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Newsline - January 28, 2008

A spokeswoman for Atomstroieksport, which is constructing a nuclear power plant for Iran in Bushehr, said in Moscow on January 28 that the eighth and final delivery of low-enriched uranium fuel arrived in Iran the previous night, raising the total quantity delivered to about 82 metric tons, RIA Novosti and Western news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20 and 27, 2007, and January 18 and 23, 2008). She noted that it is not clear when the plant will come online, but Russian officials previously said that late 2008 is the earliest possibility. The first nuclear fuel delivery was finally made on December 17 following months of mutual public recriminations. Russia charged that Iran was behind in its payments, while Tehran argued that Moscow was delaying completion of the plant in order to please its Western partners. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in recent weeks that Russian fuel deliveries render Iran's uranium-enrichment program unnecessary. PM

Serbian and Russian officials signed several economic agreements in Moscow on January 25 in the presence of Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Russian President Vladimir Putin and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's chosen successor as president, regional and international media reported (see Part II and "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 16, 18, 23, and 25, 2008). The most important deals involve the sale of Serbia's state oil monopoly, NIS, to a Gazprom-led group, and the construction by Gazprom of a pipeline through Serbia. Putin said that "with the signing of these agreements, Serbia becomes a key transit junction in the emerging system providing energy supplies from Russia to the south of Europe -- a durable, reliable, and highly efficient system that is strengthening significantly the supply of energy to Serbia and to the whole European continent." He noted that "we reaffirmed that Russia categorically opposes a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, which can seriously damage the whole international legal system and can have negative consequences for the Balkans and for the whole world." Putin argued that "Russia's position on [Kosovo] is now winning support among those politicians in Europe who, despite the political pressure of bloc discipline, particularly within NATO's structure, show political courage, demonstrate independence of judgment and, in the best traditions of European political culture, seek to extend the principles of democracy and justice to international affairs." He did not elaborate. Medvedev said that "our close political relations were today converted into economic results. This is a great breakthrough." Reuters quoted Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Ural Sib investment bank, as saying on January 25 that "Russia has taken advantage of the current situation in the Balkans, when Serbia needed strong support on Kosovo. The Kremlin has played a very smart and effective game over the past two years, effectively winning a pipeline war with the European Union," which is seeking to promote its own Nabucco pipeline in apparent rivalry with Russia's South Stream project. But Tadic argued on January 25 that "Serbia's strategic position in southeast Europe gives it a central role because gas will go through Serbia to other countries on the European Union's southern flank." This, he stressed, will help both Russia and the EU. PM

Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party, who faces President Tadic in a February 3 runoff for the Serbian presidency, is holding talks with Russian legislators in Moscow on January 28 but is not scheduled to meet with Foreign Ministry officials, Interfax reported. "The Moscow Times" on January 28 quoted an unnamed "senior Kremlin spokesman" as saying that Russia does not want to interfere in Serbian domestic politics, and that it is unlikely that Nikolic will meet with President Putin. On January 25, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" weighed the advantages and disadvantages for Russia of victories by either Tadic or Nikolic and noted that both men are soliciting Moscow's support. The daily suggested that Nikolic wants a "strategic alliance" with Russia and shuns NATO membership, while Tadic favors the EU and seeks to join the Atlantic alliance. The paper added that Nikolic might offer Russia a base that could serve as a useful bargaining chip with Washington in Russia's attempts to block the planned U.S. missile-defense project. But "Izvestia" suggested that "populists like Nikolic have a tendency to forget their wild promises," and that an isolated Serbia under his leadership "cannot be counted on to promote Russian geopolitical interests in the Balkans." The daily argued that Russia might find Tadic to be the more solid and reliable partner, even if he takes Serbia into NATO. The paper noted that if Tadic leads Serbia into the EU, Belgrade could form a "pro-Russian bloc" there with Athens and Nicosia. "Izvestia" added that "the widespread opinion in Belgrade is that the Kremlin is counting on Tadic's victory." The Belgrade daily "Danas" noted on January 28 that Moscow has not responded to Nikolic's ostensibly pro-Russian rhetoric by endorsing him. The daily cautioned Serbs against thinking that they can play a substantial role in East-West relations or that sentimentality might prompt Russia to embrace Serbia if Belgrade's relations with the West sour further. The paper argued that Russia's relations with the West are determined only by long-term interests on the basis of cold calculations. PM

Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, who commands the Federal Space Forces, said on January 25 that he is concerned about declining quality and failure to modernize within the aerospace industry, the daily "Kommersant" reported on January 28. He suggested that Russia has a great need for intelligence, but relatively few satellites in orbit. He called the problems of quality "alarming." The paper wrote that "observers attribute the difficulties the Russian space industry is now facing to the consequences of the financial crisis of the 1990s. [The industry] has not received a basic overhaul in almost 20 years and has trouble attracting qualified personnel because of the low pay it offers." The daily noted that "the military is, nonetheless, expected to receive several effective space intelligence satellite systems in the next year or two, if budget increases continue. According to unofficial information, financing of the space industry has been increasing at 15-20 percent per year since 2005" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). PM

The Central Election Commission on January 27 officially refused to register former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov as a candidate in the March 2 presidential election, Russian media reported. The commission cited the purportedly high rate of invalid signatures among the 2 million that Kasyanov submitted in support of his candidacy and the fact that the campaign reportedly failed to submit complete documentation about the people who collected the signatures, reported. As a result, four candidates -- First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Democratic Party of Russia head Andrei Bogdanov -- will compete in the race, the smallest number of competitors in any post-Soviet Russian presidential election. The candidates will be presented on the ballot in alphabetical order -- meaning that Medvedev's name will appear last. Kasyanov has 10 days to file an appeal of the commission's decision with the Supreme Court, which has the authority to compel election officials to register him. Kasyanov has not said whether he will file an appeal, but on January 27 told journalists that voters should boycott the ballot, which he labeled "a farce." RC

