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Newsline - March 29, 2006

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told a Moscow press conference on March 28 that Russia will not sell armored personnel carriers or other arms to the Palestinian Authority without the agreement of Israel, as he has said previously, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17 and March 28, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," February 20, 2006). He added that "transparent conditions" for such a deal will be possible only after a "change of power has taken place in the Palestinian Territories and elections have been held in Israel." He noted that Israeli agreement is necessary for the weapons to transit Israeli territory for delivery. Ivanov called on Iran to give an "unambiguous agreement" or refusal to Russia's offer to enrich uranium for it on Russian territory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006, and "Russian Political Weekly," January 19, 2006). He added that such a move would help clear up "worries" in the international community over Iran's nuclear program. Ivanov also stressed the importance of maintaining a strong Russian nuclear force. "We have quite powerful and effective nuclear forces. We are developing them, pursuing quality and effectiveness," he said. He denied unspecified foreign media reports that Russia can no longer respond adequately to foreign nuclear threats. PM

Defense Minister Ivanov said in Moscow on March 28 that he will leave it for the courts to decide on the truth surrounding the reported New Year's Eve hazing incident in Chelyabinsk, as a result of which Private Andrei Sychyov's legs and genitals were amputated, Interfax reported. Ivanov has previously rejected calls for his resignation over the issue and suggested that some media are exploiting it to discredit the military (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20 and 22, 2006). He said during his latest press conference that "there has been too much speculation around the Sychyov incident. Only the court can establish what really happened. You won't get any other answer from me." PM

According to Defense Minister Ivanov at his March 28 Moscow press conference, 70 percent of the Russian military will consist of professional soldiers by 2008, Interfax reported. He said that there are currently over 60,000 professional soldiers and sergeants on active duty and that an addition 25,000 will join them in 2006. Russian armed forces in Ingushetia and Daghestan will soon be made up only of professionals, as is already the case in Chechnya, he added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17, 2006). He also pledged to end the shortage of military housing by January 1, 2011. Ivanov maintained that the overall structure of the military will not change in the foreseeable future, although it will become more compact and mobile. He added that he has no plans to seek another job because he still has much to do as defense minister. Critics charge that the military should become completely professional in order to help eliminate hazing and other abuses. Such critics often see Ivanov and many of the top generals and admirals as perpetuating a nontransparent culture within the armed forces that was inherited from the Soviet era. The Moscow daily "Kommersant" wrote on March 29 that Ivanov's recent busy speaking and travel schedule suggests that he is preparing for the race to succeed President Vladimir Putin in 2008. PM

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 28 that "in seeking to build a system of interstate relations based on principles of equality, friendship, pragmatism, and mutually beneficial cooperation, Russia looks forward to an intensive dialogue with the Ukrainian president, new cabinet, and new Verkhovna Rada [parliament]," RIA Novosti reported. The ministry noted that Russian and international observers monitored the March 26 vote and concluded that the election was valid, although they described the process as an "acute political struggle" and noted some unspecified violations. The statement added that Ukrainians have made a "conscious choice and shown a high level of political interest." PM

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on March 28 that the opposition in Belarus deliberately provoked a violent reaction by the security forces three days earlier, news agencies reported. "It's clear that the opposition provoked the government to take violent action and thereby created a wave of criticism in the West against the government in Minsk," the statement added. The ministry considers the protests in Minsk to be "a failed attempt to repeat the opposition's tactic during presidential elections in certain other countries [such as Ukraine and Georgia]. Again, instead of acknowledging one's opponent's victory in a civilized way, a gamble was made on [playing to] emotions on the street in an attempt to have one's way, not by popular choice, not at the ballot box, but beyond the legal framework." President Putin congratulated Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on March 20 on his "reelection victory" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). PM

A U.S. State Department spokesman said on March 28 that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has asked Russia to conduct an investigation into a Pentagon report that Moscow provided intelligence on American military movements to Iraq at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, news agencies reported. The spokesman added that Rice spoke on the telephone to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov about the alleged intelligence-sharing between Russia and Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27 and 28, 2006, and "Russia: Washington, Moscow Spar Over Pentagon Report On Iraq Spying,", March 28, 2006). Rice subsequently said that Washington "will look for an answer back from the Russian government once -- hopefully -- they've had a chance to look into it. It's obviously a very serious matter, and we are taking it up with the Russians." On March 29, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement in which it repeated Moscow's "surprise and regret" that the United States made the charges public through the media instead of taking the matter up directly with the Russians," Interfax reported. PM

