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Newsline - August 3, 2007

On August 2, two Russian minisubmarines dove 4,200 meters beneath the iced-over surface of the Arctic Ocean and planted a Russian flag made of titanium on the seabed directly under the North Pole, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). While it was largely a symbolic gesture, the massive scientific undertaking captured the world's attention and opens questions over the legal status of the land and the riches of the Arctic. The head of the Russian expedition, Artur Chilingarov, who is a polar explorer, Hero of the Soviet Union, and deputy State Duma speaker, said that "every descent is heroic. It is the heroism of the people who go down to the deep. We're doing it for science and, of course, for Russia's presence [at the North Pole]." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Manila that "the goal of this expedition is not to plant a border post and assert Russia's rights, but to prove that our shelf stretches to the North Pole. There are concrete scientific methods for that. And I think this expedition, including the minisubmarine reaching the bottom of the Arctic Sea in the area of the North Pole, will supply additional scientific evidence for our aspiration." Under international law, Russia, Canada, Norway, the United States, and Denmark (through Greenland) each control a 320-kilometer economic zone in the Arctic Ocean extending from their coastline. But the law also allows a country to claim control of additional area if it can define the outer limits of its continental shelf. The state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote on August 3 that Russia has now "opened up the North Pole for the first time in history." The paper added that Russia's achievement marks "the start of a new redivision of the world." PM

Commenting on the Russian mission to the North Pole, Canadian Foreign Minister Peter Mackay told journalists in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, on August 2 that "there is no question over Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic" international media reported. "We have made that very clear," he said. "We have established, a long time ago, that these are Canadian waters and this is Canadian property. You can't go around the world these days dropping a flag somewhere. This isn't the 14th or 15th century." Mackay argued that "you are going to see, very quickly, that the [international UN] Law of the Sea and [its] protocol, of which both Russia and Canada are signatories at the UN, would immediately kick in were there to be any dispute, and there is no dispute. This is Canadian territory, plain and simple." Speaking in Manila on August 3, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called Mackay's remarks "perplexing," Interfax reported. He added that "we do not just throw flags around," but have a serious claim. Canada has long claimed sovereignty over the Arctic, and under the terms of the Law of the Sea must file by 2012 its own claim that the seabed beneath the pole lies on its continental shelf. But Canada currently does not have an extreme-depth minisub capable of reaching the bottom of the Arctic to map the seabed and establish its claim, as do France, the United States, Japan, and Russia. The Canadian government recently announced that it will build up to eight patrol boats to assert its related claims to sovereignty over the melting Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which is also believed to hold huge oil and gas fields. Ottawa considers the Northwest Passage an inland waterway, a claim that Washington rejects. But "The Wall Street Journal" argued on August 3 that "the real threat is the Russian bear, not the Canadian beaver." PM

Navy commander Admiral Vladimir Masorin said during a visit to the Russian base in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol on July 11 that the Russian fleet should have a "permanent presence" in the Mediterranean Sea, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). He stressed that "the Mediterranean Sea is very important strategically for the Black Sea Fleet. I propose that, with the involvement of the Northern and Baltic fleets, the Russian Navy should restore its permanent presence there." Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer told the news agency that Moscow might be seeking a base in Syria, where it had one during the Cold War. Masorin also said in Sevastopol on August 3 that the "Admiral Kuznetsov," which is Russia's only aircraft carrier, might be redeployed to the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk because conditions on the Black Sea are excellent for training carrier pilots, Interfax reported. PM

Vladimir Churov, who heads the Central Election Commission, said that any calls for an "alternative" vote count to act as a check on the official one in the December parliamentary elections are nothing but a "fraud," "Izvestia" and reported on August 3. He argued that any independent tally would cost at least as much as the official one, which will run $118 million and involve 3 million poll workers and vote counters. Churov said that no political party or organization has the money or manpower for such an undertaking. The daily "Kommersant" on August 3 quoted Churov as saying that the first trial run to train vote counters will take place on August 7. "Izvestia" also pointed out on August 3 that this election will mark the first time that parties are expected to pay serious attention to the 10 million eligible voters living abroad. The reason for the apparent change of attitude is that recent legislation enables the parties to decide themselves to which districts the votes they receive from abroad will go, thereby providing them with a reserve of votes they can assign to swing or marginal districts. The problem for the parties now is to interest the expatriates in casting ballots, which only 300,000 normally do, the daily added. PM

