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Newsline - December 14, 2005

Aleksandr Medvedev, deputy chairman of the energy giant Gazprom, announced in Berlin on 13 December that his company wants to expand its exports beyond Europe and Central Asia to the United States and China, the "International Herald Tribune" reported. "Our aim is to gain more than 10 percent of the U.S. market share by 2010, increasing to 20 percent," he said. Gazprom wants to export liquefied natural gas from its Shtokman field in the Barents Sea, but it is not clear how much it will cost to develop that field or which U.S. ports have the technical capacity to handle the shipments. Medvedev said that Gazprom will decide by April which foreign companies to choose as partners in an international consortium, but he stressed that the Russian firm will hold majority stakes. Referring to Gazprom's recent naming of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to head the stockholders' oversight body for the North European Gas Pipeline, Medvedev said that the appointment "is so important for Europe as a whole. You need to have somebody in such a position who is in a position to make decisions on that level. We could not have found a better person" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 12 December 2005). PM

Gazprom may halt gas deliveries to Ukraine by the new year if a new contract is not signed with Kyiv, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told Echo Moskvy on 13 December. Gazprom head Aleksei Miller issued a similar warning in an interview to be broadcast the same day on Russia's new English-language television channel, Russia Today. Kupriyanov accused Ukraine of reluctance to move toward "market principles in the gas sphere," adding that Gazprom "is prepared to compromise, but [such a compromise] must be adequate." Kupriyanov added that Gazprom is prepared to litigate in international courts if Ukraine siphons off gas transported via Ukraine without permission. "We have excellent lawyers," he said. Gazprom has been supplying natural gas to Ukraine under a barter agreement for $50 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom is seeking to raise the price to $220-230 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is roughly the market price in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 8, and 13 December 2005). BW

Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov said on 14 December that the company also plans to raise prices for gas exports to Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltic states, RIA-Novosti reported. Ryazanov told the State Duma that Gazprom plans to raise the price of natural gas for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to $120-125 per 1,000 cubic meters, up from the current $80. He said the company agreed with Georgia on a price of $110 per 1,000 cubic meters. Ryazanov said Gazprom is seeking approximately $110 per 1,000 cubic meters from Armenia and $150-$160 from Moldova. "This has nothing to do with politics," he added. BW

Platon Lebedev, a former head of Menatep and associate of imprisoned oligarch and Yukos head Mikhail Khodorovskii, told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 14 December in a written interview that he sees no hope for the restoration of a liberal democracy under President Vladimir Putin or his successor. Lebedev, who is serving an eight-year prison sentence in Kharp at the northern end of the Ural Mountains, said that Russia's rulers are not only "politically cynical but criminal as well. It is difficult to say which factor dominates." He called the demise of Yukos, which was Russia's largest oil company two years ago, a "typical case of theft." The authorities arrested Lebedev in July 2003 and Khodorovskii three months later. The German daily noted that Lebedev, who suffers from heart disease and chronic hepatitis, is being held in a facility where temperatures can reach minus-50 degrees Celsius and without special medical care. PM

President Putin told the 16 leaders of the first-ever East Asian Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on 14 December that Russia does not seek "unilateral advantages" in its dealings with the countries of that region "because our credo is equitable partnership and mutual profit," ITAR-TASS reported. He noted that "Russia has always had and will have long-term political, economic, and...civilizational interests [there]" and seeks to participate in "integration processes...[to] create a favorable environment for economic development inside Russia itself and [especially] in Siberia and the Far East." Putin spoke of "significant processes" unfolding in the Asia-Pacific region and hailed the East Asia Summit as "a new, powerful association of countries." But several Western commentators noted that future summits are likely to be little more than talking shops because China lost its initial enthusiasm for this new regional bloc that excludes the United States after its members' recent decision to admit Australia, New Zealand, and India to the club. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said that Russia "could" become a full member of the summit, in which it has only observer status, in 2006. But Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who is widely seen as Washington's leading supporter at the summit, is said to oppose Russian membership, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 December 2005). PM

Speaking at a meeting in Khabarovsk, Rashid Nurgaliev said on 14 December that organized crime, social tensions, and illegal migration are creating a threat to national security in the Russian Far East, ITAR-TASS reported. "Growing social tensions in the Far Eastern Federal District, the share of criminal control in its economy and swelling illegal migration here have turned into an actual threat to our national security," Nurgaliev said. "There's no sign that the activity of criminal groupings might be subsiding, and their control spreads over a large part of the regional economy these days, especially over the high-earning branches oriented toward exports. An uncontrollable inflow of people from neighboring countries and their illegal staying in the border regions aggravates the situation in terms of crime," he added. BW

