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Newsline - May 2, 2007

The daily "Kommersant" reported on May 2 that at least 1,500 people in Tallinn alone were involved in the rioting that began on April 27 in response to the removal of a Soviet war memorial from the center of the Estonian capital to a military cemetery on its outskirts. The newspaper reported that protests took place in a number of cities besides Tallinn, and that in the four days of unrest across the country, 1,100 people were detained (80 percent of them ethnic Russians) and 156 people, including 20 policemen, were injured. One person -- Dmitry Ganin, a 20-year-old Russian citizen who was living in Estonia -- was reportedly stabbed to death. According to "Kommersant," 149 stores and kiosks were looted. The Estonian government has banned all public gatherings until May 11. On April 29, Interfax cited a report by Estonia's Kanal-2 TV channel that Russian-speaking youths are planning to "incite an uprising" on May 9, which is Russia's Victory Day holiday. According to Interfax, Kanal-2 said that the Estonian government will probably use the army to put down the rebellion, which could elicit a "severe reaction" from Russia. JB

Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet on May 1 called on the European Union to respond to what he termed Russia's "virtual, psychological, and real" attacks on Estonia in retaliation for the removal of the Soviet war memorial from central Tallinn. In a statement quoted by AFP and published in full by the Estonian daily "Eesti Paevaleht," Paet said that while "the issue of the Bronze Soldier" and the "vandalism" that followed its removal are matters "for Estonia," Russia's "coordinated actions against Estonia are a European Union problem." He alleged that Russian Embassy officials in Tallinn "met in very bizarre places, such as the Tallinn Botanical Gardens, with the ringleaders of the unrest," and that several cyber-attacks "against the Internet pages of Estonian government agencies and the office of the president ... originated from specific computers and persons in Russian government agencies, including the administration of the president of the Russian Federation." Paet said that demonstrations led by the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi outside Estonia's Embassy in Moscow are essentially holding embassy personnel "hostage," and that the demonstrators are being "paid 550-1,000 rubles [$21-$39] per day by the Kremlin." The European Union, Paet said, should respond to Russian behavior with "full strength," which "might result in the suspension or cancellation of negotiations between the European Union and Russia." Cancellation of an EU-Russia summit set to take place in the Russian city of Samara on May 18 should be "seriously considered," he said. Meanwhile, Nashi leader Vasily Yakemenko said Estonia's Embassy in Moscow should be dismantled and moved to Moscow's suburbs, Interfax reported on May 1. At a May Day rally near Moscow City Hall, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov called for a boycott of "everything related to Estonia." JB

Estonian Foreign Minister Paet canceled on May 1 a meeting with a delegation of visiting Russian lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007), accusing them of spreading lies and of "election campaigning," AP reported. Estonia's Foreign Ministry said Paet refused to meet with the Russian delegation after it "intervened in internal Estonian matters by demanding the resignation of the democratically elected government," "The Moscow Times" reported on May 2. One member of the delegation, State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee First Deputy Chairman Leonid Slutsky, called on members of Estonia's parliament to "give an objective appraisal of the Estonian government's actions and send it into retirement," the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 2. The head of the Russian delegation, State Duma Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Nikolai Kovalyov, said "historical justice" demanded that the Bronze Soldier statue remain "where it has stood for all these years." The delegation was not permitted to visit the site in central Tallinn where the memorial previously stood and where the remains of Red Army soldiers are being exhumed for reburial. However, delegation members laid flowers at the memorial in its new location, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 2. Kovalyov told NTV television that the statue has been "subjected to sawing," but Slutsky told Interfax the statue has been neither "scratched" nor "cut apart." JB

President George W. Bush said on April 30 that he is intensifying his efforts to persuade Russia to cooperate with U.S. plans for basing missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, "The New York Times" reported on May 1. Speaking after a U.S.-EU summit at the White House, Bush said he is trying to convince President Vladimir Putin that cooperation is "in Russia's security interests," despite the fact that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not win Putin's support for the planned missile-defense system during his recent trip to Moscow. Bush said his efforts to ease tensions with Russia over the planned missile defenses began at the urging of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, he said, "suggested that it might make sense for me to share my intentions more clearly with President Putin." Bush again insisted that the sole aim of missile defenses in Europe is to prevent "rogue regimes from holding Western Europe and/or America hostage," but he conceded that the Russians evidently "see it differently." JB

Poland is pushing ahead with plans to request U.S. Patriot missiles to defend against medium- and short-range ballistic missiles, a move likely to "infuriate" Russia, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on April 29. Citing "Polish sources familiar with the situation," the newspaper reported that Warsaw wants the Patriots in return for a hosting a base for 10 U.S. missile interceptors. According to the "Financial Times," Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga said her government is just beginning negotiations over whether to host the U.S. missile base and wants to overcome public doubts over whether the U.S. system will benefit Poland. In an article on the same subject published on May 1, "The Guardian" wrote that "the Poles are telling the Americans that they do not feel threatened by Iran, but they do feel vulnerable to Vladimir Putin's Russia," and that if they show "loyalty to the Americans by helping the U.S. defend against attack from the Middle East, the Americans should beef up Polish defenses against Russia." JB

RUSSIANS RALLY ON MAY DAY on May 1 quoted Federation of Independent Trade Unions Chairman Mikhail Shmakov as saying that more than 2 million people across Russia turned out for May Day demonstrations. "Practically everywhere the actions were organized together with [local government] administrations but were held under socioeconomic slogans," the website noted. It quoted police in Moscow as saying that 14 separate May Day rallies and demonstrations took place in the capital, with the total number of demonstrators there estimated at around 50,000. "The Moscow Times" reported on May 2 that, as in recent years, a "festive rally" staged in Moscow by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party that "gathered some 20,000 people outside City Hall carrying flowers and balloons and looking merry" overshadowed the Communists' "traditional protest marches." Democratic opposition parties and human rights groups, including Yabloko, Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front, the Moscow Helsinki Group, and the For Human Rights movement, held a smaller rally. Ekho Moskvy radio quoted Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Mitrokhin as saying in a speech to the opposition demonstrators that Russia "is run by several semi-criminal clans that have united and set up a closed joint-stock company called the Russian Federation." In Russia, he said, people join the government "not in order to serve society, but in order to line their pockets at the expense of society." JB

