RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS ISOLATING HAMAS IS DANGEROUS...
Sergei Lavrov on May 17 called attempts to isolate the Hamas-led Palestinian government counterproductive and dangerous, Interfax reported. "Joint efforts should be taken to assist the Palestinians so that the international community can make its plans to create a Palestinian state reality," Lavrov said. He added that isolating Hamas will benefit those who do not want a Palestinian state. "Such attempts run counter to the position of the international community, the UN Security Council, and the 'Quartet' of mediators, which want two independent states, Israel and Palestine, to live side by side in peace and security," he said. Russia announced this week that it will continue dialogue with Hamas despite efforts by the United States and the European Union to isolate the militant group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006). BW
...URGES IRAN TO REACT CONSTRUCTIVELY TO NUCLEAR PROPOSALS
Also on May 17, Lavrov urged Iran to respond constructively to new proposals that could resolve the ongoing standoff in connection with its nuclear ambitions, Russian and international news agencies reported. "Now such proposals are being prepared and we will support such an approach, counting on Iran responding constructively," Interfax and Reuters quoted Lavrov as saying. "At least, it is our deep conviction that this is the only way to resolve the situation," he added. The EU is reportedly ready to offer Iran a light-water reactor and other incentives if it agrees to freeze uranium enrichment. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on May 17 ruled out halting enrichment. BW
RUSSIAN PRESIDENT, GERMAN CHANCELLOR DISCUSS MIDDLE EAST TENSION
In a May 17 telephone conversation, Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed ways to ease escalating tensions in the Middle East, Interfax reported, citing the Kremlin's press service. "The imperative need was stressed...for various forms of efforts on the part of the international community to prevent the further degradation of the situation, help normalize it as soon as possible, and ensure the resumption of the peace process," the press service said. Putin and Merkel also said their countries will coordinate their efforts in the region. Putin also telephoned French President Jacques Chirac to discuss the Middle East situation and the upcoming Group of Eight (G-8) summit in St. Petersburg, Interfax reported the same day. BW
OFFICIAL SAYS RUSSIA PLANS TO CHALLENGE COUNCIL OF EUROPE'S 'DOUBLE STANDARDS'
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on May 17 that Moscow will use its time as chairman of the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers to battle what the Kremlin considers "double standards" within the organization, Interfax reported. When Russia assumes the chairmanship on May 19 it "is not going to make revolutions. It is going to preserve the normal functioning of the organization," Kamynin said. "At the same time, we are going to draw the attention of our European partners to the necessity to fine-tune the activities of the Council of Europe and its bodies in order to prevent the use of double standards, wrong assessments, and unjustified actions as far as Russia and several other European countries, including Belarus, are concerned," he added. BW
RUSSIAN ORTHODOX GROUP PLANS PROTESTS AGAINST 'DA VINCI CODE'
The Union of Orthodox Citizens denounced the film "The Da Vinci Code" on May 17 and announced plans to protest the film, Interfax reported. The group called film, based on a best-selling novel, "a link in a chain of propaganda mass-culture works aimed at persuading the viewer that Jesus Christ was an ordinary person, rather than a God in the form of a man and the Savior." The group's press service said it plans protests against the film "to attract the attention of Orthodox believers to the ever-growing number of offensive attacks on Jesus Christ." BW
ARMENIAN JUNIOR COALITION PARTNER GAINS FURTHER MINISTERIAL PORTFOLIO
Levon Mkrtchian, leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) parliament faction, was named on May 17 to the post of minister of education he held in 1998-99 and again in 2001-03, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Mkrtchian replaces Sergo Yeritsian, who was dismissed after the Orinats Yerkir party of which he was a member quit the coalition government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12 and 15, 2006). The HHD now controls four government ministries. Meanwhile, opposition National Democratic Union Chairman and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian and the independent daily "Azg" both pointed out on May 16 that the June 2003 agreement establishing the three-party coalition government contains a clause stipulating that the coalition ceases to exist should one of its members withdraw. LF
DIPLOMAT CLARIFIES AZERBAIJAN'S POSITION WITH REGARD TO CIS, WTO...
Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmud Mamedquliyev, President Ilham Aliyev's brother-in-law, told journalists in Baku on May 18 that Azerbaijan is not considering the possibility of leaving the CIS, day.az reported. Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, Azerbaijan's partners in the GUAM group, have all hinted that they might do so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12, 2006). Mamedquliyev added, however, that Azerbaijan considers it imperative to streamline the CIS and makes it function more effectively. Mamedquliyev also told journalists that the next round of talks on Azerbaijan's accession to the World Trade Organization will take place in November-December, day.az reported. The daily echo-az.com reported on May 16 that to qualify for WTO membership, Azerbaijan must pass some 22 new laws and amend 10 existing ones, mostly in the spheres of tariffs, services, and intellectual property. It predicted that Azerbaijan could join the WTO in 2010. Day.az on May 6 quoted an Economic Development Ministry official as saying that Azerbaijan must also liberalize its banking, insurance, and telecommunications sectors in order to meet the criteria for WTO membership. LF
RUSSIAN DELEGATION VISITS ABKHAZIA
A delegation from the Federation Council's Defense Committee traveled to Abkhazia on May 16 to assess the role of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone, Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported. The Georgian parliament intends to demand the withdrawal of that force and its replacement by an international contingent; that demand figures on the agenda of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly session scheduled for later this month. Meeting with the Russian parliamentarians on May 16, Abkhaz Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab described the peacekeeping force as "guarantors of peace and stability in Abkhazia." Speaking on May 17 in Moscow at an award ceremony for members of the peacekeeping force, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh similarly said there is "no alternative" to the continued presence of the Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia, and he recalled that since their deployment in 1994, more than 100 have been killed, regnum.ru reported. In the late 1990s, Georgian guerrilla formations operating in southern Abkhazia repeatedly targeted members of the Russian peacekeeping force. LF
KAZAKHSTAN PLANS TO DEVELOP NUCLEAR POWER
Kazakh Environment Minister Nurlan Iskakov told a briefing in Almaty on May 17 that a special group chaired by Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov is at work on a development plan for Kazakhstan's nuclear power industry through the year 2030, ITAR-TASS reported. Iskakov called the construction of a nuclear power plant near Lake Balkhash "one of the top issues on the agenda." Iskakov also noted that Kazakhstan, which has the second-largest reserves of uranium ore in the world, plans to boost uranium production from 5,000 tons a year in 2006 to 17,500 tons a year in 2010, making it the world's top producer. DK
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT APPOINTS NEW HEAD OF ADMINISTRATION
President Kurmanbek Bakiev signed a decree on May 17 appointing Myktybek Abdyldiev head of the presidential administration, akipress.org reported. Abdyldiev was appointed deputy head of the administration on May 11. Abdyldiev served as prosecutor-general until March 2005 and as acting foreign minister in March-May 2005. DK
NEW KYRGYZ SECURITY HEAD OUTLINES PRIORITIES
Newly appointed National Security Service (SNB) head Busurmankul Tabaldiev met with the SNB's top officials on May 17 to lay out priorities under his leadership, Kabar reported. Tabaldiev said that SNB employees should have "Chekist training," and he stressed that future hires will receive this training exclusively at Russian intelligence-service schools. Tabaldiev defined the SNB's primary tasks as countering international terrorism, religious extremism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. DK
UZBEK PRESIDENT CREATES FINANCIAL INTELLIGENCE SERVICE
President Islam Karimov has issued a resolution creating a financial intelligence service within the Prosecutor-General's Office, Interfax reported on May 17. The new service will monitor financial and property transactions, and identify individuals or legal entities engaged in such transactions. The creation of a financial intelligence service is intended to reinforce a January 1, 2006, law on countering the legalization of income from criminal activity and preventing the financing of terrorism. DK
RUSSIAN GAS COMPANY PLANS PIPELINE EXPANSION IN UZBEKISTAN
