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Newsline - March 27, 2006

A U.S. Pentagon report released on March 24 cited two captured Iraqi documents as saying that Russian officials collected information on U.S. troop movements and other sensitive military topics from sources "inside the American Central Command" in Qatar in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began in March 2003, news agencies reported (see "Russia: Documents Allege Envoy Gave Baghdad Information On U.S. Plans";; March 24, 2006). The report also claimed that Russian Ambassador to Iraq Vladimir Titorenko passed the information to then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Boris Labusov, a spokesman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), said on March 25 that similar "baseless accusations" concerning Russia's intelligence have been made "more than once" in the past. He added that the SVR does not "consider it necessary to comment on such fabrications." PM

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington on March 26 that the U.S. authorities will raise the matter of the allegations in the Pentagon report "with the Russian government. We want to take a real hard look at the documents and then raise [the issue] with the Russian government," reported. Rice stressed that "any implication that there were those from a foreign government who may have been passing information to the Iraqis prior to the invasion would be, of course, very worrying." She also noted that she knew nothing of the matter in 2003, when she was President George W. Bush's national security adviser. "I would not jump to the conclusion that, if...the reports are true, that [the espionage project] had to be Moscow-directed," Rice said. For his part, Senator Edward Kennedy (Democrat, Massachusetts) said that "we need an entirely new assessment of our relationships with Russia should [the charges in the report prove] true." PM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Iranian counterpart Manuchehr Mottaki by telephone on March 25 that Moscow insists the Iranian nuclear problem be resolved through "diplomatic channels," Interfax reported. He also emphasized "the importance of Tehran taking steps towards restoring the international community's confidence in Iran's nuclear program." The previous day, Lavrov discussed the Iranian nuclear issue with U.S. Secretary of State Rice by telephone, ITAR-TASS reported. The news agency suggested that he made clear his opposition to the Western-backed draft UN Security Council resolution, which he called an "ultimatum" designed to prepare the way for imposing sanctions, which Russia opposes. Subsequently asked by reporters if Russia is stalling, Rice said that "everybody just needs to get to work and...get [the matter settled] so that the Iranians have a very clear message about what's [expected of them]," Reuters reported. PM

Yevgeny Primakov, who is a former foreign minister and current president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as well as a veteran Middle East expert, told the first-ever meeting of the Russia-Islamic World Strategic Vision Group in Moscow on March 27 that Washington's "thoughtless plan" to export its own model of democracy to the Muslim world is the cause of the current crisis in the dialogue between the West and the Islamic world, Interfax reported. He stressed that U.S. policies in Iraq have made that country "Al-Qaeda's main stronghold." Primakov charged that Washington "disregards the historical alignment of forces in these countries, their experience and long-established traditions. This is what is behind the current crisis in Iraq. This kind of exporting of democracy, judging from Iraq's experience, has led to unbridled terrorism and religious conflicts." Iraq is on the verge of a "Sunni-Shi'ite civil war," he added. PM

President Vladimir Putin said in a message to the Russia-Islamic World meeting in Moscow on March 27 that he is "convinced that the threat of international terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and attempts to provoke a conflict between civilizations require close cooperation within the international community," Interfax reported. He added that "only by pooling our efforts will we be able to adequately and effectively respond to the challenges.... The expansion of multifaceted ties with the Islamic world is a priority of Russia's foreign policy. It is reassuring that our dialogue is developing fruitfully. That Russia has been given observer status with the Organization of the Islamic Conference does much to promote this." The two-day meeting is attended by representatives of 20 Islamic states as well as by former Russian Foreign Minister Primakov, Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev, Chechen leader Alu Alkhanov, State Duma Budget and Tax Committee Chairman Rinat Gubaidullin, Strategic and Political Studies Center head Vitaly Naumkin, and Russian special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference Veniamin Popov. PM

A spokesman for the Federal Interior Ministry's anticrime and antiterrorist section told Interfax in Moscow on March 27 that police searched the flat there of Ismagil Shangareev, the mufti of Orenburg and the head of the Islamic Human Rights Center, on the basis of a court-issued warrant (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 26, 2005). Shangareev told the news agency that unnamed "imams and muftis [are] spreading misinformation about each other in order to discredit and get rid of a competitor, while at the same time showing loyalty to the authorities," and that those people are responsible for the search. He added that "the authorities wanted to close the Buguruslan, Orenburg Oblast. However, it was not shut down, and special forces officers searched the school on November 4, 2004, and confiscated" some books and leaflets that they regarded as inflammatory. Shangareev suggested that the police might have planted the leaflets before the search. PM

