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Newsline - June 27, 2006

The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on June 26 that it has confirmed the death of one diplomat and three embassy staffers in Iraq, which, the text added, has become "an arena for terrorists," Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2006). The statement appealed to Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces to bring the killers, who are linked to Al-Qaeda, to justice. In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow said the United States was "deeply saddened" by what he called the "vicious murder." In New York, a statement from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the killings "heinous" and said no cause could justify them. Annan's statement appealed for the immediate and unconditional release of all hostages in Iraq. In the Russian media, several commentators noted that Russia strongly opposed the Iraq war. Some suggested that a conspiracy was behind the killings, and some hinted at possible U.S. involvement. The state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" noted on June 27 that "the Russians are victims of the American invasion." PM

Following the June 25 announcement by the Luxembourg-based Arcelor SA steel company that it will merge with Mittal Steel rather than with Russia's Severstal, Severstal is considering whether to improve its offer or consider legal action, international media reported from Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2006). On June 26, several politicians suggested that anti-Russian sentiments were behind Arcelor's choice, even though much of the discussion about the merger was colored by remarks by some Arcelor officials that were widely seen as racist slurs against Mittal's Indian-born head, Lakshmi Mittal. Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said that he is "completely dissatisfied with this decision and regards it as a bad sign," Russian media reported. Khristenko accused Western firms of applying "double standards" toward Russian companies seeking to expand abroad. State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov argued that Severstal was the victim of a "campaign" aimed at denying Russia "entry to global markets." Aleksandr Shokhin, who heads the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, said that "some people don't want to see Russia as a strategic partner in some countries." Several Western dailies commented on June 27 that Russian companies like Severstal are often perceived in the West as opaque, too close to the government, or possibly linked to tax-evasion or organized crime. PM

Speaking on behalf of liberal members of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), Matyas Eorsi said in Strasbourg on June 26 that Russia is not meeting its obligations to the council, RIA Novosti reported. He noted the situation in Chechnya, displaced persons in neighboring Ingushetia, cases of army hazing, and Russia's failure to fully abolish the death penalty. He also alluded to the breaking-up of a gay-pride parade in Moscow on May 27, at which a German legislator was injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30 and June 2, 2006). PM

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on June 26 for the "repatriation" of ethnic Russian "compatriots" living abroad, the daily "Gazeta" reported on June 27. Presidential aide Viktor Ivanov has been named to chair an interdepartmental commission to oversee the program, which could potentially affect up to 4 million people, primarily from CIS countries, the paper noted. Those coming to Russia will have to choose one of 12 regions divided into three categories. Category A means border regions, Category B regions are those where major investment projects are under way, and Category C are territories with a dwindling population. Guaranteed jobs and financial support are provide only for those going to border regions. The 12 regions are largely in the Far East, in central Russia's Black Earth region, and in Kaliningrad Oblast. The plan is aimed at offsetting the decline in population, which Putin has spoken out about repeatedly. Some nationalist critics have charged that repatriation will not do much to offset that decline, and that Putin is undermining any possible Russian claim to or role in former Soviet republics by encouraging ethnic Russians there to leave. Other critics say that the government should do more for illegal immigrants already living in Russia before bringing in additional people. PM

Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov said in Lipetsk on June 26 that the upper house should be popularly elected rather than centrally appointed, possibly starting in 2007, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and reported on June 27. The elections would be carried out by the regional governors and involve at least two candidates from among regional officials, he added. Mironov said that the change would not require amending the constitution. The is the latest of several proposals for reforming the council. The present system has led to regions being nominally represented by people who often have no connection to those regions. The going price for a seat in the upper house is reportedly $2 million, which has led to charges that rich businessmen buy seats and exploit their position for their own gain (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 9 and 23, 2006). PM

Vladimir Ustinov, the former prosecutor-general whom President Putin recently named justice minister in a swap of jobs with Yury Chaika, said in Moscow on June 27 that he plans no major changes in his ministry, Interfax reported. "I would like to assure you that I am not planning any 'reactionary' measures. Everybody should continue working. There is nothing to worry about," he stressed. By contrast, Chaika has promised a shake-up in the Prosecutor-General's Office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 23, 2006). PM