Aleksandr Ryazanov, deputy chairman of Russian state-controlled gas company Gazprom, told an oil and gas conference in Tashkent on May 17 that Russia plans to expand the throughput capacity of the Central Asia-Center (CAC) pipeline from 50 billion to 70 billion cubic meters a year, Gazprom reported in a news item on the company's website (http://www.gazprom.ru). The CAC pipeline is a crucial conduit for transporting Turkmen natural gas through Uzbekistan on its way to Russia. Ryazanov said that Gazprom plans to sign a production-sharing agreement with the Uzbek government in the first half of 2006 to allow Gazprom to develop gas fields in Uzbekistan's Ustyurt plateau. Gazprom intends to bring production at those fields to 8 billion-9 billion cubic meters a year. The press release did not say when those production figures would be reached. Russia's 2006 imports from Uzbekistan are set to reach 9 billion cubic meters, as compared to 8 billion cubic meters in 2005. DK
U.S. NGO FACES COURT ACTION IN UZBEKISTAN
The Central Asian Free Exchange (CAFE), a U.S.-based NGO, is facing charges in an Uzbek court that it engaged in illegal missionary activities in Uzbekistan, Regnum reported on May 17. At a civil proceeding in Kokand, CAFE employees are charged with making humanitarian assistance to local residents contingent on conversion to Christianity. CAFE has operated in Uzbekistan since 1992. DK
EU COUNTRIES BOYCOTT INTERPOL CONFERENCE IN BELARUS
EU countries have boycotted Interpol's European Regional Conference, which opened in Minsk on May 17, Reuters and Belapan reported. Of the international police organization's 46 European members, the conference was attended by just seven ex-Soviet states along with Bulgaria, Norway, Iceland, Serbia, and Turkey. "Politics should not be mixed with police work. Our choice of site for this meeting has nothing to do with what is occurring in the country. The fact that Interpol is holding a conference in a country does not mean that Interpol approves that country's policies," Interpol Secretary-General Ronald Noble said in Minsk. "They [the boycotting countries] played into the hands of criminals who must be happy now that law-enforcement cooperation between countries becomes that much more difficult," said Belarusian Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau. Navumau is among those on an EU visa-ban list, along with more than 30 other Belarusian officials held responsible for the flawed presidential election in March and the state's crackdown on the opposition and human rights in Belarus. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT WORRIED ABOUT PROTRACTED COALITION TALKS
Presidential spokeswoman Iryna Herashchenko told journalists in Kyiv on May 17 that President Viktor Yushchenko is very concerned over the slow progress of coalition talks and the "wrangling" surrounding them, UNIAN reported. "[We see today that] politicians want to shift the burden of their own disagreements...to the president, they want the president to gather them and conduct talks for them, resolve their internal disagreements and distribute portfolios," Herashchenko added. Herashchenko was apparently referring to Our Ukraine's recent suggestion that Yushchenko be included in its coalition talks with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and the Socialist Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2006). Meanwhile, the Party of Regions led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych adopted a draft coalition accord on May 17 that it wants to propose to other parties that achieved parliamentary representation in the March 26 vote, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) reported. The draft document reportedly proposes giving the post of prime minister in the future cabinet to Yanukovych. JM
ANOTHER UKRAINIAN REGION ADVANCES STATUS OF RUSSIAN LANGUAGE
The Donetsk Oblast Council on May 18 granted Russian the status of a regional language, UNIAN reported. According to the resolution, the Russian language can be used in the region, along with Ukrainian, as "a language of work, record keeping, documentation, and mutual relations among the population, state, and public bodies, enterprises, institutions, and organizations, as well as in education, science, and culture." Similar resolutions have been adopted by the Luhansk Oblast Council, the Sevastopol City Council, and the Kharkiv City Council. Last month, President Yushchenko asked the Justice Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office to look into the legality of such decisions. The status of a regional language is not defined in Ukrainian legislation. JM
SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER APPEALS TO MONTENEGRINS TO PRESERVE UNION...
