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Newsline - December 14, 2006

The Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders announced on December 13 that it has awarded its annual Reporters Without Borders-Fondation de France prize to Moscow's "Novaya gazeta" as exemplifying "the struggle for the right to inform the public and to be informed," news agencies reported. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya reported for "Novaya gazeta" for a number of years prior to her killing in October. The prize seeks to draw public attention to attacks on media freedom. The Russian authorities have been harshly criticized for their handling of the cases of Politkovskaya and 11 other journalists slain since 1998 whose killers were never found (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, October 23, and November 3, 16, and 28, 2006). In September, Reporters Without Borders criticized as "unworthy of France" President Jacques Chirac's presentation to President Vladimir Putin of the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor -- the highest award France can give to a foreign head of state. The media watchdog has also called attention to the extent to which the Russian state and state-run corporations have taken over virtually all of the most important electronic media and much of the print media as well, greatly limiting the amount of independent news and information available to the public. Some critics have also spoken of an increasing "Putinization" of the Russian media, meaning a tendency to depict the authorities in a favorable light and focus attention away from controversial domestic political issues and onto foreign affairs, sports, entertainment, or business. PM

On December 13, only 20 journalists, including the eight members of the jury and the five prize recipients, attended the presentation of the annual Andrei Sakharov awards for journalism in Moscow, "The Moscow Times" reported on December 14. Slain journalist Politkovskaya, who won the top prize in 2002, was honored for her life's work at the ceremony. The top award of $5,000 for 2006 went to Anna Lebedeva, a correspondent for "Novaya gazeta" in Rostov-na-Donu, for a series of articles on human rights abuses. She noted that the ranks of investigative journalists are becoming thinner. Four runners-up received $500 each. In all, the jury considered articles from 87 reporters in 49 cities. Vadim Rechkalov, an investigative reporter with "Moskovsky komsomolets" and one of the runners-up, noted that corruption and human rights abuses continue to flourish despite his efforts and those of his colleagues in recent years. He argued that "nothing has changed, not even an iota -- not in the courts, not anywhere else. It makes you wonder about the effectiveness of journalism" in Russia. Jury member Elvira Goryukhina, who won the top prize in 2001 for her reporting on Chechnya, said that her reaction upon reading the submissions for the 2006 award was: "What a nightmare. What is happening in our country?" The entries included articles on Chechnya, the housing situation, the environment, property scams, children's rights, and other topics. Runner-up Tamara Proskuryakova of "Vologradskaya pravda" said, "I still like to believe that my scribbles help people believe that the truth still exists." Igor Nefyodov, who won the 2005 prize for his post-Beslan coverage in "Izvestia," noted the problem of finding people bold enough to write investigative articles. He left his paper after it was taken over by Gazprom in late 2005. Tatyana Kuzmina of "Orlovskiye novosti" added that "the issue is not only having the courage to write, but finding someone to print it." A group of journalists recently sought permission to stage a march on December 16 to honor the more than 200 of their colleagues killed since 1991, but city authorities said it would violate the constitutional rights of Muscovites by blocking traffic. PM

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso told a parliamentary committee in Tokyo on December 14 that Russia and Japan should end their dispute over the four southern Kurile Islands by "splitting" them, reported. He proposed that Russia keep 75 percent of Etorofu, the largest island, and that 25 percent of it and all of the other three islands -- Habomai, Shikotan, and Kunashiri -- should go to Japan. But a Foreign Ministry spokesman later told Russian journalists that Tokyo's position has not changed and that Aso was not making a formal proposal. The Red Army occupied the four islands, which the Japanese call the Northern Territories, after the Soviet Union declared war on Japan in the last weeks of World War II in the Pacific. Aso, like his predecessors, has often said that his country will not agree to any peace treaty without the return of the four islands. The islands have been the subject of much attention by top Russian officials in the course of 2006 and were the scene during the summer of a fatal incident involving Japanese fishermen and Russian border guards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, August 17 and 22, September 20, and December 12, 2006). The ongoing dispute over the Sakhalin-2 gas project has only added to the tensions. In Moscow, Georgy Kunadze, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told Interfax on December 14 that Aso's latest remarks on partitioning the islands are not serious. Kunadze added that "this statement is a remark made by a naive person who has no idea of the essence of the problem" and might have been motivated by domestic political considerations. Kunadze stressed that only after a peace treaty is signed can other matters and the future of bilateral relations be discussed, "keeping in mind the real state of affairs." PM