Center for Political Technologies President Igor Bunin wrote on on January 26 that "liberal ideology" was badly discredited in the 1990s in Russia because Moscow was never offered any serious prospects of European integration. As a result, democracy was viewed as a "path without a goal." Nonetheless, Bunin was favorably impressed by First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev's January 22 speech to the national Civic Forum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2008). Bunin noted that Medvedev has declared directly that Russia is building a "democracy" and has emphasized that the involvement of citizens in that process is essential. He added that Medvedev has made such statements in front of other audiences, including primarily military ones, during the presidential campaign, and also that Medvedev has made relatively few statements about Russia as a great power, about national revanche, or about other topics that "warm the souls of our quasi-patriots." Bunin recalled that Medvedev told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2007 that Russia is building "democracy --- without unnecessary additional qualifiers" and asserted that "freedom is better than non-freedom" ("President's Potential Successor Debuts At Davos,", January 31, 2007). Bunin said he believes "freedom and democracy are logical components of Medvedev's credo," and writes that he expects a change in style with the new administration toward increased dialogue with elements of civil society. He added, however, that in Russian political culture an openness to dialogue is often seen as a sign of weakness and that increasing the influence of the nongovernmental sector will arouse resistance within the bureaucracy. RC

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party could face difficulty in the legislative elections to be held in 11 Russian regions concurrently with the March 2 presidential election, "Gazeta" reported on January 28. The Kremlin has ordered the party not to use the images of President Putin or First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev in its campaigns, but instead to associate itself with the regional governor. However, analysts note that governors are now appointed and, as a result, in many cases have low popularity ratings. Pro-Kremlin political analyst Valery Khomyakov said the party faces particular difficulty in Rostov Oblast, Ulyanovsk Oblast, and Ivanov Oblast. Only in Altai Krai and Yaroslavl Oblast will close association with the governor benefit the party, Khomyakov said, while in Ingushetia, the heavy-handed use of administrative resources will produce a favorable result. Leonty Byzov, a researcher with the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), told the daily that the left-leaning pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party and the Communist Party could make strong showings in many regions. RC

Interior Ministry officials have confirmed the arrest last week of purported organized-crime figure Sergei Shnaider, better known by his former name of Semyon Mogilevich, Russian media reported on January 28. Shnaider and his business partner Vladimir Nekrasov were arrested in Moscow on January 23 on suspicion of tax evasion. Shnaider is also wanted in the United States on money-laundering charges, and Washington is expected to seek his extradition, "Vremya novostei" reported on January 28. A law-enforcement source told ITAR-TASS on January 25 that Shnaider is suspected of numerous other crimes -- from racketeering to arms dealing -- and that additional charges can be expected. Shnaider has also been frequently named in connection with RosUkrEnergo, a shadowy natural-gas dealer that is half owned by Gazprom and half by a consortium of unidentified Ukrainian businesspeople. reported that Shnaider's former wife, Olga Shnaider, disappeared on January 25 after being questioned by police and that her father has filed a missing-person's report. Olga Shnaider has been linked to a Cyprus-based company called Highrock Holdings that reportedly also has connections to RosUkrEnergo. cited RosUkrEnergo spokespeople as saying the company has no connection to Sergei Shnaider. RC

Primorsky Krai Deputy Governor Sergei Sopchuk was shot and wounded on the morning of January 28 in downtown Vladivostok, Russian media reported. Sopchuk was shot once in the hand and once in the shoulder as he was sitting in his official car. He was hospitalized in stable condition, reported. According to the website, Sopchuk oversees housing, agriculture, and fisheries in the region. The fisheries sector in the Far East is one of the most thoroughly corrupted sectors of the Russian economy. Primorsky Krai Governor Sergei Darkin said the attack is connected with Sopchuk's official duties and characterized it as an attempt "to frighten the authorities and society." RC

Police on January 26 resorted to force to disperse demonstrators who converged on Nazran to participate in a planned demonstration in support of President Putin's antiterrorism policies and to demand an end to endemic corruption among the republic's leadership, the website reported. Thousands of people from all over the republic reportedly headed for Nazran to join the protest, but only between 200-300 managed to reach the designated venue. The protesters reportedly threw stones and Molotov cocktails at police, who retaliated by beating them and opening fire over their heads, wounding one of them. Russian media reported that the Hotel Assa and the editorial office of the government daily "Serdalo" were set ablaze, but failed to explain by whom and in what circumstances. Rather than risk a major confrontation, the organizers of the protest called on participants to disperse and scheduled a further protest for February 23. Police detained over 40 participants, most of them aged between 18-30; two human-rights activists; and several Russian journalists. The demonstrators were released late on January 26 after the parents of many of them gathered outside the Nazran police headquarters, except for four who were sentenced to three days' administrative arrest. The two human-right activists were also released, while the journalists were taken to Vladikavkaz in neighboring North Ossetia before being allowed to go free. Police thwarted a similar planned protest in Nazran two months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). LF

