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Newsline - November 9, 2006

President Vladimir Putin visited the new headquarters of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Armed Forces General Staff in Moscow on November 8, reported. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted ironically the following day that the event was "shrouded the best traditions of the intelligence department." Putin suggested to GRU staff that the United States poses a threat to Russia, saying that "the practice by a number of states of taking unilateral illegitimate action seriously undermines [international] stability." He added that "this also goes for their attempts to push their positions unceremoniously, fully ignoring the lawful interests of other partners." Lest there be any doubts as to which country he had in mind, he noted that "a number of states are striving to free their hands so they can deploy weapons in space, including the nuclear weapon." He told GRU department heads that "it is important to define correctly the development of the military-political situation, to follow in detail trends of technological, economic competition." For his part, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov praised the new GRU headquarters as using the most up-to-date equipment in a way that is unique in Russia. PM

Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said on November 8 in Moscow that the U.S. mid-term elections the previous day amounted to a "no-confidence vote" in the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, Russian news agencies reported. Kosachyov added that the United States "will enter...a new stage in its development...from cooperation between the administration and the Republican majority in Congress to rivalry" between the White House and a Congress controlled by the Democrats. He also suggested that U.S.-Russian trade relations might become more difficult, the daily "Vremya novostei" reported on November 9. For its part, the daily "Izvestia" wrote that U.S. voters sent Bush the message that they have become disillusioned with the war in Iraq and regard it as "senseless." The daily "Vedomosti" predicted that the impact of the vote on U.S.-Russian relations will be minimal. The paper argued that the two countries are not significant trading partners, so there is no important economic relationship to affect one way or another. It suggested, however, that negotiations leading to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) could now become more "complex" unless Bush and President Putin reach a deal soon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31, 2006). On a broader level, the paper suggested that the Democrats might bring about unspecified changes in U.S. policies in the Middle East that could lead to a change in the price of oil, which is currently very advantageous to Russia. PM

The daily "Vedomosti" argued on November 9 that the Democrats are more likely than the Republicans to take a tough line with Moscow over human rights. "Novye izvestia" wrote that U.S. voters would not have turned against the Republicans had they not been convinced by their media that the war in Iraq is going very badly. The paper also noted that the new chairman of the House International Relations Committee will be Congressman Tom Lantos (Democrat, California), who is "one of the strongest critics of Russia" in that body. The daily "Kommersant" also drew attention to Lantos, whom it called "one of the American establishment's harshest and most irreconcilable critics of the Kremlin." The paper pointed out that Lantos is a staunch defender of human rights and has referred to imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a "political prisoner." Elsewhere, Sergei Rogov, who heads the U.S. and Canada Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told RIA Novosti on November 9 that there will be no fundamental change in relations because both the Democrats and Republicans have an "extremely negative" view of Russian foreign and domestic policies. PM

Russian and Chinese officials signed eight contracts worth about $800 million in Beijing on November 9 during a two-day visit by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, which is expected to be dominated by talks on energy cooperation, news agencies reported. The agreements covered mining, trade, energy, vehicle production, and infrastructure. Vice Premier Wu Yi said the agreements should help boost bilateral trade to up to $80 billion by 2010. China is anxious to buy ever-greater quantities of Russian oil, gas, and other natural resources but has many competitors, including Japan and South Korea. The Sino-Russian relationship is also complicated by some Russians' fears about the impact on the Russian Far East of China's dynamic economy and large population (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005). PM

Defense Minister Ivanov was quoted in "Izvestia" of November 9 as saying that independence for Kosova will be a powerful precedent for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. He added that "it is hard to say how events will develop [regarding the two Georgian breakaway regions]. But much will depend on how the West behaves on the question of recognizing [an independent] Kosovo." President Putin recently hinted that he might veto Kosovar independence in the UN Security Council unless Western countries agree to South Ossetia and Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia. Under the 1974 Serbian and Yugoslav constitutions, Kosova had a legal status that was virtually equal to those of the six federal Yugoslav republics. All six federal republics have now gone separate ways, starting with Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 and ending with Montenegro in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," October 27, 2006). But South Ossetia never had rights comparable to those of union republics like the Georgian SSR or Ukrainian SSR, while Abkhazia was downgraded from a full-fledged union republic to an ASSR in 1931. PM/LF