Aleksandr Donskoi, who is a declared presidential candidate and Arkhangelsk's mayor, is again under arrest by order of a local court, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on August 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). In July, he was forcibly taken into detention under humiliating circumstances. Donskoi maintains that the authorities are harassing him for political reasons. PM

A group of prominent scientists on August 2 urged the Armenian government to protect Lake Sevan and to reconsider a government proposal to stop raising the water level of the lake, warning of "irreversible" negative consequences for Armenia's ecosystem, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Armenian government was set to discuss a plan drafted by the Ministry of Urban Development proposing ending efforts to restore the lake's water table, but the cabinet decided to postpone the discussion in response to the scientists' appeal. Lake Sevan, which occupies much of the northeastern Gegharkunik province, is the landlocked country's main water reservoir, but it suffered from a dramatic decline in its water table during the Soviet period as a result of heavy use of its waters for irrigation and power generation. A 2002 decision by the parliament established a new program to protect the lake by gradually increasing the water table by several meters through reduced power generation and by building a second mountain tunnel supplying water to the lake from a nearby river. RG

The chairman of the German Cronimet mining group, Guenter Pilarski, announced on August 2 that the company plans to invest some $60 million to expand its operations in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The German metals company already owns the largest mining enterprise in the country, and the announcement represents a significant new investment on top of a $132 million deal in 2004, under which Cronimet teamed up with two Armenian firms to buy a 75 percent stake in the Zangezur Copper-Molybdenum plant, outside the southeastern town of Kajaran. A key part of that takeover was another $150 million investment to modernize the Soviet-built plant (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 10, 2006). Speaking to reporters in Yerevan, Pilarski explained that the new investment will focus on the construction of a copper smelter in the same mountainous area close to Armenia's border with Iran, but stressed the project "will not create any ecological problems" because it will use "modern equipment and technology" that purportedly inflicts no damage on the environment. RG

Unnamed officials of Armenia's Prosecutor-General's Office announced on August 2 that they have formally asked the Economic Court to strip the Ararat Gold Recovery Company of all operating licenses and fine it almost $22 million for "tax fraud and other violations of the law," according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. The announcement is the latest in a series of state actions against Ararat and its parent company, India's Vedanta Resources, which have already resulted in a decision by the company to sell its interests in Armenia's largest gold deposit after tax police raided their offices in January 2007. Vedanta officials contend the move is an attempt by the Armenian government to force out the company to make way for a favored Russian investor. The case is also the latest in a series of disputes in the Armenian mining sector, with an earlier conflict between the Environment Ministry and the U.S. Global Gold Corporation that culminated in a decision by the ministry to revoke the company's license to carry out exploratory work at a mine located at Marjan, near the Iranian border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2006). Former Environment Minister Vardan Ayvazian also faced corruption allegations by the same U.S. company, which reportedly submitted documentary evidence to the U.S. government demonstrating the minister's demand for a $3 million bribe to allow the company to continue operating in Armenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2006). A six-month investigation conducted by the Prosecutor-General's Office also implicated Ayvazian in illegal logging, poaching, and mining activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 18, 2006). RG

Azerbaijani Economic Development Minister Heidar Babayev met in Baku on August 2 with a visiting delegation led by Greek Minister of Development Dimitrios Sioufas and signed an agreement on energy cooperation in the oil and natural-gas sectors, Lider TV reported. Babayev noted that the agreement is the first such accord signed with an EU country and explained that it will ensure the export of Azerbaijani natural gas to Europe through Greece. The Greek delegation also met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev earlier that day and discussed expanding bilateral trade and investment. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Baku after a meeting with Azerbaijani President Aliyev, visiting U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza on August 2 welcomed the development of gas deposits in the Caspian Sea and the export of gas to Europe as an "important factor for regional and energy security," Turan reported. Bryza also noted that Azerbaijan provides the most favorable route for the export of natural gas from Turkmenistan and stressed the significance of the Nabucco project, which he defined as helping to "form a South Caucasus energy corridor that guarantees gas for European consumers and ensures the steady development of supplier countries from the Caspian region." He further noted that Russian involvement in the development of the regional energy network would only promote "sound competition," adding that "all Caspian littoral states should get benefits from the production and transportation of gas to Europe, including Russia." RG