Speaking on January 25 at an election campaign rally in Yerevan's northern Nork district, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, regarded as the frontrunner in the February 19 presidential ballot, implicitly condemned criticism of him by rival candidate and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian without identifying the latter by name, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sarkisian pledged that if elected, he will transform Armenia into "a brilliant country," adding that "it is never possible to accomplish good things with malice." He appealed to voters "not to succumb to provocations, not to respond to malice with malice." Campaigning in the central province of Kotayk on January 24, Ter-Petrossian implicated Sarkisian and outgoing President Robert Kocharian in the October 1999 shootings in the Armenian parliament chamber of eight prominent political figures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2008). In earlier public speeches, Ter-Petrossian accused the current leadership of reducing Armenia to the level of "a third-world country" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). On January 27, unknown perpetrators removed campaign posters posted outside Ter-Petrossian's campaign headquarters in the towns of Armavir and Vanadzor and in the Malatia-Sebastiya district of Yerevan, reported. LF

The Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian has decided to cede to supporters of former President Ter-Petrossian and of another opposition presidential candidate, former Prime Minister and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian, hundreds of the almost 2,000 seats on the Central Election Commission and lower-level commissions to which Zharangutiun as a parliamentary party is entitled, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 25. A Zharangutiun spokesman explained that the party cannot fill all the seats to which it is entitled as it did not manage to send enough of its representatives to the mandatory training courses since winning representation in the parliament elected in May 2007. A senior member of the Hanrapetutiun party that backs Ter-Petrossian's presidential bid told RFE/RL that his party is ready to nominate to election commissions as many representatives as proves necessary. LF

The Azerbaijani authorities handed over to Armenian military police on January 25 an Armenian serviceman, Hambartsum Asatrian, who was taken prisoner by Azerbaijani forces in August 2007, reportedly after deserting from his unit just days after beginning his compulsory military service, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Asatrian told RFE/RL after being repatriated that he strayed on to Azerbaijani territory by mistake. He also said he wanted to escape to Russia to rejoin his parents there. Asatrian claimed he was subjected to torture by Azerbaijani interrogators who sought to persuade him to testify that he deserted to avoid hazing at the hands of fellow servicemen. LF

Representatives of the opposition New Rightists, the Labor party, and extraparliamentary parties aligned in the nine-member opposition National Council have all expressed skepticism at the likely impact of the cabinet reshuffle announced on January 24 by Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2008). Caucasus Press on January 25 quoted David Saganelidze, secretary of the Rightist Opposition parliament faction, as saying the changes will have no effect on the performance of the government, and as suggesting that two appointments, of Temur Yakobashvili as state minister for reintegration and Ghia Nodia as education minister, were intended to reward persons who contributed to Mikheil Saakashvili's January 5 presidential election victory by masterminding the exit polls that gave him a majority before votes were even counted. Parliamentarian Gia Tortladze, a leading member of the For a United Georgia party founded last year by former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, predicted that the new cabinet's political course will remain unchanged, especially in light of the reappointment of powerful and unpopular Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili. Meanwhile, Kakha Bendukidze, who lost his post as minister for economic reform, predicted that the new cabinet will be completely reshuffled following the parliamentary elections to be held in early summer, Caucasus Press reported on January 25. LF

In his latest half-yearly report to the UN Security Council on the situation in Abkhazia, which was released on January 23, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized what he termed "disinformation and misrepresentation" by the media of the situation in Abkhazia and called on both Abkhaz and Georgians to "exercise restraint," according to a UN News Service press release of January 25. Ban warned that "fanning fear and hostility through misrepresentation" will only serve to reinforce the existing "image of the enemy." Ban noted that the ongoing uncertainty over the outcome of the Kosova situation "added another dimension to an already tense situation," and he expressed concern at the ongoing suspension of talks aimed at facilitating a political solution of the conflict, on the one hand, and at Georgia's efforts to transform the format of both the peacekeeping operation and the conflict resolution process, on the other. Ban said an investigation by the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) of the killing in September 2007 by Georgian special forces of two Russian contract advisers with the Abkhaz border guards took place on Abkhaz territory, and that the two men were shot at close range during combat, but not in cold blood. Georgian officials claimed at the time that the killings took place on Georgian territory (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). Meanwhile, Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, was quoted by on January 28 as warning that the renaming of Georgia's Ministry for Conflict Resolution as the Ministry for Reintegration has reduced even further the prospects for a resumption of talks on resolving the conflict, reported. LF

In Astana on January 25, Kazakh State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev discussed bilateral energy ties with visiting U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Steven Mann, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Mann pledged Washington's support for plans to expand the Caspian Pipeline Consortium to ensure a reliable route for Kazakh oil exports and reiterated support for Kazakhstan's participation in the planned Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil-pipeline project, Khabar Television reported. According to a press release issued by Saudabaev's office following the meeting, the two also agreed that the recent resolution of a dispute over the development of the offshore Kashagan oil field is important, but noted the "need to expand the existing pipelines and construct new ones to export Kazakhstan's oil." The Kashagan field holds between 7 billion and 9 billion tons of proven reserves, making it the largest oil field discovered in the last three decades and the fourth- or fifth-largest deposit in the world. An international consortium of mainly Western oil companies earlier this month reached an agreement with Kazakhstan's KazMunaiGaz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 15, 2008) to cede some of their shares in the consortium to double KazMunaiGaz's stake to 16.81 percent and to pay between $2.5 billion-$4.5 billion in compensation for the delay in the start of operations, initially scheduled for 2008, until late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, August 22, November 28, and December 27, 2007). RG