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on March 28 denied a report published that day in "Kommersant" that he wants to set up an agency to lobby on behalf of Russia in Germany, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). Schroeder said that he "never proposed the creation of a [public relations] firm or advertising agency. We are talking about the establishment of a German-Russian think tank that would examine ways to improve relations as part of a joint strategic partnership." PM

The Moscow Arbitration Court on March 28 named Eduard Rebgun, who belongs to the external management body of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, as temporary external manager of the once-mighty Yukos oil company, Russian news agencies reported. The move brings Yukos once step closer to being declared bankrupt, which a consortium of creditor banks wants. A court is slated to rule on the matter in June. Also on March 28, the state oil company Rosneft, which recently bought some of Yukos' debt, asked the court to declare that company bankrupt. Yukos' former chief executive, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the remote Chita Oblast for fraud and tax evasion after a trial that was widely viewed as politically motivated and engineered by the Kremlin. Russian courts have also placed some of his closest associates behind bars (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16 and 20, 2006). PM

The state gas company Gazprom will receive a loan totaling more than $1.5 billion from the foreign banks ABN AMRO and Calyon, RIA Novosti reported on March 28. The money will be used to refinance two loans dating from 2004. PM

The self-styled Ingush Shari'at jamaat comprising Chechen and Ingush militants has claimed responsibility for the February 27 abduction of Ingush parliamentarian Magomed Chakhkiyev, reported on March 28, citing the Chechen resistance website Kavkaz-Tsentr (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1 and 2, 2006). The jamaat explained that it snatched Chakhkiyev "in retaliation for his complicity in the genocide of Muslims and for collaborating with an occupying regime." Chakhkiyev is the father-in-law of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov and of republican Prosecutor Makhmud-Ali Kalimbetov. In an interview with "Moskovsky komsomolets" published on March 27, Zyazikov said he knows the identity of Chakhkiyev's abductors, whom he characterized as "people with a vested interest in destabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus." LF

Senior U.S. and Armenian officials signed the agreement in Washington on March 27 under which Armenia is to receive some $235 million within the framework of the Millennium Challenge program, Noyan Tapan reported on March 28. Speaking at the signing ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the agreement is "a testament to the hard work and dedication of the Armenian people and their elected government," and she urged Yerevan to deepen democratic reform, noting that the Armenian authorities have pledged to ensure that the parliamentary and presidential elections due in 2007 and 2008, respectively, are truly democratic. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian for his part affirmed that "our democratic and economic reforms are irreversible," Noyan Tapan reported. He noted that even though one-third of Armenia's population lives in poverty and many rural communities do not have mains water supplies, Armenia has nonetheless registered consistently high economic growth and is "ranked first in the world in the best utilization of foreign assistance." The Millennium Challenge Account funds are intended first and foremost to help alleviate rural poverty by upgrading dilapidated irrigation networks and repairing rural roads. LF

Four Azerbaijani opposition parties and one political organization aligned on March 28 in a new bloc named the Center for Political Coordination, and reported the following day. The five are the Umid party chaired by parliament deputy Iqbal Agazade, the wing of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party headed by that party's former chairman Etibar Mammadov, the National Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (the former Gray Wolves) chaired by Iskander Hamidov, the Taraggi party, and the Movement for National Rebirth. The bloc's primary objectives are promoting democratic reform, lobbying for constitutional change, and protecting Azerbaijanis currently living and working abroad. Hamidov noted that the sole surviving opposition bloc, Azadliq, does not represent the entire opposition, and that the new center seeks to bring together those persons who played a key role in securing Azerbaijan's independence, by which he probably meant himself and Mammadov, a former key activist of the Azerbaijan Popular Front. LF

Inmates of Prison No. 5 in Tbilisi where the Georgian authorities claim to have suppressed a riot and averted a mass jail break early on March 27 have denied that any such riot took place, a lawyer for one of those prisoners told Caucasus Press on March 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27 and 28, 2006). The lawyer quoted prisoners as saying that police opened fire on unarmed prisoners after unspecified "excesses" on the part of Bacho Akhalaya, head of the Justice Ministry's department that oversees prisons. Akhalaya was accused of triggering a protest at the Rustavi Penal Colony in January by forcing prisoners to strip naked and run around in the snow in sub-zero temperatures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2006), and is said to have beaten an inmate at Prison No. 5 shortly before the March 27 disturbances while either drunk or under the influence of drugs, allegations that parliament deputy Elena Tevdoradze rejected. NGOs and prisoners' relatives picketed the Justice Ministry on March 28, calling for Akhalaya's dismissal. The Justice Ministry made public on March 28 a list of the names of the seven prisoners killed during the disturbances. Speaking with journalists the same day, Akhalaya rejected allegations that the death toll was between 20-50, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Following the arrest of presidential administration official Simon Kiladze on charges of espionage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006), Mikheil Saakashvili vowed to guarantee the security of all agents in Georgia of foreign powers who surrender to the Counterintelligence Agency by May 1, Caucasus Press reported. He said the intelligence services have information about a "large number" of people engaged in espionage. LF

Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava told journalists in Vladikavkaz on March 28 that the session that day of the Joint Control Commission was "very important," Caucasus Press reported. Taymuraz Kusov, who represented North Ossetia at the meeting, said agreement was reached on setting up a commission that will estimate the extent of the damage inflicted on South Ossetia during the conflict, set about reconstruction, and expedite the return of refugees and displaced persons to their homes, reported. No agreement was reached, however, on the future of the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the conflict zone, whose withdrawal the Georgian parliament has asked the government to expedite (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2006). LF

Deputy parliament speaker Mikhail Machavariani has asked Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili to brief legislators on the likely impact of Russia's recently announced ban on the import of Georgian wine, Cauasus Press reported on March 29. Georgia exported 26 million bottles of wine in 2005; according to Machavariani, Russia accounts for 90 percent of those exports. LF

Kazakhstan's unregistered Alga opposition party is suing the Justice Ministry over the ministry's refusal to register the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2006), Channel 31 reported on March 27. The ministry refused to register Alga because it determined that 4,500 of the 62,000 signatures Alga presented in support of its application were invalid, the report said. Alga argues that the law requires it only to present 50,000 valid signatures, while the ministry asserts that it has the right to deny registration if even a single signature is invalid. DK

Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a decree on March 28 dismissing Kamaltin Mukhamedzhanov from the post of environment minister, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on March 28. The report said that Mukhamedzhanov, who was appointed to the position on January 19, was removed at his own request. Mukhamedzhanov previously served as governor of Karaganda province. DK

Nazarbaev has signed a decree removing Bulat Utemuratov from the post of secretary of Kazakhstan's Security Council and appointing him presidential property manager, Kazinform reported on March 28. DK

OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said on March 28 in Bishkek that the OSCE is "opposed to the extradition of the four Uzbek refugees who are still being detained in Kyrgyzstan," Kabar reported. The four fled Uzbekistan after violence in Andijon in May 2005 but have been in legal limbo since they were detained in Kyrgyzstan. DK

Also on March 28, De Gucht met with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev to discuss future cooperation between the OSCE and Kyrgyzstan, Kabar reported. Bakiev commented, "I would like to note our effective cooperation in the economic, political, and other spheres." At a press conference the same day, De Gucht outlined the OSCE's priorities in Kyrgyzstan. He said, "Of key importance for us are the fight against corruption in Kyrgyzstan, law-enforcement reform, the fight against money laundering and organized crime, the reform of criminal law, and the development of transportation cooperation." DK

Russia's Gazprom and Tajikistan's Energy Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding on March 28 to form a joint venture to develop natural-gas fields in Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Gazprom head Aleksei Miller met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov in Dushanbe the same day. The Russian side will hold a 75 percent stake in the company, while Tajikistan will hold 25 percent of the venture. The new company will develop four gas fields in Tajikistan's Shahrinav, Rudaki, Farkhor, and Danghara districts. Oqilov said that the Sariqamash field, located in Shahrinav, has estimated reserves of 40 billion cubic meters, while the Sargazon field, located in Danghara, has estimated reserves of 30 billion cubic meters, ITAR-TASS and Avesta reported. A Tajik government source told Avesta that Gazprom plans to participate in developing all of Tajikistan's oil and gas deposits. Miller said that Gazprom's initial investment in the joint venture will be $6 million, with additional investments to be announced soon, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