Vladimir Zhirinovskii was reelected chairman of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) on 13 December and announced that he plans to run for president in 2008, Russian news agencies reported the same day. "I will participate as a candidate," Interfax quoted Zhirinovskii as saying. Zhirinovskii, who ran for president unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2000, also said he will tone down his trademark flamboyant rhetoric. "Sometimes I just need to relax." Opening the LDPR congress, Zhirinovskii spoke against cult of personality in the party, saying it has "a brilliant opportunity to elect a new...leader," and pledged multiple candidates, RIA-Novosti reported on 13 December. But in the end, the ballot contained only Zhirinovskii's name. BW

A lawyer for the business newspaper "Vedomosti" announced on 14 December that it expects a lawsuit it filed against RosBusiness Consulting (RBK) Information Systems to be heard in January, Interfax reported. "The judge is expected to set the date for the hearings within the next five days. Hearings are unlikely to take place before the New Year holidays," Vedomosti's lawyer, Nana Gobeshiya, told Interfax, adding that she expects the case to be heard in January. "We demand compensation. It is impossible to calculate the damage [RBK] Information Systems' violation of copyright has caused us. We assess our chances of winning the lawsuit as high," she added. "Vedomosti" filed a lawsuit in Moscow's Arbitration Court on 11 December against RBK for breach of copyright, claiming that RBC posted articles from the newspaper on its website without attribution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). BW

The Federation Council on 14 December passed Russia's 2006 budget, Russian news agencies reported. The budget sets revenues at 5.046 trillion rubles ($175.8 billion), expenditures at 4.270 trillion rubles ($148.8 billion) and forecasts a surplus of 776 billion rubles ($27.0 billion), RIA-Novosti reported. The budget forecasts an annual exchange rate of 28.6 rubles to the U.S. dollar and is based on projections of a $40 per barrel oil price. Revenues from oil prices exceeding $27 per barrel will be set aside in a Stabilization Fund established to accumulate funds from high oil prices, RIA-Novosti reported. According to forecasts, the fund is projected to accrue 2.242 trillion rubles ($78.1 billion) by the end of 2006, or more than 44 percent of budget revenues. The budget passed the State Duma on 7 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 December 2005). To become law, it must be signed by the president. BW

A top Iranian official praised Russia on 13 December for not yielding to demands from the United States to halt nuclear cooperation with Tehran, Russian news agencies reported the same day. "The objections made by the U.S. concerning our cooperation are purely political," Interfax quoted Iranian Consultative Assembly speaker Golam Ali Hadad-Adel as saying at a press conference in Moscow. "Fortunately, the Russian leadership has not yielded to the pressure exerted by the U.S." The United States has repeatedly criticized Russia for building the Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 November and 12 December 2005). Russia has also come under criticism from the United States and Israel for agreeing to sell Iran antiaircraft missiles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 12 December 2005). BW

Senior EU officials including Foreign and Security Policy Commissioner Javier Solana met separately in Brussels on 13 December with the foreign ministers of the three South Caucasus states, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. The talks focused on the three countries' respective Action Plans for implementation within the parameters of the New Neighbourhood Policy, and the possibility of greater EU involvement in efforts to resolve what Solana termed the "frozen" conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. The talks with the Armenian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian focused in addition on the 27 November referendum on constitutional amendments -- the positive outcome of which the opposition claim was rigged -- and Armenian-Turkish relations, Noyan Tapan reported on 13 December. LF

Gevorg Avetisian, a senior member of a trade union that represents employees of Armenia's national power utility, was elected mayor of the small provincial town of Nor Hajn by a narrow majority on 11 December, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 13 December. Avetisian replaces Armen Keshishian, who was reelected for a second term as mayor on 9 October, two weeks after he shot a rival candidate dead in a dispute. Keshishian subsequently stepped down and remains in pretrial detention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 September and 11 and 17 October 2005). LF

Following the refusal by the Baku municipal authorities to permit opposition rallies in central Baku on either 3 or 10 December, the opposition Azadlyq bloc has applied for permission to stage a march and rally on 17 December, Democratic Party of Azerbaijan First Deputy Chairman Sardar Djalaloglu announced on 13 December, reported the following day. Djalaloglu said that if permission is denied, Azadlyq will take appropriate countermeasures. He did not elaborate. LF

Parliament deputies who fail to attend more than 30 parliament sessions without a valid excuse risk being stripped of their mandates in accordance with parliament statutes, first deputy speaker Ziyafet Askerov told Trend news agency on 13 December, according to Several opposition deputies from the opposition Musavat party, the progressive wing of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party and the National Unity movement have announced that they will boycott the work of the new parliament to protest the perceived mass manipulation of the outcome of the 6 November ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2005). But Azadlyq election campaign manager Panakh Husein was quoted on 14 December by as saying that the bloc will decide within the next month whether its deputies should take up or formally reject their mandates. LF