Prime Minister Igor Chudinov on January 26 concluded an official two-day visit to Russia, after participating in a Moscow summit meeting of the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), AKIpress reported. Chudinov joined his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Belarus on January 25 to discuss the terms of a draft agreement to create a new customs union agreement. The customs agreement, which follows a series of negotiations between the presidents of the Eurasec member states in 2006, is to "abolish artificial obstacles" to the movement of "people and goods" and seeks to foster eased transit and migration. Following an initial agreement among Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia to sign the agreement, the organization now plans on launching talks with the three remaining Eurasec members -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- for their subsequent ratification. The Kyrgyz delegation, which also included Finance Minister Tajikan Kalimbetova, Economic Development and Trade Minister Akylbek Japarov, and Industry Minister Sapar Balkibekov, also discussed a new draft proposal on cooperation on the "effective use of water and energy resources" in Central Asia and reviewed the proposed Eurasec budget for 2008. RG

In an announcement in Bishkek, Aleksei Shirshov, the chairman of the Dastan naval weapons factory, confirmed on January 24 that Russia will be offered a stake in the plant as part of a new debt swap, according to AKIpress. In October 2007, then-Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev first announced plans for the debt-swap deal with Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15, 2007), under which Kyrgyzstan will sell about 37 percent of the state's share in the plant to Russia for about $30 million in exchange for the write-off of some $150 million in debt. RG

At a cabinet meeting in Dushanbe, President Emomali Rahmon on January 26 unveiled an unexpected reshuffling of several important officials, Asia-Plus reported. The personnel moves include promoting the head of the National Bank, Murodali Alimardonov, to the post of deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, moving Agriculture and Environmental Protection Minister Abdurahmon Qodiri to the position of deputy governor of the Khatlon region, and promoting a land-planning official, Davlatsho Gulmahmadov, to become the deputy governor of the Sughd region. Rounding out the appointments, separate presidential decrees named Qosim Qosimov the new agriculture and environmental protection minister to replace Qodiri, promoted Ruqiya Qurbonova to the post of deputy prime minister, replacing Khayriniso Yusufi Mavlonova, and appointed Nusratullo Salimov as health minister, replacing Ranokhon Abdurahmonova, Tajik Television reported. Rahmon also named Sharif Rahimzoda to head the National Bank, replacing Alimardonov, and promoted several district-level officials in the Sughd and Khatlon regions. At the same cabinet meeting on January 26, President Rahmon rebuked his cabinet for failing to adequately respond to the mounting energy crisis and warned them that they must work harder to address the energy problems, adding that "I will not forgive any of you" for failing to meet the crisis, Tajik Television reported. He then ordered his ministers to accelerate the construction of several planned hydroelectric power stations, identifying the Rogun hydroelectric plant as his top priority, according to the Avesta website. In a report to the cabinet, the government member in charge of implementing the energy projects, Samad Rahimov, noted that several small hydroelectric power stations will be built within the year, citing a state budget of over $500 million to revamp Tajikistan's inadequate energy network. RG

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov met on January 25 in Ashgabat with the visiting head of the U.S. Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, and discussed expanding bilateral cooperation to combat terrorism and narcotics trafficking in the region, Turkmen Television reported. Fallon arrived in the Turkmen capital from neighboring Uzbekistan and also recently met with Tajik President Rahmon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23 and 25, 2008). Following his meeting in Ashgabat, Fallon was scheduled to travel on to Pakistan and Afghanistan. RG

Small-business owners and opposition activists jailed for 15 days over an unsanctioned January 10 protest against new government legislation on family businesses were released on January 25, several hours before the end of their sentences, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The same day, Belarusian authorities also released businessman Yury Lyavonau after he served 18 months in prison. Mikalay Autukhovich, Lyavonau's business partner, was released a week ago. Lyavonau and Autukhovich were charged with tax evasion and sentenced in July 2006 to three years and five months and three years and six months, respectively. Lyavonau and Autukhovich were widely regarded as prisoners of conscience. Jonathan Moore, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, welcomed the releases, but added that sanctions imposed by the United States on Belarusian officials and enterprises will remain unchanged unless the authorities release all prisoners, including Artur Finkevich, Alyaksandr Kazulin, and Andrey Klim. AM

Dzmitry Zhaleznichenka, who was recently expelled for the second time from Homel State University (see "RFE/RL's Newsline," January 24, 2008), was hastily drafted into the army on January 25, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Zhaleznichenka, a third-year student and a member of opposition Belarusian Popular Front, was expelled for alleged violation of internal university rules. Zhaleznichenka claims he was drafted while still a student and that the expulsion order was presented to him only at the enlistment office. Zhaleznichenka announced an indefinite hunger strike unless his draft order is revoked or he is transferred to a unit where orders are given in the Belarusian language. AM

Mario Matus, chairman of the working group on the accession of Ukraine to the World Trade Organization (WTO), said on January 25 in Geneva that the group has approved Ukraine's "accession package," and he praised the commitment of the Ukrainian delegation to completing the accession throughout the negotiations, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The WTO's General Council is scheduled to consider Ukraine's accession on February 5 and, if approved, Ukraine will have five months to ratify the accession. Ukraine's WTO membership will take effect within 30 days after this ratification. "We are now in a position to have a consensus in the WTO on Ukrainian accession at the next General Council," the European Union said in a statement, Reuters reported the same day. Ukraine started talks on WTO accession in 1993. AM

Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha said on January 26 that a referendum on Ukraine's possible accession to NATO is should take place only shortly before the accession itself, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Baloha was responding to demands by the opposition Party of Regions, whose lawmakers blocked the rostrum of the Verkhovna Rada all last week, insisting on holding a referendum on whether Ukraine should seek a NATO Membership Action Plan. Also on January 26, President Viktor Yushchenko called on the Party of Regions to be more consistent as regards cooperation between Ukraine and NATO. He said that Ukraine's policy on NATO membership is based on the law on the fundamentals of national security, and that in 2003 the Party of Regions was among those who adopted the law. AM