During a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Baku on August 2, U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Bryza highlighted the importance of media freedom in Azerbaijan as a "basis for democracy," Turan reported. He also noted that "special attention must be paid to cases on libel" and warned that such cases "should not be used for the restriction of freedom of speech and expression." Bryza added that his meetings with senior Azerbaijani leaders were focused on "long-term priorities" and included discussion of the presidential election in Azerbaijan set for the fall of 2008. RG

Negotiations in Tbilisi over the restoration of air links between Georgia and Russia broke down on August 2 after the two sides were unable to resolve an outstanding disagreement on debt, Rustavi-2 television reported. Ivan Volynkin, an assistant to the Russian ambassador to Georgia, explained that the talks were deadlocked over the alleged failure of the Georgian airlines to settle a $3 million debt for the past use of Russian airports, which he defined as a prerequisite for any resumption of flights to Russia, according to Caucasus Press. An official of the Georgian airlines, Nino Giorgobiani, issued a denial arguing that "our airline does not have any debt" and countering that "this information is simply incorrect." RG

Speaking at a press conference in Astana on August 2, the chairman of the Kazakh Central Election Commission, Kuandyk Turgankulov, reported on preparations for the approaching election of a new lower house of parliament, or Mazhilis, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Turgankulov said the commission has formally accredited 46 additional election observers, bringing the total number of foreign monitors for the August 18 poll to 506. He noted the number may increase, as the accreditation period remains open through August 12. He also announced that the commission will release preliminary results within five days of the elections. A delegation from the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission led by Jyldyz Joldosheva is set to arrive in Kazakhstan on August 17 to serve as election observers, according to the news agency. RG

In a statement issued in Astana on August 1, Yevgeny Sloboda, the head of the CIS election-monitoring team in Kazakhstan, endorsed the election preparations by the Kazakh "authorities and electoral commissions," adding that the relevant "bodies of power, within their competence, and electoral commissions are taking the necessary measures and have created conditions conducive to holding transparent and democratic elections," according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. His report stressed that "all political parties have received identical opportunities for registration of political lists, and all the parties have been given equal conditions for conducting election campaigns." The CIS observer mission, which comprises about 400 observers and is formally led by Vladimir Rushailo, the CIS executive secretary and former head of the Russian National Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 2007), recently endorsed the campaign as open and transparent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). But in a meeting with the Kazakh Central Election Commission on August 1 in Almaty, leaders of the opposition National Social Democratic Party -- including Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, Bulat Abilov, and Oraz Zhandosov -- complained that the ruling Nur Otan party enjoys preferential treatment, with favorable media coverage and other advantages, Kazinform reported. RG

According to an official press release issued in Almaty by the Kazakh Emergency Situations Ministry on August 2, a man has died after being stricken with Congo-Crimean hemorrhagic fever in southern Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. The outbreak of the disease, which is caused by a tick-borne virus, previously claimed four lives and left another 20 people hospitalized. The disease has spread throughout the Aral region of Kazakhstan and has prompted the introduction of unspecified "antiepidemic measures" by the Kazakh authorities. RG

Commenting on the recent criminal charges brought against former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, an unnamed lawyer for Kulov explained on August 2 that he faces up to 10 years in prison if he is convicted of "organizing mass public unrest," according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Kulov's attorney also noted that the authorities have demanded that Kulov provide them with a signed pledge to not leave the country. The charges against Kulov, who now heads the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan, were first announced on August 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007) and stem from his role as an organizer of nine days of antigovernment demonstrations in April that were eventually dispersed by security forces in Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 13, 18, 19, and 20, 2007). Two other men, United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan member Omurbek Suvanaliev and Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, a participant in the April rallies, have also been charged in the case and have been ordered to remain in the country, AKIpress reported. RG

Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, submitted on August 2 a formal petition to a Kyrgyz court seeking the dismissal of all criminal charges against her on the grounds of "contradictory testimony" from several witnesses, AKIpress reported. In May, prosecutors filed a number of criminal charges against Akaeva, including obstruction of justice, contempt of court, and the destruction of documents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). Prosecutor Jumadyl Makeshov later explained that the charges stem from actions and "mass public disorder" by her supporters on April 23-24, during her disputed bid to run in an April 29 parliamentary by-election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and 30, 2007). RG