Some 500 of those arrested in Minsk on March 23, 24, and 25 stood trial in nine district courts in Minsk on March 27 and 28 and were jailed for up to 15 days under an article penalizing the organization of or participation in unsanctioned rallies, Belapan reported. Further trials were expected to take place on March 29. Human rights activist Uladzimir Labkovich claimed that the Belarusian authorities are violating the UN Convention Against Torture. "People were beaten up and threatened when they were arrested. They were not given food and even water for many hours, and not allowed to go to a lavatory," Labkovich alleged. "Transporting people in paddy wagons, handcuffing them like dangerous criminals, forcing them to stand with their faces against the wall in courts, ordering them not to report their names -- these are all torture. Torture is also being applied to their parents. They are denied information about their children's whereabouts for several days." Belarusian human right defenders have reportedly drawn up a list of 53 judges all over Belarus who handed down jail sentences to pro-democratic activists during the country's presidential campaign and ensuing protests. They defenders are going to suggest that these judges be banned from traveling to the EU. JM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was shown on Belarusian Television on March 28 during a government conference devoted to improving the performance of the state administration. It was Lukashenka's first public appearance since his news conference on March 20, when he briefed journalists on the March 19 presidential vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). "All political battles are over," Lukashenka said on March 28. "There is peace and order in the country, as it was before, despite some outbursts [of unrest] with which the law enforcement bodies -- they're fine fellows -- dealt very swiftly and neatly." Lukashenka also said he does not like his portraits being displayed in all state-administration offices and ordered that they be removed. "There is no need for these portraits, [no need for] rebukes that we have a leader mania here and so on. And in general, I can hardly stand it," Lukashenka told his ministers. JM

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel on March 28 protested the way in which the Belarusian government held the March 19 presidential election. However, he was denied entry to the Belarusian Embassy in Prague when he attempted to personally present his protest along with a call for Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to step down, CTK reported. Havel left his letter in the embassy's mail box. Havel was accompanied by three Czech lawmakers who jointly with other Czech public figures and politicians founded the Civic Belarus group to support the Belarusian opposition. Havel said the reaction of the Belarusian Embassy reminded him of the year 1979. "[At that time] my British colleagues Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter protested against my imprisonment [by the communist regime in Prague]. They, too, brought their protest to the [Czechoslovak] Embassy. They, too, had to cast it in a mail box," Havel said. JM

Ukraine's Central Election Commission reported on March 29 that, with 94.5 percent of the ballots counted, the Party of Regions is leading the parliamentary elections held on March 26 with 31.5 percent of the vote, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The Party of Regions is followed by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc with 22.4 percent of the vote, Our Ukraine with 14.4 percent, the Socialist Party with 5.8 percent, and the Communist Party with 3.6 percent. Of all other blocs and parties that participated in the elections, the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc and the Lytvyn People's Bloc -- with 2.8 percent and 2.5 percent of the vote, respectively -- are the closest to overcoming the 3 percent barrier qualifying for parliamentary representation. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on March 28 held separate meetings with Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych; Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous political bloc; and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz to discuss the postelection situation and the formation of a future coalition in parliament, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "I can say that today's meeting with the president testifies that the path [toward restoring an Orange coalition] is absolutely possible, and we are beginning today to conduct practical consultations and make steps toward rapprochement," Tymoshenko told journalists. Moroz said of his meeting with Yushchenko that, "We have not reached any agreement with anybody, as there are only preliminary talks.... Since there are no official returns from the elections, there can be no final documents on the coalition." The Party of Regions press service reported that Yushchenko and Yanukovych agreed that "the elections were democratic and transparent although there were flaws in organization, and as a result, a lot of citizens were unable to vote." JM

Ollie Rehn warned Serbia on March 28 that time is running out for them to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, Reuters reported the same day. "I hope Serbia will be able to find the required political courage to achieve this important objective.... Time is running out," he said in an interview with Reuters. EU officials have said that Serbia's talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU could be derailed if Mladic isn't arrested. The next round of talks on the SAA is scheduled to start on April 5, a date which is also widely seen as the deadline for arresting Mladic. BW

In the same Reuters interview, Rehn acknowledged that fears of a nationalist backlash following the death of former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic have made Belgrade's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) more difficult. "Recently there has been a certain deterioration rather than serious progress in cooperation with the ICTY," he said. "I know the political atmosphere in Belgrade is very sensitive at the moment and Serbia is facing a number of major challenges this year." Serbian President Boris Tadic has also said that Milosevic's death in ICTY custody has created problems for Serbia's cooperation with the tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). BW