Kyiv's prosecutor's office has opened a criminal case against Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on January 25. The prosecutor charges Lutsenko with "infliction of slight injuries." Last week at a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, Lutsenko scuffled with Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy and said he gave him "a slap" for slandering him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). The Party of Regions announced on January 25 that it will create a special parliamentary commission to investigate the incident between Lutsenko and Chernovetskyy, and has demanded Lutsenko's dismissal. However, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has described Lutsenko as "an excellent interior minister," adding that she wants Lutsenko to be given the possibility "to work calmly." AM

Serbia's President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica flew to Moscow on January 25 to sign a major energy deal in which Serbia will sell control over the country's largest oil company, Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS), to Gazprom, the state-owned Russian energy giant. In exchange, Gazprom promised to build a storage facility in Serbia and to route a pipeline through Serbia. Full details of the route of the pipeline remain to be decided, but Serbian Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic said, according to the Serbian broadcaster B92, that the pipeline will lead into Western Europe -- presumably as part of the mainline South Stream pipeline -- and will also have branches leading south and into central Serbia. Full financial details of the deal were not disclosed, but AP reported that Serbian Energy Minister Aleksandar Popovic, who also attended the ceremony in Moscow, "confirmed reports that Russia offered $600 million...and an additional $730 million to modernize the run-down company." According to B92, however, Ilic said there remains room to amend the price that Russia will pay for NIS. He also stated that the deal would provide Serbia with all the gas it needs, create thousands of jobs, bring in 2 billion euros ($2.9 billion) in work for Serbian contractors, and could earn Serbia up to 200 million euros ($293 million) in transit fees each year. Some sense of the strategic outlook for Serbia was hinted at by Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller, who said that "cooperation with Gazprom opens the opportunity for Serbia to become an energy center not only in the Balkans, but also in Europe." He added that at least 10 billion cubic meters of gas will flow through Serbia. That is equivalent to about one-third of South Stream's capacity, Bloomberg reported. Within Serbia, the deal has also been criticized primarily for the method of negotiation, with some arguing that bundling NIS's sale together with the routing of the pipeline weakened Serbia's negotiating ability. There is also speculation that the deal may have been affected by the upcoming runoff in the presidential election, in which Tadic badly needs the support of Kostunica and his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) if he is to be reelected. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended the signing of the deal, said the planned pipeline "network will be long-lasting, reliable, highly efficient, and, what is very important, help boost energy supplies to Serbia and the entire European continent." Russia and Bulgaria agreed in mid-January that part of the South Stream pipeline should pass through Bulgaria. There was no immediate response from the EU, but it has previously been critical of the lack of transparency in the deal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). AG

The future of Kosova was also a subject of discussion when the Serbian delegation visited Moscow on January 25. No details were provided to the public, but President Putin reiterated Russia's support for Serbia's claim to Kosova. He also reiterated that he "is categorically against a unilateral declaration of independence for Kosovo," which he said could "seriously damage the system of international law and have negative consequences for the Balkans and affect stability in other regions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2008). For his part, Serbian President Tadic said that "Serbia very deeply respects the position of Russia on Kosovo." The Serbian government denies that the sale of NIS to Gazprom is in any way connected to Russia's support for Serbia's effort to retain sovereignty over Kosova. AG

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned on January 25 that "the situation [in Kosova] may take its own dynamics" if the "impasse" within the UN Security Council over the future of Kosova continues. That would, he warned, be "very dangerous." However, Ban refused to give his backing to the deployment of an EU mission to Kosova, one of the steps that Brussels says needs to be taken in order to make progress in Kosova. Ban said he still needs "to closely consider and examine the legal implications" of a deployment of an EU mission and whether it would be legal under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. That resolution established the legal grounds for the United Nations to send a mission to Kosova in 1999, and EU officials believe that it also provides enough legal backing for the EU to replace the UN as the international administrator in Kosova. Serbia and Russia maintain that the EU must first obtain the Security Council's backing before it can set up a mission in Kosova. Russia, which is a permanent member of the Security Council, would probably use its veto powers to ensure that Serbia's position on the question prevails. Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica has rejected the notion of an EU mission, saying it would be used to turn Kosova into a "quasi-state," but the Serbian government's largest party, the Democrat Party (DS) of President Tadic, has restricted itself to insisting that an EU mission would require a UN mandate. According to the Serbian news agency Tanjug, Kostunica's DSS has in recent days been pressing the DS to clarify its position, and the issue could have a bearing on whether the DSS backs Tadic in the second round of the presidential election, which will be held on February 3. Ban made his comments in Slovenia after meeting with Slovenian officials in their capacity as the presiding figures in EU meetings. Slovenia will hold the EU's six-month rotating presidency until the end of June. AG

Albanian President Bamir Topi on January 25 ruled out any change to Albania's borders with Kosova should the disputed Serbian province become a state, local media reported. "We will respect the borders of our countries, and there will be absolutely no move toward any change," Topi said during a trip to the Kosovar capital, Prishtina. The statement appeared designed to allay fears that Kosova and Albania could seek to forge a union. Kosova's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, sidestepped the issue of a possible union, saying he "does not want to give answers to hypothetical questions, because it is now known that Albania and Kosova will be two separate, independent countries." Albania has been the most vociferous supporter of Kosovar independence, and during his visit Topi reiterated Albania's commitment to Kosova, 90 percent of whose population is ethnically Albanian. In a sign of the scale of Albania's preparations for the emergence of an independent Kosovar state, Topi was heading a delegation of 100 government officials during his three-day visit. Kosova is widely expected to declare itself a state in February or March. AG