A Bishkek city court ruled on August 2 to reject a bail request by Jypargul Arykova, a suspect in an espionage case who has been charged with high treason, AKIpress reported. According to Aydzhan Kasymalieva, a lawyer for the suspect, the bail petition was rejected by the court on the grounds of the severity of the allegations. If convicted, Arykova could be sentenced to 15-20 years in prison. Arykova, a former staffer of the Kyrgyz parliament, was arrested on June 19 with an unspecified "foreign national" after allegedly being caught in the act of exchanging classified information (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). The woman, who worked in the parliament's press office for seven years, was subsequently said to have "ties with China" and is suspected of spying for Chinese intelligence services for several years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). Bail was sought on the grounds that she is a single mother of a 3-year-old son who is ill and that she normally cares for a disabled mother, according to the news agency. RG

The head of the Dushanbe municipal Department for Religious Affairs, Shamsiddin Nuriddinov, announced on August 2 that new requirements for the licensing of Islamic leaders, or imams, of local mosques will be imposed, including a new review process overseen by the Tajik Council of Ulemas (Islamic scholars), according to the Avesta website. Nuriddinov explained that a new "appraisal commission" will be formed to supervise the process and is to be comprised of representatives from the Council of Ulemas, as well as "prosecution bodies and law-enforcement agencies." Speaking to journalists in Dushanbe, an official of the Council of Ulemas, Qobiljon Boev, added that the formation of the appraisal commission, which "may start its activities in the coming days," follows a number of public complaints over "the illiteracy" of Islamic leaders in the city. The move is also the first such state effort directly to supervise the selection and work of Islamic leaders in Tajikistan. RG

An official in the local Interior Ministry in Tajikistan's northern Sughd region, Abdurahmon Qahhorov, said on August 2 that Uzbek authorities have requested the detention of several suspected Islamic extremists in the region, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Qahhorov added that the Uzbek security forces are seeking the arrest of several Uzbek citizens linked to the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) whom they believe to have fled to Tajikistan. He also said Tajik police arrested seven Tajik citizens with suspected ties to the IMU in the area earlier this year. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared on August 2 that Belarus will pay what it owes to Gazprom for gas deliveries in the first half of 2007, Belarusian and world media reported. "Today I've given an order to take this money from our reserves and pay this $460 million," Lukashenka said while visiting the editorial office of the government newspaper "Sovetskaya Belorussiya." "Of course, we are depleting our resources, but our good friends, in particular [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez, expressed their readiness to provide a loan on conditions advantageous to us. Western banks are also ready to provide resources for us.... Today we will pay from the reserves and replenish them within a month with credits. Let them take [the money] and live in peace," Lukashenka said. Interfax reported the same day that Belarus has paid $190 million out of its $456 million debt to Gazprom. On August 1, Gazprom threatened to reduce gas supplies to Belarus by 45 percent as of August 3 over the unpaid debt (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007). Reuters reported on August 3 that Gazprom postponed cutting gas supplies by one week after Minsk made the $190 million payment. JM

President Lukashenka on August 3 condemned Russia for what he said is Moscow's desire to "privatize not only [profitable Belarusian] enterprises but all the country," Belapan reported. "I have never said that Belarus could be included into Russia," Lukashenka said. "I have spoken about a union, and the building of a union should take place on equal conditions. But then they puff their cheeks [and say] it's impossible. For the [Russian] leadership under [former President Boris] Yeltsin it was apparently possible; all accords [on Belarusian-Russian integration] were signed then. Russia's new leadership considers those accords disadvantageous and is beginning to denounce them." JM

President Lukashenka also revealed on August 3 that at the beginning of this year Russian President Vladimir Putin preliminarily agreed that Moscow will disburse a loan of $1.5 billion-$2 billion to Minsk in connection with a gas-price hike, Belapan reported. According to Lukashenka, Moscow subsequently offered an unacceptable yearly interest rate of 8.5 percent for the loan. "The last visit of Belarus's prime minister to Russia was humiliating. I told him not to travel there anymore," Lukashenka said about Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski's recent talks on the Russian loan with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov. "There have been hints recently that I should travel to the Kremlin and beg on my knees [for the loan]. Maybe someone else will go there and beg on his knees, but I won't," Lukashenka added. He pledged to make Russia pay for the humiliation suffered by Belarus. "But we will also ask Russia to pay for everything. We will find this $2 billion-$3 billion. We are not the people that should be humiliated," he noted. JM