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on December 13 that his government "opposes any distorting of historical events, hiding the truth about monstrous Nazi crimes, or revising the outcome of mankind's difficult struggle against Nazism," reported. He was referring to the ongoing Tehran conference questioning the Holocaust, which is sponsored by the Iranian government. Kamynin added that Moscow's position on the Holocaust is based on a UN General Assembly resolution establishing January 27 as a day to honor victims of that genocide and opposing any denial of the Holocaust. He recalled that Russia has called "unacceptable" statements by unnamed Iranian leaders questioning Israel's right to exist. Also on December 13, officials of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which is Russia's largest Jewish organization, noted with regret that some Russians are taking part in the Tehran conference, "The Moscow Times" reported on December 14. Those officials also called on the Russian government to reassess its relations with Iran in response to the gathering. Moscow opposes tough international sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program and is building a nuclear plant in Bushehr. In Nalchik, Anas Pshikhachev, who is the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic's mufti, told on December 13 that "it does not take a great deal of effort" to visit former World War II concentration camps and determine with one's own eyes that the Holocaust took place. Pshikhachev suggested that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad simply wanted to attract international attention by convening the conference, which he said "will not contribute" to a rapprochement between the world's major religions. PM/LF

Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, whom President Putin recently named to head the new United Aircraft Company (OAK), said on December 12 that Russia must "return to the top league among the world's leading players in the aviation sector," "Izvestia" reported on December 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23 and November 10, 2006). Ivanov argued that he was named to the OAK post because "air power is becoming increasingly important for national security." Ivanov added that aviation also plays a crucial role in overall technological development and that "aircraft construction is one of the few high-tech sectors in which Russia is still competitive, despite the hardships of the 1990s." He noted that Russia is a huge country and needs "to develop civil aviation as the leading form of transport, or in some [remote] areas, the only form." He stressed that "this is a state-level task [requiring] a unified concept and substantial powers.... We plan to have the corporation operating at full capacity by 2015." Ivanov argued that "the aviation industry needs to supply the [military] with modern hardware. That includes developing a fifth-generation fighter [and] producing the YaK-130 combat and training jet.... Developing scientific research and modern industry will stimulate what is known as human capital. Thus, the aviation industry will have a positive effect on economic, social, and political processes in our state." He noted that some forms of cooperation with foreign partners will be developed in civilian aviation, but that "the military aviation sector in the OAK will be off-limits to foreign capital -- in the interests of national security, of course." PM

Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who heads the Central Election Commission, told a press conference in Moscow on December 14 that the presidential election will be held on March 9, 2008, Interfax reported. President Putin is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, but since the beginning of this year several dozen Russian regional officials called for a constitutional amendment to enable him to do so. Putin has opposed any such move on the grounds that he would have no legitimacy if he changed the laws to suit his own purposes. He has not been explicit, however, as to whether he would go along with a constitutional change if there were widespread popular "demand" for it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16, July 18, and September 11 and 24, 2006). PM

Meeting in special session on December 13, the parliament of the Adygeya Republic approved by 50-1, with two invalid votes, the candidacy of Maykop State Technilogical University Rector Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov as the republic's new president, Russian media reported. Tkhakushinov told deputies he plans to focus on reviving the republic's economy, and dismissed rumors that a merger of Adygeya into surrounding Krasnodar Krai is still under discussion, according to on December 14. In a clear concession to Adygeya's Russians, who account for almost two-thirds of the total 447,000 population, Tkhakushinov said that the prime minister will be in future be a Russian, and that Russians will also receive 50 percent of all ministerial portfolios and posts as administration heads. LF

