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Newsline - April 5, 2006

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told delegates to the 10th gathering of an assembly that brings together Russians from around the world in Moscow on April 4 that his country's global mission is to promote "the idea of tolerance," Interfax reported. "Russia must again play a decisive role in constructing the architecture of international relations. This includes a spiritual role in constructing a balance of forces and interests, and asserting the idea of tolerance in the international arena," he added. Lavrov stressed that "now that the ideological fetters have fallen, we have again acquired real freedom to fulfill our mission in the modern world." He noted that Russia's foreign policy "fully reflects its national and religious uniqueness," adding that one of its tasks is to "protect its uniqueness from the onslaught of globalization." Lavrov warned against any attempts to provoke a conflict between Russia and Islam, calling such attempts "a threat to internal stability in our multi-ethnic state." He noted the importance of bringing "diplomatic policies into line with Russia's national interests." On April 5, Lavrov is slated to begin a two-day working visit to Berlin. PM

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev told the Russian State Duma on April 5 that "Kazakhstan and Russia remain the locomotive of all integration processes in the post-Soviet area," news agencies reported. He added that "there is a clear understanding between our two countries that only together can we respond to the challenges of our time: globalization, terrorism, extremism, [and] drug trafficking." This is Nazarbaev's third meeting with President Vladimir Putin in 2006, following 10 such meetings last year. The two leaders regularly stress the harmonious nature of their political and economic relations. On April 4, Nazarbaev told their joint press conference that "trade turnover is rising, but our experts say it could grow even more if we sorted out tariff issues," by which he meant his call for Russia to unify rail transport tariffs, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. He added that the two sides agreed to double the throughput capacity of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium's 1,500-kilometer pipeline to transport oil from fields in western Kazakhstan to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. Putin added there are opportunities for bilateral cooperation in nuclear power as well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2006). PM

Russian and Kazakh leaders signed documents on April 4 dealing with a variety of bilateral matters, including four protocols regarding Russian use of military testing grounds in Kazakhstan, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported the following day. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that the total area of such facilities will be slightly reduced, and rental fees will drop from $27.5 million annually to $24.78 million. The Moscow-based daily noted that it would cost Russia "a pretty penny" to build alternative facilities in Siberia. President Putin told reporters that 38 documents planned as the foundation for a Single Economic Space (SES) involving Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Ukraine will be signed soon, even if Ukraine does not participate. President Nazarbaev added, however, that "if Ukraine does wish to join in, we will not object." Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko, who is in charge of SES matters, said that a high-level working group will finalize the documents in Minsk on April 14. PM

The Moscow-based daily "Kommersant" reported on April 4 that the high-level delegation from Myanmar (Burma) that recently arrived in Russia wants to place orders for a wide variety of Russian arms and other equipment, including MiG-29 fighters and an air defense system based on Russia's Tor M-1 and Buk M-1-2 systems. Until now, China has supplied 90 percent of Myanmar's weapons imports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). Myanmar is reportedly also interested in extensive training programs. Russia is expected to seek in exchange firm commitments for its companies to explore on-shore and off-shore oil and gas fields. PM

A trial opened in Voronezh on April 4 involving 13 young people charged with attacking foreign students in October 2005 and killing one Peruvian, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). State prosecutor Ivan Kovalyov said that "one person is accused of premeditated murder out of ethnic and racial hatred, and several people are on trial for robbery." In Moscow, a court found three men guilty on April 4 of attacking a Chechen singer and her son in September 2005, reported. Two of the sentences were for "arousing national hatred" as well as beating. Also on April 4, in Vologda, the City Court opened the trial of Anna Smirnova, who is editor-in-chief of the small weekly "Nash region," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17 and 21, 2006). She is charged with inciting national, racial and religious hatred in connection with a February article entitled "The Cartoon War: Viewpoints," which was accompanied by the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad. On April 4, the Moscow-based daily "Novye izvestia" commented that an official campaign against "fascism" and hate crimes is under way in order to channel political protests so that they do not focus on the authorities and to present President Putin's Unified Russia party in a favorable light. PM