Serbia's interior minister, Dragan Jocic, was seriously injured in a car accident late on January 25. Jocic underwent surgery, but his condition is not life-threatening, local media reported. The accident, in which Jocic's driver was also injured, occurred when his car swerved to avoid a dog, flipping over several times before ending in a ditch. Jocic is a founding member of Prime Minister Kostunica's DSS, and has served as interior minister since 2004. AG

Vojislav Vukcevic, Serbia's chief war crimes prosecutor, said on January 24 that he has received several death threats from a previously unknown group in the Serbian diaspora. The group reportedly described Vukcevic as "a proven enemy of the Serbian people" because of his prosecution of Serbs suspected of committing crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. This is not the first time that prosecutors in high-profile cases have been threatened. AG

Macedonia's parliament on January 22 passed a bill that requires all candidates for official positions to be vetted to ascertain whether they cooperated with the secret services during the communist era. The bill won cross-party support after the government agreed that the bill should apply for the period between 1944 and now. In May 2007, the government suggested that the vetting process should apply only until July 2000, a proposal that prompted proponents of the bill to accuse the government of seeking to exempt agents and informers currently in power. Candidates for senior positions in the civil service, judiciary, academia, the media, nongovernmental organizations, and religious organizations will be obliged to sign affidavits that they did not provide information to the secret services, and their record will then by verified by a parliamentary commission. The lustration process will last for five years. As an issue, lustration has largely been ignored in the former Yugoslavia, where the communist movement put down strong indigenous roots during World War II and where the postwar regime remained largely independent of the Soviet Union. However, proponents of lustration argue that a process similar to that seen in Central Europe is necessary in order to achieve justice for those who were victims of the regime and whose rights were denied by the communists, and in order to loosen former communists' grip on Macedonia's economy and institutions. There are, though, concerns that the lustration process could be manipulated and that much evidence has already been shredded. AG

On January 13, a coalition of 10 Shi'ite and Sunni political blocs announced the formation of a new broad-based alliance called the National Understanding Project that intends to do away with the sectarian quota system and support national reconciliation.

Among the blocs included were the Sunni-led Iraqi National Dialogue Council, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and independent members of the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq); the Shi'a-led Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, Islamic Al-Da'wah Party-Iraq Organization, and followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; and the secular-leaning Iraqi National List.

The formation of the alliance was announced as an attempt to work for the benefit of Iraq, but more importantly to check Kurdish motives, which the group believes are dividing the country.

The alliance is the latest move in a growing chorus of voices from both Sunni and Shi'ite parties warning against growing Kurdish assertiveness and moves toward autonomy. Their attempts to set their own oil policy, as well as their increasing boldness in pursuing their interests inside a federal Iraq, have ruffled feathers among other Iraqi interest groups, as well as in neighboring Turkey.

In a January 14 interview with the Iraq News Agency, Muhammad Uthman, a parliament deputy and member of the Kurdish Alliance, condemned the new coalition, describing it as a direct threat to Kurdish aspirations. "Surely, the Kurdish Alliance will adopt a position toward this new alliance, because it basically targets the achievements made by the Kurdish people," he said. "This bloc seeks to push the Kurdish issue many steps back."

Soon after the formation of the new alliance, the pan-Arab daily "Al-Hayat" reported on January 15 that approximately 150 Iraqi lawmakers from both Sunni and Shi'ite parties signed a statement criticizing moves by Iraq's Kurds as overreaching and overly ambitious. Among the moves that have particularly disturbed the signatories were the Kurdistan regional government's (KRG) continued insistence on signing oil deals with foreign firms without the consent of the Baghdad government. Since the Kurds passed their own oil law in August 2007, they have signed 15 production-sharing contracts with some 20 foreign firms.

Iraqi Oil Minster Husayn al-Shahristani has repeatedly said that only the ministry has the legal authority to sign contracts, and described the Kurds' deals as "illegal." In November, he took the unprecedented step of warning foreign firms that signed deals with the KRG that they would be barred from seeking future contracts with the federal government.

The Kurds consider the vast oil reserves in their semi-autonomous region as rightfully theirs, and while they believe the oil contracts are legitimate and within their rights, some non-Kurdish lawmakers see the deals as a direct threat to Iraq's unity. Complicating the situation further are similar aspirations by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) to form a semi-autonomous Shi'ite region comprising eight governorates in the south. This scenario, the signatories fear, would essentially lead to the disintegration of Iraq.

At a news conference after the statement was signed, Usama al-Nujayfi of the secular-leaning Iraqi National List claimed that the Kurds' oil deals set a dangerous precedent. "There must be a formula for maintaining the unity of Iraq and the distribution of its wealth," he said. "Oil and gas are a national wealth and we are concerned about those who want to go it alone when it comes to signing deals."

The passing of the Accountability and Justice Law on January 12, which paved the way for some former Ba'athists to return to their government and military positions, was seen as a rare display of unity within the Council of Ministers. However, that unity was short-lived as a new row erupted on January 22 when several political blocs refused to ratify Iraq's $48 billion budget for 2008, citing excessive demands by the Kurds.

According to several lawmakers, the dispute centered on a demand by the Kurds that 17 percent of the national budget be allocated to their region, a figure based on population estimates. In addition, the Kurds also want funds from the national defense budget to be used to pay for their regional security force, the peshmerga.