Ahead of the May 21 independence referendum, Vojislav Kostunica on May 17 appealed to Montenegro not to break away from its union with Serbia, Reuters reported the same day. "Serbia deeply appreciates and respects Montenegro, the Montenegrin people, its long statehood tradition, and the great national heroes who marked its history," Kostunica said in a statement. "Serbia wants to live together with Montenegro in a joint state built on honest and brotherly respect." It was Kostunica's second appeal this week to keep the union together. Speaking in Berlin on May 15, Kostunica asked the EU to help him preserve Serbia and Montenegro, but was urged to respect the referendum's results (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16 and 17, 2006). BW
...AS MONTENEGRIN PRIME MINISTER SLAMS BELGRADE'S RHETORIC
Milo Djukanovic on May 16 said Serbia has become accustomed to bossing former Yugoslav republics around under the guise of protecting the rights of Serbs, B92 and Reuters reported the next day. Speaking in a television debate, Djukanovic said Belgrade's stated concern for the rights of Serbs in Montenegro echoes the rhetoric of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. "These are the same noises we heard in the '90s about Bosnia and Croatia," he said. "I'd have thought 15 years after such a bad experience Belgrade would not make the same mistakes." BW
UN ENVOY TO KOSOVA TALKS SAYS MONTENEGRIN REFERENDUM WILL HAVE NO IMPACT ON PROVINCE
The UN's special envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, Martti Ahtisaari, said on May 17 that Montenegro's upcoming independence referendum will not affect negotiations about Kosova's future, AP reported. "We have known for a long time that this is coming, and we don't think it will have any effect," Ahtisaari said. "This is a separate issue that has a life of its own. The two are not connected." Ahtisaari's comments echo those of Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu, who said on May 16 that the results of Montenegro's referendum will have no impact on Kosova's drive for independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2006). BW
SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO'S FOREIGN MINISTER ASSAILS COURT DECISION TO FREE ALLEGED ASSASSINS
Vuk Draskovic on May 17 described as "criminal" a decision by Serbia's Supreme Court to overturn the convictions of two men who allegedly tried to assassinate him in 1999, B92 reported the same day. On May 16, the court overturned the convictions of Milorad Ulemek and Radomir Markovic, citing procedural violations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2006). Draskovic suggested the ruling might be part of an agreement by Serbian officials to let the pair escape. "It is certain that the doors are completely open to the suspicion that this is the result of an agreement between senior officials of the Serbian Interior Ministry and Security Information Agency made with the operative organizer of the crime," he said. Draskovic added that his Serbian Renewal Party (SPO), a member of Prime Minister Kostunica's ruling coalition, will hold a meeting in the coming weeks to decide how to respond to the court's decision. Draskovic said the SPO may pull out of the government. BW
MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT SAYS RUSSIAN WINE BAN RETALIATION FOR NEW CUSTOMS RULES
Vladimir Voronin on May 17 described Russia's ban on Moldovan wine as retaliation for Chisinau's actions in dealing with the separatist Transdniester region, Interfax reported the same day. "Tensions over Transdniester have played an immediate role in the ban on the import of Moldovan wine to Russia," he said. Specifically, Voronin said the ban imposed in late March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006) was a reaction to new customs regulations Moldova and Ukraine implemented on the Transdniestrian portion of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border in early March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). Russia has described the new rules, which are supported by the European Union as an antismuggling measure, an "economic blockade," a charge Chisinau rejects. "There is no blockade. Tiraspol leaders themselves have isolated the region," Voronin said. BW
UZBEKISTAN SLAMS 'INFORMATION AGGRESSION'
As Western countries marked the first anniversary of the violence in Andijon on May 13 with a renewed commitment to sanctions against the regime of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's state-controlled press lashed out at what it described as "information aggression." But Uzbekistan's year-old "information war" against the West is more than a mere reflection of strained ties and isolation. It is arguably an unabashed affirmation of national sovereignty over international standards of human rights and governance.
In the face of persistent demands from the European Union and United States for an international investigation into whether Uzbek security forces massacred both armed and unarmed protesters in Andijon in May 2005, official statements and articles in the state-controlled media counterattacked along a number of fronts. Some articles suggested that the Uzbek government's foreign detractors are motivated by "envy" and "malice." "Namangan Haqiqati," a local newspaper from Namangan, wrote on May 13 that "our enemies are always envious of our independence, peace, and stability."
In an article the same day in "Mohiyat," analyst Ibrohim Normatov struck a similar note, writing that "Where there is envy, there is malice." Normatov made an apparent allusion to Uzbek official claims that the unrest in Andijon was a foreign-sponsored attempt to ignite a revolution. He claimed that "the malicious ones have raised a hue and cry for one year," adding that "they still cannot forgive themselves that the spark of scandal didn't ignite on the scale of Uzbekistan."
Other arguments imputed a more pragmatic motivation to Uzbekistan's purported foes. Latif Gulamov, chairman of the central council of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Uzbekistan, claimed that "it has become an axiom that the modern 'exporters of democracy'" are interested in "taking control over the region's rich hydrocarbon resources and the routes of exporting them," vesti.uz reported on May 12. Gulamov stressed: "Our country has been the target of information aggression for several years now. It is obvious that geopolitical interests are behind all these 'scenarios.'"