Ingushetia's parliament adopted on June 15 an appeal to the Russian president, prime minister, the chairmen of both chambers of the Federation Council, and the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District enumerating measures to resolve the longstanding dispute between Ingushetia and neighboring North Ossetia over Prigorodny Raion, reported on June 24. The appeal noted that Russia's Constitutional Court ruled on December 1, 2005, that those articles of the 1991 Law on the Rehabilitation of Oppressed Peoples that advocate the restoration of the 1944 borders between subjects of the Russian Federation do not violate the constitution. The statement therefore advocates that the Federation Council enact legislation on delimiting the border between North Ossetia and Ingushetia in such a way as to return Prigorodny Raion to Ingushetia; and that the Russian government provide financial compensation to all people who voluntarily change their place of residence (meaning those Ossetians who agree to leave Prigorodny Raion for other districts of North Ossetia). The Ingushetian government would for its part compensate those Ossetians who agree to vacate former Ingushetian homes that they took over following the exodus of Ingushetians from Prigorodny Raion during the fighting of October-November 1992. The appeal noted that enacting these measures would take time, and proposed a cutoff date of December 31, 2007. LF

One man has been arrested in connection with the death in Yerevan last week of two people gunned down in a drive-by shooting, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 26, quoting a statement from the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office. The victims were Sedrak Zatikian, 25, a member of the Yerkrapah Union of Veterans of the Karabakh War, and a female passerby (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 23, 2006). The suspect, who was arrested on June 24 and charged with illegal possession of arms, is Stepan Hakobian, the nephew of parliament deputy Hakob Hakobian, a former leading member of Yerkrapah. Zatikian was involved in a brawl with another of Hakobian's nephews in April 2004. LF

Armenian military police on June 26 summoned for questioning Arman Babadjanian, editor of the newspaper "Zhamanak Yerevan," on suspicion of having forged documentation in November 2002 in order to avoid military service, Noyan Tapan reported. A criminal case has been opened against Babadjanian. LF

Viktor Soghomonian, who is Armenian President Robert Kocharian's press secretary, said on June 26 that the summary of the Karabakh peace proposal currently under discussion made by U.S. Minsk Group co-Chairman Matthew Bryza in an interview last week with RFE/RL did "not reflect the entire essence of the draft agreement," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Soghomonian warned that "if similar revelations appear in the media in the future, Armenia will publish" details of three successive peace proposals dating respectively from 1998, 2001, and 2006, all of which he claimed Azerbaijan rejected, according to as cited by Groong. LF

Also on June 26, the Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a statement intended to complement the statements made by Bryza in his RFE/RL interview and by the three Minsk Group co-chairmen at a June 22 session of the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna. The Foreign Ministry statement said that, "for the first time, the co-chairs affirmed that the people of Nagorno-Karabakh shall determine their own future status through a referendum," and that the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan have agreed on such a referendum. It said that the point of disagreement between the two presidents "has to do with the sequence in which the consequences of the military conflict are removed," and that Azerbaijan rejected at a meeting between the two presidents in Bucharest early this month a proposal by the Minsk Group co-chairs intended to resolve that disagreement (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2006). Armenia accepted that proposal, the statement continued, and "finds the basic principles, overall, on the table today...a serious basis for continuing negotiations." If, however, Azerbaijan continues its policy of "wavering," Armenia will insist that Baku conduct direct negotiations with Nagorno-Karabakh. LF

The Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) held its ninth congress in Baku on June 25, reported on June 26. Delegates elected as the party's new chairman Ayaz Rustamov, who was named acting chairman five months ago when the party split into two factions, one loyal to its founder Etibar Mammadov and a second headed by Ali Aliyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2006). Rustamov received 280 votes compared to 53 for Ali Alekperov, a member of AMIP's political council. The congress amended the party's statutes, introducing a ruling that one person may occupy the post of party chairman or chairman of a regional AMIP branch for no more than two consecutive terms. It also adopted a resolution demanding the lifting of restrictions on the activities of "democratic institutions" and free media, and an end to violent reprisals against oppositionists. Delegates further argued that political parties should play a more active role in the struggle against corruption, and they called for lowering the maximum age at which men can be called up for military service from 35 to 27. They agreed that AMIP will field candidates in the municipal by-elections scheduled for October 6, reported. LF

Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, told a press conference in Sukhum (Sukhumi) on June 26 that he is ready to meet and discuss any issues with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, provided that "a specific document" is also signed during the course of that meeting, reported. Bagapsh recalled that the Abkhaz side has drafted and submitted to Tbilisi a document on guarantees of security and the nonresumption of hostilities, but that Tbilisi has made amendments to that draft that are unacceptable to the Abkhaz side. Bagapsh characterized the situation in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, which has a majority Georgian population, as "stable," but he added that "provocations" by Georgia are expected "at any time." Bagapsh again argued that the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone should remain there until a formal political solution to the conflict is reached. On June 21, Bagapsh threatened that Abkhazia would lay mines along its borders if the Georgia insisted on the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal. The U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi expressed "profound regret" at that warning and called on Sukhum to "avoid actions and rhetoric that escalate tensions" and to continue participating in the search for a negotiated settlement, Civil Georgia reported on June 23. LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev was in Malaysia for a state visit on June 26, meeting with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and King Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin, Kazinform and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev's meeting with Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took place in Putrajaya, where he was shown examples of Malaysia's electronic identification card. Khabar reported that Kazakhstan intends to introduce a similar nationwide identification system. The aim of Nazarbaev's three-day visit is to increase trade ties and cooperation in the high-technology sphere. A bilateral agreement was signed on June 26 to avoid double taxation. DK

Darigha Nazarbaeva, daughter of President Nazarbaev and head of the pro-presidential Asar Party, repeated her call to create a single pro-presidential party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2006) in remarks to Interfax on June 26. She said, "Our idea is to form a new party that would bring together the existing pro-presidential parties." Nazarbaeva said the existing "six to eight" pro-presidential parties should unite. She criticized the largest pro-presidential party, the ruling Otan Party, for being seen "as a party which generally relies on administrative resources in its work by making use of the administrative-bureaucratic system." She said that she has sent her proposals to "our colleagues from the pro-presidential bloc." Kazakhstan currently has 12 officially registered political parties, including three opposition parties. DK

Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission annulled a parliamentary by-election in the Kurshab district of Osh province after supporters of the two candidates clashed in the village of Tuzbel on June 25, reported the next day. Local police said supporters of current deputy Mamat Orozbaev and rival candidate Sanjar Kadyraliev engaged in clashes on June 25. Gunfire was reported at 2 p.m. in Tuzbel, and police used tear gas to quell the unrest. Eleven people were reported wounded. Kabar reported on June 26 that 600 police officers were maintaining order in the area around the Tuzbel polling station. Prosecutors in Osh have opened a criminal case and an investigation is under way. DK

The Kyrgyz parliament voted on June 25 to confirm three of the four cabinet members who have been acting members of government since May, reported. Deputies voted to confirm Daniyar Usenov as first deputy prime minister; Medetbek Kerimkulov as minister of industry, trade, and tourism; and Azim Isabekov as minister of agriculture, water, and the processing industry. With 38 votes from a total of 75 needed for confirmation, deputies cast 47 votes against the candidacy of Ishengul Boljurova as deputy prime minister. President Kurmanbek Bakiev now has 14 days to propose a new candidate in Boljurova's place. DK

