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Newsline - November 21, 2006

The elite counterterrorism branch of London's Metropolitan Police has taken charge of the investigation into the apparent poisoning of former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, British media reported on November 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006). Litvinenko was moved to the intensive-care unit of a London hospital the same day after his condition worsened. Doctors say he has a 50 percent chance of surviving. Litvinenko, who defected to Britain in 2000 and received asylum there in 2001, says he fell ill on November 1 while researching the recent killing of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2006). Experts have since concluded that he is suffering from thallium poisoning. British media reports suggest that he is one of the highest-profile FSB defectors and is reportedly on a wanted list in Moscow, where he has made powerful enemies with his tough criticism of President Vladimir Putin. PM

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on November 20 that any charges of Moscow's involvement in the Litvinenko case are "sheer nonsense," news agencies reported. Sergei Ivanov, who is a spokesman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), said that Russian services "have not carried out poisonings or any form of assassination for a long time." On November 21, State Duma Security Committee First Deputy Chairman Mikhail Grishankov said that the Litvinenko affair is a "political game" by self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and that allegations of Russian involvement are "absurd," Interfax reported. Grishankov said that this is but the latest in a series of attempts in Europe to discredit Russia and its "special forces." Berezovsky, who received asylum in London in 2003, visited his friend Litvinenko in the hospital on November 20. Berezovsky called the apparent poisoning "a terror attack from the Kremlin on a British [citizen], on Britain," news agencies reported. PM

Oleg Gordiyevsky, who is the most senior KGB agent to defect to Britain, wrote in "The Daily Telegraph" of November 21 that "President...Putin could order the assassination of all his exiled opponents in Britain, including me, unless [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair and [U.S. President] George W. Bush end their appeasement of his authoritarian regime." Gordiyevsky added that he has "no doubt that the man who tried to kill my friend [Aleksandr] Litvinenko is back in Moscow and will walk free in its streets for as long as the current regime, which is dominated by ex-members of the KGB, controls the Kremlin." Gordiyevsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service on November 20 that "Litvinenko has received numerous threats from the KGB during these four years here [in Britain].... This is a KGB poison.... You can't buy thallium in pharmacies." PM

On November 20, EU officials in Brussels called on Russia to lift its ban in imports of Polish plant and animal products in the run-up to the Russia-EU summit, which is slated to take place on November 24, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 13, 14, 15, and 16, 2006). Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen of Finland, which holds the rotating EU Presidency, said in Helsinki that the EU expresses "strong solidarity with Poland regarding the Russian ban on Polish foodstuffs. This issue will certainly be raised at the EU-Russia summit." He added, however, that it is in Poland's interest for the EU to work out a joint energy deal with Russia, rather than have each member state negotiate with Moscow on a bilateral basis. The news agency quoted unnamed senior Polish officials as saying that they are pleased by the EU support and expect that Polish objections to talks with Russia about a new EU-Russia partnership agreement will be lifted "at the last minute" before the summit is scheduled to begin. EU Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said in Brussels that "the ball is in the Russian court now." On November 21, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is President Putin's special envoy to the EU, wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that Russia expects Poland to drop its veto before the summit begins. He did not indicate any change in Russia's position toward Polish agricultural imports, saying that the matter is "outside the EU's competence." PM

Officials from the 25 EU member states and several oil- and gas-exporting countries -- including Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Russia -- are scheduled to end two days of talks in Brussels on November 21 on how to meet growing world energy demand, news agencies reported. Javier Solana, the EU's foreign-policy chief, told delegates on November 20 that the "scramble for energy" risks becoming "unprincipled." European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called Russia an important energy partner, but not the EU's only one. Financier George Soros was quoted in Britain's "Financial Times" on November 20 as saying that Germany in particular has become dependent on Russia for its energy supplies but "doesn't want to acknowledge the danger that this presents." Soros argued that Russia is using energy policy to project its power on the world stage and "enrich [its] top officials" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 3, 2006). PM