Yet another claim was that Western emphasis on human-rights issues represents an infringement on Uzbekistan's sovereignty. On May 13, press-uz.info published a lengthy comment by Sharofiddin Tulaganov, identified as a specialist from the Politika analytical center, on the 439 Uzbek refugees who were airlifted from Kyrgyzstan to Romania in 2005. Describing the refugees as "pawns" in a political game, Tulaganov commented, "Rising to the defense of these notorious human rights, in fact, all of the puppets in this play made every effort to pressure a country that dared to put up stiff resistance to countries that are crudely interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states."
Tulaganov's argument harked back to comments Uzbek President Islam Karimov made on May 25, 2005. In an interview that would set the tone for much of the official Uzbek response to Western criticisms of his handling of unrest in Andijon, Karimov angrily rejected calls for an independent international investigation. The president asked rhetorically, "Is Uzbekistan an independent, sovereign state?" He then retorted, "They want us to be obedient to them, making us feel like we're the accused." Karimov went on to ask, "Why should we have to give you answers as though we're the accused?" He closed with a phrase that would later provide the title for a book expounding the president's views on Uzbekistan's place in a post-Andijon world: "The Uzbek people will never be dependent on anyone."
In contrast to the Western outcry over the Andijon violence, Karimov was feted on an official visit to Beijing just weeks afterward. In a lengthy article in Toronto's "The Globe and Mail" on March 4, 2006, Geoffrey York noted that Beijing's "red-carpet welcome to Uzbekistan strongman Islam Karimov" and the $600 million oil deal Karimov signed on his post-Andijon trip to China are part of a Chinese approach to foreign relations based on the idea that "the autocracies of the developing world can stand up to Washington's pressure by forming their own profitable alliances and trade." York cited economic ties between China and Sudan, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Iran as other examples of Beijing's "model of moral neutrality."
Russia, which has seen its ties with the West deteriorate in recent years over issues of governance and rights, is also a part of this dialogue. Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the International Relations Committee in Russia's Federation Council, told Interfax on May 17 that Russia is "the only country that is helping Sudan without interfering in its internal affairs." Margelov emphasized, "The self-identification of Sudan as a sovereign state is important for us."
Russian President Vladimir Putin seized on the theme of sovereign strength and outside interference in his state-of-the-nation address on May 10. According to the official English transcript published on the Kremlin's website (http://www.kremlin.ru/eng), Putin argued, "We must be able to respond to attempts from any quarters to put foreign policy pressure on Russia, including with the aim of strengthening one's own position at our expense." He continued, "We also need to make clear that the stronger our armed forces are, the lesser the temptation for anyone to put such pressure on us, no matter under what pretext this is done." Two days later, Putin met in Sochi with Karimov, who clearly sees eye to eye with his Russian counterpart on this crucial issue, "Kommersant" reported on May 12. During the meeting with Putin, Karimov told journalists: "Russia has defended and will defend its interest without looking over its shoulder at anyone or anything. This gives us confidence."
Time will tell whether Karimov's confidence is justified, and, more broadly, whether a loose-knit grouping of states premised on distaste for globalized standards of governance and rights and a hard-nosed commitment to the precedence of local practice and financial ties between elites will cohere into a meaningful bloc. The post-Cold War era, which began with hopes of a less fractious world, is now full of emerging divisions. The nascent bloc of "noninterfering countries" is merely one of them. But because of the strong incentives it offers entrenched ruling elites, it is one to watch.