Former parliamentary speaker and opposition Orinats Yerkir party leader Artur Baghdasarian denounced the Armenian authorities on May 1 for resorting to "lies" and "slander" and vowed to seek "an Armenia of law and justice," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Baghdasarian was responding to a recent statement by Armenian President Robert Kocharian accusing him of "treason" in connection with secretly recorded comments to a Yerevan-based British diplomat in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). Addressing a crowd of about 1,000 supporters, Baghdasarian accused the Armenian government of corruption, adding that he resigned as parliament speaker in May 2006 because he was "fighting against injustice and illegalities" (see "Armenia: Outgoing Parliament Speaker Now In Opposition,", May 23, 2006). He also vowed to triple modest pensions and double public-sector salaries if elected, explaining that he would finance such measures by cracking down on government corruption and tax evasion. RG

Campaigning in a southern Armenian district, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian called on May 1 for voters to demonstrate patience and "realism" in their expectations for the country's May 12 parliamentary elections, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Sarkisian further cautioned against excessive socioeconomic expectations from his governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), saying that "we are a realistic party" that will not give "excessive promises." Locals called on the premier to address their needs, urging him "to provide financial assistance to rebuild our streets" and demanding state action to restore natural-gas supplies to the area. RG

Armenian opposition Hanrapetutiun (Republic) party leader Aram Sargsian denounced fellow opposition leaders on April 30, accusing them of disrupting his attempt to unite the country's fractured political opposition, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sargsian specifically blamed opposition leaders Stepan Demirchian and Artashes Geghamian, the two main challengers in the last presidential election, for placing their "personal ambitions" above a unified opposition and claimed they would be content with "a handful of seats" in the new parliament. For his part, Demirchian, the leader of the opposition People's Party of Armenia (HZhK), said that the main issue is not a lack of unity among the opposition but voter apathy, pointing to widespread voter cynicism. He also charged that the Armenian authorities and the ruling pro-government parties are engaged in massive "vote buying." Negotiations between the various opposition parties on forming an electoral alliance for the May 12 parliamentary ballot broke down in late February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). RG

Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes suspended on May 1 the corruption trial of Turkish businessman Huseyn Arabul after he was hospitalized after falling into a coma during the court session, and the APA news agency reported. Arabul, the director of energy distributor Barmek-Azerbaijan, faces several criminal charges, including allegations of embezzlement, corruption, and abuse of office, stemming from his operation of the municipal power grids in the cities of Baku and Sumgait and in the country's northwestern districts between 2002 and 2006. The Azerbaijani government annulled its 20-year contract with the company in 2006, after accusations of corruption first arose. The Turkish businessman was a close associate of former Economic Development Minister Farxad Aliyev, who was arrested in October 2005 on charges of attempting to overthrow the Azerbaijani government, and his trial is seen by some as being politically motivated. RG

In comments following the release of a new report in Baku, Azerbaijani Defense Ministry press spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Eldar Safarov announced on May 1 that voluntary contributions to the "assistance fund" for the country's armed forces have surpassed 3.15 million manats (about $3.6 million), according to and the APA news agency. The Assistance Fund, formally created in August 2002, is aimed at soliciting donations to help modernize and raise the professional standard of the armed forces, as well as to help finance the purchases of weapons, supplies, and ammunition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2002). Despite an annual defense budget of more than $1 billion in 2007, the Azerbaijani government maintains that the fund is an important mechanism for "patriotic donations" (see "Azerbaijan: Baku Signals New Determination For Defense Reform,", February 1, 2007). RG

Following a meeting in Baku, the prosecutor-generals of Georgia and Azerbaijan, Zurab Adeishvili and Zakir Garalov, signed on May 1 a new agreement on greater cooperation in law enforcement, Caucasus Press reported. According to Deputy Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General Rustam Usubov, the new agreement includes several measures to promote intelligence sharing between the two countries targeting organized crime and calls for an expansion of bilateral training programs offered for investigative personnel. Prior to the signing ceremony, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met with Adeishvili and praised the agreement for its role in the "further development of cooperation between Georgian and Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies." RG

On a one-day visit to Baku on April 30, Mukhu Aliyev met with Azerbaijani President Aliyev, Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, and parliament speaker Oktay Asadov, and reported on April 30 and May 1, respectively. The two presidents' talks focused on the functioning of border crossing points on the frontier between Azerbaijan and Daghestan; economic and security cooperation; and the situation of the Azerbaijani community in Derbent and of the Lezghin minority, whose traditional homeland is comprises both southern Daghestan and the northern Azerbaijani districts of Quba, Gusar, and Khachmas. LF

On an official visit to Brussels, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili met on April 30 with senior EU officials, including EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, Caucasus Press reported. In comments during a joint press conference following the meeting, the EU energy official stressed that Georgia is "an important transit link" for EU plans to increase oil and gas imports from Central Asia and Azerbaijan. The Georgian foreign minister also attended the international "Brussels Forum 2007," where he gave a presentation on Georgia's expanding relations with NATO and its cooperation with the EU within the European Neighborhood Policy. He also met separately with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland, as well as with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian on the sidelines of the conference. RG

The "Financial Times" on May 2 quoted Georgian Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili as saying that Tbilisi would respond positively to any U.S. request to discuss the possibility of Georgian hosting part of the planned U.S. missile defense shield. He said there would not be any domestic opposition to Georgia doing so, but at the same time stressed that to date Washington has not raised the issue with Georgia, even informally. U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said on March 1 that the United States would like to base an antimissile radar in one of the South Caucasus countries, but did not specify which (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 6, 2007). Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli has said on several occasions that the United States has not made any such request of Georgia. LF

Prime Minister Noghaideli has been discharged from the U.S. clinic where he recently underwent surgery to correct a congenital heart defect and will return to Tbilisi "next week," his advisor Giorgi Zurabishvili told Caucasus Press on April 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). LF