Unnamed sources close to Gazprom were cited by the business daily "Vedomosti" on April 4 as saying that the state-owned gas company is negotiating with Georgian tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili to acquire the daily "Kommersant," which is one of the few remaining Russian independent dailies. Talks are reportedly going on via an intermediary since Patarkatsishvili, who is an associate of self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, is himself sought by Russian investigators. Later on April 4, however, Nikolai Senkevich, who heads Gazprom Media, told Ekho Moskvy radio that his company is not negotiating to acquire "Kommersant." Gazprom already owns an extensive media empire including the NTV news channel, a controlling stake in Ekho Moskvy, and the long-established Moscow daily "Izvestia." The website noted that "Russia's opposition media have been reduced to a handful of small-circulation Moscow dailies and internet sites, such as" Some critics have spoken of an increasing "Putinization" of the Russian media, meaning a tendency to show the authorities in a favorable light and focus attention away from controversial domestic political issues and onto foreign affairs, sport, entertainment, or business. PM

Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) President Arsen Kanokov issued a statement on April 4 condemning an apparent attempt the previous evening to assassinate retired General Supyan Beppayev, reported. Beppayev chairs a presidential commission on human rights and the rehabilitation of the repressed nations; he also heads the NGO Alan, which represents the interests of the moderate Balkars who do not advocate splitting the KBR to give the Balkars their own republic (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 6, 2005). Beppayev issued a separate statement on April 4 saying he is convinced the shots fired at him constituted an attempt to exacerbate tensions between the Balkars and Kabardians, and he appealed to the former not to yield to such "provocations," reported on April 5. LF

The Communist and Union of Industrialists factions in the Republic of Adygeya parliament elected last month declined on April 4 to rise to their feet and greet republic President Khazret Sovmen, Russian media reported. Sovmen declared that such lack of respect is unacceptable, said he was prepared to resign at any time, and left the chamber. But his spokesman Abrek Chich later rejected as untrue Russian agency reports that Sovmen submitted a written resignation statement, and added that a second parliament faction (presumably that representing the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, of which Sovmen is the regional head) begged him to remain in his post, according to the website as reported by LF

Artur Baghdasarian expressed regret on April 4 at the Armenian authorities' ongoing campaign to muzzle the independent A1+ television channel that was forced to cease broadcasting four years ago after losing a bid for the frequency it used, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 4, 2002). Baghdasarian said he "misses" A1+ broadcasts and would like to see them resume, but did not offer to help achieve that goal. A1+ has lost 10 tenders for alternative frequencies since 2002, but it will bid again for a radio frequency later this week, its owner and director Mesrop Movsesian said on April 4. LF

Nor zhamanakner (New Times) Chairman Aram Karapetian told a group of several hundred supporters in Yerevan on April 4 that it is imperative to bring about a radical change in public attitudes in 2006 in order to ensure that the parliamentary elections due in 2007 are not merely a "farce" that returns the ruling coalition to power, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He claimed that in order to retain power, Armenia's present leadership is prepared to agree to a solution to the Karabakh conflict that runs counter to national interests. Karapetian argued that Armenia should remain "the closest ally of Russia." LF

The prosecution in the ongoing trial in Budapest of Azerbaijani army officer Ramil Safarov has demanded a 30-year prison sentence, reported on April 5, citing Safarov's lawyer. Safarov is accused of hacking to death with an axe an Armenian fellow participant at a NATO English-language training course in Budapest in February 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19 and 20, 2004). LF