President Lukashenka said in the "Sovetskaya Belorussiya" editorial office in Minsk on August 2 that the government will put an end to what he called "anarchy" on the Internet, Reuters and Belapan reported. "It is time to stop the anarchy on the Internet. We cannot allow this great technological achievement of man to be turned into an information garbage heap," Lukashenka said. "It is a massive loudspeaker, not even of the opposition, but a loudspeaker of voices hostile toward us, [of] hostile states." Lukashenka noted that such Internet sites should be ruled by laws similar to those governing pornography or defamation. JM

The Supreme Court on August 2 confirmed the Justice Ministry's two warnings to the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists (PKB), Belapan reported. The ministry issued the warnings for paperwork irregularities and for the PKB's participation in the founding conference of a Belarusian left-wing alliance, which took place not in Belarus, as required by legislation, but in Ukraine. Under Belarusian regulations, a party that receives two official warnings within a year may be suspended. PKB leader Syarhey Kalyakin said the court ruling will not discourage those who support the party. "That would be the case even if the party were outlawed. These people will always be socially active," he added. JM

Nine parties signed an agreement in Kyiv on August 2 to form a bloc of democratic forces called Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The bloc, with the pro-presidential Our Ukraine People's Union at its core, was joined by the Forward Ukraine! party, the People's Rukh of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Republican Party Sobor, the Ukrainian People's Party, the Christian Democratic Union Party, the Pora Party, the Party of Motherland Defenders, and the European Party of Ukraine. The bloc is led by Yuriy Lutsenko, one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and interior minister in the cabinets of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yuriy Yekhanurov, and Viktor Yanukovych in 2005-06. Also on August 2, the Fatherland Party, led by Yulia Tymoshenko, formed an election alliance named the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc with the Reforms and Order Party and the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party. Earlier the same day, the Central Election Commission (TsVK) publicized a timetable of the campaign for the early parliamentary elections set for September 30. In particular, parties and bloc participating in the polls have to register their lists of candidates by August 25. They may start electioneering as soon as their list of candidates is registered by the TsVK. JM

Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz said on August 2 that he does not expect any major changes in the alignment of parliamentary forces following the September 30 polls, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "If the elections are held, the parliament's makeup will change by 10 percent, not more," he told journalists in Kyiv. Moroz also noted that the early polls are a "criminal adventure initiated by the president." "I regret giving support to this man in the presidential elections. In fact, he abandoned his promises after having won the elections," Moroz added. He said he would not object if the new parliament initiated an impeachment of the president. JM

In a reference to the country's Jewish community, Bosnia-Herzegovina Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj accused Prime Minister Nikola Spiric of a "discriminatory attitude toward people who have lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina for over 500 years," local media reported on August 2. Spiric earlier stated that Alkalaj, who is Jewish and a member of the mainly Bosnian Muslim Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, is not needed by anyone and does not represent the Bosnian Muslims, remarks that "offended and hurt" Alkalaj. Spiric also said he fears that Bosnia's foreign policy is conducted "against the state's interests." The leader of the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslim member of the Bosnian Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, also charged Spiric with chauvinism and anti-Semitism. The row began when an ethnic Serbian deputy foreign minister objected to the Foreign Ministry's order of 100 books by a Bosnian politician in Arabic translation, to be used as gifts to foreign dignitaries. Alkalaj defended the procurement and hit back at the official, setting in motion the chain of accusations and counteraccusations. Another issue of contention is a plan by the Bosnian Serb government to open liaison offices in Brussels and Zagreb, which Alkalaj says is "unconstitutional." TV

The main Sunni Arab bloc in the Iraqi cabinet followed through on its threat to quit the cabinet on August 1, in a move intended to destabilize the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The front issued the threat one week ago, saying it would withdraw unless al-Maliki agreed to meet 12 demands, including releasing Sunni Arab detainees held without charge in U.S. and Iraqi detention centers; dissolving and disarming militias and officers and enlisted military personnel tied to militias; dismissing the defense minister; appointing competent, nonpartisan Iraqis to serve as technocrats; and improving relations with Arab states.

According to media reports, the front will only withdraw its ministers from government; the bloc's 44 parliamentarians will return to their jobs on September 4, following the legislature's one-month summer break.

Parliamentarians from the front had previously walked out of parliament for five weeks, returning to work on July 19 following negotiations among Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish leaders over the dismissal of parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani in early June.