In a roundup of comments on November 20, dpa quoted Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus as admitting that good relations with Russia remain elusive. Adamkus argued that "if we exchange principles for oil and gas, and the Russians [are able to] live by their old rules, using [energy] as an instrument to impose their different ideology...then both sides [are] in trouble." Adamkus and Lithuanian legislators have repeatedly warned that Russia uses its energy resources to pressure and "blackmail" its neighbors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, and November 8 and 15, 2006). Nils Muiznieks, who is an expert on Latvian-Russian relations, noted that "Russia has been unrelenting in stomping on the Baltics' minority policies in international organizations -- the OSCE, UN, even NATO." Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves argued that "a common energy policy will develop, simply because there's a need for it. As countries realize that no single country can go it alone on energy policy, they'll begin to see the advantages of a common energy policy." Andres Kasekamp, head of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute, noted that Russia continues to pressure the Baltic states despite their membership in NATO and the EU. He added that "it's all about identity. The Baltic states are trying to reassert their independence, [while] Russia is obviously interested in keeping its influence, especially economically." PM

Russia's sole optical military intelligence satellite in the Don series blew up in orbit on November 17 or 18, the daily "Kommersant" reported on November 20. Independent experts blamed a technical problem. The Defense Ministry has not commented on the development. PM

Evraz, which is Russia's largest steel maker, announced on November 20 that it will buy the U.S. firm Oregon Steel Mills for $2.3 billion, "The Moscow Times" reported on November 21. Roman Abramovich -- who is the governor of Siberia's remote Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, politically close to the Kremlin, and reportedly Russia's richest man -- agreed on June 19 to buy a 41 percent stake in Evraz. Also on November 20, the mining giant Norilsk Nickel announced that it has agreed to buy the Cleveland-based OM Group's nickel assets for $408 million. Norilsk said in a statement that the "deal is an important step on the company's path toward international business activity and expanding outside the Russian Federation." PM

Parliament deputies in Ingushetia have unanimously rejected as illegal the plans unveiled in February 2006 by presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak to resettle thousands of Ingush displaced persons from their temporary accommodation in the North Ossetian village of Maysky to a new settlement some seven kilometers away that is without basic amenities such as water and gas supplies and a school, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on November 20. Parliament deputy speaker Magomet Tatriyev argued that those displaced persons are Russian citizens and therefore have the right to resettle in the villages elsewhere in North Ossetia from which they fled or were forcibly expelled during the interethnic clashes in October-November 1992. He added that the displaced Ingush have repeatedly appealed to President Putin for help in returning to their abandoned homes, but to no avail. Kozak for his part has rejected all criticism of the resettlement program, stressing that no Ingush will be forced to move from Maysky to the new settlement. LF

Russia has threatened the Azerbaijani leadership that it will raise to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters the price it charges Azerbaijan for gas if Baku goes ahead with exports to Turkey at the lower price of $120 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas from the Shah-Deniz field, the websites and reported on November 21. In response to that threat, Baku has proposed to Botas, the state-owned Turkish pipeline company, postponing for one year the start of gas exports to Turkey via the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum pipeline. That postponement would negatively affect Georgia, which for months has sought to reduce its dependency on Russian gas supplies by reaching an agreement with Azerbaijan on increasing the amount of Shah Deniz gas it either receives in lieu of transit tariffs or may purchase at a preferential price (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31, 2003 and August 21, 2006). LF

The Azerbaijani journalists who began a hunger strike on November 9 to protest the anticipated eviction of the editorial staff of the independent newspaper "Azadliq" from the offices it currently occupies are determined to continue that protest despite appeals to end it, reported on November 21. Echoing comments by "Azadliq" Editor in Chief Ganimet Zahid on November 17, Azer Akhmedov, who is the paper's director, told on November 21 that the State Property Committee's offer of alternative office space on the ninth floor of the building that houses the Azerbaijan publishing house is unacceptable. On November 20, Rauf Alifoglu, editor of the radical opposition newspaper "Yeni Musavat," said he and other editors of independent publications will quit the Press Council unless that body expresses support for the hunger strike, and reported on November 20 and 21, respectively. LF

Azerbaijan's Appeals Court rejected on November 20 an appeal by former Gyanja police chief Natig Efendiyev against the five year sentence handed down to him by the Dashkesan district court, reported on November 21. Efendiyev was among the Azerbaijani officials arrested in October 2005 on suspicion of conspiring with former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to stage a coup d'etat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2005). In 2001 he was sentenced to life imprisonment, also on charges of plotting a coup together with Quliyev, but was released in an amnesty in March 2005. Two months later, he was elected one of three deputy chairmen of Quliyev's Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2005). LF

In a joint statement summarized by Caucasus Press on November 21, the Georgian Foreign Ministry and Economic Development Ministry again stressed that Georgia will support Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization only on condition that Russia makes good on its formal commitment of 2004 to legalize what the statement termed illegal customs posts currently operating on Russia's borders with the breakaway unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, 13, and 14, 2006). The Georgian statement proposed starting talks with Russia to that end as soon as possible. LF