Ruslan Basirli and Ramin Tagiyev, who are chairman and deputy chairman, respectively, of the opposition Azerbaijani youth organization Yeni Fikir (New Idea), launched a hunger strike on April 2 and may refuse to participate in their closed trial, which was scheduled to open on April 5, reported on April 5. The two are charged with attempting to seize power by force, illegal business activity, and collaborating with Armenian intelligence (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 15, 2005). LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry has released a statement implicitly rejecting the March 31 statement by OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht expressing concern about the reports of deaths and injuries during the disturbances at a Tbilisi prison on March 27, Caucasus Press reported on April 4. De Gucht also noted that diverging reports of what actually happened at the prison have contributed to a "lack of clarity," and he called for an independent public inquiry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27 and 28, 2006, and End Note, March 30, 2006). The Georgian Foreign Ministry said the law-enforcement agencies acted "in full compliance with the law" and that the OSCE failed to send a representative to the Justice Ministry press conference on March 28 that provided details of the incident. Also on April 4, the opposition New Rightists (aka New Conservatives) parliament faction urged the Georgian government to accede to De Gucht's proposal to convene an independent inquiry, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Representatives of the opposition Democratic Front and the New Conservative and Industrialist parliament factions met on April 4 to discuss their tactics for a boycott of parliamentary proceedings to protest the parliament majority's March 31 decision to strip Valeri Gelashvili (Republican) of his mandate, Civil Georgia and Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). Gelashvili has been blamed for a fire last month that destroyed a school in Tbilisi he hoped to buy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006). Among the conditions that the opposition may set for resuming its participation in the work of the legislature are an end to the authorities' "high-handed" behavior, the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, direct elections for the post of Tbilisi mayor, and amendments to the Election Law. Meanwhile, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze met separately on April 4 with Zviad Tkemaladze, head of the Industrialists' faction, in an attempt to persuade him not to join the boycott, Caucasus Press reported. Democratic front co-leader Zviad Dzidziguri suggested that President Mikheil Saakashvili may be pressuring Burdjanadze by threatening to arrest her father and husband for questionable business transactions, Caucasus Press reported on April 4. LF

Responding to a proposal from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2006), the UN Security Council voted on March 31 to extend for a further six months, until September 30, the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), Caucasus Press reported. The Security Council resolution also calls on Georgia and Abkhazia "to finalize without delay the package of documents on the non-use of violence and on the return of [mainly Georgian] internally displaced persons and refugees to the Gali district" and to follow up on their stated readiness to arrange a meeting between Georgian President Saakashvili and Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia. It does not, however, stress the need to reach agreement on the status of Abkhazia within a unitary Georgian state, an omission that Georgian Ambassador to the UN Revaz Adamia characterized as reflecting the weakness of Georgian diplomacy, Caucasus Press reported on April 5. On April 3, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement, posted on its website ( welcoming the Security Council resolution. The ministry said Moscow is prepared to continue its efforts to mediate a solution to the Abkhaz conflict, and it characterized Georgia's demand for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone as at odds with the spirit of the resolution. The Russian peacekeepers provide security for members of the UNOMIG, who are unarmed. LF

Kazakh border troops began the South Antiterror 2006 training exercise in South Kazakhstan Province on April 3, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the next day. The four-stage exercises, which are scheduled to last until April 7, will focus on discovering possible terrorist bases, stopping border incursions, freeing hostages, and dealing with the consequences of a terrorist attack. DK

The trial of Aziz Batukaev and 38 other defendants charged in the murder of parliamentary deputy Tynychbek Akmatbaev and three others began in Bishkek on April 4, reported. Batukaev was an inmate in the prison where Akmatbaev, two parliament staffers, and prison-system head Ikmatullo Polotov were killed during a visit in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 2005). The prosecution alleges that Batukaev and his co-defendants controlled the prison where they were held, using it as a base for criminal activities, Kabar reported. But Batukaev's lawyer, Grigory Babenko, said his client denies all the charges against him, reported. Judge Kuban Kaliev postponed the trial until April 11 after it emerged that not all of the defendants had received notice of the charges against them. DK

Prime Minister Feliks Kulov officially stepped down as head of the Ar-Namys Party on April 3, reported the next day. Kulov gave up the post and suspended his membership of the party in keeping with legislation that prohibits officials from combining state service and party activities. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev has signed the country's 2006 budget into law, Kabar reported. The budget, which is effective as of January 1, 2006, assumes revenues of 20.06 billion soms ($487 million), expenditures of 20.48 soms, and a deficit of 421 million soms. DK

Talks in Beijing between Tajik and Chinese delegations have failed to produce an agreement on Chinese loans to fund investment projects in Tajikistan, Avesta reported on April 4. Tajik negotiators proposed four projects totaling $560 million to develop telecommunications, transportation, and energy, but the two sides failed to agree on an interest rate. The Chinese side reportedly wanted an annual interest rate of 3-4 percent, but the Tajik side felt that this would place an excessive burden on the country's budget. DK