The decision to withdraw from the cabinet while keeping parliamentarians in their posts aims to destabilize al-Maliki's cabinet while ensuring that Sunni representatives help challenge key legislation due to be examined and voted on following the summer break -- including the draft oil law.

Moreover, the departure of the six cabinet ministers from the Accordance Front, coupled with the departure of five ministers aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr earlier this year, leaves the cabinet devoid of any real opposition. The 11 ministers make up about 25 percent of the cabinet. Al-Maliki this week put forth a proposal to streamline the cabinet that would combine ministries and bring several posts under the oversight of national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i. The proposal, offered before the Accordance Front's withdrawal, was rejected by the cabinet outright. It is unclear whether al-Maliki will attempt to push it through again.

President Jalal Talabani said this week that four major political parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) -- will continue to push for the formation of a moderates front in the parliament. Taken together, the four parties control a significant number of seats in the National Assembly, though they fall short of holding a majority.

It is questionable whether a moderates front -- billed as a nonsectarian grouping that will lobby for a united Iraq -- would have any legitimacy without the participation of Sunni Arabs. The forces behind the effort have been trying for several weeks to win the support of Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party. The Islamic Party is a key member of the Accordance Front. For the time being, al-Hashimi is not biting. As a key critic of al-Maliki's administration, al-Hashimi has said that he will not join any grouping without key concessions from the prime minister with regard to power sharing in government.

Meanwhile, former Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari has begun to push publicly for a cabinet reshuffle, a push that appears part of a broader plan by al-Ja'fari to unseat al-Maliki, who replaced him following the December 2005 elections.

Al-Ja'fari was reportedly behind media reports two weeks ago that called for replacing Kurdish President Talabani with a Sunni Arab leader. Al-Ja'fari met with Talabani in Al-Sulaymaniyah on July 27 to discuss the current political situation. Kurdish press reported that al-Ja'fari was seeking support to overthrow al-Maliki's government and insert himself as prime minister. Al-Ja'fari has denied the allegations, and he has also denied media reports suggesting that he is seeking to form a new political front of his own.

Newspapers in Baghdad have reported in recent days that al-Ja'fari is seeking support from the Iraqi Accordance Front -- hence his sudden call for a Sunni Arab president -- much to the dismay of Shi'a aligned with al-Sadr. Al-Ja'fari's approach may lead to problems for the onetime prime minister, as he would likely need support from al-Sadr loyalists in any attempt to unseat al-Maliki.

Sadrists and Sunni Arabs share some common positions such as opposition to federalism, the constitution, and key pending legislation. But even putting their sectarian tendencies aside, the differences that separate the two groups far outweigh their commonalities.

The sudden push by al-Ja'fari highlights old ideological fractures between the two main streams of the Al-Da'wah Party. But the move can also be seen in the context of recent efforts by the party to position itself in terms of issues and policies, rather than adopting a traditional sectarian stance.

Meanwhile, another former prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has seen little support for his proposed national-salvation government. Despite Shi'ite distrust due to Allawi's recent actions, Allawi has reportedly taken part in recent meetings with senior Iraqi officials and al-Ja'fari. However, he told Al-Jazeera television on August 2 that he has rejected a U.S. request that he put aside his aspirations to form an expanded secular bloc and join the moderates' front.

The current posturing of political parties and blocs will eventually force al-Maliki to address demands for wider participation in decision making and, by extension, broader participation by Sunni Arabs in the political process. But it remains to be seen how far the prime minister is willing to go in order to pacify his Sunni detractors.

Despite pronouncements from all sides regarding their commitment to some form of a national-unity project, in reality the political currents in Iraq are employing a zero-sum-game approach in their relations with competing parties. This reality is complicated by interference from regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are propping up their allies in Iraq (Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, respectively) while throwing up obstacles in the path of political progress.