In a separate statement reported by Caucasus Press on November 21, the Georgian Foreign Ministry accused Russia of extending open support to the separatist leaderships of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in violation of international law. It condemned explicitly a November 20 meeting in Moscow between Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, and Russia's formal message of congratulation to Eduard Kokoity in the wake of his reelection on November 12 for a second term as South Ossetian president in a ballot that the international community branded illegal and invalid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). LF

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili informed journalists in Tbilisi on November 20 that Giorgi Arveladze, who for the past year has headed the presidential administration, will succeed former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili as economic development minister, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili described Arveladze as "a soldier who will carry out...orders," and as a competent administrator. Okruashvili quit as economic development minister on November 17, one week after his appointment, and plans to continue his military education abroad, Caucasus Press reported on November 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and 20, 2006). Also on November 20, parliamentarian Nika Gvaramia, who represents Saakashvili's United National Movement, rejected Georgian media reports, noted on November 20 by the Russian daily "Izvestia," that during his final showdown with Saakashvili prior to his November 13 dismissal as defense minister Okruashvili shouted abuse and smashed furniture, necessitating the intervention of the presidential bodyguards, Caucasus Press reported. On November 21, Arveladze announced that Saakashvili's aide for economic issues, Eka Sharvashidze, will succeed him as presidential-administration head, Caucasus Press reported. He characterized Sharvashidze as "a very good manager [and] a Harvard-educated professional." LF

A Kazakh program to legalize undocumented migrant workers has registered 127,994 people since it began in the summer, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on November 20. The overwhelming majority of the legalized workers are from Uzbekistan (91,706), with smaller numbers hailing from Kyrgyzstan (17,995), Russia (8,510), and Tajikistan (3,750). DK

Murat Sutalinov, the head of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service (SNB), announced on November 20 that Kyrgyzstan remains under threat from international terrorists, religious extremists, and drug traffickers, Kabar reported. Sutalinov warned SNB officers that criminals harbor far-reaching goals in Kyrgyzstan and Central Asia, and he called on them to preserve the best traditions the SNB inherited from its Soviet-era predecessors and pass them on to a new generation. DK

Kyrgyz lawmakers Kamchybek Tashiev, Isa Omurkulov, and Bolot Sherniyazov spoke out on November 20 in favor of the parliament's dissolving itself to make way for new elections, the news agency reported the same day. Omurkulov stated, "We should form a new Jogorku Kenesh [parliament], that will then confirm the new cabinet and, of course, we should choose a new president." But parliament speaker Marat Sultanov told on November 20 that the move for parliament to dissolve itself comes from "only five or six legislators, or 10 percent of all the deputies." Sultanov said that while he realizes that some deputies are unhappy with Kyrgyzstan's recently approved constitution, he does not believe that there are any grounds at present for dissolving parliament. DK

Rostelecom, Russia's state-run, long-distance telephone service provider, has filed suit against Turkmenistan's Communications Ministry in a Moscow arbitrage court to recover nearly $5 million in arrears, the daily "Kommersant" reported on November 20. The debt is owed for long-distance calls from Turkmenistan to Russia and for long-distance traffic using Rostelecom's network, the newspaper stated. Analysts queried by "Kommersant" called the lawsuit against an official institution of a foreign state unprecedented, but cautioned that even if Rostelecom wins its case in a Russian court, it may find it impossible to collect the money from the Turkmen side without a corresponding ruling in Turkmenistan. DK

Uzbekistan's State Border Committee released a statement on November 20 charging Tajik border guards with intentionally firing on an Uzbek patrol on November 16 in an incident that resulted in the death of an Uzbek border guard (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006), and Interfax-AVN reported. The statement claimed that "the criminal actions of the Tajik border guards, who openly targeted or, possibly, deliberately opened fire on a neighboring country's territory for no reason at all and killed a border guard, contradict every international norm and were obviously provocative and created a hostile atmosphere on the border." The Uzbek Committee declared itself extremely "concerned" about the situation along the border and enumerated a number of incidents in which Tajik border guards allegedly committed illegal acts. DK