President Putin has submitted to the State Duma a new draft treaty, which he and Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev have already signed, on the division of powers between the federal center and the Republic of Tatarstan, according to on November 8 and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on November 9. Deputy Speaker Oleg Mironov, who represents a single-mandate district in Tatarstan, told journalists that it is extremely unlikely that any other federation subjects will follow suit. He noted that of the then-88 federation subjects, only Tatarstan and Checheno-Ingushetia failed to sign the federation treaty in March 1992. After two years of tough horse trading, Tatarstan signed a power-sharing treaty with the central government in 1994. However, that and analogous subsequent power-sharing treaties were superceded by legislation enacted in 2003 requiring all federation subjects to bring their respective legislation and constitutions into conformity with those of the Russian Federation within two years. LF

Four Azerbaijani independent journalists who were approached in Tbilisi last week by a man who introduced himself as a suspect in the March 2005 murder of their colleague, "Monitor" editor Elmar Huseynov, were again summoned for questioning on November 8 by the Azerbaijani National Security Ministry, and reported on November 9 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2006). The four men were shown poor-quality photographs said to be of Teymuraz Aliyev, a Georgian national of Azerbaijani origin, for whom an arrest warrant has reportedly been issued in connection with Huseynov's murder. But "Zerkalo" editor Kenan Guluzade said the man in the photographs is not the man they met in Tbilisi. He added that the latter "played the role of Teymuraz Aliyev" with a degree of professionalism that many Hollywood actors would envy. LF

Sadagat Agayev has been dismissed from his post as Gobustan prison director and his first deputy has been promoted to succeed him, the daily reported on November 9. Justice Ministry officials contacted by the daily declined to confirm Agayev's dismissal, but Elchin Beybutov, who heads the NGO Committee Against Torture, told that he learned the news from Agayev personally during a visit to the prison several days ago. Gobustan was the scene of a major insurrection in 1999 in which 11 prisoners died, and a hunger strike earlier this year by prisoners on death row (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 1999, and July 24, 2006). LF

Operator British Petroleum has halted the pumping of oil through the Baku-Supsa export pipeline due to unstated "anomalies" discovered in that pipeline, reported on November 9. The pipeline, which exports Exxon's share of the oil extracted by the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC) from the Azeri-Chirag-Gyuneshli deposits, will be out of commission at least until the end of this month. The Baku-Supsa pipeline was commissioned in early 1999 to export the so-called "early oil" extracted by the AIOC consortium. Its throughput capacity of 145,000 barrels per day (bpd) pales in comparison with the anticipated 1 million bpd capacity of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline built specifically to export the larger volume of oil produced when ACG and other offshore Azerbaijani fields are producing at optimum capacity. LF

Gia Kavtaradze rejected on November 8 calls for his resignation, saying it would not improve conditions in the country's prison system, Caucasus Press reported. Parliament Human Rights Commission chairwoman Elene Tevdoradze said Kavtaradze should be held ultimately responsible for the appalling situation in Georgian prisons where, she claimed, prisoners "die daily," and she criticized both Kavtaradze and penitentiary system overseer Bacho Akhalaya, whose resignation opposition parliamentarians have likewise demanded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2006). Kavtaradze for his part praised Akhalaya's work as prison overseer. LF

Aleksandr Ankvab, who is prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, told journalists in Sukhum(i) on November 8 that the incursion by Georgian forces into the Kodori Gorge in late July has negatively affected the Abkhaz economy, reported. He said the Georgian intervention deterred some potential tourists and necessitated an increase in defense spending. Some 600,000 predominantly Russian tourists visited Abkhazia in 2006 compared with almost 1 million the previous year. Ankvab also said on November 8 that to date, Abkhazia's citrus harvest this year is some 35 percent down on last year's figure (335 tons of mandarins compared with 491 tons), although the quality is far higher. LF