Some 350 employees of the Baku Electrical Appliances Factory put down their tools on 12 and 13 December to protest against the arrest on 9 December of the factory's director, Nureddin Zulfugarli, and his brother Logman, and reported on 14 December. The two men have been remanded in three months' pretrial custody on charges of extortion on the basis of a 10 December complaint by Avet Alieyeva that they pressured her to repay 8 billion manats ($1.73 million) that her husband owes Logman Zulfugarli's company, which he previously headed. Employees of the Baku Electrical Appliances Factory denied any links between the Zulfugarlis and former Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliev, arrested two months ago on suspicion of involvement in a planned coup (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 October 2005). Aslan Ismailov, the brothers' lawyer, suggested that they were arrested because they had complained about police interference into the activities of independent businessmen. LF

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli hailed on 13 December the proposal made the previous day by Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, that Georgia and South Ossetia should jointly draft a plan for resolving their decade-old differences, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). Noting that Kokoity's proposed three-stage approach largely coincides with that of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Noghaideli proposed beginning work on the draft immediately in order to submit it to a session of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) before the end of this month. Kokoity proposed having the draft ready by late January and convening the JCC session no later than 15 February. Noghaideli attributed South Ossetia's more constructive approach to Russian pressure. Speaking at a press conference in Tbilisi on 13 December, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava similarly termed Kokoity's initiative "important" and advocated beginning work immediately on a draft document, Civil Georgia reported. LF

Speaking at the same Tbilisi press conference on 13 December, Ambassador Valerii Kenyaikin, who is the Russian co-chairman of the JCC, said that the entire political leadership in South Ossetia supports Kokoity's initiative, Civil Georgia reported. In Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin too greeted Kokoity's peace proposal, stressing the importance of the three-stage format, of which the first stage is demilitarization of the conflict zone. Kamynin further noted that Kokoity's initiative encompasses a number of additional points on which Kokoity and former Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania reached agreement one year ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 November 2004). In Tskhinvali, South Ossetian Foreign Minister Murat Djioev told ITAR-TASS on 13 December that Teymuraz Mamsurov, president of the Republic of North Ossetia, has likewise expressed full support for Kokoity's peace plan. LF

Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik announced in Astana on 13 December that his ministry has developed a memorandum on subsidized fuel shipments to support Kazakhstan's agricultural sector in 2006, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Shkolnik said that the country's 2006 budget includes 7 billion tenges ($52 million) to subsidize fuel supplies. The memorandum stipulates that major suppliers will make fuel available for $395-$400 per ton. The minister added that if this mechanism -- which he described as a "social partnership" with energy suppliers -- goes into effect, agricultural-sector consumers will pay 36 tenges per liter of diesel fuel in 2006. He said that the measure would make it possible to end restrictive measures, noting that a ban on diesel fuel exports is in effect until 1 January. DK

The opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan announced in a press release on 13 December that Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who was the bloc's candidate in the country's 4 December presidential election, has provided information on election violations to OSCE observation mission head Audrey Glover, reported. The materials, which were collected by Tuyakbai's campaign staff, substantiate opposition claims of widespread fraud and manipulation. The OSCE's initial assessment of the election found that it "did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2006). DK

Kyrgyz police detained three Kazakh opposition activists in Bishkek on 13 December, reported. Alisher Mamasaliev, coordinator of the Kyrgyz youth movement KelKel, said that Makhambet Abzhan, Azamat Zhetpisbaev, and Zhanbut Karsulakov were detained in an operation that also involved representatives of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee. Zhetpisbaev and Karsulakov were later released, Mamasaliev said, while Abzhan was held on an election-related charge filed by Kazakh prosecutors. reported on 13 December that Zhetpisbaev and Abzhan told the news agency in an interview that they came to Bishkek because it offered safer conditions for "preparing a revolution" in Kazakhstan. But Ainur Kurmanov, head of the Kazakh communist youth organization Molodaya Gvardiya, told that Abzhan and Zhetpisbaev are radicals who lack a meaningful base of support in Kazakhstan. DK

In a 13 December interview with, Feliks Kulov commented on Kyrgyzstan's investment prospects, the threat of extremism, and other issues. Queried about reports that Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska is considering a $2 billion investment in Kyrgyzstan, Kulov said only that Kyrgyzstan's parliament needs to approve a privatization program in order for investment projects to be successfully realized. Kulov also stated that there are no terrorist bases in southern Kyrgyzstan, although he noted that some Kyrgyz citizens took part in 12-13 May violence in Uzbekistan and allowed that some individuals opposed to the Uzbek authorities may reside in Kyrgyzstan. DK

A second round of negotiations between Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Aleksei Miller, the head of Russia's Gazprom, on 12 December failed to produce an agreement on the price of Turkmenistan's 2006 natural gas shipments to Russia, reported the next day. The report described the talks as "frank and constructive" and quoted Miller as saying that the "exchange of opinions was very fruitful." Turkmenistan hopes to raise the price Russia pays for 2006 shipments from $44 per 1,000 cubic meters to $60. DK