The European Commission has prepared a new strategy of relations with Belarus, offering that country's government significant economic incentives in exchange for fulfilling 12 conditions on the path toward democratization, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on November 20. In particular, Brussels pledges to open its markets for Belarusian commodities, to give financial support to Belarusian companies, to provide more scholarships for Belarusian students, to streamline visa formalities for Belarusians, and to offer help in implementing economic and self-government reforms. Minsk, in its turn, would have to release political prisoners, halt persecution of the opposition, investigate the disappearances of political opponents of the regime in 1999-2000, ensure fair court trials, respect minority rights, and hold free elections. In essence, Brussels is reportedly inviting Minsk to conclude a new accord on partnership to replace the previous one, which was frozen following the deeply flawed constitutional referendum in Belarus in 1996. JM

Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich has welcomed the EU's offer of a new strategy toward Belarus, Belapan reported on November 20. "[Official] propagandists are constantly telling Belarusians that they cannot count on the EU, as they say we're not welcome in Europe. And here we get a document that confirms that the EU is waiting for Belarus, is waiting for democratic changes in our country.... This strategy can prove very helpful for fighting the apathy that has gripped Belarusian society," Milinkevich said. Meanwhile, United Civic Party Deputy Chairman Ihar Shynkaryk said he does not believe that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka could meet this strategy halfway. "The official Minsk will not agree to implement this strategy. As long as Lukashenka remains the head of state, he will not conduct a [genuine] investigation into the political disappearances. I also do not believe that Lukashenka could release all politically persecuted people from prison," Shynkaryk told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. JM

Mikalay Astreyka, a convicted election observer, was released from a correctional-labor institution in Mahilyou Oblast on November 17 to have his prison sentence replaced by community service, Belapan reported on November 20. "It happened so unexpectedly that I still feel strange. I have not yet recovered myself," Astreyka told Belapan in Minsk. Astreyka was sentenced in August to two years in prison for his role in an unregistered organization that "infringed upon the interests and rights of citizens" jointly with three other associates, who received somewhat milder punishments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 5, 2006). The community sentence requires Astreyka to stay at home from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., report to the local police department on a regular basis, and give 15 percent of his earnings to the government. JM

A district court in Kyiv on November 20 fined Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko the equivalent of some $70, finding him guilty of unlawfully promoting police officers and unlawfully presenting pistols -- in the form of Interior Ministry awards -- to two subordinates, Ukrainian media reported. Yuriy Bergelson, Lutsenko's lawyer, told journalists that the court declared Lutsenko's actions unlawful and punishable under a law on corruption, but it did not conclude that Lutsenko had benefited personally from these actions. Last week, Deputy Prosecutor-General Renat Kuzmin said in a television interview that Lutsenko was involved in corruption linked to unlawful promotions and issuing handguns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2006). Lutsenko, formally with no party affiliation, was proposed to the cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych by President Viktor Yushchenko. Lutsenko was known as one of the most prominent "field commanders" of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which helped Yushchenko win the presidential post. JM

Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha has commented that the court ruling against Interior Minister Lutsenko may be a link in a longer chain leading to his potential dismissal, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported on November 20. "I will say straightforwardly: A brutal discrediting campaign has been launched against the current interior minister, an outstanding activist of the Orange team of President Yushchenko. There has been an apparent political order to remove Lutsenko from his post by any means," Baloha said. "The court could not find any motives of personal gain in [Lutsenko's] actions but called him a corrupt official, despite the fact that everybody knows that there is no corruption without personal gain," he added. JM

Prime Minister Agim Ceku has said that Serbia's political elite is out of touch with the majority of the population in trying to hold on to the breakaway province, B92 and Beta reported on November 20. "There is a modern Serbia, a majority Serbia, whose citizens look toward Europe and the future," Ceku said. "The other Serbia is represented by the current political elite, which offers nothing either to Serbia or to Kosova, and builds exclusively on myths, using Kosova as a propaganda hit." Ceku also said that the newly ratified Serbian Constitution, which designates Kosova part of Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2006), is "leading Serbia into the past." BW

In an article in "The Wall Street Journal" on November 20, Ceku warned that delaying Kosova's independence will hold up reform across the Balkans. "A United Nations decision on Kosovo's status, originally expected before the end of this year, has been postponed," Ceku wrote. "The expectations in Kosovo are high. Kosovo is hungry for independence, Kosovo is ready for independence, and now is not the time to stop the clock." Ceku noted that at a time when it appears "that the Balkans were finally turning the corner," the delay in Kosova's status decision risks causing "another period of stagnation, delay, and uncertainty." The United Nations announced on November 10 that it will postpone a decision on Kosova's final status until after Serbia holds general elections on January 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). BW