Many non-Kurdish lawmakers balked at the request. Al-Nujayfi of the Iraqi National List described the Kurds' demands as unacceptable, AFP reported. "Kurdistan's share of 17 percent is not fair and the peshmerga allocations should rather be taken from Kurdistan's allocations, not from the Defense Ministry," he said.

Hasan al-Shimmari, a member of the Shi'a-led Al-Fadhila (Virtue) Party, said his party rejected the "unjustifiable allocations" of the budget, which did "not meet the needs of the Iraqi people."

The status of Kirkuk was to be resolved under Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. The resolution calls for a three-step process of "normalization," which seeks to reverse the Arabization policies of the former Ba'athist regime when thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs were forcibly evicted from Kirkuk and replaced with Arabs from central and southern Iraq. Normalization is then to be followed by a census, and finally a referendum to determine whether the governorate will be annexed into the Kurdish region.

However, there has been fierce opposition to Article 140 on multiple fronts. The sizable Arab and Turkoman populations in the governorate adamantly oppose it, fearing that they may be forced out if the Kurds end up controlling Kirkuk. Turkey also rejects the plan, voicing concern that if Iraqi Kurds control Kirkuk and its oil resources, their increased wealth and power could in turn fuel Kurdish separatism in Turkey.

The referendum was scheduled to take place by the end of 2007, but logistical issues prevented it and the Kurds reluctantly agreed to a UN-sponsored deal that postponed the vote by six months. Now, the National Understanding Project has said that since the constitutional deadline has passed, Article 140 should be annulled and instead the future of Kirkuk determined through a negotiated settlement.

Kurds say this is out of the question, stressing that the Iraqi Constitution mandates that Article 140 be fully implemented. In the past, some Kurds indicated that Kirkuk was "the red line" and any attempt to derail Article 140 could lead to violence.

However, as recent events show, the Kurds are under increasing pressure to reach a compromise on some of their ambitions. If the 150 signatures to the statement are any indication, continued intransigence by the Kurds could lead them to be increasingly isolated in a region that has been historically hostile toward Kurdish ambitions.

The police chief of Afghanistan's western Farah Province, General Khailbaz Sherzai, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on January 25 that local authorities have seized a cache of weapons including 130 Iranian-made landmines of various types. According to Sherzai, the cache was brought recently from Iran and was discovered in the house of a Taliban commander, who has not been captured. "We discovered a cache containing a large collection of land mines -- antipersonnel and antitank mines -- in the Anardara district of Farah Province," Sherzai said. Although several such caches of Iranian-made weapons have been found in Afghanistan, Tehran denies that it has played a role in arming the Taliban, and the Afghan government usually dismisses such charges as lacking evidence. On January 27, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary rejected allegations that the Iranian government has been complicit in the transfer of Iranian-made weapons to the Taliban insurgency, Iranian-based Islamic Republic News Agency reported. MM

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta on January 27 said that international aid must be channeled through the Afghan government, rather than being parceled out to foreign NGOs and businesses, the Bakhtar news agency reported. Spanta told reporters in Paris that he will push for such changes at an international donors' conference to be held in Paris in June. "At the Paris conference, we will call on the international community to spend its aid through the budget of the government of Afghanistan," he said. The Afghan public has criticized the government for its apparent failure to utilize millions of dollars in aid to improve stability and improve residents' lives. At a conference in London two years ago, the international community pledged $4.5 billion to Afghanistan, but agreed to channel only 20 percent of the contribution through the Afghan government. At the Paris conference, donors are expected to examine the impact of international aid to Afghanistan, and renew pledges of support. MM

On a visit to the United States on January 25, former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said the Afghan government should engage in a national debate with the goal of decentralizing the government's powers. Speaking at a meeting of the Asia Society in New York, Abdullah advocated a power shift to provincial and local governors, a strategy advocated by the main opposition party, the United National Front, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Abdullah suggested that the Afghan public is losing faith in President Hamid Karzai and the political process, and that large segments of Afghan society feel disaffected and disconnected from politics. "That spirit of working together has been damaged greatly," Abdullah said. "I think when President Karzai was elected as the president of Afghanistan, it was a free and fair election [in which] the majority of the people voted for him. [But] somehow President Karzai thought, as well as his colleagues in the Cabinet, that perhaps we do not need the consensus of the people anymore," he said. MM

Shortly after senior British diplomat Paddy Ashdown withdrew his bid to become the next UN envoy in Afghanistan, Afghan Foreign Minister Spanta told reporters on January 27 that Kabul does not object to Ashdown because of his experience or nationality, but because a "negative atmosphere" has developed around the envoy's role, Afghan and international media reported. Many Afghans responded negatively to rumors that Ashdown would take on a "super envoy" role with expanded authority, and some thought that the expanded role could potentially undermine Afghan sovereignty and authority. Spanta wished Ashdown success, adding, "It's better if our friends let us learn more and more by walking on our own feet, with our own experience." Separately, Zahir Tanin, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Nations, told the BBC on January 26 that Kabul's choice for a new UN envoy is the NATO deputy commander in Europe, General John McColl. MM