In a statement released in Yerevan on December 13, Robert Kocharian dismissed as "an overt display of disrespect for an event of historic significance" criticism by international organizations of the December 10 referendum in which voters in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic overwhelmingly endorsed a new constitution, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht termed the vote "counterproductive," while the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group described it as "unhelpful." Nagorno-Karabakh President Arkady Ghukasian predicted after casting his vote on December 10 that the impact, if any, of the referendum on the search for a political settlement of the Karabakh conflict would be positive (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). LF

Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes recently sentenced an Iranian citizen to 11 years' imprisonment for espionage, reported on December 14. The man in question reportedly graduated from a university in Azerbaijan and then found employment with an organization in Baku representing Iranian emigres. He is said to have channeled classified information to Iranian intelligence. LF

Georgian Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration Giorgi Baramidze headed a delegation that left Tbilisi on December 13 for the first talks with NATO since Georgia was admitted to the stage of Intensified Dialogue in late September, Imedi television reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22, 2006). Baramidze told journalists he hopes that Georgia will successfully complete discussions on five sets of issues by mid-2007 in order to qualify for a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is the final preparation stage before a formal invitation to join the alliance is issued. In an interview published on December 12 in the Russian daily "Vremya novostei," Georgian First Deputy Defense Minister Levan Nikoleishvili said Georgia may qualify for the MAP by the end of 2007. On December 11, Caucasus Press quoted Nikoleishvili as saying Georgia will not hold a referendum on NATO membership, as opinion polls have shown that 80 percent of the population are in favor. LF

Kazakh Deputy Industry and Trade Minister Zhanar Aitzhanova said on December 13 that Kazakhstan will finish talks with the EU on the country's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the first quarter of 2007 as Kazakhstan's parliament passed a number of laws to accelerate the process, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Aitzhanova said that recent negotiations with the EU have produced "noticeable progress." Meanwhile, the Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) passed a bill amending 33 laws with the aim of easing Kazakhstan's WTO accession. Energy Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov said in November that the new legislation is "aimed at securing transparency in the acquisition of commodities, operations, and services in the use of natural resources," Interfax reported. DK

A commission from Kyrgyzstan's Civil Aviation Department has concluded that a U.S. crew is to blame for a September 26 collision between a U.S. KC-135 and a Kyrgyz TU-154 at Manas International Airport, reported on December 13. Alik Askarov, deputy director of the department, told a press conference on December 13 that the crew of the U.S. KC-135, which was deployed to the U.S. base at Manas, failed to move off a runway as the TU-154 was taking off. Askarov said that the commission's conclusion has already been conveyed to the U.S. side, which he accused of delaying its own investigation. Meanwhile, Natalya Smolenskaya, head of the Kyrgyz airline union, told a press conference in Bishkek on December 13 that Kyrgyzstan Airlines, which operates the TU-154, suffered $3 million in losses from canceled flights after the collision and will have to spend $1 million to repair the plane, Interfax-AVN reported. She said, "We want the U.S. side to compensate at least part of the financial losses incurred." DK

Yu Hongjun, China's ambassador to Uzbekistan, told reporters in Tashkent on December 12 that the construction of a natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China via Uzbekistan is a priority project, reported the next day. Hongjun said, "It remains only to study some issues, find a compromise settlement for several of them, and make appropriate investments." China and Turkmenistan signed a framework agreement on the pipeline -- which is slated for completion in 2009 -- in April 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). DK

Uzbek President Islam Karimov has signed into law the formal ratification of Uzbekistan's renewed membership in the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan), reported on December 13. The protocol was signed in Russia on August 16 and subsequently passed by both chambers of Uzbekistan's legislature. Uzbekistan first signed the Collective Security Treaty in 1992 but suspended its membership in 1998. DK