Prosecutors in Belgrade said on November 20 that a Serbian paramilitary suspected of killing 200 Croatian prisoners of war in 1991 has been arrested in Norway, AP reported the same day. Damir Sireta has been detained in Norway under an international arrest warrant, the Serbian war crimes prosecution office said in a statement. Sireta is "suspected of taking part in the execution of 200 prisoners of war on the Ovcara farm" near the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar in November 1991, the statement said. The Ovcara case is widely considered to be a test of whether Serbia is capable of prosecuting war crimes committed during the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Fifteen former paramilitaries have already been convicted by Serbia's war crimes court for their parts in the Ovcara killings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13 and 14, 2005, and September 7, 2006). Sireta's case has been kept separate because he was still at large. He has not yet been formally charged. BW

Filip Vujanovic said on November 20 that Serbia has inherited all of Serbia and Montenegro's international military obligations, B92 and Beta reported the same day. Vujanovic, however, was evasive when asked if that meant that Podgorica is not responsible for potential damages in a civil lawsuit for genocide that Bosnia-Herzegovina has filed against Serbia and Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, March 8 and 16, and May 25, 2006). "Serbia proclaimed itself the successor of all international obligations and the successor in all international organizations," Vujanovic told the Bosnian daily "Dnevni avaz." "Montenegro has [demonstrated its remorse] for everything that happened in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our stance is that the crimes need to be treated individually, and that they should not be collectively addressed," he added. BW

Romany activists in Albania have called on Tirana and the international community to take steps to end to child trafficking, Makfax reported on November 20. Istref Pelumbi, the head of Albania's Roma Organization, said the trafficking of Romany children is widespread. Reports cited by Makfax say that approximately 5,000 children, most of whom are Roma, have been victims of child trafficking in Albania over an unspecified time period. The children are forced into prostitution and begging, and some have their organs sold for profit in Europe. Albania's Top Channel television recently aired a documentary, shot with hidden cameras, which showed Romany children from Albania being sold to people in Greece for 3,000 euros ($3,840). BW

Moldova on November 20 threatened to block Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) until Moscow grants Chisinau trade concessions, dpa reported the same day. "Before Russia can join the WTO, we must resolve a whole series of problems on violations of WTO rules," Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said. "Moldova supports the entrance of Russia into the WTO on the condition that these disagreements in our bilateral economic relations are resolved." Tarlev said Moscow must remove the customs and excise barriers currently applied to most Moldovan agricultural exports to Russia, stop overcharging value-added tax for natural-gas exports to Moldova, and end an import ban on Moldovan wines that has been in place since March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). "We must find solutions to these problems," Tarlev said. BW

In less than a month, Iranians will vote in elections for one of the country's most powerful bodies, the Assembly of Experts. Vetting has already winnowed the list of hopefuls by two-thirds and left some candidates unopposed, begging questions about how much choice voters are being given. But the election is relevant for a number of reasons.

The Assembly of Experts has the power to dismiss the country's highest-ranking political and religious figure, the supreme leader, and appoint a replacement. But even beyond statutory powers, victory in the Assembly of Experts race will either cement the fundamentalists' hold on Iran's elected institutions or initiate the reformists' return to political relevance.

The Assembly of Experts has 86 members, all of them clerics. The field of candidates for the December 15 election has fallen sharply over the past month, according to figures from the chamber that vets the hopefuls. A Guardians Council spokesman, Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, announced recently that there were 144 eligible candidates, "Iran" newspaper reported, before raising that figure by one several days later, according to state television. That represents less than 30 percent of the 492 prospective candidates Kadkhodai mentioned in mid-October.

Kadkhodai said that 100 people have withdrawn their applications. He added that all the female applicants failed the written exam on religious interpretation (ijtihad), and the candidacies of nine more people were still under review. The son of prominent hard-line cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, Ali Mesbah-Yazdi, was said to have flunked the written exam, Aftab news website reported.

Kadkhodai said that three incumbents had been rejected, although he did not identify them. According to the conservative daily "Kayhan" on November 15, they are: Majid Ansari, Ali Urumian, and Mohammad Reza Abbasi-Fard. But the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on October 21 that Urumian withdrew, citing a shortage of funds.

The final list of candidates are expected on November 28, after rejected would-be candidates have had a chance to appeal.