Sobirjon Yoqubov, an Uzbek journalist who was jailed one year ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2005), was released from prison on April 3 and has returned to work at the newspaper "Hurriyat," reported on April 4. A court in Tashkent ruled that there was insufficient evidence of Yoqubov's membership of an illegal religious organization. In an April 4 press release, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomed Yoqubov's release but deplored his yearlong detention. "We are relieved that our colleague Sobirdjon Yakubov [Sobirjon Yoqubov] is free, but we are appalled that he spent a year behind bars without knowing on what evidence the authorities had based these serious charges," CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper commented. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 4 made a short appearance on Belarusian Television for the first time in a week, amid rumors that he may have fallen ill following the March 19 presidential vote, international media reported. Lukashenka was shown during a meeting with Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau and Belarusian Ambassador to Poland Pavel Latushka, who was recalled for consultations to Minsk last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). The presidential press service reported that Lukashenka stressed during the meeting that Belarus will stick to its major foreign-policy principles as, he added, it is "open to the world and is interested in cooperation with the world." The participants in the meeting reportedly agreed that "Polish partners are well-aware of the futility of actions aimed at influencing the internal political situation in Belarus." JM

Mikalay Markevich, a journalist currently working with the Polish-based Belarusian-language Radio Racja, has received a foreign-travel permit stamp in his passport following his complaint to the Hrodna Oblast prosecutor's office, Belapan reported on April 4. Markevich told the agency earlier that a local migration and citizenship department in Hrodna had refused to put such a stamp in his passport, citing an order from the Committee for State Security (KGB). Markevich was editor in chief of the Hrodna-based newspaper "Pahonya" before it was banned in 2001. In 2002-03, he served an 18-month "restricted-freedom" sentence over an article that was found insulting to President Lukashenka. JM

Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz on April 4 demanded the immediate release of former Polish Ambassador to Belarus Mariusz Maszkiewicz from a jail in Minsk, Polish media reported. "Mr. Lukashenka, I demand the freeing of the Polish diplomat. I demand this, not only because this is a former Polish ambassador, but also because this is a man who at this moment, now, requires medical care," Marcinkiewicz said during a meeting with the former envoy's father, Jerzy Maszkiewicz, who has gone on a hunger strike and staged a picket outside the Foreign Ministry building in Warsaw, demanding that the Polish authorities press for his son's release. Mariusz Maszkiewicz was arrested on October Square in Minsk on March 24 and sentenced to 15 days in jail for taking part in an unsanctioned opposition protest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). He is reportedly in hospital in Minsk now. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on April 4 failed to swear in six Constitutional Court judges who were appointed to that body by the Congress of Judges and President Viktor Yushchenko last year, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The Party of Regions caucus blocked the parliamentary rostrum as well as the government's and the president's seats in the session hall during the debate on the issue. Yushchenko, who was expected to attend the planned swearing-in ceremony, did not show in the parliament. It was the third time that lawmakers torpedoed the procedure of establishing the judges in office and reactivating the Constitutional Court, which ground to a halt in October. The same day, some Ukrainian media reported that Constitutional Court Chairman Vasyl Malyarenko and four other Constitutional Court judges have tendered their resignations. Some political forces in Ukraine fear that President Yushchenko could use the Constitutional Court to cancel the 2004 constitutional reform, which limits his prerogatives in favor of the parliament and the cabinet. In January, Yushchenko announced that he may seek a referendum on this reform. Meanwhile, the outgoing Verkhovna Rada decided on April 4 that it will convene for its last sitting on April 26, when Ukraine is to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear accident. JM

Party of Regions head Viktor Yanukovych on April 4 called on all other parties that won parliamentary representation in the March 26 parliamentary elections to immediately begin negotiations on the creation of a ruling coalition in Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "We are ready to view and accept such principles for forming the coalition that focus not on the distribution of portfolios but on how to secure economic growth and stability in the country," Yanukovych said. "Stop dividing the country. The people have made their choice and please be good [enough] to take it into account. You cannot divide the parliamentary parties into democratic and undemocratic. By doing this you continue to increase the split in society." Yanukovych was apparently referring to the term "democratic coalition" that President Yushchenko and some other politicians have recently begun using in reference to a potential coalition of the Orange Revolution allies, that is, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party. Yanukovych's Party of Regions came in first in the March 26 parliamentary elections with some 32 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). JM