Afghan Minister for Refugees Mohammad Akbar Akbar said on August 2 that Afghanistan hopes Pakistan and Iran will show patience in repatriating more than 4.6 million Afghan refugees as the war-torn country struggles to absorb the refugees amid increasing violence, Reuters reported. "Repatriation should be gradual and voluntary," Akbar told Reuters from Islamabad, where he signed an agreement with Pakistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to extend the voluntary returns program for Afghan refugees for an additional three years. Judy Cheng-Hopkins, UNHCR assistant high commissioner for refugees, said she noted there have not been any forced repatriations from Pakistan. Iran, by contrast, began deporting more than 100,000 Afghan refugees in April. More than 4.6 million Afghans have gone home from Pakistan and Iran since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. JC

The German Foreign Ministry on August 2 said that an autopsy of a German national kidnapped in Afghanistan in July has showed he died of gunshot wounds, dpa reported. Earlier reports on the cause of death were contradictory. The engineer was one of two German nationals abducted on July 18 by the Taliban, along with five Afghan colleagues. The bullet-riddled body was discovered on July 22 in Wardak Province and flown to Cologne for an autopsy amid speculation that the captive had died from a heart attack while being held captive (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Jaeger said the body had six bullet wounds, although the autopsy showed the engineer had collapsed before he was fatally shot. German officials are working to secure the release of the second hostage, who appeared on an Al-Jazeera television broadcast on July 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). JC

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have expressed concern over an Afghan government directive prohibiting foreign aid workers from traveling outside Kabul without an armed escort, calling it "disproportionate" and "counterproductive," the Integrated Regional Information Network reported on August 2. The initiative followed the abduction of 23 South Korean aid workers and two Germans over three days in July, initiating a hostage crisis in which two Koreans and one German have been killed. "We would not be facing the current crisis if the Koreans had informed us about their travel plans in advance," said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashery. Hashim Mayar, deputy director of ACBAR -- a coordinating agency for NGOs in Afghanistan -- questioned the directive, arguing that armed escorts will make NGOs a target for "antigovernment elements." NGOs have faced a gradually deteriorating situation over the past two years as insurgents continue to perceive them as collaborators with the government and the West. JC

The World Bank on July 31 granted $10 million to support efforts by the Afghan government to control the climbing prevalence of HIV/AIDS, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on August 1. The funds will specifically support the Afghanistan HIV/AIDS Prevention Project, an initiative designed to improve prevention programs targeting high-risk groups, including intravenous drug users and sex workers, a World Bank press release said. Program objectives include an increased understanding of HIV prevention, improved tracking of HIV prevalence and high-risk behaviors, and greater advocacy to diminish the stigma associated with the deadly virus. Other initiatives include the Afghanistan National HIV and AIDS Strategic Framework (2006-10) developed by the Ministry of Public Health and aimed at coordinating fragmented prevention efforts by local and international organizations. Approximately 75 new cases of HIV have been recorded in 2007, according to government figures, but international organizations put the number around 2,000, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. JC

Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi told the press in Tehran on August 1 that his ministry and election supervisors headed by the Guardians Council, a body of jurists and clerics, will ensure that parliamentary polls are "peaceful and without concerns," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on August 2. The elections are scheduled for March 14, 2008. Purmohammadi said vote counting will likely be computerized, although details have not yet been finalized. He said people would have to vote with their national identity cards, but said identity codes on cards would not appear on ballots, presumably to keep voters' choices secret, "Hamshahri" reported on August 2. Purmohammadi refused to confirm or deny reports that some deputy interior ministers or senior officials are about to be replaced, "Hamshahri" reported. VS

At least four journalists have been summoned to court in recent days, but a Tehran-based journalist has told Radio Farda the number may be greater and certain individuals summoned have not revealed this out of fear. Four journalists reportedly summoned to the courts in recent days are Masud Bastani, Soheil Asefi, Farshad Qorbanpur, and Foruzan Asef-Nakhai, Radio Farda reported on August 2, adding that Qorbanpur was arrested and sent to Evin prison in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2007). It quoted Tehran-based press activist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin as saying this is not the first time interrogated activists are "not publishing reports about it, to show their goodwill toward their interrogators." Another reporter, Bahman Ahmadi-Amui, has been given a suspended six-month prison sentence for reporting on a women's rights demonstration in Tehran in 2006, Radio Farda reported on August 2. VS

Iran hanged two convicted murderers in public in Tehran on August 2, outside a court building where they killed a judge exactly two years ago, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news reports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15 and August 1, 2007). Majid Kavusifar and Hussein Kavusifar were hanged outside the court on Ahmad Qasir Street -- a busy business and residential area in midtown Tehran -- where they killed Hasan Moqaddas, a deputy chief prosecutor of Tehran, Radio Farda stated. VS

The wife of Abdullah Momeni, a recently detained activist and spokesman for the Iran Graduates Organization, expressed concern on August 1 for her husband, who is being detained in Tehran's Evin prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10 and 31, 2007), "Etemad" reported on August 2, citing, the website of the Iran Graduates Organization. She told the website he called home on July 31, but sounded so faint "his voice could hardly be heard." She said that Momeni said he is being kept in solitary confinement. VS