In remarks on June 23, U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland criticized unnamed Central Asian leaders for a willingness to sell "even their own soul to the highest bidder," Reuters reported on June 26. "Some clear-eyed leaders in this region desire strongly to build their nations' independence and sovereignty," he said. "Some others are willing to sell their state and even their own soul to the highest bidder for their own and their family's short-term personal and political gain." The report suggested that Hoagland's comments may have referred to Uzbek President Islam Karimov. Referring to the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) in Shanghai, Hoagland said, "A faint odor of sanctimony permeates the recent statement that came from a leader interviewed at the SCO summit in Shanghai, who said others should be careful not to force their views on 'new' republics in Central Asia." On the issue of regional blocs, Hoagland noted, "The United States has no intention of stealing one or another country from another bloc." DK

Uzbekistan's "Khalq sozi" reported on June 22 that China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has signed an agreement with state-owned Uzbek oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz to carry out prospecting work in Uzbekistan. The agreement, which was signed on June 8, envisions exploratory work at five locations in Uzbekistan and possible investments of $208.5 million over a five-year period. DK

Belarusian authors on June 26 moved several thousand books from the library of the Union of Belarusian Writers (SBP) headquarters in Minsk to a special SBP repository, Belapan reported. More than 35,000 books remaining in the SPB library will be transferred to a provincial library at a later date. Earlier this year, a court ordered the SPB to vacate its headquarters, arguing that an appropriate lease agreement between the SPB and Presidential Property Management, which owns the building that houses the SPB offices, expired in January 2003. In addition, the court confiscated SPB property and ordered that the union pay some 55 million rubles ($25,000) to Presidential Property Management as compensation for occupying the premises after the expiration of the lease. In November 2005, a group of Belarusian writers founded the Union of Writers of Belarus, an organization widely seen as loyal to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21 and December 9, 2005). Belarusian state media have branded the SPB, which marked its 70th anniversary last year, as politicized and nationalistic. JM

Some 15,000 people gathered on Independence Square in Kyiv on June 27 to protest increases in payments for electricity and gas supplies as well as for housing and public transport, UNIAN reported. The rally was organized by Ukraine's Federation of Trade Unions. At the end of May, the government decided to nearly double consumer gas prices as of July 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 2006). It was the second gas price hike this year in Ukraine, following a Ukrainian-Russian deal in January that increased the gas price for Ukraine from $50 to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom officials have indicated that this price may be revised upward as of July. JM

The Our Ukraine parliamentary caucus on June 27 decided to propose Petro Poroshenko, former secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, for the post of parliament speaker, Ukrainian media reported. According to last week's coalition deal reached by the three Orange Revolution allies -- the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- the BYuT will propose its leader for the post of prime minister, while Our Ukraine will put forward a candidate for parliament speaker (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2006). A conflict between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko was one of the main reasons behind the split of the former Orange Revolution coalition in September 2005. It is not clear when the Verkhovna Rada will vote on the candidacies of Tymoshenko and Poroshenko. The opposition Party of Regions on June 27 blocked the rostrum in and entrance to the Verkhovna Rada hall, thus preventing lawmakers of the coalition from opening a session. The Party of Regions reportedly objects to the Orange coalition's plan to approve Tymoshenko and Poroshenko in a single vote and what it sees as an unjust distribution of posts in parliamentary committees by the coalition parties. JM

Serbian President Boris Tadic on June 26 became the first foreign leader to visit an independent Montenegro, AFP reported the same day. "I think that it is very important that we show Europe and the rest of the world [how good] our relations are," Tadic told journalists in Cetinje. "The way in which we build our relations in the fields of the economy, defense, and diplomacy will build our qualifications for our future integration with the European Union, which is our common priority," he added. Tadic was given full state honors on his arrival at Podgorica's international airport. "I am very pleased that the first head of state to come to visit Montenegro is the Serbian president," Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic said. BW

The UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) has granted Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica permission to visit the province, AP reported on June 26, citing an unidentified UN official. Kostunica will participate in ceremonies marking Vidovdan, or St. Vitus Day, a holiday marking the defeat by Ottoman forces of a Christian army led by Serbian Prince Lazar in 1389. On June 29, 1989, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic gave a speech marking the 600th anniversary of Vidovdan that is widely seen as heralding the violent dismembering of Yugoslavia. Kostunica asked the UNMIK, which can deny entry to anyone deemed a security risk, for permission to attend the ceremony. In 2000, the UNMIK denied permission for a visit by Albanian President Sali Berisha on security grounds. BW