An adviser to Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), said on April 5 that Ratko Mladic's arrest is imminent, AFP reported. "Believe me, Carla Del Ponte obtained firm guarantees," Anton Nikiforov told the Serbian daily "Blic." Nikiforov added that it is "necessary to prevent any leaking of information about Mladic." He pointed out that "secrecy" was the key to the successful arrest of former Croatian General Ante Gotovina in December. "We are waiting, we'll be in contact this week. I cannot tell you what that means nor whom we'll be in contact with because in that way I'd reveal the methods we're using regarding Mladic," Nikiforov said. BW

Cedomir Jovanovic, president of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was detained on April 4 after failing to appear in court to face libel charges, B92 reported the same day. Jovanovic was summoned to answer charges that he slandered Zoran Sami, the speaker of Serbia and Montenegro's parliament. During an interview with B92's "Insider" program, Jovanovic said he saw Sami visit the headquarters of the Zemun organized crime group. The LDP called Jovanovic's detention a "political lynching" and pledged to contest it in court. "Since the court order was never given to Jovanovic, his arrest was done illegally, and the legal team of the LDP will be filing charges," the LDP said in a statement. "The arrest was a political lynching and persecution of a politician who has opposing opinions from the regime of [Prime Minister] Vojislav Kostunica," the statement continued, adding that Jovanovic's detention "breaks the laws of this nation." BW

The Serbian Radio Transmission Agency announced on April 4 that 12 television stations will compete for Serbia's five national frequencies, FoNet, B92, and AP reported the same day. The agency did not say what criteria it will use in granting the licenses. A decision is expected by July. Companies competing for the frequencies must be represented by Serbian companies and have no more than 49 percent foreign ownership. Among the 12 companies is Fox Televizija, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch's Fox Television. Other competing broadcasters include subsidiaries for Central European Media Enterprises, Sygma TV of Cyprus, and Romania's Pro 5. Major European broadcaster RTL was not allowed to compete because its Serbian branch has foreign majority ownership. BW

Vlado Buckovski said on April 4 that he will meet Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku to resolve a border dispute, AP reported. The former Yugoslavia -- of which Kosova was formally a part at the time -- and Macedonia signed a border agreement in 2001. But Kosova nevertheless claims approximately 2,000 hectares of disputed Macedonian territory. "We're trying to find a way of demarcation [of the border] between Macedonia and Kosovo," Buckovski told reporters in Prague, where he was meeting Czech Prime Minister Jiri Paroubek. Buckovski said he planned to hold talks with Ceku in Skopje to settle the matter. BW

In an effort to curb smuggling, the Albanian parliament passed legislation on April 3 banning speedboats and other small vessels from its coastal waters, the BBC reported the next day. The three-year ban, which excludes fishing boats, will effect approximately 2,000 speedboat owners. Parliament passed it overwhelmingly by a vote of 70-6. Those flouting the ban will face heavy fines. Speedboats have been used to smuggle drugs and people from Albania to Greece and Italy, the BBC reported. The EU has told Albania that if it wants the visa regime for its citizens eased, it needs to tackle the problem of smuggling and human trafficking. "The law affects 1,000-2,000 Albanians who have speedboats, but gives the possibility for thousands of others to be issued visas and go abroad to their children," Prime Minister Sali Berisha said. "That's a price we have to pay." BW

Officials in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region have claimed losses of $75.42 million in one month as a result of new customs rules initiated along the Ukrainian border, Interfax reported on April 4. "This figure is already outdated, as the losses are growing every hour," Transdniestrian Economy Minister Natalia Onilova said. The rules, which require goods crossing the Transdniester portion of the Moldova-Ukraine border to clear Moldovan customs, went into effect on March 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). Moldova and Ukraine say the rules, supported by the European Union, are an effort to curb smuggling. Transdniestrian officials have called them an "economic blockade." BW

Opposition to Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's nomination to serve another term as prime minister is growing within his own alliance, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on April 2. Rumors have circulated for weeks over growing opposition to al-Ja'fari's nomination among some factions within the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). Now, it appears that four out of seven factions within the UIA have come out against al-Ja'fari. In a bold move, two high-profile Shi'ite leaders broke the silence and called on al-Ja'fari to step aside in the interest of national unity.