Kyrgyz lawmakers adopted a new constitution on November 8 that will significantly curtail the president's powers to the benefit of the legislature, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The curbs on presidential powers will take effect after current President Kurmanbek Bakiev's current term ends in 2010, according to RFE/RL. The lawmakers passed the document in two swift readings in an apparent end to months of intense political fighting between Bakiev and his opponents. The new constitution garnered 67 votes in the first reading and 65 in the second, reported. There have been large demonstrations in Bishkek in recent days, but opposition leaders have vowed to send their supporters home as soon as the new fundamental law is adopted. Under the new constitution, the National Security Service will be under government, not presidential, control, and parliament will be expanded from 75 to 90 deputies. DK

A group of 46 Kyrgyz State Television and Radio employees have signed a letter to Director Kiyas Moldokasymov stating that they refuse to provide one-sided coverage of demonstrations, news agency reported. The journalists told the news agency that Moldokasymov threatened to fire them if they refuse to cover only rallies in favor of President Bakiev. But Moldokasymov told "Turn on your TV. We are covering all rallies, including those of the opposition." DK

Doctors estimate the total number of HIV-positive individuals in Tajikistan at 6,000, Avesta reported on November 8. The number of officially registered HIV cases in the country was 627 at the start of November, but doctors believe that the unofficial total is much higher. Bozor Akramov, deputy chief physician at Tajikistan's AIDS Prevention Center, told Avesta that 121 HIV cases have been registered in the first 10 months of 2006. The largest number of officially registered HIV-positive individuals in a single area, 218, is in Dushanbe. Drug users make up 66 percent of the officially registered HIV-positive cases. DK

EU and Uzbek officials met in Brussels on November 8 in the lead-up to an EU decision on November 13 on whether to prolong sanctions against Uzbekistan, RFE/RL reported. Pertti Torstila, secretary of state at the Finnish Foreign Ministry, said Uzbekistan's readiness to hold expert-level talks with the EU on the May 2005 bloodshed in Andijon is a "good beginning." Speaking in Brussels, Uzbek Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov reiterated the official Uzbek position that the violence in Andijon, which rights organizations have described as a massacre perpetrated against unarmed demonstrators by government security forces, consisted of "premeditated terrorist acts directed against the foundations of the constitutional order." Norov stressed that Uzbekistan will not allow an independent international investigation of the events. Norov also noted that the EU sanctions, which include a ban on arms sales and a visa ban for 12 high-level Uzbek officials, have not hurt Uzbekistan, which has established stronger ties with China, Russia, the Arab world, and regional neighbors. DK

Belarusian opposition parties on November 8 elected Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, a trade-union leader, to coordinate preparations for the Second Congress of Pro-democratic Forces, Belapan reported. The congress is expected to be held after the local elections set for January 14. A similar congress held in 2005 elected Alyaksandr Milinkevich as a united-opposition candidate for the March 2006 presidential election. Milinkevich has recently declared that he is ready to give up his leadership of the united opposition in Belarus if the new congress elects a "worthier" candidate for this purpose (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2006). JM

In a report released on November 9, Amnesty International said domestic violence is a "secret problem" in Belarus. According to official information obtained by the global human rights watchdog, nearly 3,000 women were registered as victims of domestic violence in Belarus in 2005. The organization says their actual number is believed to be much higher. "Despite measures that have been taken by the authorities, Belarus is still falling short of its international obligations to protect women's rights," said Heather McGill, Amnesty International's researcher on Belarus. Belarus's Criminal Code does not define or criminalize domestic violence. According to Amnesty International, perpetrators of domestic violence continue to act with impunity in Belarus because only a small fraction of those women who suffer from domestic violence actually report such crimes to the police, primarily because of fear of reprisals from abusive partners, fear of prosecution for other offences, self-blame, fear of shaming the family, and low self-esteem and financial insecurity. JM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held talks with his Ukrainian counterpart, Borys Tarasyuk, in Kyiv on November 8. He also met with President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz, Ukrainian media reported. The talks and meetings have reportedly brought no substantial progress on sensitive issues in bilateral relations, including the delimitation of the border in the Azov Sea, the use of the Russian language in Ukraine, or the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. Lavrov and Tarasyuk were also unable to determine the date of an anticipated trip by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Kyiv. JM