The Moscow City Court gave a 13-year sentence in a high-security prison on March 27 to Aleksandr Koptsev on charges of attempted murder of two or more persons for reasons of ethnic enmity in conjunction with his stabbing of eight people at a Moscow synagogue on January 11, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). PM

A 9-year-old girl was stabbed and seriously injured in a suspected racial attack in St. Petersburg on March 25, news agencies reported. She is a Russian citizen whose father is from Mali. Friends of the family told reporters that they believe the attack was racially motivated and that such hate crimes are on the rise. PM

The congress of the nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party elected Aleksandr Babakov as party chairman on March 25 following the resignation of Dmitry Rogozin from that post the previous day, Russian dailies reported. Several papers suggested that Rogozin will remain an important force behind the scenes. They added that he was forced out of the chairmanship by a vindictive Kremlin that allegedly wants someone more pliant than the often independent-minded Rogozin to head the party, which many originally regarded as a Kremlin-backed organization to attract nationalist voters. After the congress, one delegate told reporters that Motherland has done what the Kremlin wanted. He added that it remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will keep its part of the bargain and in return give Motherland favorable television coverage and stop barring the party from taking part in elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 24, 2006). PM

"The Washington Times" reported on March 25 that two scholars at the Brookings Institution have demonstrated that parts of President Putin's 1997 doctoral dissertation were lifted verbatim or with minor changes from a Russian translation of a management study written at the University of Pittsburgh in 1978 (see "Russia: U.S. Academics Charge Putin With Plagiarizing Thesis";; March 27, 2006). Putin's thesis discusses how the state should best manage its wealth in natural resources. PM

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov and Chechen Interior Ministry spokesman Ruslan Atsayev have both rejected as untrue Chechen resistance claims that several dozen Chechen police defected early this month to resistance forces in the Vedeno region of southern Chechnya, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). Interfax on March 24 quoted Alkhanov as saying he knows nothing about any such incident, and would have been informed had it been true. Atsayev on March 25 said there has not been a single such defection over the past year, Interfax reported. He said a current operation in Vedeno is aimed not at apprehending the defectors but at discovering resistance bases. But on March 26 reposted a report from quoting an unnamed Chechen prosecutor's office official as confirming that a police detachment did indeed defect to the resistance. LF

Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak rejected on March 24 as exorbitant Chechen parliamentarians' demand that the subsidies Chechnya receives from Moscow should be increased from 19 billion rubles ($687 million) to 120-130 billion rubles, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006). Alkhanov on March 23 reiterated his argument that Chechnya should retain all the profits from oil extracted on its territory, reported. He said that Chechnya should not be a "black hole" into which budget funds disappear. LF

Police in Vladikavkaz discovered and defused on March 25 a fragmentation bomb placed in the parking lot of the municipal administration building, reported. The bomb was timed to explode at 9 a.m. local time and reportedly would have caused considerable damage over a radius of 500 meters. Police have opened a criminal investigation. Three terrorist bombs in Vladikavkaz in 1999-2002 killed more than 70 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 1999, July 10, 2000, and April 29, 2002). LF

The Supreme Court of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic acceded on March 24 to a request by the republic's Prosecutor's Office to close down the self-styled State Council of Balkaria, reported. The court cited as the grounds for its ruling an unspecified violation of the law, but it declined to brand the State Council either separatist or extremist as the Prosecutor's Office had demanded. The court also called for the closure of the State Council's weekly newspaper "Balkaria," which appeared in Russian, English, and Karachai-Balkar in a print run of 5,000. The State Council of Balkaria was formed in 1996 to lobby for a separate republic for the Balkars (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 6, 2005).

The opposition daily "Haykakan zhamanak" published an interview on March 25 with former Armenian Interior Minister Vano Siradeghian, according to Noyan Tapan and Arminfo as cited by Groong. Once a close associate of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, Siradeghian was brought to trial in 1999 on charges of ordering a series of contract killings, but fled the country six years ago, since when his whereabouts have remained a mystery (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4 and 7, 2000). Asked where he now lives, Siradeghian said, "not in any of the three countries [Russia, France, and the United States] that co-chair the OSCE Minsk Group." Siradeghian reportedly told "Haykakan zhamanak" that his trial was initiated by unnamed persons who sought to prevent him from participating in the parliamentary election of 2002 and the presidential ballot the following year. He said he hopes to return to Armenia when and if the political situation changes. LF