The announcement by the Guardians Council has already elicited protests. A former speaker of parliament, Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, wrote to Assembly of Experts speaker Ayatollah Ali Meshkini asking him to resolve the situation. Karrubi noted the inconsistency of disqualifying a man (Abbasi-Fard) who was not only an incumbent but also a former member of the Guardians Council, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on November 15.

The candidate disqualifications are likely to dominate headlines in Tehran for some time. But a prominent issue in the weeks before that announcement was the creation of election coalitions. Much of the discussion centered on who would appear on the respective candidate lists backed by the reformists, the conservatives, and the fundamentalists.

A member of the central council of the pro-reform Militant Clerics Association (Majma-yi Ruhaniyun-i Mobarez) in Gilan Province, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Yusefi, insisted there must be consensus among his group, the National Trust Party (Hezb-i Etemad-i Melli), and the Qom Theological Lecturers Association (Jameh-yi Mudarissin-i Hozeh-yi Elmieh-yi Qom), "Gilan-i Imruz" reported on October 8. Other reformist parties -- such as the Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization, the Islamic Iran Participation Front, and the Executives of Construction Party -- are reportedly awaiting the Militant Clerics Association list before announcing their positions, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on October 10.

The center-right Moderation and Development Party (Hezb-i Etedal va Toseh) announced that it will not participate in any coalition, "Ruzegar," the short-lived daily that aspired to succeed the former reformist newspaper "Sharq" before authorities effectively shut it down, reported on October 16. But it has signaled support for any group that backs the Assembly of Experts' deputy speaker, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani. "Ruzegar" said that such hesitation highlights the Moderation and Development Party's indecision. It suggested that it was seeking to sustain itself by siding with the ultimate winners.

Coalition efforts were also affected by long-standing disputes between older and more traditional conservatives, on the one hand, and younger and more radical fundamentalists. Reports emerged in late October that a group called the Elite of Seminaries and Universities has been created to back Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi. This was described by one newspaper, "Etemad-i Melli" on October 30, as a "third movement." The paper noted reformist concerns that the new group could come to dominate the assembly.

The Elite of Seminaries and Universities allegedly rejects the list of traditional seminarian candidates, "Kargozaran" reported on November 1. The editor of Mesbah-Yazdi's "Parto Sokhan" weekly, Qassem Ravanbakhsh, explained that "some of the independent candidates are more qualified than those names that have appeared on the lists."

Ultimately, coalition formation may not have much impact when there are so few candidates. Realistically, it does not appear that the Assembly of Experts race will be very competitive.

The lack of choice could reduce voter enthusiasm. But the fact that municipal councils are being elected the same day could boost turnout figures. The competition for those seats appears to be more intense, and there might be greater flexibility in candidate vetting on the municipal level.

If voter participation is high as a result, officials are likely to tout these elections as a sign of support for the current system.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair met on November 20 with soldiers battling neo-Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province, AFP reported. Blair declared Afghanistan a major battleground in the global war on terror during his brief stay at Camp Bastion, home to 3,000 British soldiers. "Here, on this extraordinary piece of desert, is where the future of world security in the early 21st century is going to be played out," Blair told the gathering of several hundred troops. Some 36 British soldiers have been killed in an upsurge of fighting this year, but Blair said that the international force will prevail through "determination, courage, and absolute will." Reiterating the global implications of their mission, Blair said, "When you defeat them you are defeating them not just on behalf of the people of Afghanistan but our country, Britain, and the wider world." RR

British Prime Minister Blair held talks on November 20 with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Bloomberg reported. Blair and Karzai focused on working with NATO to bring stability to Afghanistan and help rebuild its infrastructure. Karzai called on NATO to remain committed to Afghanistan, urging Britian to "stay with Afghanistan until we are firmly on our feet." Blair responded by saying: "We have got to stay committed. Now is the right time to stay with the Afghans in their journey of progress and to rediscover within ourselves the belief and the vision that took us here and should keep us here until the job is done." RR

Afghanistan's neighboring countries concluded a two-day conference in New Delhi on November 19 discussing reconstruction in Afghanistan, AP reported on November 20. Senior delegates from Pakistan, Iran, China, and the Group of Eight industrialized countries considered ways to increase trade, promote economic growth, and ensure security. Although there were no specific proposals agreed upon or money pledged during the conference, the neighboring countries adopted a declaration to help Afghanistan develop air and other transportation projects to facilitate commerce. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said the declaration also seeks to help Afghanistan become an "energy bridge" to supply fuel from Central Asia to South Asia's booming economies. "Work will be accelerated on a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India to develop a technically and commercially viable project," Spanta said. RR