Sergei Bagapsh met on April 30 in Moscow with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin to discuss the implications of the April 13 UN Security Council resolution assessing the situation in Abkhazia and the prospects for resolving the conflict between Abkhazia and the central Georgian government, Caucasus Press reported. They agreed that a resumption of negotiations is contingent on Georgian compliance with the October 2006 Security Council resolution that both Russian and Abkhazia construe as calling for the withdrawal from the Kodori Gorge of Georgian Interior Ministry troops deployed there last summer. Georgia by contrast maintains that the presence of those forces in Kodori does not contravene the May 1994 peace agreement (see "Caucasus: Are Georgia, Abkhazia Pursuing Diverging Agendas?", January 31, 2007). Meeting on April 28 in Tbilisi with Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giorgi Mandjgaladze, diplomats representing the five countries (France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that are members of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia group called for the resumption of Georgian-Abkhaz talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). Bagapsh returned to Sukhum(i) on May 1 from Moscow, where he was hospitalized in early April with heart problems, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 8 and 10, 2007). LF

Deputy Defense Minister Levan Nikoleishvili announced on May 1 that the 2007 state budget will increase defense spending dramatically, according to the Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia website. The increase will nearly double the current level of 513.2 million laris (slightly more than $304 million) to 957.8 million laris ($567 million), and is part of a broader 641 million laris (about $379 million) state budget increase endorsed earlier in the day by a key parliamentary committee. Nikoleishvili said that most of the additional funding allocated specifically for the Defense Ministry is to be spent on the purchasing of weapons systems and ammunition, with another 60 million laris ($35.5 million) is to fund a housing program for military officers. During the parliamentary committee hearing earlier on May 1 which approved the increase, opposition lawmakers complained that the defense budget is not transparent and demanded a detailed breakdown of spending. RG

In a speech during a visit to the Vaziani military air base, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on April 30 noted the significant improvement and modernization of the army, according to Caucasus Press. President Saakashvili, on an official visit to the base coinciding with the 16th anniversary of the formation of the Georgian armed forces, added that more than 1,000 new officers are nearing completion of their training and are preparing to enter the armed forces in the near future. He also stressed that while "the Georgian army is strong because of its multiethnic" nature, the country's strategic defense policy is to "protect our territorial integrity, our borders, and security of our citizens." Also on April 30, Defense Minister David Kezerashvili and Joint Staff Chief Zaza Gogava met on April 30 with a contingent of Georgian troops serving in Iraq, the Caucasus Press reported. To date, Georgia has deployed about 850 elite troops to Iraq but plans to increase its military presence in Iraq from the current to 2000 troops within the next two months, Rustavi-2 television reported. RG

Japan plans to import up to 40 percent of the uranium it uses from Kazakhstan, Japanese Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari said in Astana on April 30, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Amari said, "Currently Kazakhstan's share in Japan's uranium imports is about 1 percent, but I think that, in the future -- we are working on this -- we will try to increase this share to 30 or even 40 percent." Amari met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Prime Minister Karim Masimov. In the course of the visit, Japan's Marubeni Corporation acquired an unspecified stake in a Kazakh uranium mine, and Toshiba Corporation reached an agreement with the Kazakh national atomic energy agency Kazatomprom to engage in joint nuclear plant construction projects, Kyodo World Service reported. Nuclear power accounts for 30 percent of electricity generation in Japan, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Chairman Goran Lennmarker met with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev and State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov in Bishkek on April 30, Kyrgyz Television and reported. Madumarov commented, "We will create our own model of Kyrgyz democracy in the near future, and it will slightly differ from the European one, taking into account the mentality of the people. However, it will not have less freedom. We do not have huge oil reserves, the amount of which, in the view of some people, is a criterion for democracy in the country." Lennmarker's meetings focused on cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and the OSCE. Karabaev said that his country intends to strengthen its ties with the organization and its Parliamentary Assembly. DK

Kyrgyzstan's Central Election Commission on May 1 disbanded the local election commission in Kemin district for failing to make a timely announcement of official results in the district's April 29 parliamentary by-election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007), reported. On April 30, a group of human rights activists told a news conference in Bishkek that the by-election was marred by sufficiently numerous violations to warrant its cancellation, reported. Bermet Akaeva, daughter of former President Askar Akaev, hoped to run in the by-election but was barred from running by court rulings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and 30, 2007). DK

President Emomali Rahmon told a joint session of parliament in an address on April 30 that Tajikistan will seek $1.3 billion in investments to develop hydropower electricity exports, Tajikistan's First Channel television reported. Tajikistan has reportedly cancelled an agreement with Russian Aluminum to complete construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power plant, and plans instead to set up an international consortium to complete the project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and 27, 2007). DK

Rahmon said that Tajikistan backs the creation of a Central Asian consortium to resolve water and energy transportation issues in the region. Noting that the Sarez Lake contains 17 billion cubic meters of "pure and high-quality water," Rahmon suggested a pipeline from the lake to supply neighboring regions with water. He said, "If the Central Asian states reach an accord, we are ready to set up a joint consortium, and with the help of international institutions implement a great humanitarian project, which would benefit every resident of the region. This is because giving water to thirsty people is considered to be the best deed in the true religion of Islam." DK

A court in Tashkent sentenced rights activist Umida Niyazova to a seven-year prison term on May 1 after a two-day closed trial, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Niyazova was found guilty of illegally crossing the Uzbek border, distributing materials that threaten public order, and smuggling (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). In a May 1 press release, Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the sentence as a politically motivated act of intimidation. Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at HRW, commented, "The Uzbek authorities are punishing Umida Niyazova because she worked for groups that expose human rights abuses, and they want to send a chilling message to others like her. Uzbekistan should immediately release Niyazova and at least 14 other human rights activists wrongfully detained." DK