Siradeghian also proposed in his interview with "Haykakan zhamanak" that the Constitutional Court should rule that parliament's acceptance in February 1998 of Ter-Petrossian's resignation was illegal, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. That, according to Siradeghian, would enable Ter-Petrossian to resume the duties of president, after which he should call pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections. LF

A group of veterans of the Karabakh war and officers from the defense forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic issued a statement on March 23 calling on Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian to resign, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong on March 24. They also demanded the suspension of talks on resolving the Karabakh conflict. The statement expressed concern over remarks that Sarkisian is alleged to have made to senior Armenian military personnel in late February. On that occasion, Sarkisian allegedly dismissed the argument that Armenia "liberated" territories bordering on the NKR and referred to those territories as "a security zone" that Armenia should ultimately be prepared to return to Azerbaijani control, according to "Haykakan zhamanak" on March 8. The statement attributed Sarkisian's argument to his desire to succeed Robert Kocharian as Armenian president, and said his imputed pronouncements could engender defeatist sentiments among the Armenian armed forces. LF

President Kocharian's spokesman Viktor Soghomonian dismissed on March 24 as "far-fetched" an article published in that day's edition of the Russian daily "Kommersant" claiming that Moscow and Yerevan are negotiating an agreement whereby the former will compensate the latter for the imminent doubling in the price of the natural gas Russia supplies to Armenia by selling weaponry at knock-down prices, Noyan Tapan reported. Soghomonian explicitly denied that Armenia will purchase cut-price ammunition from Russia. Defense Minister Sarkisian told journalists on March 22 that an agreement with Gazprom is imminent under which the gas price rise will be lower than expected, Noyan Tapan reported on March 23. LF

The Georgian authorities deployed special forces early on March 27 to put down a riot and attempted mass jail-break at the No. 5 prison in Tbilisi, Georgian media reported. Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze told journalists that the riot was "well-planned and organized," Caucasus Press reported. He declined to specify how many prisoners died, but said 10 members of the special forces and two police men were injured. Human Rights Ombudsman Sozar Subar said one prisoner was killed and 13 injured, while Kakha Kukava, secretary of the opposition Democratic Front parliament faction, estimated the death toll at six, Caucasus Press reported. Subar told the independent television station Rustavi-2 that analogous riots were also planned at No. 2 penal colony in Rustavi and the high-security jail at Ksani. LF

In a March 17 report to the UN Security Council, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended extending for a further six months, from March 31 until September 30, the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), noting the "continued good cooperation" between UNOMIG and the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone. The Security Council voted in late January to extend UNOMIG's mandate for only two months rather than the customary six in light of the Georgian parliament's stated intention to demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force by July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12 and 13, 2005, and February 1, 2006). Annan also noted that during talks in Geneva in early February, the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary-General group impressed upon both Georgian and Abkhaz government representatives the need to "seriously address" the other side's concerns regarding security and human rights in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district. Both sides affirmed their readiness to finalize a draft document on confidence-building measures and the return of primarily Georgian displaced persons to Gali, and undertook to arrange "a meeting of their highest leadership." The two sides also met jointly in Geneva for the first time with representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to discuss the logistics of that return. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev chaired the first meeting of a new democratization commission in Astana on March 24, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The commission is charged with developing a democratization program for 2006-2011 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 24, 2006). In his remarks, Nazarbaev noted, "I don't rule out that it may be necessary to conduct a constitutional reform as well," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev stressed that the people should decide whether Kazakhstan should have a presidential or parliamentary form of government. He also suggested that legislation should be changed so that political parties elected to parliament receive "partial government funding." On NGOs, Nazarbaev said, "Let them not have to beg from international organizations. We are capable of directing their efforts to the needs of the Kazakh people ourselves." Alikhan Baimenov, head of the Ak Zhol Party, told the commission that parliament should be granted greater powers, "Navigator" ( reported. Baimenov also urged the authorities to register the Alga party, which was recently denied registration by the Justice Ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2006). DK

Festivities and a military parade in Bishkek on March 24 marked the first anniversary of the ouster of former President Askar Akaev, reported. Students presented a staged recreation of last year's events, symbolically removing cobwebs from the country's constitution. A military parade and concert followed. President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, both key figures in the opposition to Akaev in early 2005, took part in the festivities. DK