Polish Television journalist Agnieszka Romaszewska was barred from entering Belarus at the Minsk international airport on 13 December and taken to a hostel there, Belapan and Polish Radio reported. Romaszewska, who reportedly had the appropriate accreditation and visa, arrived in Minsk on an assignment to open a correspondent bureau of Polish Television in the Belarusian capital. She was detained by border control officers who allegedly tried to put her on the same plane returning to Warsaw, but the crew captain refused to take her on board without an official deportation order. "She was denied entry to our country earlier. Despite the fact, she made another attempt to cross the border. Her actions were of provocative and unfriendly nature," Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ruslan Yesin said. Two days earlier, Romaszewska was traveling to Minsk together with a cameraman and a driver. After allegedly keeping them waiting for about 90 minutes, border guards said that Romaszewska was banned from entering the country, while her companions could continue their journey. JM

Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis has denied an accusation that a group of Belarusian youths were trained at a NATO military facility in Lithuania how to use firearms, Belapan reported on 13 December. Valionis was responding to a recent television interview in which Belarusian KGB deputy chief Viktar Vehera accused the Lithuanian authorities and NATO of offering gun-shooting practice to Belarusian youths under the guise of workshops. "They explained that more such workshops will be organized by foreign sponsors," Vehera said on Belarusian Television. Valionis said Vehera's allegations "do not meet the nature of relations between Lithuania and Belarus, which is involved in NATO's Partnership for Peace program." JM

The Ukrainian Health Ministry said in a communique on 14 December that the situation with the bird-flu outbreak in Crimea detected earlier this month remains difficult, Interfax-Ukraine reported. By 14 December, mass deaths of poultry were registered in 25 settlements on the peninsula, including in 11 villages where tests confirmed that the infection was caused by the virus H5N1, which is also dangerous to humans. Meanwhile, Channel 5 reported the same day that mass deaths of poultry have also occurred in the village of Chervonyy Chaban in Kherson Oblast. Veterinarians reportedly say these deaths were not because of bird flu. Chervonyy Chaban is located some 20 kilometers from Syvash Bay, between Crimea and mainland Ukraine, where migratory birds stop over each autumn as they migrate. JM

Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said at a cabinet meeting on 14 December that Ukraine is currently engaged in "very difficult negotiations" with Turkmenistan and Russia's Gazprom on gas deliveries, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Yekhanurov was commenting on Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov's talks in Moscow on 12 December and in Ashgabat the following day. ITAR-TASS quoted President Viktor Yushchenko as saying on 13 December that Ukraine will now buy Russian gas for cash, not through barter transactions. Meanwhile, Gazprom deputy chief Aleksandr Medvedev said on 14 December that Russia is going to sell gas to Ukraine not for $160 per 1,000 cubic meter, as suggested by media earlier this year, but for $220-$230 per 1,000 cubic meter, reported. JM

Macedonia's hopes of formally becoming a candidate for European Union membership this year suffered a blow on 12 December when France said the EU needs to finance its existing enlargement and debate future institutions before taking in new members, Reuters reported the same day. "Since in six months...we're going to look at the prospects for enlargement and deepening, it seems normal to me to defer this until then," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in Brussels. The European Commission has recommended that the EU grant Macedonia candidate status as part of a strategy to integrate the western Balkans. France, the Netherlands, and Denmark favor a delay in making Macedonia a candidate for membership, while Great Britain opposes the delay, Reuters reported. "The decisions are taken by consensus which means that it is up to the EU now. We expect the commitments that the EU undertook to be confirmed at this summit and we will continue to fulfill our obligations," Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva told the BBC Macedonian Service. BW

Svetlana Cenic denied on 13 December that war crimes indictees Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have received financial support from the republican budget, dpa and Hina reported the same day. "Karadzic and Mladic, as well as any other war crimes suspect, have never been financially supported from the funds of the [Republika Srpska] budget, including the pension fund," Cenic told reporters in Banja Luka. Cenic's comments were in reaction to questions from international officials about allegations that Mladic has received a government pension since 2002. BW

Families of the victims of the 1991 Ovcara massacre denounced the verdicts handed down by a Serbian court in the case as too lenient, Hina reported on 13 December. The War Crimes Chamber of Belgrade's District Court on 12 December convicted 14 former militiamen for the November 1991 massacre at a pig farm near Vukovar in which 200 were killed to sentences ranging from five to 20 years in prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). "Only half of them got the maximum sentence. It is shamefully mild," Spomenka Kusic, the president of a Croatian mothers' organization, told the newspaper "Vecernji list." "Neither is the maximum sentence enough for what they did to us," she added. "Vecernji list" commented on 13 December that the total of 229 years the defendants received collectively was barely " a year per person killed." BW