The European Union on June 26 welcomed the decision to close down Bosnia-Herzegovina's Office of the High Representative (OHR) next year, dpa reported the same day. Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling that the decision to close the OHR is "clear recognition of progress made in Bosnia-Herzegovina," EU spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy said. Schwarz-Schilling announced on June 23 that the OHR will close in June 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2006). Some analysts and media, particularly those close to Bosnia's Muslim community, have expressed fears that closing the OHR could spark separatism, Reuters reported on June 26. Bosnian Serb leaders have generally welcomed the decision. BW

Macedonia's police on June 26 denied allegations that they were involved in a shoot-out between supporters of rival ethnic Albanian political parties, AP reported the same day. The shoot-out took place on June 24 between supporters of the Democratic Party for Integration (DUI) and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA). DPA officials claim special-police forces assisted DUI supporters during the incident in the village of Rasce, about 15 kilometers west of Skopje. DPA Vice President Menduh Thaci on June 25 showed reporters a police badge allegedly left behind at the scene. Police officials denied the allegations in a statement, saying the badge and other objects were stolen from an off-duty officer. "DPA showed the stolen things to the press in an attempt to manipulate the public into believing the police were involved in the incident, favoring one political party," the statement said. Macedonia is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on July 5. More than two dozen violent incidents have been reported since the election campaign officially opened on June 15. BW

Prime Minister Sali Berisha said on June 26 that corruption in Albania's judiciary and among government officials has made the country attractive for criminal groups engaged in human trafficking, AP reported the same day. "Such a phenomenon, which stains Albanians' national image and dignity more than anything else, is not receiving the answer it deserves," Berisha said. "It is undeniable that the money of this ugly crime has enriched judges, prosecutors, government officials," he said, adding that those profiting from the practice should feel ashamed. He did not single any official by name. Berisha said that Albania, which seeks to join the EU, will work harder to combat human trafficking. "This is our absolute priority," he said, adding that "all law-enforcement agencies will have one main duty -- fighting human and drug trafficking, because that is what Albanian taxpayers pay them for." BW

During a visit to Chisinau on June 26, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said Kyiv will not reverse new customs rules on the Transdniestrian section of its border with Moldova, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Helping Moldova restore its territorial integrity is a duty of Ukraine. I doubt that the new government of Yuliya Tymoshenko will change the approach regarding the customs regime in the Dniester region, as it was in principle approved when she was prime minister," Tarasyuk said at a meeting with Moldovan parliament speaker Marian Lupu. Moldova and Ukraine implemented the new regulations in early March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). The rules, designed to combat smuggling, are supported by the European Union and require that all goods bound for Ukraine that move through the Transdniestrian section of the border clear Moldovan customs and have a Moldovan stamp. Russia and the pro-Moscow regime in Transdniester have called the move an "economic blockade." BW

On June 24, 2005, the little-known, hard-line mayor of Tehran was elected as Iran's president. Once in office, Mahmud Ahmadinejad grabbed international headlines with his fiery rhetoric about Israel, the Holocaust, and Iran's disputed nuclear program. At home in Iran, Ahmadinejad has portrayed himself as a man of the people with a modest lifestyle. He has vowed to improve people's economic situations and narrow the gap between rich and poor.

Ahmadinejad came to power on a populist platform that promised to serve Iranians and improve their lives. He talked of putting the country's oil wealth "on their tables," and vowed to fight corruption and pursue a path of moderation. He also promised the electorate a "government of 70 million."

"Without a doubt, the government emerging from the will of the people will be a government of affection and moderation -- a government of friendship, a government of tolerance," Ahmadinejad said shortly after taking office. "The government will serve all the Iranian people."

The energetic Ahmadinejad has spent much of his time inside the country touring Iran's provinces, frequently with talk of economic sweeteners. Unlike his reformist predecessor, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, who spoke of "rule of law" and "civil society," Ahmadinejad speaks in terms that can be grasped quickly.