In a nationally televised address at the ceremony, Bakiev said that last year's events were "truly a people's revolution," Kyrgyz television reported. He noted, "It is an indisputable fact that the people were disappointed with the authorities and did not trust them at all." Bakiev also said that businesses who suffered losses during the looting on the night of March 24, 2005, will be compensated. He said, "Honest businessmen suffered losses. Measures are being taken to partially compensate and financially support them through preferential loans." He concluded, "We must ensure that we do not have such hard times again." DK

A Ukrainian delegation headed by Naftohaz Ukrayiny Commercial Director Anatoliy Popadyuk has confirmed that Ukraine owes Turkmenistan $169.6 million for 2003-05 shipments of natural gas, reported on March 26, citing a press release from the Turkmen Foreign Ministry. The ministry said that the two sides agreed that Ukraine owes Turkmenistan $169.6 million, $46.8 million in cash, and $122.8 million in commodities. The two sides signed an agreement that Ukraine will make a cash payment of $60.6 million to cover its cash debt and an additional cash payment of $27.7 million toward its commodity debt. Ukraine will also supply pipes to cover $58.3 million of its commodity debt, with other goods shipments to cover the remainder of the commodity debt. The cash debt will be settled in the "near future," while the commodities will be shipped by August 10. DK

The Asian Development Bank's (ADB) 2006-2010 strategy for Uzbekistan envisions loans of $100 million a year over the next three years, reported on March 24. Actual amounts will depend on the evaluations of program performance. The ADB programs will focus on four areas: rural development; private-sector development; regional cooperation and customs transit; and the improvement of social services with an emphasis on the development of preschool and primary education. DK

The European Union on March 25 demanded that Belarus release prominent opposition figure Alyaksandr Kazulin, international news agencies reported the next day. "The EU Presidency is appalled by the violence used against demonstrators by the Belarusian authorities," Austria, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, said in a statement released late on March 25. "It expresses serious concern about the arrest of demonstrators and members of the democratic opposition, including presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, and demands their immediate release," the statement continued. Kazulin and main opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich led demonstrations last week against what they call a fraudulent March 19 election that gave President Alyaksandr Lukashenka an overwhelming victory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20-24, 2006). Kazulin was arrested on March 25. BW

Belarus on March 26 accused the United States and the EU of inciting unrest and attempting to destabilize the country, Reuters reported the same day. Authorities in Minsk accused Washington and Brussels of being "on the verge of anti-Belarusian hysteria" for condemning police for breaking up an opposition rally on March 25. "It is self-evident to objective observers that the situation in Belarus is absolutely calm," a statement released by Belarus's Foreign Ministry said. "We urge the European Union and the United States to stop attempts to destabilize the country from abroad." Police broke up demonstrations against President Lukashenka on March 25, jailing hundreds. BW

Opposition leader Milinkevich, meanwhile, pledged new protests aimed at sweeping President Lukashenka from power, international news agencies reported on March 26. "A government, which with bestial savagery...scattered peaceful demonstrators, has completely destroyed its authority and lost the people's support," Milinkevich in a statement quoted by Reuters. "We are determined to continue mass protests against the falsification of the results of the elections. We will not wait five years to free the Belarusian people from the rule of those who long ago lost their legal and moral right to it." On the evening of March 26, approximately 100 people silently gathered at a monument in central Minsk and lit candles to show solidarity with those detained in the police crackdown, Reuters reported. BW

Exit polls in Ukraine gave Viktor Yanukovych's pro-Moscow Party of Regions the largest share of the vote in the March 26 parliamentary elections, international news agencies reported the same day. But despite the Party of Regions' apparent first-place finish, a group of pro-Orange Revolution parties appear to have gained enough seats in parliament to form a government, provided they can overcome their differences and form a coalition. According to exit polls, Yanukovych's Party of Regions won between 27 and 31 percent of the vote. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, led by the former prime minister, came in second with between 22 to 24 percent. Our Ukraine, which supports of President Viktor Yushchenko, came in third with approximately 15 percent, according to exit polls. Central Election Commission Chairman Yaroslav Davydovych said complete preliminary results will not be available until March 28. BW

Speaking after exit polls showed her bloc coming in a very strong second place, Yuliya Tymoshenko said a coalition uniting the liberal parties of the Orange Revolution is "practically ready," Reuters reported on March 27. Such a coalition would unite Tymoshenko with Our Ukraine and Oleksandr Moroz's Socialist Party of Ukraine, she said. The Socialists won approximately 5 percent, according to exit polls. "I can say that at this moment, our party, the Socialist Party [of Ukraine], and the Our Ukraine party have fully agreed on the text of a coalition agreement," Tymoshenko said on March 26. Tymoshenko also said that her potential coalition partners have agreed that she should lead the new government. "I received very kind words from Roman Bezsmertny, the head of the Our Ukraine campaign staff, who said the bloc that I head has won the election and should take responsibility for matters. We will take that responsibility," she said. BW