Testifying in a genocide lawsuit Bosnia-Herzegovina has filed against Serbia and Montenegro at the International Court of Justice, two top British generals disagreed whether Belgrade controlled the Bosnian Serb army during the 1992-95 war, AFP reported on March 29. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the former commander of the British forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, testified that the Bosnian Serb army was controlled by Belgrade. "We do see a degree of delegated operational control from Belgrade to the [Bosnian Serb army], as one would expect of an apparently independent army, but both armies were operating to a common intent, originally orchestrated and predominantly orchestrated from Belgrade," he said. But General Michael Rose, a former UN commander in Bosnia who testified on behalf of Belgrade, said there was no "formal agreement" that the Bosnian Serbs were under Belgrade's command. "My impression was that materiel support was being given in terms of fuel, ammunition, reinforcements of soldiers being recruited 'voluntarily' to fight for the army of Republika Srpska in Serbia, but there was no formal military command arrangement." BW

In the same testimony, Rose told the court that future generations of Serbs should not be forced to pay for crimes committed during the 1992-95 war, AFP reported on March 29. "I believe that to punish successive generations of young Serbs who are trying to put the past behind them for crimes, however atrocious, that were committed by a government, which many of whose leaders are either dead or here in The Hague, is not conducive to peace, particularly when the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, at the time, was party and complicit to war crimes," Rose said on March 24. Both Rose's and Dannatt's testimony were made public on March 28. The court had forbidden the publication of details of witness testimony before the first round of testimony concluded. BW

UN police in the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica in northern Kosova closed the main bridge on March 28 after protests following the stabbing of a Serbian man, Reuters reported the same day. According to police, the 19-year-old Serb was "seriously wounded" after being stabbed in the stomach on the bridge linking the town's ethnic Serbian and Albanian communities. According to Reuters, witness accounts said the assailants crossed over from the Albanian side, but police could not conform this. In March 2004, fighting at the bridge sparked two days of Albanian rioting across Kosova in which 19 people were killed and hundreds of Serbian properties were destroyed. BW

Albert Rohan, the Austrian diplomat chairing final-status talks on Kosova, has called for more "realism" from both Serbs and ethnic Albanians, dpa reported on March 28. In remarks quoted by the Austrian parliamentary press service, Rohan said the talks will not automatically result in an independent Kosova. He also said Prishtina needs to improve the treatment of the Serbian minority in the province. Addressing Kosova's Serbs, Rohan said they need to participate in the province's public institutions and warned that further boycotts of political life would be counterproductive. Rohan, who is deputy to Martti Ahtisaari, the UN envoy to the talks, has been chairing direct negotiations on the province's future in Vienna. BW

Relations between Iraq's Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and the U.S. government continued to sour this week following allegations that U.S.-backed Iraqi forces opened fire on a group of worshippers inside a Baghdad mosque on March 26. The incident follows months of increasing tension between the UIA and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Shi'ite supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told RFE/RL on March 28 that they are now pushing for Khalilzad's resignation. UIA members Baha al-Araji and Abbas al-Bayati denied the claim, telling RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) on March 28 that they do not want Khalilzad to resign, but they cautioned that the ambassador should take a less aggressive approach.

Nevertheless, the crisis threatens to further stall the political process. Shi'ite leaders suspended talks with other parties on the forming a new Iraqi government on March 27.

Relations between Khalilzad and the UIA have been worsening for months. In October, Shi'ite leaders resisted the ambassador's pressure to meet some Sunni Arab demands over the draft constitution in an effort to bring them on board prior to the constitutional referendum. The Shi'a grudgingly capitulated after the Kurds negotiated an agreement allowing for the draft to be reviewed during the next government's first four months. But soon after, Shi'ite politicians began suggesting that they might renege on that agreement.

In November, Shi'ite leaders resisted attempts to bring some Sunni Arab groups into the mainstream political dialogue at the Arab League-sponsored meeting on national reconciliation in Cairo.

The same month, Khalilzad strongly criticized the Shi'ite-managed Interior Ministry after U.S. forces uncovered a torture chamber inside a ministry prison in Baghdad. Khalilzad has since said that the ministry, currently run by Shi'ite leader Bayan Jabr, should be free of sectarian tendencies. Jabr has labeled such comments "interference."

Khalilzad has since supported calls by Sunni and Kurdish leaders rejecting the UIA's nomination of Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to retain the premiership, drawing further fire from the Shi'a, who alleged that the United States is trying to influence the shape of the next Iraqi government.

The Shi'a also resisted postelection proposals for the formation of a national-unity government. Khalilzad's pressure on the Shi'a prompted Prime Minister al-Ja'fari to tell reporters on February 21 that any decision to form a national-unity government would not be made "in compliance with the demand by an ambassador or something like that" but rather because Iraqis chose so.