Several hundred people took part in an authorized march and rally in Minsk on May 1 to observe May Day, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Participants in the rally adopted a resolution with socioeconomic and political requirements, which included a call on the government to annul the contract labor system in Belarus and a demand to release all political prisoners. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko has dismissed two judges of the Constitutional Court, Valeriy Pshenichnyy and Syuzanna Stanik, Ukrainian media reported on May 1. The dismissal decrees, dated April 30 and May 1, respectively, say laconically that Pshenichnyy and Stanik were released of their duties because of a "breach of oath." Pshenichnyy and Stanik were appointed to the 18-member Constitutional Court by former President Leonid Kuchma. Lawmakers from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party on May 1 appealed to the Constitutional Court to declare the decree on the dismissal of Pshenichnyy unconstitutional. Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych, Socialist Party leader Viktor Moroz, and Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko said in a joint statement the same day that Yushchenko's dismissal of Stanik "is pushing Ukraine onto a path of anarchy and chaos." The three politicians added that Yushchenko "is trying to paralyze the work of the Constitutional Court, which is the only body capable of regulating the relations between power branches." They also called on the international community "to immediately intervene in Ukraine's situation and send its representatives, who could perform the role of intermediaries." JM

Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in Washington on April 30 that Ukraine is able to resolve the ongoing political standoff between the president and parliament without foreign intermediaries, Interfax-Ukraine reported on May 1. "The current political tension in Ukraine may be eased and the leading political players will find an acceptable solution without engaging international mediators," Yatseniuk said in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Yatsenyuk reportedly stressed that the Ukrainian political elite has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences and tackle the most difficult problems through a peaceful and democratic dialogue even in more challenging conditions. JM

At an annual summit held in Washington on May 1, the EU and the United States insisted that the UN Security Council should "in this crucial moment for the western Balkans...settle the status issue of Kosovo as soon as possible," international media reported. The leaders -- including U.S. President George Bush, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country currently holds the EU's rotating Presidency -- stated that resolving the final status of the UN-administered Serbian province "will promote the development and stability of the entire region," adding, in a comment that counters claims by Serbia and Russia, that "the province is a unique case which will not set a precedent for crisis-management strategy in other regions worldwide." The summit was held one day after a delegation of UN ambassadors returned from a fact-finding mission to Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). Washington has made clear it will recognize Kosova as independent regardless of the Security Council's decision, an approach that some European leaders have warned against (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). AG

In an interview with the Macedonian daily "Dnevnik" on April 30, Kai Eide, who served as the UN's special envoy to Kosova in 2005, called for Macedonia and Kosova to reach agreement over the disputed section of their common border before Kosova's status is decided upon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2 and May 13, 16, and 17, 2005). Eide, who now serves as the political director of Norway's Foreign Ministry, said, "I don't know why this issue should be delayed." Eide said he made the same recommendation in a report for the UN in October 2005. The main conclusion of that report was that talks on the future of Kosova should begin despite Kosova's many grave problems. Responsibility for leading talks between Belgrade and Prishtina was in November 2005 handed to Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland. Serbia's media have in the past cited unnamed officials as advocating Eide as a possible replacement for Ahtisaari should, as Belgrade hopes, Ahtisaari's blueprint for the contested region be rejected and talks reopened (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). In the interview, Eide was critical of Kosova's progress, saying, "there is a lack of sufficient progress in terms of interethnic relations, the fight against corruption and organized crime, the rule of law, and private ownership." AG

More than 2,000 former reservists called up to serve in the Serbian Army in Kosova in 1999 have sued the army and the state for unpaid wages, the broadcaster B92 reported on April 29. The men, all said to come from the southern district of Kursumlija, have vowed to take their protests to the streets unless their cases are accepted by the courts. Several hundred reservists have each received payments of around 6,000 euros ($8,150) in recent years. Among the recipients have been members of the judiciary, a source of particular resentment for the other veterans. Explaining the delays, the head of Kursumlija's Municipal Court, Radisa Jovic, said the claims lodged by the reservists have been halted pending a ruling by the Supreme Court. AG

Serbian President Boris Tadic has promised that "the Serbian Army will have an entirely new structural appearance by the end of June," the daily "Glas javnosti" reported on April 27. Tadic was speaking on April 26 at a ceremony to mark the merger of Serbia's antiaircraft artillery units. Tadic said Serbia no longer wants "to keep a cumbersome organization on paper and in the minds of people still living in the bipolar era," a reference to the Cold War. The changes include a consolidation of Serbia's forces and a reduction in its stock of military hardware (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). Tadic praised the transformation, saying, "the Serbian Army has changed its inherited structure within just one year." A survey in mid-April conducted by "Glas javnosti" found that the Serbian public's respect for the armed forces has declined, in part because of its tentative association with NATO, with which it cooperates within the framework of NATO's Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). AG

In a deal that develops on an agreement reached in mid-April, Russia on April 27 agreed to settle its Soviet-era debt to Serbia by modernizing a power plant and writing off part of Serbia's gas bill, the Serbian economic news service reported the same day. Russia should invest $105 million in the Djerdap hydroelectric plant, Serbia's largest source of energy, with the remaining $183 million being removed from Serbia's outstanding bill for natural-gas imports. Russia's total debt mentioned in this report -- nearly $290 million -- is higher than the $228 million debt stated in an April 16 report by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. The agreement, which was signed in Belgrade by Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, is the latest in a series of debt-settlement deals recently struck by Russia and the former Yugoslav republics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and April 18 and 23, 2007). Radio-Television Serbia on April 27 quoted Shoigu as saying the two countries are also preparing a trade-liberalization agreement. AG

Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic on May 1 signed an agreement in Washington that paves the way for U.S. troops to operate in Montenegro, the U.S. State Department announced the same day. According to a State Department transcript, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told journalists that the agreement "establishes a basis for United States military personnel to operate in Montenegro for mutually agreed activities," which she listed as "regular exchanges, training exercises, and other types of cooperation in Montenegro." Vujanovic stressed that he hopes to see the two countries' upgraded military relationship translate into increased U.S. investment in Montenegro's economy. AFP reported that the State Department also revealed that Montenegro agreed last month to an "Article 98" agreement, which protects U.S. troops and nationals stationed in Montenegro from possible prosecution by the International Criminal Court, which was established in 2002 as a permanent tribunal to hear cases brought against persons for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Montenegro also recently signed an agreement with NATO that develops on its admission in December to the alliance's Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). This was Vujanovic's first trip to the United States since Montenegro separated from Serbia in May 2006. The May 1 agreement is likely to aggravate relations with Russia, which last week criticized both NATO's expansion and a U.S. plan to station antimissile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007). The Montenegrin news agency Mina reported on May 1 that Vujanovic is also due to visit the state of Maine, with whose National Guard Montenegro plans to form a partnership. AG

Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro's former president and longtime prime minister, on April 30 told the daily "Vijesti" that he does not believe the prospect of a single Russian company owning swathes of the country's economy poses a danger to Montenegro's political system. Montenegro is currently in the process of selling its only aluminum plant, a power plant, and two coal mines, all of which the government has for some months seemed to be on the verge of selling to the En Plus group, an investment vehicle for the Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska. The aluminum plant reportedly contributes one-fifth of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), while the power plant meets one-third of Montenegro's electricity needs. Djukanovic, who left politics for business in November 2006, said EU officials have expressed concern at the possibility of one company enjoying such a dominant position, but he said that "running away from big partners is not a way to protect ourselves from supposed attempts to exercise political influence." He also claimed that "there has never been even a hint of an attempt by any existing major business partner in Montenegro" to influence who occupies positions of power within the state administration. In 2006, Russia reportedly invested around $95 million in Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and April 18 and 23, 2007). AG

Mijo Kresic, the deputy security minister in Bosnia-Herzegovina's federal government, on April 29 said the government is drafting a new law aimed at combating extremism, local media reported the same day. The bill would, among other things, ban all organizations that promote extremist or radical ideas. He also said the state government is drawing up a new strategy to counter terrorism. Bosnian media have in recent months devoted extensive coverage to Islamists -- typically dubbed "Wahhabis," a term that implies links to Saudi Arabia's austere form of Islam -- and tensions have been heightened by Islamists' clashes with local communities, Bosnia's decision to expel hundreds of foreign-born Muslims who fought as volunteers in the Balkan wars, divisions within the former Yugoslavia's Muslim communities, and the discovery of an alleged terrorist camp in a region of southern Serbia where Bosnian Muslims are the most numerous ethnic group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and 29, and April 5, 13, 20 and 24, 2007). Bosnians appear split in their perception of the threat posed by Islamists. In a phone-in survey by TV Hayat on April 28, 37 percent of the roughly 1,000 callers believed the reports were exaggerated and intended to divide Muslims, 36 percent saw the "Wahhabi" movement as a threat to national security, and 20 percent viewed it as a threat, but only to the Muslim community itself. On a related note, Bosnian police on April 27 arrested one man suspected of links to arms smugglers and radical Islamists following, local media reported, the discovery of a cache of arms and false documents. This appears to be the first media report this year of an arrest in Bosnia of an alleged Wahhabi on arms-related charges. However, the head of EU military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR), Rear Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer, told the daily "Dnevni avaz" on March 8 that he believes "it is possible that there is very fertile soil here for terrorists to take advantage of" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). AG

The international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, and the country's three prime ministers -- the leaders of its two autonomous regions and the head of the federal government -- agreed on April 27 to set up a coordination body to address concerns about the situation in Srebrenica, the site of the worst massacre of the Bosnian war. The body will not, however, address the vexed status of Srebrenica: Schwarz-Schilling said the "unilateral" demand that Srebrenica be granted special constitutional status "cannot be accepted." Srebrenica is part of a Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous region, the Republika Srpska, but a UN court's ruling that Bosnian Serb troops were guilty of an "act of genocide" in the town in 1995 has enflamed long-simmering resentment at the Republika Srpska's authority over the town (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and April 24, 26, and 30, 2007). In a statement posted by the Office of the High Representative, Schwarz-Schilling said the body will "focus efforts linked to Srebrenica," and that he will appoint a "special coordinator" to oversee the implementation of recommendations in six areas relating to Srebrenica: "general; judicial; missing persons; the Foundation [the memorial to and cemetery for victims of the massacre]; economic development; and social rights, including pensions, health care, and education." The recommendations have yet to be agreed upon. While ruling out a constitutional change to Srebrenica's status, Schwarz-Schilling's initiative effectively accepts that Srebrenica warrants more than the Republika Srpska's offer of special economic status. Schwarz-Schilling said, "the international community has provided at least 67 million convertible marks [$46.5 million] of aid [to Srebrenica] since 1996, and 9 million convertible marks of this is committed for this year," and that, "in addition, local authorities -- state-level, [Muslim-Croat] Federation, and the Republika Srpska -- have committed some 31 million convertible marks [$21.5 million] for 2007 alone, the greatest portion of which comes from the Republika Srpska government for infrastructure development." AG

Republika Srpska President Milan Jelic on April 30 marked the 12th anniversary of a key campaign in the final stages of Croatia's war with ethnic Serbs by attacking Croatia's failure to bring to court those responsible for what he described as "war crimes," the news agency SRNA reported the same day. In a statement, Jelic "harshly condemned the crimes in which -- in only 36 hours -- 15,000 Serbs were evicted and 283 killed or went missing, including 57 women and nine children." Croatia launched Operation Flash on May 1, 1995, after an extended period of relative calm and tentative progress toward peace in western Slavonia. The offensive preceded Operation Storm, a decisive campaign that defeated Croatian Serbs in central Croatia and was followed by the mass exodus of ethnic Serbs. Jelic said Croatia says too little about casualties suffered by Serbian civilians during Operation Flash and does too little to help the region's remaining Serbs and would-be returnees to rebuild their lives. He also expressed outrage that no Croats have been tried by the UN's war crimes tribunal for their role in Operation Flash. Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik marked the anniversary by laying a wreath at a memorial in Bosanska Gradiska to victims of the war in western Slavonia, the Serbian news agency FoNet reported on May 1. In all, between 150,000 and 200,000 Serbs were forced out of Croatia during the war, very few of whom have returned. Nongovernmental organizations have documented problems with the identification of victims, the return of property, and freedom of movement. Both the Republika Srpska and Serbia have in recent days said Croatia was guilty of genocide during World War II, comments made in the context of a controversy about Serbia's responsibility for the UN-recognized "act of genocide" at Srebrenica and the continuing existence of the Republika Srpska, which did not exist before the 1992-95 war in Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and April 24, 26, and 30, 2007). In Croatia, a recording of former President Franjo Tudjman and Croatian generals planning the forcible removal of Serbian civilians during Operation Storm has caused controversy since its broadcast in late April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). The recording has been authenticated by a Croatian court. AG