Taliban militants ambushed a police patrol in southern Afghanistan on November 19, killing two police officers, according to police, Pakistan's "The News International" reported on November 20. One police officer is still missing. The patrol was attacked by neo-Taliban fighters in the Girishk District of Helmand Province. "Two police were martyred and a third one is still missing after the Taliban ambushed a police patrol," police official Amanullah Khan said. The insurgents fled the area following the attack, according to Khan. Elsewhere, three men were arrested in the southern city of Kandahar, accused of kidnapping a 28-year-old man and demanding a $300,000 ransom, provincial police chief Asmatullah Amiri said. "We arrested three of the five abductors today and won the release of Mohammad Ishaq who was reunited with his family safe and sound," Amiri said. RR

Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, arrived in Tehran on November 20 for a four-day visit, Radio Farda reported. He and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad are expected to discuss political and economic cooperation. Zimbabwe is currently experiencing hyperinflation and has massive food shortages in some parts of the country. The 82-year-old Mugabe -- whom South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called a "caricature of an African dictator" -- has ruled since 1980. The African Union's Executive Council has criticized Mugabe's government for the arrest and torture of opposition members of parliament and human rights lawyers, arresting journalists, the preventing freedom of expression while stifling other civil liberties. Mugabe and many members of his government are banned from traveling to the European Union. BS/PB

President Ahmadinejad said on November 20 in Tehran that the Islamic republic intends to build 60,000 uranium centrifuges by March 21, ISNA reported. This step is necessary to meet the country's nuclear-fuel requirements, he said. In Vienna later this week, the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will consider Tehran's request for assistance in completing its heavy water reactor in Arak, "The Washington Post" reported on November 20. A heavy-water reactor produces plutonium, which can be used in making nuclear weapons. The U.S. and its allies want the board to reject the Iranian request, while developing countries fear that doing so would set a precedent that would retard their nuclear programs. According to "The Washington Post," the IAEA does not have a legal basis for denying Tehran's request. Voting on this issue is scheduled for November 23 and 24. BS

Deputy Interior Minister and Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs chief Ahmad Husseini said in the West Azerbaijan Province city of Urumiyeh on November 20 that more than 1 million Afghans reside in Iran illegally, IRNA reported. Husseini said 950,000 Afghans and 60,000 Iraqis are documented residents. Some 250,000 Afghans were arrested this year as they tried to enter the country illegally, he added, while 10,000 Afghans, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis were arrested as they tried to leave Iran and illegally enter Turkey. Afghans resist leaving, he said, because of violence, poverty, and unemployment in their home country. On October 31, a labor organization official said in Isfahan Province that 238,000 people are unemployed there, provincial television reported. He said the problem could be resolved by getting rid of foreign workers who do not have permits. A law enforcement official in the governor-general's office urged employers to reconsider hiring Afghans over Iranians. Earlier this month in Geneva, Iranian Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi expressed concern that Afghans are not returning home as rapidly as desired (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," October 17, 2006). BS

The children of two Iranian dissidents who were murdered eight years ago have invited their compatriots to commemorate the anniversary of the killings, Radio Farda reported on November 20, citing ISNA and ILNA. Parastu and Arsh Foruhar, the daughter and son, respectively, of Hezb-i Mellat-i Iran leaders Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, said the event will take place on November 22. The Foruhars -- as well as poet Mohammad Mokhtari and writer-translator Mohammad Jafar Puyandeh -- were allegedly killed by so-called "rogue elements" in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The reputed ringleader of the crimes reportedly committed suicide before his trial, and the killers were sentenced in January 2001 after a trial that failed to establish who actually ordered the murders. In August 2001, the Supreme Court reduced the original death sentences to served time, and in January 2003 those sentences were reduced again (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," January 29 and August 27, 2001, and February 3, 2003). Parastu Foruhar said the authorities have yet to respond to their request for a permit to hold a public gathering, so the event will take place at their home. BS