When Khalilzad claimed that Iran was wielding too much influence on Shi'ite political parties, UIA leaders countered by saying the claims were part of a U.S. effort to lessen the alliance's power in the government.

Now, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) member Rida Jawad Taqiy has claimed that U.S. President George W. Bush has personally tried to intervene in that process. "George Bush sent a letter via Khalilzad to Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, as head of the alliance, telling him that George Bush does not wish or want Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to be prime minister," Reuters quoted Taqiy as saying on March 28. An unidentified spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy denied the claim, the news agency reported.

As the crisis between the UIA and the United States intensifies, the United States stands to lose more credibility among Iraqis. Shi'ite-dominated media, including state-run Al-Iraqiyah television, have devoted much of their broadcasting this week to the March 26 operation, sparking further anticoalition sentiment in the streets.

The UIA views its position in the government as its natural right, as the alliance that represents the majority of Iraqis, and after winning the December parliamentary elections. Its rejection of power sharing through a national-unity government can be seen in this light.

However, the UIA is probably willing to compromise on some sort of power-sharing agreement (its leaders claim they support a national-unity government) but would only be willing to do so on its terms. That means maintaining control of key ministries, including the Interior Ministry and the Oil Ministry.

With regard to Iran, the UIA sees Iraq's eastern neighbor as an ally rather than a threat, and views the U.S. rhetoric as part of the 27-year standoff between those two countries rather than any real threat to Iraq's security. Moreover, given the UIA's historic relationship with Iran, which sheltered the UIA leadership from Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and 1990s, the alliance is not likely to subscribe to the U.S. point of view on Iran anytime soon.

To the UIA, Iran offers a counterweight to the Ba'athist insurgency. As SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim told CNN this week, Iran is important to Iraq's security. "First of all, they've got strong and capable security forces. They can help in controlling the borders," he was quoted on March 27 as saying. "Secondly, they've got a lot of information that would benefit Iraq regarding terrorism operations. And third, we can benefit from the experiences of all neighboring countries."

As more information comes to light regarding the March 26 U.S.-Iraqi military operation, Iraqis may further question U.S. goals in Iraq. RFI reported that the operation was carried out by Iraqi commando forces linked to the army, but separately trained and working under U.S. military control.

"What these forces have done is considered an organized crime that has serious political and security dimensions that seek to trigger civil war to serve political ends aimed at manipulating current political formulas during critical political circumstances" surrounding the formation of a national government, Islamic Al-Da'wah Party member Jawad al-Maliki told reporters at a March 27 press briefing in Baghdad, RFI reported the same day.

According to Shi'ite leaders, U.S. forces entered a mosque on March 26, tied up the worshippers, tortured some, and then opened fire on them, killing at least 16. The U.S. military denies the charges, saying that the military operation targeted a building complex, not the mosque in question, adding that military forces only opened fire after being fired upon by insurgents holed up inside the building.

"U.S. troops besieged the Al-Mustafa Husayniyah [Shi'ite religious center] in the Al-Sha'b area [of Baghdad]. They stormed the husayniyah and besieged worshippers. There is an office for the [Islamic] Al-Da'wah Party in this husayniyah as well. The U.S. troops went in and opened fire on the worshippers who were in one room, resulting in the martyrdom of 16 to 17 people. Three were wounded. Afterward, the U.S. troops detained the rest of the worshippers in the husayniyah," Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, a spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Al-Arabiyah television on March 26.

"The building complex that was attacked was blocks away from the Mustafa Mosque. This operation was led by Iraqis who confirmed that this was not a mosque, and at no time did they enter any mosque or damage a mosque in any way," U.S. Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli said in an undated press release on

President Jalal Talabani said on March 27 that he will head an investigation into the incident. Meanwhile, Baghdad's municipal council has suspended all contacts with U.S. forces to protest the operation.

Suspected neo-Taliban guerilla fighters on March 29 killed a U.S. and a Canadian soldier in fighting in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported. The U.S. military and Canada's Department of National Defense said four other U.S.-led coalition soldiers and an Afghan soldier were wounded when militants attacked U.S.-led forces at a military base in Helmand Province. The U.S. Army said it believed at least 12 militants were killed when U.S.-led forces launched a counterattack, which included air strikes. MR