Anatol Paulovich, head of the Chamber of Representatives' Committee for Industry, Fuel, and Energy, told Belapan on December 13 that Russia's recent decision to slap a duty of $180 per ton on crude oil exported to Belarus as of January 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006) undermines the foundations of the Russia-Belarus Union State. "It's in violation of fundamental things that are provided for by the Agreement on the Formation of the Union State signed by the two heads of state, and agreements on equal rights of economic entities and equal conditions for economic activities," Paulovich stressed. The Russian measure is expected to deprive Belarus of an estimated $1.7 billion annually in profits from the sale of petroleum products refined from the Russian crude. Meanwhile, Oleg Panteleev from Russia's Federation Council was quoted as saying on December 13 that the Kremlin's tax on crude oil exports to Belarus was "absolutely correct." Panteleev stressed that it was time for both countries to separate "neighborly from economic relations," and he called on the Belarusians to "take no offense" at the move. JM

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou said on December 13 that the U.S. attempt to raise the issue of imprisoned Alyaksandr Kazulin's hunger strike in the UN Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006) was a "propaganda trick intended for the media," Belapan reported. "This situation is a typical case where a shot goes wide. Alyaksandr Kazulin had already stopped his hunger strike when the Americans attempted to raise this issue in the UN Security Council," Papou noted. He also suggested that Washington should tackle "real, not imaginary" matters in the UN. "That is why we would once again advise the American side not to chase phantoms and to start working out its privileged status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which carries special responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security," Papou added. Meanwhile, Kazulin's wife Iryna said the same day that the U.S. move testified that, "It was not in vain that Alyaksandr tortured himself by hunger striking" for 53 days. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on December 13 failed to approve the dismissal of Ihor Drizhchanyy from the post of chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Interfax-Ukraine reported. The motion was supported by 184 deputies, with at least 226 votes necessary for its approval. Raisa Bohatyryova, head of the parliamentary caucus of the ruling Party of Regions, denied the allegation from a journalist that the vote on Drizhchanyy was the ruling coalition's "revenge" on President Viktor Yushchenko for his recent veto on the 2007 budget bill (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 13, 2006). President Yushchenko dismissed Drizhchanyy last month and earlier this month appointed him deputy secretary of the National Defense and Security Council. Under the Ukrainian Constitution, the nomination and discharge of the SBU chief by the president must be approved by parliament. JM

Campaigning in Zemun Polje for his Democratic Party (DS) on December 12, Boris Tadic said it is time for Serbia to become an open and democratic European country, B92 and Beta reported the next day. "Serbia must be an open society in order to enter competition with countries around us," Tadic said. "Serbia must be a society that accepts competition as a standard of European behavior and that is how we will become a European society." Tadic added that when he visits EU countries, he sees energy for change, reform, and learning that is often absent in Serbia. The January 21 parliamentary elections, he said, "are elections in which we need to send a strong message that Serbia must enter the 21st century, that people must be prepared for new jobs, and people must learn new skills, to prepare the entire generation for the competition that is awaiting our nation in the 21st century." BW

Campaigning in Kraljevo for his Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) on December 13, Vuk Draskovic called for a compromise on Kosova that respects Serbia's territorial integrity, B92, Beta, and FoNet reported the same day. "We see that the solution is somewhere in between our demand to maintain territorial integrity and the Albanian demand to receive full independence," Draskovic said. "We are looking for international guarantees for the protection of Serbs, Serbian property, Serbian monasteries in Kosovo, and we are insisting that no borders be changed." BW

Six months after the breakup of the union of Serbia and Montenegro, Serbia has still not filled all its ambassadorial posts around the world, B92 and Beta reported on December 13. Serbia is expected to send ambassadors to its embassies in Great Britain, Italy, and Montenegro after the January 21 elections. Embassies in Albania, Slovenia, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Argentina, Myanmar, and Iran are also working without ambassadors. Belgrade has announced ambassadorial appointments for Russia, Belgium, Canada, Spain, Slovakia, the UN Mission in New York, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. BW