Some 120 residents of the town of Beska in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina who signed a petition seeking the replacement of local authorities have been questioned by police, Hina reported on 13 December, citing a report in the newspaper "Gradjanski list." Half of the signatories were either ethnic Croats or Hungarians. The 120 people were called in for questioning by police to determine whether their signatures were authentic, a move that "Gradjanski list" claimed incited ethnic tensions. The move, according to the paper, was approved by a senior local government official, Stojan Mutic, who is a member of the Serb Radical Party and one of the officials the group wants replaced. More than 10,000 Croats left Vojvodina during the war in the 1990s. BW

German prosecutors said on 13 December that they have indicted a Croatian man suspected of assisting in the 1983 assassination of an exiled Yugoslav dissident writer, dpa reported the same day. Stjepan Djurekovic was shot an killed near Munich in an assassination allegedly organized by Communist Yugoslavia's secret services. Prosecutors in the southern German city of Karlsruhe said a 56-year-old man identified as Krunoslav P, who is a Croatian citizen who was arrested in July, will be tried as an accessory to murder. He was arrested in July. Investigators believe the accused, who has lived in Germany since 1971, posed as an opponent to Yugoslavia's Communist government, was active in exile groups, and won Djurekovic's trust. Krunoslav P is alleged to have tipped off assassins about Djurekovic's presence at a printing plant near Munich and given the gunman a key to the building. BW

Andrei Stratan said on 13 December that the Transdniester issue is the only major problem in relations with Moscow, and he urged Russia to remove its troops in order to resolve it, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Chisinau has repeatedly stated that the [Transdniester] theme actually remains the only problematic one in our relations with Russia," Stratan said "Russia should withdraw its troops from the region in order to get the...problem finally settled. Moldova's sovereignty and territorial integrity cannot be the subject of any negotiations," he added. BW

For three groups of Iraqis -- prisoners, hospital patients, and military servicemen -- voting in Iraq's parliamentary elections got under way on 12 December. For Iraqis living outside the country, polling stations in Iran, Jordan, Australia, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates opened on 13 December. Reports suggest that, so far, voting has proceeded smoothly. In all, Iraqi expatriates in 15 countries will be able to vote.

Iraqis living inside Iraq will cast their ballots on 15 December amid very tight security. The Iraqi government, which has assumed responsibility for security during the election, decreed a five-day national holiday starting on 13 December, and has closed borders and airports, extended curfews, and banned internal travel between governorates. A no-drive curfew will also be in place on election day, and 13,000 concrete barriers have been erected at the main entry points into the capital, Baghdad. The government also announced that 16 security men will be assigned to each polling center, and -- as in January's election of an interim assembly -- multinational forces will back up Iraqi security forces in areas around polling centers.

If these extensive security efforts work, election day might just prove to be the most peaceful of the campaign. The past month has been marked by violence, with numerous attacks launched and a number of assassinations of political candidates and campaign workers, some of which have been blamed on rival parties and some on the security forces themselves (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 9 December 2005). The latest victim was a Sunni candidate, Mizhar al-Dulaymi. He was gunned down on 13 December in Al-Ramadi, the capital of the volatile Al-Anbar Governorate.

Al-Dulaymi had headed an electoral list in the governorate, and was an outspoken supporter of the "honorable resistance," defined by him as groups that only target those members of the Iraqi security forces that support multinational forces in Iraq. Speaking on Al-Arabiyah television, he had argued that this policy distinguished these groups from terrorist groups affiliated with the international terrorist network Al-Qaeda.

Contrary to the position they took in January parliamentary elections, Iraq's senior ayatollahs have shied away from lending their support to any particular list, calling instead on Iraqis to vote to candidates they feel are the most qualified to serve them. That advice has been interpreted variously, with some seeing it as giving voters the green light to vote for the candidate of their choice, while others contend it implies voters should choose the best candidates in the eyes of the clergy.

Whom the clergy themselves will vote for is not clear. Some Shi'ite clerics have openly encouraged their followers to support the United Iraqi Alliance, a religious force and the most powerful group in the outgoing parliament. However, other Shi'ite clergy, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- who backed the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance in January -- have reportedly grown frustrated with the transitional government's failure to produce real change on the ground this year: the insurgency remains strong, unemployment is widespread, living conditions are poor, and even basic services are lacking.

Al-Sistani's representative in Karbala, Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i, criticized the al-Ja'fari government in his Friday sermon on 10 December, saying it has failed to meet Iraqis' basic needs. Unless the situation changes, the governing parties could lose the support of the people, he warned.