A water supply company in the port of Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula on November 9 issued a warning restricting the use of tap water in the city, Ukrainian media reported. The company warned against using water for drinking or cooking meals, stressing that it can only be used for technical purposes because of the deterioration of its quality in a local reservoir. According to city officials, the quality of water deteriorated due to the recent "worsening of weather and floods" on a local river. Meanwhile, a number of Sevastopol residents told Interfax that water supply in the city has been suspended altogether since the morning of November 9. There have been rumors among local residents that some chemicals were dumped into the water reservoir by the Russian Black Sea Fleet deployed in the port. JM

In its annual progress report for countries seeking EU membership, the European Commission on November 8 urged Serbia to take a more constructive approach to resolving the status of the breakaway province of Kosova in order to smooth Belgrade's path toward closer EU ties, AP reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2006). "I trust that Serbian citizens as well as political leaders now focus less on the nationalist past and more on the European future, that's best for Serbia, that's best for the western Balkans," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said. "On Kosovo, we expect Serbia to take a constructive approach," The report also urged Belgrade to take steps to apprehend war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic and expressed concerns about judicial independence under Serbia's new constitution. BW

Also on November 8, the European Commission said Kosova needs to have a clear status settlement before it can begin talks with the EU on eventual accession, dpa reported the same day. Enlargement Commissioner Rehn said "a politically and legally clear" status is necessary for Kosova "to enter into contractual relationships with the EU" for negotiating a Stabilization and Association Agreement. The commission also said Kosova has made little progress toward establishing a functioning market economy and urged Prishtina to do more about unemployment. Brussels allowed, however, that the drawn-out status negotiations have "delayed significant reform efforts," AP reported. Kosova's administration "remains weak, affecting the rule of law," the report said, adding that judicial bodies there have made "little progress" in civil and criminal justice. BW

The German government on November 8 reduced the maximum number of peacekeepers it can send to Bosnia-Herzegovina, AP and dpa reported the same day. In a move that must still be approved by parliament, Germany's government cut the number from 3,000 to 2,400. There are currently only about 850 German troops in Bosnia as part of an EU-led peacekeeping force. At the same time, the government said it plans to ask parliament to extend the troops' mission by another year from November 21, when the current mandate expires, dpa reported. "Tensions between ethnic groups, organized crime, and corruption could still endanger the peace process," the government said in a statement. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said on October 29 that Berlin will seek to withdraw some of its soldiers from Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31, 2006). BW

U.K. Minister for Europe Geoff Hoon said on November 8 that he supports Macedonia's bid to join the European Union, but urged Skopje to speed up the pace of reform, AP reported the same day. "We want to see Macedonia in the European Union, and it is clear that the sooner the pace of reform is completed, the sooner Macedonia can join the EU," Hoon, who is on a three-day Balkan trip, said after talks with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski. For his part, Gruevski acknowledged that reforms have stalled, but pledged to get them back on track. "There was a slowing down with the reform process in the last 12 months," he said. The EU accepted Macedonia as a candidate last year and Skopje hopes to be invited to start entry talks next year and to fulfill membership conditions by 2012. BW

The European Commission said on November 8 that Macedonia appeared to lack the political will to fight corruption, dpa reported the same day. "Corruption remains widespread and is perceived as among the main problems for the country," the commission said in its first progress report on Macedonia's preparations for EU accession. The report also said judicial reforms are weak and the court system too slow. "Improving the independence and the efficiency of the judiciary remains a major challenge," the report said. "Very strong political will is needed." BW

On October 22, the Kurdish regional government published the final draft of a petroleum law. The draft document is to be debated within the regional assembly and, if passed, it would place the region's government in opposition to the central government in Baghdad, which has indicated that it will publish its own completed hydrocarbon law sometime in December or early 2007.