The appeals chamber of Bosnia-Herzegovina's war crimes court on December 13 sentenced Bosnian Serb Nedjo Samardzic to 24 years in prison, Reuters reported the same day. Samardzic was previously sentenced to 13 years in April for assisting in the persecution, rape, and torture of Muslims in the eastern Bosnian town of Foca early in the 1992-95 war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006). The appeals chamber later ordered a retrial because of procedural errors. In the December 13 verdict, the appeals chamber said Samardzic "forced victims into sexual slavery, raped them, and conducted other inhumane acts, intentionally causing them great suffering, serious physical injuries and harm to their health." BW

The European Union on December 12 told Albania's ruling coalition and opposition parties to work together to assure free and fair local elections, AP reported the same day. Albanian opposition parties decided on December 11 to boycott the January 20 local elections, claiming that the governing coalition, led by Sali Berisha's Democratic Party, is preparing to engage in fraud. The opposition Socialists are demanding that the Berisha government postpone the elections so that voters' lists can be updated. They are also alleging that the government has been distributing fake birth certificates that, as voter identification, could allow people to vote more than once. The government has denied the accusation. "All Albania's political leaders bear a responsibility to its citizens for the conduct of the local elections. Political leaders should not expect the international community to arbitrate among them," the European Commission said in a statement. BW

Transdniester's Central Election Commission on December 13 declared incumbent Igor Smirnov the winner in the separatist province's December 10 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 12, 2006), RIA Novosti reported the same day. Commission Chairman Pyotr Denisenko said Smirnov won 82.4 percent of the vote. Nadezhda Bondarenko came in second with 8.1 percent, followed by Andrei Safonov with 3.9 percent, and Pyotr Tomaily with 2.1 percent. Some 1.6 percent voted against all candidates. "The elections have been held; they should be considered valid, and in line with legislation," Denisenko said. "Igor Smirnov was elected president, and Aleksandr Korolyov vice president." BW

Iranians will go to the polls on December 15 to cast ballots to select the powerful Assembly of Experts, which oversees the work of Iran's supreme leader, and to fill city councils across the country. The assembly elections are crucial for the future course of the Islamic republic, while the city-council polls are seen as a referendum on the popularity of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The December 15 elections, which come 18 months after Iran's presidential vote and at a time when Tehran is facing growing international pressure over its nuclear program, could affect the division of power between the country's various factions. The authorities have said a high turnout would prove popular support for the ruling government.

On December 13, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused unidentified "enemies" of trying to discourage Iranians from taking part in the elections. "The nation should know [the enemies'] motives and act exactly against their will. God willing, on Friday [December 15] people will enter the election scene with strong determination and full motivation."

Khamenei described the elections for the Assembly of Experts as Iran's most important vote. But many people don't feel the powerful body has a direct impact on their daily lives, and turnout during past elections has been relatively low.

Little is known about the work of the Assembly of Experts, which actually has the power to appoint, supervise, and even dismiss the supreme leader if they deem him to be incapable. The 86-member institution, which is made up of clerics, gathers twice a year but does not make public any details about its decisions or activities. The 1989 selection of Khamenei as Iran's supreme leader has thus far been its main achievement.

Mohammad Sadegh Javadi Hessar, a political analyst in Mashhad, believes turnout for the Assembly of Experts elections could be higher this time around because they are being held simultaneously with the city-council elections. "If the elections for the Assembly of Experts would be held separately from municipal-council [elections] then due to the current atmosphere and the lack of serious competition between the country's two factions, it would have been highly unlikely that many people would participate," he says.

Many believe the assembly needs to open its doors to nonclerical experts in fields others than theology in order to more effectively supervise the supreme leader's work.

Among the some 160 candidates who have been approved by the Guardians Council to run in the elections there is only one noncleric. Some 500 would-be candidates applied to be register for the assembly elections but about two-thirds of them were disqualified -- including most of the reformists, but also many fundamentalist candidates.

Some political groups, including the Office to Foster Unity, Iran's main reformist student group, have described the elections as neither free nor fair and said they will not participate.

Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University, says the ultraconservatives represented by Ayatollah Mohammad Tagi Mesbah Yazdi and the more moderate and pragmatic allies of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani will battle for control of the body. "Basically, candidates who are not related to the conservatives have been prevented -- by various means -- from running for [the assembly] the main race is between Hashemi Rafsanjani and the fundamentalists, who have rallied behind Ayatollah Mesbah."

Mesbah Yazdi, who is well-known for his hard-line views and opposition to democracy, is considered to be the religious mentor of President Ahmadinejad. He is called by some a promoter of violence. Critics have warned that if Mesbah's faction gains a majority of votes, then he might attempt to become Iran's supreme leader.

But the outcome of the vote is difficult to predict as there are no reliable opinion polls and voters have in the past been quite unpredictable. Some analysts, however, believe the traditional conservatives will retain their control of the assembly.

The outcome of the city council elections is also unclear and will depend mainly on the size of the turnout. Reformists, who have presented a 15-member list for Tehran's city council, hope to make a comeback.

In the crucial Tehran municipal elections of 2003, only about 12 percent of voters participated, and they were overwhelmingly conservative voters. That enabled the conservatives to take over the parliament and then the presidency.

In the December 15 Tehran city-council elections, the conservatives are divided between the supporters of President Ahmadinejad and those of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who also ran for president against Ahmadinejad in 2005. He is considered a moderate conservative. A defeat for Ahmadinejad's allies would be seen as signaling dissatisfaction with the president, who has so far largely failed to fulfill his promises of greater economic prosperity for Iranians.

In recent days, reformist politicians have expressed concern over possible election fraud, but Interior Ministry officials say some 75,000 inspectors will monitor the vote.

Iranian authorities have professed confidence that people will vote en masse. Prosecutor-General Ghorban Ali Dorri Najafabadi predicted on December 12 that 60 to 70 percent of the some 40 million eligible voters will cast their ballots. But others say they currently see very little enthusiasm for the election.

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

On the second day of his visit to Kandahar, President Hamid Karzai said at a gathering of students and educators on December 13 that Pakistan is to blame for fostering enmity with Afghanistan, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. According to Karzai, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, neighboring states, "specifically Pakistan," tried to destroy Afghanistan, and he added that even "today Afghans and Pashtuns are being killed on both sides of the border." He added, "I tell Pakistan to stop its animosity towards the Afghans and the Pashtuns." Prior to the visit of Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri to Kabul on December 7, a number of suicide attacks occurred in different parts of Afghanistan, Karzai told the gathering, adding that in "reality these attacks were a message from the Pakistani government" to scare "us." Pakistan still wants to control Afghanistan, Karzai contended, but Islamabad has "forgotten that Genghis [Khan] and Alexander [the Great], the British, and the former Soviet Union failed to conquer" Afghanistan. "Who is Pakistan?" to think that it can control Afghanistan. AT

In his speech to students and educators in Kandahar on December 13, Karzai said that the Taliban are the "children" of Afghanistan, adding that those who commit acts of terror in his country are not the Taliban, but "in the garb of the Taliban and who wish to defame the Taliban," the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. On the first day of his visit to Kandahar, Karzai said on December 12 that the problem in Afghanistan "is not Taliban; we don't see it that way"; he added that the "problem is with Pakistan," the "Financial Times" reported on December 13. According to Karzai, if the difficulty with Pakistan is resolved, then "the question of the Taliban will go away automatically." "So are we talking with the Taliban?" Karzai asked rhetorically. Answering himself, he said: "Yes, we are. We are talking to Pakistan." While anti-Pakistan outbursts by Karzai have become more routine in the last year, his Kandahar attacks on Afghanistan's neighbor were the most outspoken in blaming Pakistan instead of certain elements within that country's government for fostering terrorist activities in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 28, March 24, April 26, and July 14, 2006). AT