The Bosnian Muslims' representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina's collective Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, on April 30 described a demand by Serbia that Bosnia halt its "campaign" against a ruling by the UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ) clearing Serbia of genocide as an "intolerable" attempt to interfere in the sovereign rights of another state, local media reported the same day. "The request is illegitimate given Serbia's refusal to submit all documentation relevant to the case," Silajdzic said. "All Bosnian leaders are thus entitled to insist that these documents be made public." Silajdzic was referring to reports that Serbia withheld documents from the ICJ and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, though the accusations say Serbia was permitted to retain the material (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 17, and 23, 2007). The ICJ ruled in February that Serbia failed to abide by its obligations under the 1948 Genocide Convention to prevent the "act of genocide" committed at Srebrenica and to punish those responsible. In his statement, quoted by the Serbian broadcaster B92, Silajdzic said that "Serbia has been violating the convention for 15 years now, and two months following the proclamation of the ICJ judgment it still refuses to comply with its terms." AG

Croatia's Foreign Ministry on April 30 rejected a similar demand by Serbia, the news agency Hina reported. Zagreb condemned Belgrade's request as inappropriate, said it was part of an ongoing effort to marginalize the ICJ's ruling and shirk its responsibility, and argued that Belgrade has questioned the media's right to question the ICJ's judgment. In its letter to Zagreb, Belgrade stressed that, had the ICJ existed at the time, Croatia could have been indicted for genocide for its treatment of Serbs and non-Croatian groups during World War II, and it unfavorably contrasted the lack of dissension in Croatian society against the nationalism of the late President Tudjman with the concerted protests in Belgrade against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). AG

On May 3, an international meeting on Iraq will convene at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The attendees at the two-day meeting will include the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors, Egypt, Bahrain, as well as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and members of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries.

The first day of talks is to focus on the International Compact with Iraq, the five-year reconstruction plan for the country announced on March 16, with the centerpiece being the signing of a debt-relief accord. The May 4 meeting will focus on Iraq's security situation and the reconciliation process.

Iraqi officials have high hopes that such an international gathering will help end the political stalemate in Iraq and the cycle of bloodshed. Wa'il Abd al-Latif, a member of Iraq's parliament, said such a large turnout from the international community is an "indication that a large number of world states seek to support Iraq," state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 29.

"This is a good opportunity for Iraq to improve its situation in the areas of reconciliation, government work, economy, and the use of plans and programs, the implementation of some of which requires international support," al-Latif said. After weeks of uncertainty, Iran finally decided to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki during an April 29 telephone conversation that Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki will represent Iran at the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings. That decision is considered a major breakthrough since Iran is seen as one of the keys to stabilizing Iraq. U.S. officials have long accused Iran of supplying arms and training to Shi'ite militias in Iraq. They have also asserted that some of these weapons have been used in attacks on U.S. forces.

Iran's previous reluctance to attend the meeting stemmed in part from its anger over the detention of five Iranian diplomats by U.S. forces in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Irbil in January. The United States accused the Iranians of being intelligence operatives, a charge the Iranians deny. Furthermore, Tehran fears Washington may use Iraq as a staging ground to instigate regime change in the Islamic republic.

Iraqi officials hope the meetings will give the United States and Iran an opportunity to settle their differences for the benefit of Iraq. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said there is a "high possibility" that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mottaki could hold bilateral talks on the meeting's sidelines, a possibility that he said may lead to a breakthrough, the Fars news agency reported on April 29. "I think it's important," Zebari said. "It would be a major breakthrough and any reduction in tensions will positively impact the situation in Iraq. We don't want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores on other agendas at our cost. Really, this has been harming us, damaging us a lot."

Several of the Arab states expected to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings are predominately Sunni Muslim and view Shi'ite Iran's growing influence in Iraq as a threat to regional stability. Saudi Arabia has emerged as the most vocal regional critic of Iran's growing stature in the Persian Gulf.

On April 26, the Iraqi daily "Al-Zaman" reported that al-Maliki had been informed by Saudi officials that King Abdullah was too busy to meet with him during his latest regional Arab tour to drum up support for the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings. A Saudi diplomat indicated that al-Maliki was rebuffed in part because of "his negative position toward some groups [in Iraq], his bias toward other groups, and his actions in allowing Iran to have a greater role in Iraq."

While the Iraqi government tried to downplay the snub, U.S. Secretary of State Rice acknowledged there are indeed Saudi concerns about Iraq's leadership, CNN reported on April 29. "There's no doubt that the Saudi government has concerns about the process of reconciliation in Iraq," Rice said.

The fact that al-Maliki was snubbed only a week before the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting by a highly influential regional state speaks volumes. Not only does the incident underscore the Kingdom's unease over the Iraqi government's close ties to Iran, but it essentially sends a signal that the Saudis do not believe al-Maliki has the will or ability to broker a political solution to the ongoing conflict in Iraq.

Moreover, it is also a reflection of the growing regional isolation of Iraq's government, which is seen by many Sunni states as not doing enough to secure the support of disaffected Sunnis in Iraq.

Furthermore, the incident is seen as a major blow to U.S. diplomatic efforts to garner greater support among regional Arab states to help solve Iraq's problems. David Satterfield, Rice's senior adviser on Iraq, has been in the region for nearly two weeks, meeting with Arab leaders to drum up support for Iraq in the run-up to the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings.

This is not the first time the Saudis have voiced concerns about Iraq's leadership, particularly with respect to Iran's influence. Indeed, there have been murmurings in the Arab and international press that the Iraq conflict may eventually develop into a proxy war between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia.

On November 29, 2006, the then-director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, Nawaf Obaid, published an opinion piece in "The Washington Post" suggesting that if the United States withdrew troops from Iraq, Saudi Arabia would arm Sunni Arabs to counter Iran's alleged support of Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Obaid was subsequently fired for his comments.

Two weeks later, on December 13, "The New York Times" reported that Saudi King Abdullah echoed this notion to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney was in Riyadh on November 25.