In a statement released on 11 December, al-Sistani effectively called on voters to vote with their conscience (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). Another of Iraq's leading Shi'ite clerics, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqiy al-Mudarrisi, called on Iraqis to vote for the most loyal and credible candidates in a statement issued on 13 December. The lists representing the minority Sunni Arabs comprise both secular and religious candidates, and most claim at least some support from local clerics in the governorates in which they are competing. Other Sunni clerics have stopped short of endorsing a particular party, but insist that their followers perform their "religious duty" by voting on election day.

An exception is the influential Muslim Scholars Association, which has called for a boycott of the election. However, in an 11 December interview, its leader, Harith al-Dari, told Al-Arabiyah television that the association had not "issued any fatwa [religious edict] banning participation in the election." Sunni Arabs are free to vote, he said, just as they are free to boycott the election,

In this instance, the association seems unlikely to influence many voters. All the indications are that Sunni Arabs will come to the polls in large numbers, and Sunni voter turnout is expected to be higher than it was in the 15 October referendum on the draft constitution.

While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the election, two things are clear: Iraqis have a tendency either to follow the advice of the religious clergy or to vote with the party line. The outcome is most predictable when those two points converge, as they did in the January election, when Sunni Arabs heeded the advice of their clergy and stayed away from the polls, while the majority of Shi'ite Arabs voted for the al-Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance.

In this election, there is ambiguity about the positions of both the Shi'ite and Sunni clergy, and voting with the party line has become complicated for the Shi'a, as splits within the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance have led to the defection of a number of candidates, who subsequently formed smaller political parties.

This has created a cutthroat atmosphere on the campaign trail, an atmosphere that has been reflected on the pages of Iraqi dailies and in the tone adopted by many broadcasters. Many media outlets have ties to particular political parties, and their support for these parties' agendas has come through clearly in the news reports, commentaries, and advertisements carried in their broadcasts and on their pages. In recent days, campaign advertisements have assumed even greater prominence, particularly on television.

Independent newspapers have provided the broadest coverage and smaller parties have largely had to rely on them to gain some visibility during the campaign.

Though the coverage by most television channels has reflected specific loyalties, some channels have attempted to produce meaningful debates, staging roundtable discussions and interviews focusing on the main campaign issues. And, whatever the biases on show, there is undoubtedly no shortage of viewpoints to be found on the pages of Iraq's 200 newspapers, 70-plus radio stations, and some 45 television channels.

There are also some political efforts to reach out across Iraq's major communities. Secular Shi'ite lists offer an alternative to Shi'a who do not necessarily support the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq. Both the largest Shi'ite groupings -- Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List and Ahmad Chalabi's National Congress Coalition -- boast Sunni Arab candidates, with platforms based on national unity.

Iraq's Kurdish voters are expected to overwhelmingly support the Kurdistan Coalition List, headed by the region's two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), despite criticism of the parties' performance in government and growing allegations of corruption and cronyism.

Indeed, there appears to be growing apathy among the Kurdish electorate, particularly among the younger generation of voters, who see few alternatives to the entrenched KDP and PUK.

In the October referendum, voter turnout in the Kurdish region appeared high, at over 95 percent. Even so, both parties have gone to great lengths to stress the importance of the vote to their constituents, saying it is the patriotic duty of every eligible Kurd to vote.

Certainly, the next government will have the power to decide on two issues of critical importance to most Kurds, an amendment of the draft constitution and the status of the hotly contested Kirkuk Governorate, which Kurds would like to see incorporated into their autonomous region.

Qari Mohammad Yusof, purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, said in a telephone interview on 13 December that a new fatwa in the "form of a pamphlet and a poster" has been issued on the present situation of Afghanistan, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. According to Mohammad Yusof, "a few days ago, about 100 religious scholars" discussed the current affairs of Afghanistan and based on Islamic texts, they decided that U.S. forces came to Afghanistan "not at the invitation of Afghans," but rather "they invaded" the country as "an aggressor." As such, Mohammad Yusof told AIP that "jihad against the Americans has become a duty." The fatwa orders the Afghans to have "no sympathy for infidels" and to avoid cooperating with them. Moreover, the fatwa instructs that "anyone who supports them [U.S. forces] morally or materially should be killed." The fatwa warns Afghan government employees to quit their jobs and that "anyone who has a father working for the Americans should cut their relations with them and treat them as an enemy." The neo-Taliban have issued similar fatwas in the past, starting with one in early 2003 which was issued in the name of the former leader of the Taliban regime, Mullah Mohammad Omar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2003). AT

Commenting on media reports that the fatwa issued by a number of religious scholars sympathizing with the neo-Taliban specifically called for killing Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Mohammad Yusof told AIP on 13 December that no one's "name was mentioned in the decree, but it is said in general in the decree that all those who support the Americans should be killed." Karzai's spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi downplayed the fatwa in Kabul on 13 December, Xinhua News Agency reported. "By fabricating such propaganda and labeling marks against the president, the enemies of Afghanistan attempt to sabotage peace in the country and create problems for the people," he said. Rahimi described Karzai as a "good Muslim and servant of the Afghan people," adding that any "conspiracy against him will be foiled." AT

The Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics has criticized recent remarks made by the Kabul representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Doris Buddenberg. The Ministry of Counternarcotics said in a statement that it "strongly calls on the world body [UNODC] to avoid remarks that create confusion among the Afghan public." It was referring to comments made by Buddenberg in Kabul on 12 December that predicted an increase in poppy cultivation in 2006. Buddenberg made the comments while announcing her agency's report revealing that the poppy cultivation area in Afghanistan has dropped in 2005 by 21 percent compared to 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). "I think Afghanistan has established an effective foundation this year to build on for the years to come in its counternarcotics campaign," Afghan Minister of Counternarcotics Habibullah Qaderi said, adding that his side does not see "the purpose behind such a statement by UNODC, because the autumn planting not yet over." While the cultivation of poppies has declined considerably, the UNODC has expressed concern over the sustainability of the trend. AT

Some of the 34 appointments of President Karzai to the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga) in the Afghan National Assembly have been criticized, the London-based "Daily Telegraph" reported on 13 December. Among Karzai's appointees are former Defense Minister and United Front (Northern Alliance) strongman Mohammad Qasim Fahim; former Helmand Province Governor Sher Mohammad Akhundzada; mujahedin-era Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Sabur Farid; and Mawlawi Arsala Rahmani, the former deputy minister of higher education (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 December 2005). Sam Zafiri of the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the Afghan "government has tried to accommodate these different groups, but in doing so they trade short-term gains for long-term political stability." He added that the government is "losing the confidence of the Afghan people." Shukria Barakzai, an elected member of the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) from Kabul, said that Karzai "has chosen people to try to effect reconciliation rather than chosen people who are capable of running the country." Meanwhile, Karzai spokesman Rahimi insisted on 13 December that all of Karzai's appointments "have been made in the supreme national interest." AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei discussed Palestinian affairs in Tehran on 13 December with Khaled Mashal, the head of the political bureau of the militant group Hamas, ISNA reported the same day. Khamenei praised "the successes of the Palestinian nation" and Israel's "expulsion" from Gaza. He urged "continued resistance" to ensure "Palestine's freedom," and said experience has shown that "compromising" and "negotiating with" the "Zionist occupiers" will not "make the situation better" but bring "increased pressures." Victory, he added, can only come with "resistance and persistence," ISNA reported. Khamenei said he hopes militant groups will soon expel "the enemies of the Palestinian people" from Jerusalem, while he said the United States may seem powerful but "has faced defeat in the Middle East and is retreating." Mashal thanked the Iranian government for its "positions" in support of Palestinians, and said these represent the inner feelings of all Muslim governments, though "unfortunately, other Islamic states dare not express these positions." VS

Mashal also met with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on 11 December, with Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani on 12 December, and with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani on 13 December, ILNA and ISNA reported on 12 and 13 December. Ahmadinejad told Mashal that "insistence" is the "secret of victory" for Palestinians against Israel. Mashal told the press on 13 December that Palestinians "are proud" of Ahmadinejad's recent statements on Israel, which "are in coordination with" the revolutionary movement of Palestinians, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad has denounced Israel and recently expressed doubt that Jews were mass-murdered during World War II. Rafsanjani told Mashal on 12 December that Israel has begun "its decline" and urged "resistance and persistence" for a Palestinian victory. Larijani praised Hamas on 13 December for removing "the great pressure" he said Israel has exerted on Palestinians, ISNA reported. He also dismissed recent reported threats of Israeli strikes against Iran's nuclear installations, and said "these are more for publicity and should not be taken seriously," ISNA reported. VS

Larijani told the press in Tehran on 13 December that Iran can defend itself and needs no security guarantees from the United States, as recently suggested by the UN's nuclear inspectorate chief, ISNA and agencies reported on 12 and 13 December. On 12 December, International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei suggested in Stockholm that the U.S. might have to include security guarantees for Iran in order to attain a definite agreement on Iran's controversial nuclear program, according to AP. But U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli later said in Washington that Iran should first act like a responsible member of the international community, then "maybe other kinds of notions will become more palatable," AP reported on 12 December. Larijani said "Iran does not need such haughty assurances. It has a good capacity" for defense, ISNA reported. He said Iran is surrounded by nuclear-armed states and "we just want an attentive ear to understand this." He said countries with nuclear bombs "cannot admonish others. The Americans have not given a proper answer to this, and Iran does not need such sympathy in matters of security." In the nuclear dossier, he said, "we do not want anything beyond what other countries have," ISNA reported. VS