FEMALE CANADIAN SOLDIER KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN
A Canadian female officer was killed in action on May 17 in Afghanistan, marking the first death of a Canadian woman and bringing the number of that country's deaths in Afghanistan to 17, the Toronto-based "The Globe and Mail" reported. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Ottawa that the female officer died in combat against the Taliban in Kandahar Province. Canada currently has 2,300 troops mainly in southern Afghanistan. AT
PAKISTANI SOLDIER KILLED IN SUSPECTED TALIBAN AMBUSH
One Pakistani soldier was killed and four others sustained injuries when suspected pro-Taliban militia ambushed a military convoy in North Waziristan semi-autonomous tribal region of Pakistan on May 17, AFP reported. The Pakistani military retaliated, capturing eight suspected insurgents. The attack occurred close to the Afghan border. AT
SUICIDE BOMBER TARGETS UN VEHICLES IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
A suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into two UN vehicles in Kandahar city on May 17, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. The bomber was the only person killed in the incident. It was the first suicide attack against a UN target in Afghanistan since the demise of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Xinhua reported on May 17. AT
CORRUPTION VIEWED AS BIGGEST PROBLEM FOR AFGHAN TRADERS
A recent survey of more than 4,000 traders, investors, and industrialists by the Afghan International Chambers of Commerce in seven major Afghan cities suggests that administrative corruption is the greatest challenge facing businesspeople in the country, the official National Afghanistan Television reported on May 16. After government corruption, respondents cited infrastructure deficiencies, taxes and customs fees, and the government's inability to develop the overall economy as hampering economic growth and increased investment. According to Hamidullah Faruqi, executive director of the Afghan International Chambers of Commerce, research by "international organizations" has also placed administrative corruption at the top of the list of problems facing businesspeople in Afghanistan. "There are claims that around 8 percent of expenses on production and services are because of administrative corruption," Faruqi added. The acting head of the government's anticorruption department, Zabihullah Esmati, said that bureaucratic hurdles and bribery in some governmental departments present problems for traders. AT
COMMERCIAL TRUCKS BURNED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
"Enemies of the nation" burned six trucks carrying commercial goods in Zabul Province on May 17, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. The trucks were traveling from Kandahar to Kabul. The term "enemies of the nation" is among the terms used by the Afghan official media to denote the neo-Taliban. AT
IRANIAN PRESIDENT REJECTS EU INCENTIVES ON NUCLEAR PROGRAM
On May 17, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad emphatically rejected any EU incentives designed to persuade Iran to restrict its nuclear program, saying that "no factor will be able to deprive [Iran] of its nuclear rights, and we shall not accept any suspension or halt," ILNA reported the same day. He told a crowd in Arak, central Iran, that Iran is no "4-year-old child" to give up "gold" for "a few nuts and a chocolate," ILNA reported. "We want nothing more than our legal right," Ahmadinejad said, adding that if nuclear power "is a good thing," then "legally it is for everyone." Iran, he added, will not be cowed by the threat of a "stick over our head." He urged Western states not to allow their conduct to discredit the UN nuclear inspectorate and deter states from joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Separately, Oman's foreign minister is to visit Iran "in the next few days" on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to discuss a peaceful resolution of the dispute over Iran's nuclear dossier, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told Reuters in Washington on May 17. VS
IRAN REJECTS EU-GCC STATEMENT
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi rejected on May 17 a closing statement issued in Brussels by a joint ministerial meeting of the EU and GCC expressing concern over the environmental impact of Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant, to be completed on the Persian Gulf coast, and calling on Iran to respect all International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) resolutions, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 18, citing "Al-Khaleej" and the Iranian Foreign Ministry's press office. GCC ministers also discussed the United Arab Emirates' (U.A.E.) ongoing dispute with Iran over three Persian Gulf islands held by Iran, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. Assefi said Iran's nuclear program is "transparent," peaceful, and regulated by the NPT. He said public opinion expects such meetings to highlight the "danger posed" by Israel and "the accumulation of that regime's nuclear weapons." The islands -- Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs -- are indisputably Iranian, he declared, and past contacts with the U.A.E. have merely sought to clear up "misunderstandings" about Abu Musa. He said Iran believes interference by "third parties" and the "repetitive terms" used in "such statements" do not convey "goodwill" and will not help resolve this "misunderstanding," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. VS
IRANIAN PROSECUTOR WANTS PAKISTAN TO HELP FIGHT BANDITRY