If parallel legal frameworks are established in the Kurdish autonomous region and Baghdad, foreign firms wanting to do business may have to sign separate contracts and adhere to the laws of two governments. It therefore remains unclear whether a compromise can be reached between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government, or whether the division of oil revenues will prove to be a source of further instability in a country already reeling from insurgency and sectarian strife.

While violence engulfs much of Iraq and the Baghdad central government continues negotiations over a petroleum law, the Kurds have moved ahead and are poised to pass their own oil law. In addition, they have already signed a handful of contracts with foreign firms to explore oil fields in the north.

Issam al-Chalabi, a former Iraqi oil minister, said the right to control local oil reserves constitutes a major complication between the Kurds and the central government, AP reported on October 25.

"The Kurds have submitted a draft petroleum act to be adopted that gives them the right to control oil, regardless of the government in Baghdad. The Oil Ministry has submitted another completely different draft that gives the authority to the ministry, not regions. It's the main issue of the conflict: oil and Kurds," he said.

The establishment of a petroleum law in the Kurdish region not only underscores the decentralization of oil resources, but it constitutes another step in the Kurds' move away from the Baghdad government.

In another area of contention, the Kurdish administration has moved ahead and signed exploration contracts with several foreign oil firms, including the Norwegian oil company DNO and the Turkish firms PetOil and Genel Enerji. The contracts place the local administration at odds with Baghdad by stressing Irbil's autonomy at the expense of the central government.

The issue came to a head when Iraqi Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani told the state-owned daily "Al-Sabah" on September 24 that contracts signed with foreign firms to develop oil fields in the north without the approval of the central government are subject to review by the ministry. Officials in the Oil Ministry also said that foreign firms currently working in the Kurdish region will be banned in the future from signing contracts to develop oil fields in southern Iraq.

In response, Kurdish Prime Minster Nechirvan Barzani said the move would be unconstitutional and he issued a statement suggesting that his government may secede if the contracts are rejected. "If Baghdad ministers refuse to abide by that constitution, the people of Kurdistan reserve the right to reconsider our choice," he said.

The key issue concerns the control and management of so-called "future oil fields." Although Article 108 of the Iraqi Constitution says, "oil and gas are the ownership of all the people of Iraq" and are to be managed by the federal government in conjunction with regional governorates, only "current" oil fields, which are controlled by the central government, are mentioned, not any discovered in the future.

Kurdish Natural Resources Minister Ashti Hawrami insisted that future oil fields in the Kurdish region are to be managed by Irbil and won't be shared with Baghdad, "USA Today" reported on November 6. "In management of new fields, we are adamant that we will not share with the federal government. Planning, coordination -- no problem. But who has the right to write contracts? We can consult with the center, but the ultimate authority lies with the Kurds," he said.

The issue of future oil fields will become all the more significant when the fate of Kirkuk is decided by a referendum in 2007. Recent demographic shifts as part of the Kurds' attempts to reverse the Hussein regime's "Arabization" campaign suggest that Kirkuk may very well have a Kurdish majority, thereby placing the Kurdish government in a good position to annex Kirkuk and take control of its massive oil fields.

The fact that the Kurds have already drafted their own petroleum law even before the creation of a federal law is itself indicative of the strength of Irbil's position, in that the Kurds are a major component of the Shi'ite-led coalition government and without their support the government would probably fall.

Conversely, it may be in the Kurdish administration's interest to back down and show willingness to compromise with Baghdad. The Kurdish region is land-locked and export outlets are crucial. Experts contend that the existing Ceyhan pipeline from northern Iraq to Turkey does not have the capacity to carry additional crude exports. Furthermore, if Kirkuk is annexed by the Kurds, it may complicate matters with Turkey, which is already concerned that the Iraqi Kurds' ambitions of autonomy may incite their own sizable Kurdish population to follow in their footsteps.