The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) announced on March 24 that Interpol has voided an international arrest warrant for Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku, Reuters reported the same day. UNMIK spokesman Neeraj Singh said the mission was informed by Interpol that a Serbian warrant for Ceku had been "taken off their Red Notice," meaning that he can travel without fearing arrest. "We had from the start advised Interpol that such warrants have no legal validity, and we are pleased with the decision," Singh said. UNMIK head Soren Jessen-Petersen urged foreign police to ignore the warrant against Ceku and Hashim Thaci, the head of Kosova's negotiating team for final-status talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). Serbia accuses both men of war crimes. BW

Serbia's policy chief for Kosova, meanwhile, sharply criticized Jessen-Petersen for intervening with Interpol regarding the arrest warrants, Reuters reported on March 24. Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, head of Serbia's Kosovo Coordination Center, accused the UNMIK head in an open letter quoted by Reuters of "promoting the goals of the Albanian separatists." "Serbia has issued warrants for Ceku and Thaci on the basis of a wide-scale investigation and a great deal of evidence, which you have demeaned in an unacceptable manner," Raskovic-Ivic said. Ceku has been arrested outside Kosova twice due to the Interpol warrant, and both times he was quickly released, Reuters reported. This week he traveled without problems to Brussels and Vienna. Thaci, who led the Kosovar Albanian delegation in final-status talks in Vienna, also had no problems with the Austrian police. BW

In a ceremony boycotted by all other political parties in the Serbian parliament, Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) on March 27 staged a minute of silence in honor of the late Yugoslav and Serbian president, AFP reported. The move came as Serbia's parliament convened for the first time since Milosevic's death on March 11. The 22 lawmakers from the SPS held the tribute alone in the 250-seat assembly after other parties refused to enter the hall. BW

Police in Montenegro on March 26 arrested a suspect in the 2004 assassination of a prominent newspaper editor, AP reported the same day. Police announced that Armin Osmanagic was arrested as he tried to enter Montenegro at a border crossing with Bosnia-Herzegovina. Police said Osmanagic is a suspect in the 2004 killing of Dusko Jovanovic, editor of the opposition daily newspaper "Dan." Two other suspects have already been arrested in connection with the killing. One of them, former karate expert Damir Mandic, is currently standing trial in Podgorica. A second suspect, alleged underworld figure Vuk Vulevic, was arrested in Belgrade in 2005 and turned over to Montenegrin authorities. BW

A Russian aid convoy sponsored by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party arrived in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transdniester on March 25, AP reported the same day. The convoy brought approximately 200 tons of medicine, medical equipment, and baby food. Moscow said the move was in response to an appeal for aid from Transdniester following new customs rules, which went into effect on March 3, requiring all goods crossing the Transdniester portion of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border to clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). Transdniestrian officials have called the move an economic blockade. In an interview with RFE/RL in Chisinau on March 24, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin dismissed the allegations, saying the new rules "are in line with international requirements" and don't affect imports into the region in any case. BW

The March 26 parliamentary elections in Ukraine were won by Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, according to three different exit polls. But these polls also indicate that the major players in the Orange Revolution -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- could form a parliamentary majority if they are able to reunite their "Orange" coalition of 2004.

Ukrainian pollsters announced the results of three separate nationwide exit polls immediately after voting in the March 26 parliamentary elections came to a close. All three polls suggested the elections were won by the Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych -- President Viktor Yushchenko's main rival in the 2004 presidential elections.

The exit polls predict that Yanukovych's party will win from 27-31 percent of the vote when official results are announced on March 28, which could translate into as many as 183 mandates in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc will finish second with 22-24 percent of the vote, while the pro-Yushchenko Our Ukraine will follow with about 15 percent, according to the polls.

These predicted results suggest that the three forces that made up the core of the 2004 Orange Revolution -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- could together account for more than 226 parliamentary seats -- enough to allow them to form a new cabinet. Such a cabinet could depend on the support of between 229 and 257 deputies in parliament.