Qasim Dawud, an independent parliamentarian aligned with the UIA, told RFI in an April 2 interview that al-Ja'fari's refusal to step aside is derailing efforts to form a national unity government. He said talks are under way within the UIA to nominate a new candidate. "I represent a very broad stream within the alliance that supports this policy [of choosing nominees other than al-Ja'fari]. A number of friends have expressed their attitudes, and I await a clear official stance to be formed in a few coming days. That should lead to a revised choice of a new nominee [instead of al-Ja'fari] who would form the Iraqi cabinet," Dawud said.

Shi'ite parliamentarian Jalal al-Din al-Saghir also called on al-Ja'fari to step aside in an April 2 interview with Reuters, saying the nominee to the premiership "ought to secure a national consensus from other lists and also international acceptance." And Islamic Virtue Party member and parliamentarian Hasan al-Shammari said on April 2 that the UIA has formed a committee that will survey the opinions of the parties to the alliance and present a report to the UIA detailing the best way to proceed.

According to Iraqi media reports over the past week, the UIA is considering three options: maintaining its nomination of al-Ja'fari; nominating another candidate; or leaving the nomination of a candidate to the Council of Representatives.

For his part, al-Ja'fari has maintained that he will not give up the nomination. UIA parliamentarian and al-Ja'fari supporter Haidar al-Abadi told Al-Arabiyah television in an April 1 interview that the UIA continues to support the prime minister. "Two days ago, all the blocs comprising the UIA met and unanimously expressed adherence to the mechanism which led to the nomination of Dr. Ibrahim al-Ja'fari for the prime minister's post," al-Abadi said. "These blocs adhere to the nomination and consider al-Ja'fari the UIA's only candidate."

The fact that UIA members have publicly come out against al-Ja'fari after weeks of silence indicates the degree to which support for a new nominee has grown. While the UIA may succeed in tossing out al-Ja'fari's nomination, such a move could have long-term repercussions.

The UIA, which comprises the two main Shi'ite political parties -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and al-Ja'fari's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party -- as well as five smaller political factions, fractured under transitional rule, prompting several prominent party members to leave and form their own parties ahead of the parliamentary elections in December.

With control over Iraq's first permanent post-Saddam Hussein government at stake, and all that comes with that -- federalism, possible amendments to the constitution, determining the status of Kirkuk, and the status of multinational forces -- al-Ja'fari's supporters within the UIA may defect in protest if the UIA repeals its nomination.

Should al-Ja'fari's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party leave the UIA, he would likely be joined by the supporters of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a few independents, which would equal a loss of about 70 seats for the UIA, more than half its current number in parliament.

Should that happen, an alliance comprised of the Kurdistan Coalition List, Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List, and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front and five smaller political parties would be left holding a plurality -- and possibly a majority -- in parliament, controlling between 122 and 143 of the 275 seats.

SCIRI, led by Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, would fight a breakup of the UIA, as it would weaken the party's ability to influence the political scene. In light of the statements against al-Ja'fari, the damage may already be done.

In his first public comments concerning the case against the Afghan man who faced a possible death sentence for his conversion to Christianity, President Hamid Karzai told members of Afghanistan's Supreme Court in Kabul on April 4 that the decision by the court to release Abdul Rahman on the grounds that he is mentally unfit to stand trial was correct, international news agencies reported. Karzai said he is "very happy that our court...made a decision which is proved correct today," according to AFP on April 4. Karzai explained that an article in the German weekly "Der Spiegel" "proved" that the Afghan court was right in declaring Abdul Rahman unfit. Karzai had faced mounting pressure from judges demanding that Abdul Rahman be put to death for apostasy, on the one hand, and from Western backers who were shocked by the prospect of a death sentence for religious conversion in Afghanistan on the other (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 3, 2006). Since Abdul Rahman's release and swift departure to Italy, Karzai has faced criticism from conservative clergymen and from members of the Afghan National Assembly who charged that the president circumvented Afghan laws to please his foreign backers. AT