Prosecutor-General Qorban Ali Dorri-Najafabadi said in Tehran on May 17 that Iran and Pakistan must cooperate to catch "the regional elements" he blamed for banditry on Iran's frontiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15 and 16, 2006), ISNA reported. "There is a current in [eastern Iran] called Zarqawi and similar groups, and without a doubt the backing and provocation of foreigners are behind them," he said. These currents "also exist in Pakistan," Dorri-Najafabadi added. He urged "friendly forces," presumably in Pakistan, not to support them "directly or indirectly" as "that would serve neither their interests, nor those of their country or the region." He claimed that Iran is in a "delicate" situation, because the United States "intends to create problems for Iran this year." He said it would distract Iran with problems in the east "so it cannot attain its other aims in the region." Dorri-Najafabadi urged Intelligence Ministry involvement in the fight against drug trafficking, and separately deplored an increase in the smuggling of arms and illegal alcoholic drinks into Iran. He said more than 27,000 weapons were smuggled into Iran in the year to March 2006, up from about 3,300 in 2000, Fars News Agency reported. VS
BUS DRIVERS WRITE TO IRANIAN PRESIDENT
Employees of Tehran's main bus company have written to President Ahmadinejad asking for the government to respect their rights as workers, which they say are enshrined in Iran's constitution, domestic laws, and international treaties, Radio Farda reported on May 17. The signatories state that they are not political but want the right to form an independent trade union. Many of the company's workers went on strike in December over wages and the arrest of colleagues (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," January 9 and February 6, 2006). In the new letter, they ask the president to pressure the Labor Ministry to change labor laws and allow the formation of independent unions, observing that this is a legal commitment for Iran pursuant to international treaties it has signed, Radio Farda reported. Separately, nine women reportedly beaten by police at a Tehran demonstration to mark International Women's Day in March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," March 14, 2006) and six witnesses are taking police to court over the incident, Radio Farda reported on May 17. Participant Khadijeh Moqaddam told Radio Farda the gathering was peaceful and legal. She said lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi will represent the plaintiffs. VS
IRAQI TELEVISION REPORTS DEAL REACHED ON INTERIOR, DEFENSE MINISTERS
A deal has been reached on the nominees for the ministers of interior and defense, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on May 18. According to the state-run television, Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki will nominate Thamir Sultan al-Tikriti as defense minister and Nasir al-Amiri as interior minister. Sultan, a Sunni Arab, is a staff major general who played a key role in restructuring the Defense Ministry in 2004. Little information is available on al-Amiri. Reuters reported on May 18 that al-Amiri has strong ties to the Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which controlled the Interior Ministry under the transitional government. KR
PARTIES OBJECT TO 'SECTARIAN PROCESS' OF APPOINTING IRAQI CABINET
Iraqi political parties continue to voice their opposition to what they call an attempt to allocate ministerial portfolios along sectarian lines rather than on the basis of qualifications, Iraqi media reported on May 17. Sabah al-Sa'idi, spokesman for the Shi'ite party Al-Fadilah, repeated his claim that negotiators continue to nominate individuals "whose failure in the first stage [in previous governments] has been established," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on May 17. He called such tactics "treachery against the poor people who elected those politicians." Al-Sa'idi also contended that more dominant parties still believe they can "impose their will" on smaller, less influential parties, and claimed there is constant foreign interference in the distribution of posts, which he said influenced his party's decision to boycott the talks. Hamid Majid Musa, a member of the secular Shi'ite Iraqi National List, said at a separate press briefing in Baghdad that his bloc is not satisfied with what has been proposed thus far by Nuri al-Maliki and negotiations are still ongoing, RFI reported. The Iraqi National List presented proposals that "conform to its electoral and national platform," he said, which calls for a strong government not based on sectarian quotas. Musa said his bloc remains flexible and has no intention of withdrawing from the government should the negotiations fail. KR
IRAQI SUNNI PARTY SAYS MINIMUM EXPECTATIONS NOT MET
Iraqi Accordance Front spokesman Zafir al-Ani told Al-Jazeera television in a May 17 interview that negotiators from his bloc are not managing cabinet negotiations in a satisfactory manner. The negotiators' concern for their own personal interests have clouded their ability to properly negotiate, he added. Given the "kind of ministerial portfolios offered to [the front], there is now a communal and group feeling that this deal is not a fair deal," he said. "The number and kind of portfolios offered to the front in no way lives up to the popular expectations of the constituencies of the Accordance Front regarding the need to extricate them from the catastrophic circumstances from which they are suffering." The portfolios offered do not even meet the bloc's supporters' minimum expectations, al-Ani added. "I think that the way in which ministerial portfolios are being distributed in no way helps achieve political stability or civil peace." KR
SUNNI POLITICIAN SAYS HIS PARTY HAS WITHDRAWN FROM IRAQI GOVERNMENT
Salih al-Mutlaq, the head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, told Al-Arabiyah television on May 17 that his bloc has withdrawn from the government to protest of the sectarian distribution of ministerial posts. Al-Mutlaq said that despite reports that negotiators are close to finalizing an agreement, huge differences remain. "We held discussions with our brothers in the Iraqi National List and the Iraqi Accordance Front. We made our decision today not to participate in the government on the basis of the current distribution of ministerial posts between the Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds," al-Mutlaq said. He added that the sectarian distribution of posts poses a serious threat to Iraq's future. Al-Mutlaq told Al-Arabiyah that his front was offered three cabinet posts. KR