS

Ayatollah Khamenei spoke in Mashhad on 21 March and warned that unspecified "imperialist centers" want to create "a tumult in our country," "generate crises," and "cause agitation," state television reported. He went on to repeat his accusation that U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies tried to cause unrest in Iran the previous summer. He said the United States and Israel face a stalemate in Palestine and in Iraq, and warned, "The enemy might make crazy decisions because it is facing a stalemate." He continued, "However, no matter what decision they make, they will fail because they are facing a freedom-loving nation such as the Iranian nation. Our nation is awake." BS

Ali al-Sistani has reportedly asked the United Nations not to endorse the Iraqi Transitional Administration Law, Reuters reported on 22 March. Al-Sistani told UN special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi in a letter last week that he will boycott the presence of a UN advisory team in Iraq if the world body endorses the law, which serves as Iraq's interim constitution. "The religious establishment fears the occupation authorities will work to include this new UN resolution to give it international legitimacy," al-Sistani wrote. The ayatollah specifically said the interim constitution would lead to sectarian strife because it calls for a three-person presidency to be composed of one Sunni and one Shi'ite Muslim, and one Kurd. "This builds a basis for sectarianism," he said. An unidentified person at al-Sistani's office in Al-Najaf on 22 March confirmed to "RFE/RL Newsline" that al-Sistani wrote the letter to Brahimi. KR

Hoshyar Zebari said on 21 March that the Iraqi Governing Council will ask the UN to issue a Security Council resolution on the transfer of power in Iraq, Al-Jazeera television reported the same day. Zebari reportedly told reporters in Amman that a resolution would give legitimacy to the transfer of power scheduled for 30 June. KR

Iraq's two largest militias have reached a tentative agreement with the United States to dissolve their forces, reported on 22 March. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)'s Badr Brigades and the Kurdish peshmerga forces will be offered the opportunity to join any of the new Iraqi security organizations or claim substantial retirement benefits as incentives to lay down their arms and disband, the newspaper reported. Negotiations are still under way, and U.S. officials said they expect an agreement within weeks. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) head Jalal Talabani confirmed that Kurdish officials have "an agreement with the coalition to find an honorable solution for the peshmerga." The estimated 50,000-member peshmerga force was the only militia group permitted to remain armed under the U.S.-led occupation. SCIRI's 10,000-strong Badr Brigades were reportedly disbanded, but apparently never actually were. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer has repeatedly said there is no place for militias in the new Iraq. KR

Six Iraqis were injured on 22 March when a suicide car bomber struck a U.S. military base some 50 kilometers north of Baghdad, Reuters reported. The bomber detonated his vehicle at the gates to Camp Anaconda, located near the town of Balad. Major Neal O'Brien told the news agency that two members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) injured in the attack are in serious condition. There was no word on the condition of the other four Iraqis reportedly injured. KR

Militants on 20 March attacked the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan office in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, international media reported. According to Voice of the Mujahedin radio, militants fired mortar shells at the office, killing a passerby and wounding three guards and a civilian. Local police Major Dara al-Surchi told Reuters that four mortars were fired and one landed near the building, killing an Iraqi. Meanwhile, Iraqi Turkoman Front leader Subhi Sabir escaped an assassination attempt on 19 March when unidentified gunmen opened fire on his vehicle in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, Anatolia news agency reported on 20 March. KR

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 20 March in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that Poland will carry out its mission in Iraq to a "successful end," PAP reported 21 March. Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski, who visited Polish troops in Iraq on 21 March, said the Polish-led multinational division in Iraq will manage even if Spain withdraws its contingent from the division, as Prime Minister-elect Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has suggested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2004). "We are in a position to cope with this, because this process is accompanied by the goal of increasing the operational capabilities of the Iraqi security forces," Polish Radio quoted Szmajdzinski as saying. "So it's not a situation from which there is no way out, but I'm not saying that anyone will pull out for certain." JM