Roadside bomb blasts in southern Afghanistan on March 28 left 11 dead, AFP reported. In one incident, "two foreign nationals, their two Afghan bodyguards and their Afghan driver were killed in a roadside remote-controlled bomb attack" as their car traveled through Nimroz Province, Nimroz Governor Ghulam Dusthaqir Azad said. A local official said the foreigners were from South Africa, but there was no confirmation of this. In a separate incident, six Afghan soldiers died in Helmand Province when a roadside bomb exploded amid a convoy of troops and police as it was traveling through Sangin district. Afghan army General Rahmatullah Raufi confirmed the incident. MR

Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged neo-Taliban fighters on March 28 to break with militants in the region and join the government reconciliation process, AFP reported. "You should know that those who give you weapons and tell you to go and kill teachers, destroy your land, those people want to keep you as their slaves," Karzai said during a visit to the eastern province of Zabul. "I call on you to come and to take part in the reconstruction of your country and not to destroy your land." Karzai added: "Once again I call on those Taliban who have not come [into the peace process] to come and rid themselves from being slaves of others." Karzai also renewed calls on Pakistan to help fight terrorism. "Our hope from our neighbors, especially Pakistan, is that we will fight terrorism together. Peace in Afghanistan is their peace," Karzai said. Afghanistan has repeatedly accused Pakistan of harboring militants involved in the Afghan insurgency in the tribal areas bordering the country. MR

A suicide bomber blew himself up on March 28 in Kandahar, killing himself and an accomplice, AFP reported. Assadullah Khalid, the provincial governor, said the bomber detonated the bomb "just after police tried to stop them." Khalid said the police were acting on a tip that the two men were preparing "to attack a government target." No one else was hurt in the explosion. Suicide bombings, once unheard of in Afghanistan, have become increasingly common in recent months, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the country. MR

Freed Afghan Christian convert Abdul Rahman remained in hiding on March 28, and the Italian governmnet has said it will soon consider extending him an offer of asylum, AP reported. Afghan Justice Minister Mohammad Sarwar Danish said Rahman is in a "safe location" in Kabul. Afghan authorities dropped the charges of apostasy against Rahman under intense pressure from Western states, who voiced outrage at the death sentence that Rahman faced. Before disappearing from public view, Rahman said he planned to leave Afghanistan as some conservative religious leaders have called for his death. In Rome, the Italian government said Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini will raise the issue of asylum for Rahman at a cabinet meeting on March 29. Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu expressed support for Fini's proposal. Italy was for 30 years home to former Afghan King Mohammad Zaher Shah, who lived with his family in exile in Rome. MR

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said on March 28 that the five permanent members of the Security Council are "very close" to reaching agreement on a statement on Iran's nuclear program. Diplomats say Britain and France, backed by the United States, have distributed a new proposal for a Security Council statement demanding that Iran stop uranium enrichment, a process that can help produce a nuclear bomb. The five veto-holding members of the Security Council -- the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China -- are trying to reach agreement ahead of a meeting of their foreign ministers, plus Germany, in Berlin on March 30. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said on March 28 that it is important for the council "to speak soon" and "to speak clearly." Earlier on March 28, Britain's ambassador to the UN, Emyr Jones Parry, told Reuters that the five permanent members of the Security Council were "progressing...quite well" on the text of a statement. France's envoy to the UN, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, agreed Security Council members were "making progress," Reuters added. Separately, Friedrich Groening, the head of arms control at the German Foreign Ministry, told Reuters on March 28 that the Berlin meeting will not discuss any sanctions or a "military option" against Iran for alleged nonproliferation violations. "It is still diplomacy and it is not -- I repeat -- talking about sanctions," he said. Also on March 28, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Yasuj, in Iran's southwestern province of Kohkiluyeh va Boir Ahmad, that Iran remains firm "over the full realization of its rights in peacefully using nuclear energy," ISNA reported. "You must know," he said, addressing Western states, that Iranians "will not make you the slightest concession" and "are not concerned that you are angry, and will give you your answer with clenched fists," ISNA reported. VS

The head of the Management and Planning Organization, Farhad Rahbar, said Iran may restrict use of car fuel for a six-month period before March 2007 to cut costly fuel imports caused by Iranians' excessive fuel consumption, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on March 28. Economist Fereidun Khavand says Iran spent about $4.5 billion importing about 30 million liters of gasoline in the Persian year to March 2006. Rahbar's reported comment, he said, is a response to the fact that parliament has allocated no more than $2.5 billion to cover fuel imports in the Persian year to March 2007. ISNA quoted the head of the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company, Hassan Zia-Kashani, as saying on March 18 that Iranians used 66.9 million liters of gasoline in the year to March 2006, and are expected to use about 74 million liters in the year ahead. He said the government has not yet issued directives restricting fuel, ISNA added. VS

Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, the head of Iran's judiciary, told members of northeastern Khorasan Province's chamber of commerce on March 28 that "judicial officials today see support for the country's economic progress as one of their main duties," ISNA reported. He said that "those who have doubts over the private sector should know that most cases of corruption and abuse are in the state sector, and one must trust the private sector." He said Iran's economy had suffered due to the distrust between the state and private sectors in the past, and the private sector should consider itself part of the state apparatus -- since it shares the aim of making Iran prosperous -- "and help the government in its executive activities," ISNA reported. He urged the formation of a central body that would include representatives of the private sector, government officials, and members of the judiciary to discuss related issues and maintain dialogue. He dismissed the idea that Iran's polity opposes private enterprise: "All this comes from enemy propaganda, which wants to create divisions among social institutions." VS

Abdolfattah Soltani, a lawyer released in early March after seven months in detention, is to be tried on April 5 by a Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Radio Farda reported on March 28. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, one of a team of lawyers representing Soltani, told Radio Farda that "the sum of his charges indicate some form of political crime." Soltani, he added, is to be tried in a court specially formed for this case, and "there is no sign of any jury, and so far we do not know if it will be an open trial or not." Dadkakh told Radio Farda that Soltani is charged with disclosing nuclear secrets, apparently while defending suspects charged with nuclear espionage. Dadkhah added, however, that one of the interrogators who will be involved in the trial believes the dossier and the evidence available does not warrant the charges brought against Soltani. Dadkhah argued that, in any case, neither legal officials nor attorneys have access to top-secret material in trials. VS

Iran is now Iraq's No. 1 trading partner, according to Industry and Minerals Minister Usama al-Najafi, reported on March 24. Al-Najafi said that while other regional states are weary of engaging with Iraq because of the insurgency, Iran has pressed ahead to expand bilateral trade ties. Iran has become the biggest exporter to Iraq and has recently provided financial incentives to set up large-scale heavy industries, he added, saying some $60 billion is needed to revive the industrial sector. al-Najafi claimed that much of the foreign aid for the sector has been diverted to security. KR

. Armed gunmen wearing military uniforms killed at least eight people and wounded three others during a raid on an electronics store in Baghdad's Al-Mansur neighborhood on March 29, Reuters reported. The attack follows several reports of similar raids that resulted in kidnappings in the capital this week. Masked gunmen wearing military uniforms kidnapped groups of three or more people in brazen operations carried out in broad daylight in Baghdad on March 28, AP reported, bringing the number of known kidnappings this week to over 40. Fifteen gunmen in uniform but driving civilian vehicles stormed a currency exchange at 1 p.m. on March 28 and stole tens of thousands of dollars and millions of Iraqi dinars before taking six people hostage. Around the same time, seven gunmen in civilian clothes entered an electronics store in central Baghdad and kidnapped three employees, though police said no money was taken. A half-hour later, gunmen in 16 civilian vehicles stormed another branch of the electronics store in eastern Baghdad and kidnapped 15 employees. KR

On March 27, 16 employees of an Iraqi trading company were kidnapped in the Al-Mansur neighborhood of the capital, AP reported on March 28. The gunmen in that incident were also dressed in uniforms and driving civilian vehicles. Witnesses and police said the gunmen went through papers and computer files before leaving with the hostages. According to Iraqi media reports, the number of kidnappings carried out each day could be much higher, since many families often do not report the abductions. Iraqi civilians have been targeted in kidnappings since the summer of 2003. Many are held for ransom and released unharmed once ransom is paid. The latest abductions appear to be much more sophisticated than earlier ones, which were attributed to small criminal gangs. KR

Shi'ite leader Rida Jawad Taqiy has claimed that U.S. President George W. Bush asked that the United Iraqi Alliance nominate someone other than Ibrahim al-Ja'fari as prime minister, Reuters reported on March 28. "George Bush sent a letter via [U.S. Ambassador Zalmay] Khalilzad to Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, as head of the alliance, telling him that George Bush does not wish or want Ibrahim al-Ja'fari to be prime minister," Taqiy told the news agency. An unidentified spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy denied the claim. But on March 29 cited an unidentified U.S. official as having confirmed the Bush request. Al-Ja'fari aide Haidar al-Abadi told the daily that al-Ja'fari was not formally informed of the message. "The ambassador is creating an atmosphere of rejection against Dr. Ja'fari by saying the United States cannot work with him," al-Abadi said. KR