President Yushchenko has signaled that he is primarily inclined to seek another coalition with Yuliya Tymoshenko, whom he fired as prime minister in September 2005. "Tomorrow we will start consultations with the political forces that formed the previous administration and the same forces that won the Orange Revolution," he said after casting his ballot in Kyiv on March 26. "We will begin talks tomorrow morning, and this may give us an opportunity to develop a political strategy in the negotiations process -- and the early message is that we are looking to lay the foundation for the negotiations process."

After the polls closed, Tymoshenko went a step further, asserting that her bloc has essentially agreed on a renewed coalition accord with Our Ukraine and the Socialist Party and is ready to sign it as soon as March 27. "I can say that at this moment, our party, the Socialist Party, and the Our Ukraine party have fully agreed on the text of a coalition agreement," she said.

Tymoshenko said that under the agreement the political force finishing first among the three potential coalition partners would have the right to propose a candidate to form the next government. This, in effect, means that Tymoshenko will make a bid to regain the premiership she lost in September 2005.

A renewed Orange alliance would have to overcome the internal strife that proved to be its downfall when it led the government from January-August 2005. The biggest obstacle would be finding a way for Tymoshenko and Our Ukraine officials to work together after she accused some prominent members of the pro-presidential party of corrupt practices last year. If Tymoshenko becomes prime minister, such Orange Revolution combatants as Petro Poroshenko, Oleksandr Tretyakov, and David Zhvaniya -- all of whom were singled out by Tymoshenko -- would likely be reluctant to cooperate fully with her either as cabinet members or as Our Ukraine representatives in a joint parliamentary coalition.

A second hurdle would be finding common ground with the Socialist Party, whose participation is seen as essential if an Orange coalition is to be restored. The Socialist Party is ideologically and programmatically incompatible with Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. This became evident in 2005, when Socialist lawmakers repeatedly voted against World Trade Organization-oriented legislation proposed by the government in which their party had several ministers.

In addition, the Socialist Party's staunch opposition to Ukraine joining NATO and the privatization of land have undermined Yushchenko's efforts to implement the reforms he promised during and after the Orange Revolution.

If the Orange coalition cannot be pieced back together, the possibility of Our Ukraine joining forces with the election-winning Party of Regions is still open. In theory, such a coalition could form a government enjoying solid parliamentary support. Immediately after the March 26 vote, Yanukovych indicated that such a development might be possible. "The Party of Regions has gained a decisive victory, and we are ready to assume a huge responsibility on behalf of the Ukrainian people -- for political, economic, and social stability in the country," he said. "We are ready to take responsibility to form a government, and we call on everybody who holds Ukraine's fate dear to join us."

But if the official results confirm the exit polls' predictions, it would appear that a Tymoshenko-Yushchenko reunion would make a happier political marriage than one between the former rivals in the bitterly disputed presidential race in 2004

This is because Tymoshenko campaigned on a ticket of returning to Orange Revolution ideals, and the support she received in this election would indicate that those who stood behind Yushchenko and Tymoshenko during that political movement want to see the two revolutionary heroes working together once again.

The Afghan Supreme Court on 26 March suspended a case against a Christian convert for abandoning Islam, AFP reported. The Supreme Court sent the case against Abdul Rahman back to the prosecutor's office after hearing testimony from his relatives that he is mentally unstable, court spokesman Wakil Omari said. "The prosecutor-general has the authority to either send back the case to this or any court or even can decide" to release him, Omari said. "[Rahman] himself has said that he hears strange voices in his head. His files have been sent back to the prosecutor-general for further investigation." Omari said the prosecutor-general will give Rahman medical tests before deciding whether to pursue the case. AFP reported that officials predict a quick release for Rahman. There has been intense international pressure to spare Rahman, who admitted to renouncing Islam and adopting Christianity. On March 25, Pope Benedict XVI joined the chorus of Western criticism, which has come mainly from Sweden, the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany, and Italy as well as the United Nations. MR

Women's rights activists on March 25 called on the Afghan parliament to reject Afghan President Hamid Karzai's new cabinet because there are too few women, National Television Afghanistan reported. Najia Hanifi, a member of the Committee for Women's Political Partnership, said: "The new cabinet has not been chosen on the basis of meritocracy, but on the basis of the population size of different provinces like Mazar-e Sharif, Paktia, or Herat. That is why gender is of no concern to the government of Afghanistan." Hanifi said the only woman minister appointed by Karzai was one who dealt with women's affairs. "Also, there is no woman in the High Judiciary Council of the Supreme Court," Hanifi said. "Therefore we expect parliament -- which is the symbol of the people's determination -- to reject the new proposed cabinet list and send it back to President Karzai to reconsider it and give women more posts." MR