"God willing, in addition to expanding the university, a scientific department will also be created here," Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Khorasan Province in April. "Let me also add something else about the youth: In the government meeting, [we will decide] about two new sports center for your city -- first for girls, then for boys. I also love all of you."

While it is tricky to track public opinion in Iran reliably, some observers think Ahmadinejad's popularity is increasing among the broader public -- particularly those who regard him as one of their own. His defiance toward the West and his appeals to nationalism probably contribute to his popularity as well.

Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, however, believes many voters are still waiting for Ahmadinejad to fulfill his promises. Zibakalam cites growing concern over the perceived absence of a long-term economic plan to tackle problems like inflation and unemployment.

"So far, unfortunately, not only has there not been any concrete or serious results, but in the first three months of the Iranian year we've faced an unprecedented rate of inflation," Zibakalam says. "What's really causing concern is that apart from nice talk and beautiful slogans, it seems that in practice Ahmadinejad's government does not have a concrete and well-designed plan."

Last week, a group of 50 prominent Iranian economists publicly criticized Ahmadinejad's policies for "lacking a scientific and expert basis." They argued that current policies will lead to more poverty, economic slowdown, and a further brain drain. They also warned that more of the same could undermine trust in the government.

Zibakalam claims that Ahmadinejad's government is reversing a trend toward economic liberalization and free markets. "We are witnessing tighter government control over the economy," he says. "This will lead to accelerated capital flight and also to a deterrence of the very little foreign investment that has existed to date."

Ahmadinejad has also been criticized for increasing the influence of the hard-line Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC) on the political scene -- and replacing senior managers with relatively inexperienced ideological allies.

"A new group of conservatives that we call the neo-conservatives have come to power," says Hossein Bastani, editor of the online "Rooz" daily. "They are usually second-generation conservative managers who in the past 27 years have been in middle management or lower posts. They have been involved in military bodies. Because of their lack of experience in top management, many slogans and ideals that have proven impractical [in the minds of] conservatives still seem attainable for them -- like a state-controlled economy."

Some in Iran's power structure have criticized Ahmadinejad for official purges and a confrontational approach to politics. The influential former President Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and the former head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, are among those critics.

Bastani says there is a growing rift among conservatives who, since Ahmadinejad's election, have gained control of all of Iran's levers of power. "In a very short time, [Ahmadinejad] has created an unprecedented rift among the conservatives," Bastani says. "And, in fact, although he came to power promising to bring unity to the establishment, he has in fact been unable to fulfill that [promise], like his other promises. It seems that the international crisis over Iran's nuclear program is now holding the establishment together, so all the disputes have been postponed until after the [nuclear] crisis is resolved."

There are other developments that are causing serious concern among intellectuals and human rights activists. Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, a co-founder of the Tehran-based Center of Human Rights Defenders, tells RFE/RL that Iran's political atmosphere is becoming increasingly "tightly knit." He also says the human rights situation is deteriorating.

"We have gone backward, and we have lost the progress that was achieved under Khatami and the new hope," he says. "We see that NGOs do not enjoy the freedom they had -- gatherings are facing new judiciary action, and journalists are facing new [pressures]. Another disastrous implication is that political views have cast a shadow on cultural matters."

There are also reports of growing pressure on universities -- including the summoning and expulsion of student activists. Last month's arrest of a leading philosopher and scholar, Ramin Jahanbegloo, has added to concerns over academic freedoms.

But for most poor Iranians, the No. 1 priority remains how to deal with problems like poverty and unemployment. Many observers suggest that Ahmadinejad has given them hope, and increased their expectations of a better future. But he still faces the task of fulfilling those expectations.

(Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

A suicide bomber killed seven soldiers by detonating his vehicle on June 26 at a military checkpoint near Miranshah -- the capital of Pakistan's North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), AFP reported. Five soldiers were also injured. The blast came hours after a monthlong cease-fire was announced between Pakistani government forces and the pro-Taliban militants active in FATA regions along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The cease-fire was part of an effort by Islamabad to convene a tribal council (jirga) among the local population, militants, and the government to find ways for ending hostilities (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," June 15, 2006). Abdullah Farhad, a purported spokesman for the Pakistani neo-Taliban, said the cease-fire was "conditional," adding that if attacked by security forces, "we reserve the right to defend ourselves." He did not say whether his side has been attacked by the security forces since the announcement of the cease-fire. AT

The Taliban released five people they kidnapped earlier in northeastern Afghanistan's Konar Province, Stockholm's Sveriges Radio Ekot reported on June 26. Two of the abductees worked for the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2006). The health workers were released "with the mediations of religious and tribal elders and the pressure we put on the Taliban," Konar Governor Tamim Nuristani told AFP on June 26. "We had surrounded the area" where the hostages were being held, Nuristani added. Mohammad Hanif, purporting to speak for the Taliban, rejected the report that the hostages were released due to pressure. If the government "could release them by force, why have they failed to win the release of other abductees in the past," Mohammad Hanif asked. He said that a Taliban council made a decision to release the hostages, but did not explain why. AT

A vehicle laden with explosives blew up on June 26 near the Bagram Air Base, the main U.S. military facility in Afghanistan, killing the driver and injuring two children, international news agencies reported. The blast occurred around 1 kilometer from the air base, which is near Kabul. Mohammad Hanif, who claims to speak for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the blast, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on June 26. "The name of the suicide bomber is Abdullah Nejrabi," Mohammad Hanif told AIP, adding that the motive for the attack was revenge because "a U.S. military vehicle had crashed and killed two of his family members in Kabul a few weeks ago." The neo-Taliban have been known to make claims and counterclaims without substantiating them. Linking the botched attack with an accident involving U.S. military vehicles may be a propaganda tactic by the neo-Taliban. Mohammad Hanif also told AIP that "three U.S. military vehicles were destroyed" in the attack. AT

A coalition soldier has died of wounds he received during a combat operation on June 25 in the Pech District of Konar Province, according to the website of the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan. The combat was part of the ongoing Operation Mountain Lion. The identity of the slain soldier has not been released. AT

Iranian Commerce Ministry official Mohammad Sadeq Mofatteh said on June 26 that Iran does not need to import 800,000 tons of Thai rice, Mehr News Agency reported. Mofatteh added that Iranian rice imports amount to only 650,000 tons annually, and 350,000 tons have been imported since March 21. Mofatteh was reacting to a report earlier in the "Bangkok Post" which cited the head of the Thai Foreign Trade's Grain and Conformity Bureau, Pranee Siripan, who was quoted as saying the Iranians are driving a hard bargain, and added that Iran has imported roughly 60 percent of the total rice it agreed to buy from Thailand. In May there were reports from Thailand that Iran is importing a surplus of rice as it prepares for the possibility of economic sanctions (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," May 12, 2006). BS

In the Iranian legislature on June 11, Lahijan parliamentary representative Iraj Nadimi posed questions about the country's failure to achieve self-sufficiency in rice production and about wastage of the rice harvest, "Kayhan" reported on June 12. Agricultural Jihad Minister Mohammad Reza Eskandari responded by saying he hopes rice imports will be unnecessary in three years. The Friday Prayer leader in the northern city of Rasht, Ayatollah Zeynolabedin Qorbani, complained that Gilan Province rice paddies are not getting enough water, the city's "Moin" daily reported on June 11. BS

Mahmud Ahmadinejad accepted the credentials of the British ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams, on June 26, Mehr news agency reported. Adams arrived in Tehran on April 1. Ahmadinejad told Adams that the United Kingdom must take practical steps to compensate for its past policies toward Iran. Ahmadinejad also called for calm regarding the nuclear issue. According to state television, Adams responded, "Britain intends to improve its relations with Tehran on the basis of mutual respect and the principles of international relations; and is prepared to learn a lesson from history and lay the foundations of new ties." BS