Even if the dispute is resolved, the oil industry itself is in shambles because of widespread corruption and insurgent attacks. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the U.S. agency responsible for overseeing Iraq's reconstruction, issued a report on July 30 describing smuggling as "pervasive," "virtually pandemic," and a threat to Iraq's ability to maintain, let alone increase oil production.

Even though Iraq is rich in crude oil and natural gas, it must import much of its refined petroleum. Years of UN sanctions left much of Iraq's oil infrastructure in a dilapidated condition, crippling its refining capacity.

Finally, caught in the middle of the dispute are the Sunni Arabs, who fear that Iraq is moving toward partition into three sections: a Kurdish north and Shi'ite south, both rich in oil, while the Sunnis are left with a resource-poor center. The Kurds' demands and aggressive posturing might aggravate the Sunnis' feelings of marginalization and provide more fuel for radicals among them.

NATO-led troops killed 15 suspected militants on November 8 in eastern Afghanistan after the insurgents opened fire on a coalition patrol, AP reported the same day. The insurgents attacked the Western patrol in the Barmal district of Paktika Province near the Pakistani border, said NATO spokesman Captain Jose Lopez. The troops returned fire with air support from military aircraft, killing the insurgents. A NATO soldier, whose nationality was not disclosed, was wounded in the leg. JC

In light of a 60 percent increase in poppy production in Afghanistan this year compared to 2005, the Afghan government is reportedly using chemical aerial spraying as a last resort against its "biggest enemy," opium, according to the BBC on November 7. Local residents in the southern Helmand Province, where more than one-quarter of Afghanistan's poppy crops are grown, claim clandestine spraying has already taken place. They said the spraying badly affected other crops and caused skin problems for some residents. A leading member of the Afghan parliament, Daud Sultanzoy, has stated that he will fight the aerial spraying, saying that Afghanistan should not become a testing ground for Western chemical companies. JC

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) has been forced to cut almost all nonemergency aid to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan as it struggles to cope with the needs of almost 100,000 displaced persons, the BBC reported on November 7. Women's literacy programs -- where many women, including widows, attend classes and receive food -- are being hit hardest by the cuts. Despite the need for both food and education, there has been a shortfall in funding for WFP programs this year; only some 30 percent of funding has been granted. Furthermore, while there are leading Afghan Muslims who support the right of women to be educated, the neo-Taliban, who have growing influence in the south, are opposed to almost all forms of female education and make it difficult to safely bring in learning materials. JC

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has issued an urgent appeal for $3.8 million to help 2.5 million drought-stricken people in Afghanistan after receiving no response from an initial plea for $2.5 million this summer, UPI reported on November 7. Over half of those suffering are children. Officials warn of exacerbated disease and malnutrition if the drought continues. In a statement the same day, UNICEF said that the drought has affected provinces across the country, while conflict in the south has displaced more than 20,000 families. Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (1,600 per 100,000 live births); its infant mortality rate is estimated at 165 per 1,000 live births. JC

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), announced on November 8 in the southeastern city of Zahedan that the UN has allocated $22 million for Iran's counternarcotics program, IRNA reported. Costa, who arrived in Iran the previous day, has been meeting with the country's officials, and on November 8 he visited the Rasul-i Akram base in Sistan va Baluchistan Province. The base was created in April to coordinate the efforts of police, military, and other security agencies. After meeting with Drug Control Headquarters Secretary-General Fada Hussein Maleki at the base, Costa said the UN has doubled its counternarcotics funding for Iran. He added that the funds will go to strengthen the eastern border against drug traffickers and for intelligence activities by the police in that part of the country. Maleki told his guest that the international community has an skewed perception of the Iranian counternarcotics campaign, and he urged the UNODC to improve Iran's image among the international law enforcement community. The previous day, Deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar told Costa that UN financial assistance to Iran's counternarcotics program is negligible, IRNA reported. BS

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is visiting the northeastern city of Semnan, "Iran" newspaper reported on November 9. He told tens of thousands of people at the Takhti Stadium that mastering nuclear technology is their right, and the international community does not oppose this. He cited the Nonaligned Movement's backing of Iran's development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes as proof of this, and said it is only the United States that opposes Iran's pursuits, even though Washington has said several times that it is not against Iran's development of nuclear technology strictly to produce energy for peaceful uses. Khamenei also urged local residents to vote in the December 15 elections for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, state television reported on November 8. BS