A prominent member of the Kurdistan Coalition in the Iraqi National Assembly, Dr. Mahmud Uthman, said on November 20 that a trilateral summit involving Iraqi, Iranian, and Syrian leaders is to be held in Tehran sometime in December, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Meanwhile, a spokesman for Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who will visit Tehran on November 25 and 26, told Reuters of November 21 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will not be present at talks with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. According to Uthman, the aim of the summit is to reach a mutual agreement on policies concerning Iraq's security. "If these visits are successful, I think that this will open the way and lay the foundation for holding a trilateral Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian summit in Tehran to discuss [key] issues," he said. However, Uthman warned that the success of any summit would hinge on the U.S. position on Iran and Syria. SS

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced on November 21 that Iraq and Syria have reestablished diplomatic relations after 24 years, international media reported. Zebari made the announcement at a joint news conference in Baghdad with his visiting Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Muallim. He also said the two sides have signed an agreement to cooperate on security. The two countries also agreed on the need for U.S.-led forces to stay in Iraq until they are no longer needed, after which they will be gradually withdrawn. Iraq and Syria severed ties when Syria sided with Iran during its 1980-88 war with Iraq. DW

Iraqi Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili survived an assassination attempt on November 20, AFP reported the same day. Al-Zamili said that gunmen ambushed his convoy in Baghdad's Al-Fadhil district on his way home from the ministry and killed two of his bodyguards. On November 19, gunmen kidnapped Deputy Health Minister Ammar al-Saffar from his Baghdad home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006). In other news, Walid Hassan, a well-known comedian on Al-Sharqiyah television, was shot and killed on November 20 while driving in western Baghdad. He starred in a comedy series called "Caricature," which mocked U.S. forces, Shi'ite militias, Sunni insurgent groups, and Iraqi government officials. Police sources also said that unknown gunmen killed Fulayah al-Ghuraybi, a Shi'ite professor at Babil University, as he was driving home the same day. SS

Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on November 20 calling the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "flawed and unsound," and for his death sentence to be overturned, international media reported the same day. In a 97-page report, the New York-based human rights organization noted that the Iraqi Special Tribunal was not adequately equipped to handle such a complex case. "The result is a trial that did not meet key fair-trial standards. Under such circumstances, the soundness of the verdict is questionable," the report concluded. In addition, HRW stressed that the death sentence against Hussein is "an inherently cruel and inhumane punishment," and "in the wake of an unfair trial is indefensible." Iraqi Foreign Minister Zebari rejected the criticism and called the trial "just and fair." "We believe strongly that the trial was fair and Saddam Hussein had every right [possibility] to defend himself," Zebari told the BBC. Hussein and six co-defendants were convicted in the killing of 148 Shi'a from the town of Al-Dujayl in 1982 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, 2006). SS

Two former senior U.S. officials on November 20 called for deploying NATO forces in northern Iraq to prevent the risk of a Turkish invasion, international media reported the same day. The proposal by Richard Holbrooke and Ronald Asmus, outlined in a policy paper published by the German Marshall Fund think tank, said that a NATO presence in the region would deter Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants from carrying out cross-border raids into southern Turkey, thereby lowering the risk of an invasion by Turkish forces. Furthermore, they contend that a NATO presence could help in containing any spillover of an Iraqi civil war into the relatively peaceful regions of northern Iraq. Holbrooke is a former U.S. ambassador to the UN and Asmus served as an assistant secretary of state in the administration of President Bill Clinton. He also worked as an analyst at RFE/RL. SS

The leader of the Muslim Scholars Association, Harith al-Dari, called on November 19 for the dismissal of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government and a reassessment of the political process in Iraq, "Al-Ghadd" reported the same day. Al-Dari called for the formation of an Iraqi unity government that would serve all Iraqis, and he accused al-Maliki's government of perpetrating sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs. "We will not remain silent over the organized sectarian killings that parties known to al-Maliki's government are carrying out today against Sunnis all over Iraq under the full cover of the U.S. occupation forces," he said. He also said there are "certain groups" who are trying to divide Iraq and strip it of its national and Arab identity. The Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for al-Dari on November 17 on charges of "inciting terrorism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006). SS

Iraqi forces backed by U.S. military advisers on November 20 raided Al-Sadr City, the stronghold of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, which is suspected of mass sectarian kidnappings, international media reported the same day. The U.S. military said the operation was launched to search for a cell of more than 30 Iraqis who are believed to be "responsible for kidnapping, torturing, and murdering Iraqi civilians and soldiers." An al-Sadr spokesman said several homes were searched and three Iraqis were arrested, but there were no clashes or casualties. However, Iraqi forces apparently damaged a mosque while searching for weapons. SS