One U.S. soldier and six neo-Taliban insurgents died in fighting on March 25 in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported. U.S. officials said U.S. and Afghan troops clashed with roughly 20 suspected neo-Taliban insurgents in Helmand Province, where U.S. warplanes eventually joined the battle, dropping 11 guided bombs. Local commander Rahmatullah Raufi said "six to seven" insurgents were killed in the fighting and the authorities are searching for other guerrilla fighters in the area. Reputed neo-Taliban spokesman Yusuf Ahmadi said neo-Taliban guerrillas were involved in the fighting, adding that one was wounded. MR

Pakistani forces said they killed roughly 20 insurgents in operations on March 24 in the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan, AFP reported. Fighting between Pakistani forces and militants thought to be affiliated with neo-Taliban guerrillas or Al-Qaeda flared near the restive border town of Miran Shah, a gateway area for insurgents moving back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. "Up to 20 militants were killed when security forces responded to the rocket and small arms attack on the checkpost, in which one solider was killed," Pakistani military spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan said. "The militants, while running away, left behind a few weapons also." It was unclear how many, if any, foreign militants were killed in the fighting. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on March 23 warned that any foreign militants found in the tribal areas, which straddle the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, will be killed. Musharraf said during a rally in Lahore that "these foreign militants are indulging in acts of terrorism not only in Pakistan but elsewhere in the world," Musharraf said. "I warn them to leave Pakistan, failing which we will eliminate them." MR

Unidentified diplomats from UN Security Council member states have told the "Los Angeles Times" that Iran is closer than previously thought to enriching uranium, the paper reported on March 27. The initial estimate was that it would take Iran five to 10 years to produce enough highly enriched uranium to build a nuclear bomb; officials now believe that Iran could build a bomb within three years, said the diplomats, who were recently briefed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The diplomats said Iran has bypassed the usual testing periods for centrifuges in an attempt to assemble as many as possible, as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, U.S. and Iranian officials continue to hold discussions over the language of a possible Security Council resolution on Iran, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News on March 26. U.S. and European officials have lobbied for the resolution to refer to Iran's nuclear activities as a "threat to international peace and security," which could open the door to further Security Council action against Iran, "The Washington Post" reported on March 26. Security Council members Russia and China are opposed to such language. KR

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on March 26 that the enemies of Iran are trying to gain concessions through a program of psychological warfare and misinformation, IRNA reported the same day. "Our nation will respond to the enemies and the mischievous ones resolutely," Ahmadinejad said in a public address in the province of Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad. The president called on Iran's enemies to apologize for accusing his country of "warmongering," calling such accusations a huge insult to the Islamic republic. Ahmadinejad said that Iran will continue its path to acquiring nuclear energy, adding that Iran will seek reparations for the 2 1/2-year delay in carrying out its nuclear activities; he did not say from whom he would seek the reparations. KR

President Ahmadinejad claimed in a March 25 meeting with Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a that the United States intends to create discord among Muslim countries in order to control them and make them dependent on it, ILNA reported the same day. Ahmadinejad claimed that the United States and the West are facing a crisis in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine and "therefore are trying to transmit their problems to others through creating discord and division." Regarding possible talks with the United States on Iraq, Ahmadinejad said that though Iran does not trust the United States, it cannot ignore requests by Iraqi officials that a meeting be held. KR

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei praised the Iranian nation in a March 26 speech for its vigilance against the enemies of Iran, saying the country's resilience has earned it the respect of both its friends and enemies, the Iranian state television channel Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic reported. Speaking about the ongoing nuclear standoff between Iran and the West, Khamenei told a gathering of thousands of Basiji militia in Tehran: "There is a possibility that these threats [from the West] will be realized, in which case only a nation that can stand up to its enemy without retreating from its position will maintain its respect, greatness, identity, and interests." Calling the United States and Israel Iran's greatest enemies, Khamenei said the West is trying to create a global consensus against Iran. He maintained that the true global consensus is against "America's arrogance and its warmongering...and not against the Iranian nation." Basiji Resistance Force commander Mohammed Hejazi told the same gathering that the Basiji plans to expand its military and defense capabilities this year in order to fulfill its revolutionary and religious duties to defend national interests, the state-run television reported. KR