The two-day meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh with more than 60 representatives is itself an important accomplishment, but agreeing on a comprehensive framework to assist Iraq may be the difficult part. As the Baghdad security operation enters its third month, one thing seems clear -- Iraq cannot be stabilized by force alone and a political solution is needed to end the conflict. Therefore, a broad diplomatic strategy encompassing Iraq's regional neighbors is needed for Iraq to arrive at any political solution.

While Iran's decision to attend the meeting is seen as a positive development, its presence does not necessarily guarantee success. In fact, Tehran might be participating purely as a public relations move. By attending the meeting, Iran will be seen as trying to be part of the solution to Iraq's problems rather than acting as a hindrance. This is all the more important since Iran is being increasingly isolated by members of the international community for its controversial nuclear program.

The meeting may also result in the United States and Iran engaging in the highest-level bilateral talks in 27 years. However, this possibly historic occurrence could overshadow the main aim of the talks -- providing greater assistance to Iraq.

Another ominous indication that the talks may end without any significant breakthrough is the suspicious attitude adopted by certain Arab countries toward Iraq before the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings have even started.

And Saudi Arabia is not the only problem. Kuwait is expected not to forgive the $15 billion Iraq owes the Gulf state. This would constitute a blow to what Washington believes is an important strategy to help Iraq stand on its own feet financially -- debt forgiveness.

Senior State Department aide Satterfield acknowledged in a State Department communique on April 30 that a more robust dialogue is needed between Arab states and Iraq and greater Arab diplomatic representation is needed in Baghdad. "Clearly, a better dialogue needs to be established both ways between Iraq and its Arabic neighbors," Satterfield said. "It's been a problem as it would be a problem for us or for any other country in terms of second- and third-hand information flows, often with a deliberate slant or interpretation applied."

It is difficult to say whether the Sharm el-Sheikh meetings will produce a breakthrough, but judging from past international meetings on Iraq, a lot of rhetoric and little action can be expected. Moreover, in the end, the onus is on Iraq to initiate a breakthrough. It has yet to pass a comprehensive and equitable hydrocarbon law, and it has yet to reverse the de-Ba'athification process. Many U.S. and Iraqi officials believe legislation in both areas would go a long way toward reducing sectarian tensions and would help Iraq move toward reconciliation.

U.S.-led coalition forces have killed 136 suspected Taliban militants in two engagements in Herat Province's Shindand district, AFP reported on May 1. Coalition forces responded to an attack in the Zayrkoh Valley on April 27, killing 49 suspected Taliban forces, the coalition said. A U.S. soldier was also killed in the fighting. Afghan security forces then attacked Taliban positions on April 29, killing 87 militants. However, locals told AFP that the victims "were not Taliban, they were civilians." Herat police chief Mohammad Shafiq Fazli said that "at least 30 civilians, including women and children," were among those killed in Shindand. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- reported on April 30 that "heavy fighting" between U.S. forces and "mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate" in Shindand district has been continuing since April 27, and claimed that "tens of innocent civilians, including women and children" died in U.S. air strikes. According to the website, the fighting is concentrated 10 kilometers from the Shindand airbase, the main airfield for coalition forces in western Afghanistan. The Zayrkoh area in 2002 witnessed heavy fighting between forces loyal to a local Pashtun commander and the former Herat governor, Mohammad Ismail Khan, prompting the United States to launch air strikes on both sides (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 2, 2002). Since Ismail Khan was brought to Kabul in September 2004, the situation in Shindand has been relatively calm, but new groups of Taliban loyalists appear to be returning to the area. AT

Protests continued for a third day on May 1 in response to the deaths of six people during a raid by U.S.-led coalition forces in Nangarhar Province on April 29, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). A crowd of around 500 people blocked the main road from Kabul to the Pakistani border via Nangarhar. Students in Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar, burned an effigy of U.S. President George W. Bush and demanded that the Afghan government bring the U.S. forces involved in the raid to justice. A student named Abdul Hafiz said that it is the duty of President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan National Assembly to "protect their citizens," adding that if they are unable to bring the U.S. troops to justice, "they better resign." The U.S.-led coalition has said that four of the six people killed were suspected of involvement in a suicide-bombing cell, while the other two, a woman and a teenager, were killed in the crossfire. But protesters maintain that all six were civilians. AT

A "significant" number of suspected Taliban militants were killed in an offensive by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan forces in Sangin district of Helmand Province on April 30, AFP reported on May 1. An unidentified ISAF spokesman said the operation was part of efforts "to create security conditions in the Sangin valley so that meaningful reconstruction and development can occur." The offensive, dubbed Operation Silicon, is part of the larger Operation Achilles, which began in early March and involves around 4,500 ISAF soldiers and 1,000 Afghan forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). AT

Unknown assailants fired at the vehicle of Filip Velach, the charge d'affaires of the Czech Republic, about 100 kilometers outside of Kabul on May 1, CTK reported. Velach was unharmed in the attack, but his two bodyguards suffered minor injuries. The Czech Republic opened its embassy in Kabul in mid-April. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. AT

The U.S. State Department's "Country Reports on Terrorism in 2006" have cited Iran as the "most active" state sponsor of terrorism, and accused it of aiding purported terrorists in the Middle East and Iraq, AP reported on May 1. Meanwhile, U.S. President George W. Bush said in Washington on April 30 that Iran's nuclear ambitions make it a threat to world peace. He said that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might remind Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki -- if they meet on the sidelines of a regional conference in Sharm el-Sheikh on May 3 or 4 -- that "there is a better way forward for [Iranians] than isolation." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini rejected the charges in Tehran on May 1, and said Iran needs no "foreigners' advice" on its technological progress, IRNA reported. His response to the terrorism ranking was to accuse the United States of "increasingly inhuman methods," including "mobile detention centers in Europe," and support for Israel in its 2006 month-long bombardment of Lebanon. VS

About 600 Iranian workers gathered in the Shirudi sports stadium in Tehran on May 1 to mark May Day and protest what they saw as the government's failure to improve labor conditions, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian agencies. The demonstration was technically illegal as the Interior Ministry did not issue a permit for it. Alireza Mahjub, a leftist representative in parliament and secretary-general of the state-approved union House of Labor, said workers had tried in vain for two months to obtain permission for a march. Workers chanted slogans urging action from the government and parliament and the resignation of Labor Minister Mohammad Jahromi, Radio Farda reported. Police later blocked some of the protesters from marching from the stadium to the Haft-i Tir square in downtown Tehran, Radio Farda reported. Various labor groups also sent an open letter to Jahromi on May 1, calling for the establishment of a minimum wage and creation of more jobs. VS