A lawyer for the detained head of the Tehran bus drivers' union, Mansur Osanlu, has told ISNA his client may face unspecified security-related charges and that he has been unable to see Osanlu recently in jail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and July 26, 2007), "Etemad" reported on August 2. Several lawyers are representing Osanlu. This attorney, identified by ISNA only as Khorshid, said the security department of the Tehran Public and Revolutionary Court would not allow him to see his client on July 30. "They have told lawyers that Osanlu's charge is about security issues, but the...charge is not clear," he said. VS

Saleh Nikbakht, an attorney for Adnan Hasanpur and Abdulvahed Butimar, two Kurdish journalists recently sentenced to death for antistate activities, told ISNA on August 1 that the sentences were not, contrary to reports, related to their media activities, but their alleged cooperation with "armed groups opposed to the system" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). He said lawyers have defended the two in court as having no "organizational" links with any armed group, though he said Hasanpur has accepted "some of the charges against him." These, Nikbakht said, did not constitute instances of "muhariba" -- the charge of fighting God and religion, for which both have been sentenced to death. Nikbakht said of Butimar that because he did not take up arms against Iran's government, he could not be termed a "fighting enemy" of God or religion. He indicated that Butimar had however sold arms to an unspecified group, ISNA reported. VS

The Iraqi government said on August 2 it is pleased with Saudi Arabia's decision to reopen its embassy in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office issued a statement saying it considers the decision a positive step toward developing relations between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi announcement came on August 1 during a meeting between Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Sa'ud al-Faisal and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Jeddah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). Days earlier, al-Faisal met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari in Cairo ahead of an Arab League meeting to discuss how to strengthen ties between the two states. KR

Sunni Arab parliamentarian Khalaf al-Ulayyan told Al-Sharqiyah television in an August 2 interview that U.S. forces raided the office of his political party, the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, in retaliation against the Iraqi Accordance Front's decision to withdraw its ministers' participation in the cabinet. The council is a member of the front. "I believe that this is a reaction to what we have done. We have come under pressure from various sides to change our position. We, however, insisted on this stand because the [Iraqi] government has reneged on all its promises and failed to achieve anything," al-Ulayyan claimed. "The [Iraqi] government and the U.S. forces carried out this [raid] in revenge for what we did yesterday," he added, referring to the ministers' resignations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). KR

The cabinet has appointed a new chairman of the committee charged with carrying out the implementation of constitutional Article 140, Iraqi media reported on August 2. The article calls for normalization measures to be taken with regard to Kirkuk (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," December 15, 2006). Ra'id Fahmi, minister of science and technology, will oversee the committee. Fahmi is a senior member in the Iraqi Communist Party and was active in the Iraqi opposition prior to the fall of the Hussein regime. He advocates using oil revenues for investment and to boost infrastructure development. KR

U.S. and Iraqi forces took more than 900 kilograms of explosives off the streets of Baghdad during the month of July, according to an August 2 press release posted to the U.S.-led coalition's website. Nearly half of the explosives were uncovered in two raids at the month's end. On July 29, troops aided by explosives-sniffing dogs uncovered a cache containing more than 180 kilograms of homemade explosives during clearing operations in the Hay Al-Jami'ah neighborhood of Baghdad. A second cache composed of 16 bags of homemade explosives totaling 250 kilograms, as well as materials to construct improvised explosive devices, were uncovered in another nearby location. Both caches were located close to the newly built Coalition Outpost Lion, the Iraqi Army's primary base in Hay Al-Jami'ah. KR

The Norwegian government has said it will no longer train Iraqi police in Norway after 10 police officials walked away from training and disappeared, the Oslo daily "Aftenposten" reported on July 30. The Norwegian government has brought 158 Iraqi police to Norway for training at a cost of 10 million kroners (about $1.7 million). The Norwegian police said they know little about the background of the Iraqi officers, since the Iraqi police sent for training are selected by Iraq's interior minister. Iver Frigard of the Norwegian police directorate told the daily that only one of the Iraqi police officers has asked for asylum in Norway, while the rest vanished without a trace. Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Liv Monica Stubholt said the training will now take place "locally," but did not say whether that means inside Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East. KR