Afghanistan has rejected a proposal by Islamabad to hold a joint peace grand assembly (loya jirga), Islamabad's "The News" reported on December 12. The Afghan proposal to hold a separate peace jirga was conveyed to Pakistani officials on December 11, the report added. Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed during a visit to the White House in Washington in September to the idea of using jirgas involving tribes from across the Afghan-Pakistani border. However, Kabul reportedly wants all Afghan tribes to participate in the gathering, while Islamabad favors the inclusion of those tribes who live along the border, mainly the Pashtuns and Baluch (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27 and December 11, 2006). The Afghan jirga, scheduled for January, is being organized by a four-member commission headed by former mujahedin leader Sayyed Ahmad Gailani, and would include around 300 participants, "The News" reported. Pakistan has yet to provide details on its proposed jirga, but it is expected that once a parallel commission is established by Islamabad, the two states will establish a joint mechanism for bilateral consultations. AT

A motorcyclist was shot dead by soldiers serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kandahar on December 12, the ISAF website reported on December 13. According to an ISAF statement, despite "verbal warnings to stop, the motorcyclist refused to halt," prompting ISAF troops to fire warning shots "in a safe direction, which ricocheted" and hit the rider. President Karzai, who was visiting Kandahar at the time, asked ISAF to be more careful in order to minimize civilian casualties, and Afghan civilians to keep a safe distance from military operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006). AT

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Iranians on December 13 to vote "with full motivation" in three elections set for December 15, which he termed a "revolutionary and popular test" for Iran, IRNA reported. Iranians are to vote for municipal councils, the Assembly of Experts (a body of clerics supervising the supreme leader's office), and some parliamentary seats. Khamenei said elections will show that the nation is alive and help realize the wishes of the majority. He urged people to elect effective and public-spirited municipal councilors. The efforts of those trying to dissuade Iranians from voting, he said, will fail "as always." He said Iranians' united "insistence" that Iran should have nuclear power has brought the country to the present stage in its program, and "the Iranian nation will progress further in this respect." On December 10, a deputy head of the state registration body said 46.5 million Iranians are entitled vote for the Assembly of Experts, and about 43 million for the local councils, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day. He said the discrepancy is because some villages had too few people in them to elect a council, in line with electoral rules. VS

Reformers are united on a single list for the December 15 Tehran municipal council elections while the conservatives, who refer to themselves as "fundamentalists," are reportedly competing with three separate lists, reflecting divisions between supporters of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and other, more traditional conservatives. The reformist list of 15 candidates for the Tehran city council includes officials in the government of former President Mohammad Khatami, such as Culture Minister Ahmad Masjid-Jamei and state economic planning and budgeting head Mohammad Ali Najafi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 13. Conservatives are fielding three lists, called the Sweet Scent of Service, the Great Coalition of Fundamentalists, and the Front of the Followers of the Path of the Imam and Leadership -- the more traditionalist conservative list -- the daily reported on December 12. Mohammad Nabi Habibi, the secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, told IRNA on December 11 that the three lists are the result of the failure of "fundamentalists" to forge a shared list. He said radical supporters of the Ahmadinejad government demonstrated "the greatest lack of coordination...forgetting that some of their conduct will harm the government." VS

The European Union expressed concern in a statement on December 13 about the arrest of Mansur Osanlu, the head of the Tehran bus drivers' union, and urged Iran to respect freedom of speech and the right to form independent labor unions, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Reuters reported the same day. There is some confusion about the timing of Osanlu's most recent arrest. He was first arrested in December 2005, held for about eight months, and released on bail in November, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20 and December 5, 2006). He was reportedly arrested again on November 19, though journalist Masud Bastani is cited by Reuters on December 13 as saying that Osanlu was arrested "seven or eight days ago." It appears he was free on bail at the time of arrest, facing charges he has not yet formally heard, Radio Farda stated on December 13. The EU presidency statement expressed concern over an arrest it stated "appears to be without credible justification" carried out by plainclothes agents without an arrest warrant, and because Osanlu "has not been allowed proper access to legal assistance," Reuters reported. VS

The Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, which oversees cultural life and press and media affairs in Iran, informed its provincial offices on December 11 that they may no longer issue permits for books to be published locally, and all publication permits must now be given by the ministry in Tehran, Radio Farda and Mehr news agency reported on December 13. Permits are issued by the ministry's General Office for Books and Reading, which must first examine the contents of books to ensure they are not immoral or subversive. Previously, provincial offices of the Culture Ministry were permitted to issue and often gave permits for the publication of books in as little as two weeks, Radio Farda reported, citing unnamed provincial publishers. It added that the decision to allow the ministry's provincial offices to give permits for locally produced books was made by the reformist Khatami government. But this was then restricted to academic or school books under current minister Mohammad Hussein Saffar-Herandi, and has now been rescinded, Radio Farda reported. VS

Meeting at the White House on December 12, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and U.S. President George W. Bush discussed the current security situation in Iraq, international media reported on December 13. Al-Hashimi, the highest-ranking Iraqi Sunni leader, said he and Bush discussed what the United States can do to help the Iraqi government. "I can assure you there is a great and real chance to get out of this present dilemma," al-Hashimi said. He said Iraqis face a "hard time" but that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a chance, but we need a good will and a strong determination." For his part, Bush thanked al-Hashimi for being a strong leader and said the United States will continue to support the Iraqi government. "We want to help you. We want to help your government be effective. We want your government to live up to its words and ideals," Bush said. The U.S. has recently reached out to Iraqi leaders in an effort to better help end the escalating violence in the country. On December 4, Bush met with Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2006). SS

In an interview with Al-Arabiyah television on December 13, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced that he will implement a major cabinet reshuffle involving at least 10 cabinet posts. He stressed that he will not be obligated to accept candidates from political parties, but he will instead choose candidates that he deems appropriately qualified. "This time, we will meticulously inspect the candidates. They should be professionals, qualified, capable of performing their duties and shouldering responsibility. However, if they were, as candidates, incapable of performing their duties, then I am not obliged to accept any of them," al-Maliki said. He did not indicate which cabinet posts will be involved in the reshuffle or when it will take place. SS

Prime Minister al-Maliki told a U.S. Congressional delegation led by Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) on December 13 that he will soon announce new security measures to improve the security situation in Iraq, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. A statement from al-Maliki's office said that the Iraqi government requires more weapons and "Iraqi forces should be given more powers and training so they are capable of undertaking security tasks all over the country." Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters that the new plan involves a swifter transition from U.S. troops to Iraqi forces. He indicated that U.S. forces will move to the outskirts of the cities to combat Al-Qaeda fighters, while Iraqi forces will focus on quelling the sectarian violence in Baghdad. "The coalition forces should not get involved in sectarian violence -- this is a job for the Iraqi security forces to do," al-Rubay'i told CNN on December 13. SS

Saudi Arabia has told the United States that it may provide financial backing for Iraq's Sunni Arabs if the U.S. military pulls out of Iraq, "The New York Times" reported on December 13. Saudi King Abdullah allegedly made the suggestion to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney visited Riyadh on November 25. The Saudis have urged Washington not to withdraw its forces from Iraq, fearing Iraq's minority Sunnis would be massacred by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias. "It's a hypothetical situation, and we'd work hard to avoid such a structure," an Arab diplomat in Washington told "The New York Times". "If things become so bad in Iraq, like an ethnic cleansing, we will feel we are pulled into the war." The then-director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, Nawaf Obaid, published an opinion piece in "The Washington Post" on November 29 suggesting that in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, Saudi Arabia would arm Sunni Arabs to counter Iran's alleged support of Iraqi Shi'ite militias (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006). Saudi officials rejected Obaid's claims and he was later fired. SS

Iraqi State Minister for National Dialogue Akram al-Hakim said on December 13 that members of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party will be invited to the National Reconciliation Conference to be held on December 16, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Hakim said the conference will invite representatives of groups outside the political process, including those that are hostile to the current government. However, he stressed that those who want to attend the conference must accept that "the only way to achieving power is through the democratic mechanisms." Al-Hakim said that he believes some representatives may not be able to attend the conference for logistical issues, but he suggested that another conference would convene in the future, "that may be held outside Iraq to ensure the participation of those who are not able to take part in this conference." SS