A leading member of the Tehran bus drivers' union, Mansur Osanlu, escaped an apparent arrest attempt by plainclothes policemen or security agents on May 1, Radio Farda reported. Three agents reportedly tried to detain him without an arrest warrant in the Haft-i Tir subway station, Osanlu told Radio Farda. This apparently provoked a scuffle, but Osanlu said he evaded the agents with the help of colleagues, who shouted, "They are arresting a workers' representative." Osanlu then fled to the Citizens' Rights Court (Dadgah-i hefz-i hoquq-i sharvandi), presumably part of the judiciary, where he told authorities that his life was in danger. Radio Farda reported that the incident occurred after the workers' protest in the Shirudi stadium, though it was not clear if Osanlu attended that demonstration. Osanlu has repeatedly been arrested and prosecuted in the past for his union activities. He told Radio Farda that during a recent interrogation, security agents offered him $10,000 a month to leave Iran. Osanlu was last arrested by plainclothes agents on November 19, 2006. He is currently free on bail, awaiting a verdict on subversion charges. VS

Students affiliated with the Basij militia and members of the Amir Kabir Islamic Students' Association clashed at Amir Kabir University in Tehran on April 30, Iranian agencies reported. An unnamed member of the Basij militia wing at the university said that 50-60 students clashed with some 70-80 Basijis. The clashes broke out after Basiji students objected to what they said was sacrilegious content in four student publications that came out that day. Students associated with the publications claimed the latest issues were forged, and the indecent content fabricated to discredit the magazines, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 1. The conservative Fars news agency on May 1 attributed the articles to wider and systematic foreign "plotting" to undermine Iran's government. It listed student magazines -- including "Sahar" (Dawn), "Tardid" (Doubt), "Sar-e Khat" (New Paragraph), "Shayad Farda" (Maybe Tomorrow), and "Radical" -- as being part of a trend among some students to question religious values and the Iranian political system. The publications, it added, are the work of the "extremist wing" of the Office to Consolidate Unity (Daftar-i Tahkim-i Vahdat), the nationwide students' umbrella group, and it accused this wing of being the "foot soldiers" of a wider subversive current. VS

Lawmakers from the southern Iranian province of Hormozegan have withdrawn the resignations they submitted over the appointment of a new governor for the province, following a May 1 explanatory meeting with Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi, ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007). Provincial governors are appointed by the Interior Ministry. One resigning legislator from the Bandar Abbas constituency, Ali Dirbaz, told ISNA, "we had no problem with the governor," but objected to the "lack of coordination and information." Another Bandar Abbas representative, Shahriar Moshiri, told ILNA that Purmohammadi promised the province more money and facilities. Moshiri said, "If we fully reach an agreement, the resignations will be withdrawn." The report did not name the newly appointed governor, who is to be presented on May 3. VS

Iranian National Security Council chief Ali Larijani met with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the Iraqi holy city of Al-Najaf on May 1, international media reported. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Larijani said the U.S. fight against Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq has prompted those insurgents to take up arms against the Shi'a. He denied any Iranian interference in Iraq, saying, "The Americans know Iran has always supported the political process in Iraq," the BBC reported. Regarding terrorists, he said the United States knows "where those terrorists are coming from because they usually come from countries friendly to the United States," an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia. KR

Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani told reporters in Saudi Arabia on May 2 that the cabinet has sent the draft oil law to parliament for ratification, Reuters reported. "It has been sent to parliament now. There has been agreement among political parties to work together to enact it by the end of the month," al-Shahristani said. He claimed that the Kurdistan region government (KRG) fully supports the draft oil law. Meanwhile, parliament members said they have not received it. Haidar al-Ibadi, who heads the parliament's Economy and Investment Committee, said the draft has not been sent to parliament, but it may come on May 3. KR

Kurdish lawmakers in Baghdad will probably oppose the draft oil law following statements from the KRG over recent revisions to the draft. The KRG said in an April 27 press release that it opposes annexes to the draft law officials in Baghdad have recently issued, including amendments giving the Iraqi National Oil Company (INOC) control over almost 93 percent of Iraq's proven reserves, and failing to open any of the fields handed over to the INOC for foreign investment. "These annexes are unconstitutional and will not be supported by the KRG in the federal parliament. They breach requirements under the Iraq constitution that [stipulate] the petroleum sector be developed through private investment, with regional control over new petroleum fields, and joint development between regions and the federal government [for] currently producing fields," the press release stated. It added, "The message the annexes send is that Iraq is closed for business." KR

The Iraqi government announced on May 1 that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq's so-called war minister, Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has been killed in fighting north of Baghdad. Initial reports indicated that al-Muhajir was killed in fighting with other insurgents. Iraqi Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf, director of operations at the Interior Ministry's National Command Center, told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television that tribal leaders killed al-Muhajir. Al-Anbar Salvation Council leader Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah told Al-Iraqiyah that members of the tribe tracked al-Muhajir, starting in Hadithah, over a one-week period, then they engaged him and other Al-Qaeda militants in Al-Niba'i, near Al-Taji. "The tribesmen then moved in and killed him along with seven of his aides -- two Saudis, and five Iraqis," Abu Rishah said. He added that he has eyewitness accounts from members of his tribe that al-Muhajir is dead, but said the bodies remain in the area. Two hundred alleged terrorists converged on the area from nearby Al-Tarmiyah after the fight. KR

In a May 1 Internet statement, the Islamic State of Iraq denied reports that Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir has been killed. "The Islamic State of Iraq reassures the Muslim nation of the safety of Sheikh Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir...and that he is still fighting the enemies of God," the statement said. It warned Muslims that the enemies of the Islamic State are trying to break the ranks of the mujahedin through the issuing of false claims, adding, "The only reason we are making this announcement of denial is to put the minds of Muslims at ease." KR