An audiotape attributed to former Iraqi Vice President and Deputy Chairman of Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri has called on Arab League member states to boycott the "regime of agents and traitors," Al-Jazeera television reported on March 27. Referring to the Iraqi government, the voice on the tape tells Arab states: "You should expel the representatives of collusion and treason, who have sold their religion, homeland, and nation at the cheapest price. You should boycott the regime of collusion and treason, besiege it, and adopt the necessary resolutions to support the people of Iraq and its national and valiant resistance and its jihad until liberation." Al-Duri is the most senior member of Hussein's regime to avoid capture, and was said to be managing the Ba'athist resistance in Iraq from Syria. Long suffering ill-health, he was reported dead at least twice in the past three years, but his death was never confirmed. The audiotape, if authenticated, would be the most concrete evidence in years that he is alive. KR

A bomb went off inside a U.S.-Iraqi military base in Mosul during a recruitment drive on 27 March, international media reported. At least 30 people were killed in the attack, Reuters reported. It was not immediately clear whether the bomb was planted or was worn by a suicide bomber. Meanwhile, the bodies of more than 20 decapitated Iraqis were found in the village of Mullah Iyd near Ba'qubah on March 26, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Citing Interior Ministry officials, the news channel also reported that a Diyala-based police major was arrested and charged with taking part in assassination squads that killed hundreds of Iraqis in Ba'qubah. And Reuters reported on March 26 that U.S. troops arrested 40 Iraqi Interior Ministry forces who were holding 17 foreigners in a secret bunker complex in Baghdad. KR

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari criticized the weak role that Arab states have played in Iraq over the past three years in a March 25 interview with Al-Arabiyah television. Speaking from Khartoum ahead of the March 28 Arab League summit, al-Zebari said Arab states have not done enough to help Iraq achieve security and stability. Referring to allegations of Iran's growing influence in Iraq, he said: "Our reply [to Arab states] is that you should blame yourself, because your absence may have led to this." He said that it is not too late for Arab states to play a greater role in Iraq, but said such a role "should be felt with steps and measures and not only through statements and communiques." KR

Foreign Minister al-Zebari told Al-Arabiyah television in the same March 25 interview that Arab states have used the security situation as a pretext for not playing a greater role in Iraq. When Al-Arabiyah contended that Arab embassies and missions were attacked following an Arab League proposal for an Iraqi reconciliation conference, al-Zebari replied: "There are other embassies that were attacked, but they stood fast and took security measures. This was an excuse [by Arab states] to leave Iraq or not establish a political or diplomatic presence" there. Because some Arab states fear the democratic experiment in Iraq, they fail to see that a threat against Iraq is a threat against them as well, he added. KR

Arab League Secretary General Amr Musa announced in Khartoum on March 25 that the league has appointed Moroccan Ambassador Mukhtar Lamani as envoy to Baghdad, MENA reported on the same day. Musa claimed that the Arab League will open an office in Baghdad following the formation of the new Iraqi government. Both Musa and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari have maintained that no Arab forcers will be sent to Iraq. KR

Jailed Kurdish intellectual Kamal Sayyid Qadir was sentenced to 18 months in prison on March 26 for defaming Kurdistan Regional President Mas'ud Barzani, international media reported. Qadir, who holds Austrian citizenship, accused Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of corruption in a series of Internet articles. He was arrested last year when he traveled to KDP-controlled Kurdistan and initially sentenced to 30 years in prison. Judge Faridun Abdallah called the most recent sentence "fair" and "proportionate to the charges against" Qadir, Reuters reported on March 27. KDP representative to Washington Qubad Talabani told CNN on March 26 that Barzani might pardon Qadir. "Maybe it's time to revise certain laws. We are an emerging democracy...we need to improve our institutions," Talabani said. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq interviewed Qadir on his arrest and possible conviction earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 14, 2006). Meanwhile, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan security forces arrested Kurdish teacher and writer Hawez Hawezi on March 17 after Hawezi wrote an article on corruption in "Hawlati" newspaper, Reuters reported on March 27. KR

A U.S. Pentagon report released on March 24 cited two captured Iraqi documents as saying that Russian officials collected information on U.S. troop movements and other sensitive military topics from sources "inside the American Central Command" in Qatar in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began in March 2003, news agencies reported (see "Russia: Documents Allege Envoy Gave Baghdad Information On U.S. Plans";; March 24, 2006). The report also claimed that Russian Ambassador to Iraq Vladimir Titorenko passed the information to then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Boris Labusov, a spokesman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), said on March 25 that similar "baseless accusations" concerning Russia's intelligence have been made "more than once" in the past. He added that the SVR does not "consider it necessary to comment on such fabrications." PM