Also on June 26, the Iranian Foreign Ministry protested against human rights violations in the United Kingdom, IRNA reported. In a note to the Foreign Office, Tehran referred to alleged "systematic" violations of human rights in the guise of counterterrorism, and it noted the early-June raid on the London home of a Muslim family, as well as last year's killing of a Brazilian who appeared to flee from police. BS

A truck carrying 8,000 liters of gasoline crashed into a high-voltage electricity pole in the city of Shiraz on June 26, and fuel that leaked into the sewage system exploded, state radio reported. Gholam-Hussein Monshi, an official with the city sanitation department, stressed that the underground sewage system was not damaged because the gas leaked into surface canals only, IRNA reported. Fars Province Governor-General Ebrahim Azizi said the blast killed one person and injured four others, IRNA reported. More than 20 cars were reported damaged. The Shiraz emergency hospital reported that six people who fell into the canal received immediate medical treatment. In eastern Iran on June 26, 22 people lost their lives when a bus and a truck crashed head-on, Reuters reported. The accident took place on the highway connecting Birjand and Nahbandan. BS

A suicide car bomber killed three and wounded 21 in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk on June 27, Reuters reported. Early reports indicated that the car exploded at a gas station in the city. Elsewhere, at least eight Iraqis were killed and 58 wounded when a bomb placed inside a bag exploded in a crowded marketplace in the Shi'ite city of Al-Hillah on June 26, Reuters reported. And seven others were killed and 25 wounded when a bomb placed on a parked motorcycle detonated in the Shi'ite village of Khairnabat, northeast of Baghdad, the same day. KR

Seven insurgent groups will take up Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's offer of amnesty, AP reported on June 26. The news agency cited al-Maliki aide and parliamentarian Hasan al-Sunayd as identifying five of the groups as: the 1920 Revolution Brigades, Muhammad's Army (Jaysh Muhammad), Abtal Al-Iraq (Heroes of Iraq), 9 Nisan (April) Group, the Brigades of the General Command of the Armed Forces, as well as the "Al-Fatah" Brigades. Al-Sunayd later denied mentioning the groups to AP in an interview with "The New York Times," the newspaper reported on June 27. However, Baghdad's "Al-Sabah" cited al-Sunayd as identifying the five groups and the Al-Fatih Brigades, in a June 26 report. AP also quoted lawmakers as saying that the seven insurgent groups which have approached the government are mostly former Ba'athists from the military and security agencies, who were motivated in part by fear of a growing Iranian influence in Iraq. KR

Hasan al-Zarqani, an aide to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Al-Jazeera television in a June 26 interview that while the al-Sadr bloc supports the national-reconciliation initiative, it has some reservations about the language of the document. "All the articles were ambiguous and do not identify the nature of the parties they target," al-Zarqani said, and insisted that the government be more forthcoming with details on how it intends to implement al-Maliki's plan. "It is true we support the initiative, but we cannot shake the hands of those who slaughter and kill Iraqis, and who try every day to inflict destruction on the Iraqi people," he added. He also called on al-Maliki to identify those militias that he intends to disband. Al-Zarqani did not say whether the Al-Sadr bloc will change its position should al-Maliki order the cleric's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, to disband. KR

The Mujahedin Shura Council rejected Prime Minister al-Maliki's national-reconciliation initiative in a June 26 Internet statement, Al-Jazeera reported the same day. The statement calls the initiative an attempt to save the "Crusaders" and their subordinates from their weak position in Iraq after failing for more than three years to break the mujahedin. KR

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa praised Prime Minister al-Maliki's national-reconciliation plan in a June 26 statement, MENA reported the same day. Musa said the plan includes principles and mechanisms that reflect a positive trend toward laying down the foundations of dialogue and reconciliation, and that he hopes it will serve as a starting point for a serious and comprehensive dialogue. Musa called on political, religious, and tribal leaders to give the initiative a chance, adding that the Arab League intends to support the initiative through its sponsorship of an Iraqi National Accord conference. That conference was slated to be held in Baghdad last week, but has been postponed until later this summer. KR