More than 200 former members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MEK) who are living in an Iraqi facility guarded by the U.S. military say that it has been more than three years since they claimed refugee status with the United Nations, Radio Farda reported on November 8. The MEK, which uses many cover names, is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., Canada, and the EU. These people want to live in countries where they can be free and secure, Radio Farda reported, but they are living in tents instead. One of them, Dariush Afarinandeh, told Radio Farda by telephone that 40 members of the group began a hunger strike on November 7 to protest their uncertain status and living conditions. He said neither the United States -- which is protecting the group from the Iraqi people and the Iranian regime -- nor the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has provided any answers regarding their future. Afarinandeh told Radio Farda that he and his friends wish they were at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because the Red Cross, human rights organizations, and the media go there to interview the prisoners. "Here, unfortunately, no international or human rights organization or the Red Cross has set foot." BS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told the BBC during an interview on November 8 that he expects former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to be executed this year. "We are waiting for the decision of the appeals court and if it confirms the sentence, it will be the government's responsibility to carry it out," he said. "We would like the whole world to respect Iraq's judicial will. I expect the execution to happen before the end of this year." Asked if the execution might not take place if President Jalal Talabani, who has voiced his opposition to capital punishment, refuses to sign the execution order, al-Maliki said this won't happen. He suggested that the Special Tribunal, which tried the case, might not require these signatures. After the guilty verdict was handed down to Hussein and his co-defendants, the court has 10 days to file an appeal with a panel of nine judges. If the verdict is upheld, then the sentence must be carried out within 30 days. It is unclear whether the Iraqi authorities will postpone the execution in order to allow for the completion of the Anfal trial. SS

When the Anfal trial resumed on November 8, former Iraqi military intelligence chief Sabir al-Duri accused Iraqi Kurds of spying for Iran, international media reported the same day. Al-Duri's accusation came after a Kurdish witness testified about chemical attacks against villages in the northern Dahuk Governorate in August 1988. Al-Duri told the court that Iran, which fought an eight-year war with Iraq from 1980, asked Kurdish rebels to provide intelligence on a prison camp near Mosul and on the homes of two senior Iraqi commanders. "The [Kurdish] rebels and the Iranians were working together," he said. The Kurdish witness, Ayub Abdallah Muhammad, said his village was attacked with chemical weapons on August 24, 1988, four days after the cease-fire between Iran and Iraq. Another witness, Tawfiq Abd al-Aziz Mustafa, testified that dozens of villagers fled to Turkey during the attack and stayed there until the Kurdish autonomous region was established in 1991. Meanwhile, defense lawyer Badi Izzat Arif demanded that the court order an investigation into last month's alleged ransacking of the defense team's office in Baghdad's Green Zone. The trial was adjourned until November 27, to allow the defense time to assemble a list of witnesses. SS

Al-Sulaymaniyah Health Department Director Dr. Shirko Abdullah said on November 8 that approximately 150 Arab doctors have fled southern and central Iraq due to the poor security situation and resettled in Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate since the fall of the former regime in March 2003, the Kurdish daily "Hawlati" reported the same day. The Kurdish regional government's Human Rights Ministry and the UN have said that approximately 50,000 people have fled to Al-Sulaymaniyah to escape violence elsewhere since 2003. Abdullah said that local officials have assisted the doctors by helping them set up clinics and finding them positions at public hospitals. SS

Brigadier General Sarhad Qadir, the police chief of the Kirkuk municipality, said on November 8 that 21 suspected terrorists were arrested in the village of Yarimja in southern Kirkuk, "Kurdistani Nuwe" reported the same day. He also said that police seized four vehicles and seized 17 AK-47s and a cache of explosives. In a separate incident, Kurdish officials said security forces have arrested five people suspected of having links to Al-Qaeda and the Thawrat Al-Ishrin extremist group. SS