In his speech before the Supreme Court, President Karzai urged the media not to use the term "talib" (Taliban) for every fighter or terrorist in the country, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on April 4. "Those who kill innocent and Muslim people of Afghanistan, [and] burn schools, are not talibs -- rather, they are terrorists," Karzai said. He added that using the term talib for terrorists and militants would adversely affect true religious talibs in Afghanistan. The term "Taliban" derives from the Persian plural form of the Arabic work "talib," meaning seeker or student. Since coming to power, Karzai has sought -- initially secretly and now openly -- to offer an amnesty to most former members of the Taliban regime. Afghan government officials usually refer to the neo-Taliban -- militants who under the rubric of "Taliban" are fighting Kabul -- as "enemies of Afghanistan" or "enemies of peace and stability." AT

The People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) began confirmation hearings on President Karzai's proposed cabinet on April 4 with the nominees to head the National Defense and Justice ministries, Bakhtar News Agency reported. General Abdul Rahim Wardak (National Defense) and Sarwar Danish (Justice) presented their biographies and plans and responded to questions from legislators. The report did not elaborate on the nature of questions. Karzai amended his cabinet proposal in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). Wardak and Danish have served in similar capacities within Karzai's cabinet. Karzai sought a single, up-or-down vote on his cabinet by the National Assembly, but that proposal was rejected in favor of individual screening of the nominees. AT

Two unidentified Afghan construction workers have been abducted by suspected neo-Taliban militiamen in Zabul Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 4. Provincial police chief Mohammad Nabi Mullakhayl told the news agency that the abductors have demanded the release of one of their comrades in exchange for their captives' release. AT

UNICEF has committed $100,000 to assist young victims of the March 31 earthquake in Luristan Province in western Iran, "Iran" newspaper reported on April 4. Christine Salazar Volkmann, the UNICEF spokeswoman in Iran, said after a visit to the city of Borujerd in Luristan that children had spent several nights out in the cold since the tremors. UNICEF's Iran office has distributed 10,000 cots and 300 tents, "Iran" reported. The UNICEF office added that experts on children's health have been sent to the region. An April 3 statement from the United Nations added that the World Health Organization (WHO) has established an office in Dorud, one of the worst-hit cities, and is sending enough supplies for the treatment of 20,000 people, AP reported. A total of $450,000 has been committed by UN agencies. BS

Tehran's charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, said on April 4 that Iranian-U.S. talks about Iraqi affairs will take place with the participation of Iraqi officials, Radio Farda reported. He said the actual talks will come after a decision on the level at which they will be staged. Kazemi-Qomi said that both Tehran and Washington agree that the formation of a united Iraqi government must take place as soon as possible. He said the Shi'ite parties who won the elections must hold a majority in the government, Radio Farda reported. "Al-Quds al-Arabi," an Arabic newspaper from the United Kingdom, quoted anonymous Shi'ite sources in Baghdad as saying that preparatory discussions for the Iranian-U.S. talks have already commenced between the two countries' intelligence services and their diplomatic representatives in Iraq. The sources asserted that Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary of Iran's Guardians Council, is already in Baghdad for the talks. "Al-Watan," a Saudi daily, on March 26 quoted "well-informed U.S. sources" who said the talks have begun. The sources said the agenda has been set and is restricted to Iraqi affairs but includes formation of a government, U.S. bases, and Iranian intelligence activities. BS

Hussein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute, editorialized in "Kayhan" on April 3 that he warned in an earlier editorial against holding talks with the United States. Shariatmadari noted with approval Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's March 21 speech, in which he "rejected" negotiations with Washington and said Iranian officials will only express their views on Iraq. Shariatmadari said the minimum conditions for holding talks do not exist. He said the sides are to discuss security, for example, but according to the supreme leader the occupation of Iraq is the main cause of insecurity. "How can we negotiate with the occupier of Iraq on security conditions in this country?!" Shariatmadari asked. "Assuming that America may be considered as a party for talks while we do not even think America deserves to be talked to,... negotiating with America on security will be impossible and unreasonable in essence." BS