Emadeddin Baqi, a dissident writer and president of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights in Iran, was recently prevented from going to France to receive a 2005 human rights prize from France's National Consultative Commission of Human Rights (awarded by the Commission Nationale Consultative des Droits de L'Homme), Radio Farda reported on 13 December. Baqi is presently barred from leaving Iran, and his wife Fatemeh Kamali-Ahmadsarai received his medal for him on 12 December in Paris. The prize was awarded on 18 November, according to the commission's website. Lawyer and Vice President of the International Federation of Human Rights League Abdolkarim Lahiji, who attended the ceremony, told Radio Farda on 13 December that the prize is for Baqi's efforts to reconcile Islamic jurisprudence with an abolition of the death penalty. VS

Nearly 90 percent of eligible detainees held by multinational forces took part in the National Assembly election, according to a 13 December press release posted on the U.S. Central Command website ( Voting took place at the Camp Bucca, Abu Ghurayb, and Fort Suse detention facilities. Multinational forces said that polling stations in the facilities opened early and remained open until all detainees at least 18 years of age had cast their ballots. "Extending the vote to all eligible Iraqis is another example of how the rule of law is helping to strengthen Iraqi society," the press release stated. KR

Voter turnout in some of the 15 countries where expatriate voting is being held was reported higher than expected in the first of three days that polls abroad will be open, according to Arab media reports. Several Iraqi and Arab satellite channels reported high turnout in Jordan, Australia, England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Iran. Meanwhile, the "Jordan Times" issued a contradictory report on 14 December, saying turnout at polling stations in Amman appeared low. The report cited polling station workers as saying they hope turnout will increase over the next two days. Al-Iraqiyah television cited election workers in Lebanon as saying turnout was low during the day on 13 December, which the workers attributed to the fact that people were working; the staffers said they expected a higher turnout at the end of the working day. Al-Arabiyah television reported, however, that turnout was high in Lebanon. The Iraq Out-of-Country Voting website has not commented on voter turnout ( KR

The Sunni Waqf (endowments) office in Iraq issued fatwa on 13 December calling on expatriates and Iraqis living inside Iraq to cast their ballots in the National Assembly elections, Al-Arabiyah television reported on the same day. The satellite news channel interviewed Waqf head Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i, who said the fatwa was supported by over 1,000 Sunni scholars. He told Al-Arabiyah that Iraqis should vote for the electoral list of their choosing and not feel intimidated to vote for any one particular list. KR

Muhammad Ayyash al-Kubaysi, a representative of the Muslim Scholars Association outside Iraq, dismissed the Sunni Waqf fatwa in an interview with Al-Jazeera television in Doha, broadcast on 14 December. He claimed that the fatwa was issued by Sunni clerics in an effort to avoid more harm coming to Sunni Arabs in Iraq. "The call for participation in the elections should not be viewed as approval of these elections," al-Kubaysi contended. "The participation in the elections is to keep harm away from the people. This government has done wrong and killed. The people do not feel safe, the women do not feel safe, and the [children] do not feel safe.... The scandal of Al-Jadiriyah prison is proof of this. All these things have created pressure on ordinary Iraqis to try to keep this harm away" from the population, he added. KR

Iraqi border police seized a tanker truck on 13 December that contained thousands of forged ballots after the truck crossed into Iraq from Iran, international media reported on 14 December. The truck, which was confiscated in Badra, in Iraq's Diyala Governorate, was said to contain several thousand partially completed ballots, according to an Interior Ministry official who spoke to Al-Jazeera television reported on 14 December, however, that Iraqi Interior Ministry Undersecretary Adnan al-Asadi has denied reports that Iraqi forces had intercepted a truck transporting fake ballots. The unidentified official said that at least three other trucks transporting forged ballots have crossed into Iraq from Iran at different border crossings. Police are still searching for those vehicles, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 14 December. KR

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters at a 13 December press briefing in Baghdad that U.S. soldiers will work alongside Iraqi police commandos and Interior Ministry forces to inspect hundreds of detention facilities in Iraq, international media reported. The decision came after a U.S. inspection of a second detention facility revealed that detainees had been abused. Khalilzad said that 100 out of 169 detainees found at the Al-Jadiriyah detention center on 15 November had suffered abuse; while 26 of the 625 detainees crowded into a makeshift detention center at a former horse stable used by Saddam Hussein's son Uday and raided by U.S. forces last week had also been abused. KR

An unidentified Iraqi official told that detainees at the second facility, a converted horse stable, had been "severely" tortured, the website reported on 14 December. The converted horse stable was apparently used as a torture chamber by Uday Hussein and reopened by the Interior Ministry last year. The official said that it was widely known in the ministry that torture was being carried out at the stables in the past year. The website cited unnamed Iraqi officials as saying the types of torture carried out in Interior Ministry detention centers included: extracting fingernails, suspending people upside-down from roof hooks for long periods, electric shock to the genitals and other body parts, and pressing lighted cigarettes into detainees' bodies. KR