On the heels of the test-firings of two missiles earlier in the week and during continuing naval war games in the south, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) chief Yahya Rahim-Safavi said on April 4 that his organization's navy can defend Iran's islands in the Persian Gulf, IRNA reported. He added that the navy can launch land-to-sea missiles a distance of 2,000 kilometers. Rahim-Safavi emphasized that Iran wants regional peace and security, and said this is impossible until foreign forces withdraw from Iraq. After the demonstration of the Misaq anti-aircraft shoulder-launched missile the same day, war-games spokesman Mohammad Ibrahim Dehqani said the missile can be neither detected nor intercepted. The other missile that was tested that day, the Kosar, can be fired from a ship or from land at a target on the water. Dehqani stressed that this missile is also difficult to intercept. BS

Saddam Hussein was the only defendant to appear before the Iraqi Special Tribunal when the Al-Dujayl trial resumed on April 5, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Hussein was defiant before the court, refusing to sign his name before the court so that his handwriting could be compared to regime-era documents bearing his signature. He admitted, however, that the documents bore his signature. Hussein also lashed out at the current Interior Ministry, saying it has killed and tortured thousands of Iraqis. When the prosecutor asked Hussein if he saw who shot at him during the attempt on his life in Al-Dujayl, Hussein said no, adding that he was sure, however, that the shots came from the orchards. The prosecution has contended that the shots came from inside the town. Discussing the rapidity of the 1982 attack, he said: "Although I shot at [former Iraqi leader] Abd al-Karim Qassim [in 1959] I didn't have a vendetta against him.... We shot at Abd al-Karim Qassim [and] we only had one minute," adding that the entire assassination attempt against Qassim took some two minutes. With proper planning, two to four minutes is all that would be required for an attack, he said. KR

Hussein defended his approval of death sentences for 148 Al-Dujayl residents before the tribunal on April 5, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. When asked by Chief Prosecutor Ja'far al-Musawi about his signature on the death sentences, Hussein replied, "This is one of the duties of the president," adding that although he could have questioned the sentence, he was sure it was correct. Asked why he didn't return the bodies of the 148 to their families, he gave a confused response, saying they should have been returned, but if the regime had buried them in marked graves and knew where they were, then possibly that was legal under the law. KR

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari told Britain's "The Guardian" that he will not give up his alliance's nomination to remain prime minister, the daily reported on April 5. "There is a decision that was reached by a democratic mechanism and I stand with it.... We have to protect democracy in Iraq and it is democracy which should decide who leads Iraq," he said, referring to his nomination by an internal vote of the United Iraqi Alliance. Outgoing Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi, who lost that vote to al-Ja'fari, called on him to withdraw his candidacy in an April 4 interview with the BBC's "Hardtalk" program. Iraqi Front for National Dialogue head Salih al-Mutlaq told Al-Sharqiyah television in an April 4 interview that if no agreement is reached soon on the nomination of a prime minister, the issue may be referred to parliament for a decision. Meanwhile, President Jalal Talabani told reporters at an April 4 press conference in Baghdad that he expects a national-unity government to be formed in the next two weeks, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. He said the outstanding issues revolve around choosing a prime minister, a president, and a parliament speaker. KR

Judge Ra'id al-Juhi told reporters at an April 4 press briefing in Baghdad that the Iraqi Special Tribunal has completed its investigation into the Anfal case and has referred six defendants to the Higher Criminal Court, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). The defendants identified by al-Juhi are: Saddam Hussein; Ali Hasan al-Majid al-Tikriti, cousin to Saddam Hussein and former secretary-general of the northern bureau of Iraq's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party; former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad; former Lieutenant General and head of military intelligence Sabir Abd al-Aziz al-Duri; Husayn Rashid al-Tikriti, former army chief of staff and secretary-general of the General Command of the Armed Forces; former Industry Minister Tahir Tawfiq al-Ani; and Farhan Mutlaq al-Juburi, a former major general and director of military intelligence in Kurdistan. Hussein's attorney, Najib al-Nu'aymi, criticized the court for bringing the charges in an April 4 interview with Al-Jazeera television. "Raising the issue of Al-Anfal during this period...before the formation of what is called an elected Iraqi government has more political and legal dimensions," he said. KR