Following the extensive disqualification by the Interior Ministry of reformist hopefuls for the mid-March parliamentary elections, senior politicians met in Tehran on January 26 to discuss election strategy, Radio Farda reported on January 27, citing Iranian media. Expediency Council Chairman and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi, and former President Mohammad Khatami met and made three "important" decisions, Karrubi told the Mehr news agency. He said the three decided firstly that those reformists permitted to become candidates must take part in the polls -- effectively ruling out any calls to boycott the vote -- and also that the three should talk to members of the Guardians Council, the body with the final say on many aspects of the elections, in a bid to reverse some of the current disqualifications and that "all efforts should be pursued through meetings, dialogue, reason, and moderation." Reformists have protested that most of their registered hopefuls have been rejected, though officials deny registrants have been disqualified merely because of their political views. Supervisory boards appointed by the Guardians Council were to begin a second round of examinations and inquiries on January 27 about hopefuls accepted so far by Interior Ministry executive boards; the supervisory boards may reject some of those approved or overturn earlier disqualifications. Ibrahim Razini, the head of the elections supervisory board in Tehran, has said that "parliament is not a place where ambiguous and unknown people can...enter." He said people who have failed in the past 28 years to prove their "active loyalty" to the regime's political and religious precepts in line with electoral laws "are not just barred from entering parliament, but nobody would even want to become a member of their families," Radio Farda reported. VS

The commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, Mohammad Ali Jafari, has told Al-Jazeera television that Iran would strike U.S. bases in Arab countries if it were the target of military attacks, Radio Farda reported on January 27. The media have in past months speculated on the possibility of U.S. or Israeli strikes on Iran, perhaps if it were perceived as progressing toward the acquisition or development of nuclear weapons. Iran denies it is seeking to produce nuclear weapons, but insists on developing what it says is a civilian nuclear program. Jafari told Al-Jazeera that "if American bases in Arabic states on the Persian Gulf coast take part in a possible American attack on Iran, [Iran] will react swiftly and respond to such attacks." He said precise missile strikes by Iran would ensure U.S. forces or bases were struck and Arab populations not harmed. Radio Farda quoted the head of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, Riad Kahwaji, as saying that most gulf states have privately told Iran they would not allow attacks to be launched on Iran from U.S. bases on their territory, but he said any strike on bases on the states' territories would bring them into a conflict with Iran. He told Radio Farda that Gulf Arab leaders have sought in the past to build confidence with Iran -- by inviting Iran's president to a recent meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council, for example -- but that Iran's response to Arab states has at times been threatening. VS

Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said in Tehran on January 27 that the products of Iran's defense industry are of such good quality as to make international sanctions on Iran "useless, and further highlight their ineffectiveness," IRNA reported. Mohammad-Najjar said public opinion around the world is surprised at the "double standards" of Western powers that have the "most advanced and deadly weapons of mass destruction" while describing Iran's "peaceful nuclear development and missile technology as a threat to the world." He stressed the need for defense industries to orient their production to customers' needs and pay attention to their products' quality. Separately, the head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, chided the United States on January 27 for pressuring the UN Security Council to pass resolutions against Iran in spite of Tehran's "positive interaction" with the International Atomic Energy Agency, IRNA reported. Meeting in Tehran with Hungarian Ambassador Giorgy Boustin, Borujerdi said Security Council resolutions against Iran are "irrational, illegal, political, and passed under American pressure." He said that "America is mistaken in its calculation if it imagines it can influence [Iran's parliamentary elections in March] with a third resolution," and added that Iranians would "once more thwart America's plans" by their "intelligent presence in coming elections," IRNA reported. VS

Hundreds of students from Tehran University protested on January 24 and 25 inside and outside the campus in downtown Tehran over bad food, poor facilities, and the failure of university authorities to address a number of student demands, Radio Farda reported on January 26, citing ISNA and Iranian websites. Website reports from January 25 indicated that students at first refused to eat at the university canteen, then took their protests to different sites, including streets around the university precinct, but that police forced some or all of them to go back into the campus. Student Farid Hashemi told Radio Farda that the students have many grievances, but that the protests of the previous two days were over campus conditions and facilities. He said about 1,000-1,500 students participated in protests on January 25. VS

Representatives of the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) have said they are optimistic that negotiations with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will lead to the front's return to government, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on January 27. Ministers from the front have been boycotting the government since August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). Front member Khalaf al-Ulayyan told RFI in an exclusive interview on January 27 that he is optimistic the front will return to work, and said the improving security situation in Iraq has contributed to an improvement in relations among political parties. Al-Ulayyan said the government has taken good steps in dealing with issues surrounding the city of Kirkuk, implying he supports government efforts to prevent greater Kurdish autonomy. Al-Ulayyan said any political party will support the government if the government upholds national demands. He added that the former lack of trust among competing political groups and parties no longer exists, and that all political groups now realize they cannot dismiss the demands and interests of other groups. Iraqi Accordance Front spokesman Salim al-Juburi told Al-Sharqiyah television on January 27 that he believes the government now views the Sunni Arab front as a "real and actual partner." KR

U.S. Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told reporters on January 27 in Baghdad that major weapons stockpiles belonging to the former regime have been uncovered in recent days in missions supporting Operation Phantom Phoenix. Smith said an Iraqi army unit discovered two critical stockpiles of explosives on January 25. "Together these caches contained more than 2,550 pounds of home-made explosives -- over a ton and a half of material created to kill and injure innocent Iraqis," Smith said. "The same day...the Iraqi Army got a tip from a local citizen and was able to recover a stockpile containing plastic explosives, eleven rocket and mortar rounds, detonating cord, and ammunition," Smith added. He said there is no evidence that any foreign country was involved in supplying explosives to carry out last week's attacks in Mosul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). An Iraqi security official in Al-Anbar claimed on January 26 that Libya is funding insurgents in northern Iraq. "We have not determined that a country is behind the attack or the explosion in Mosul," Smith said, but he acknowledged that there is evidence of neighboring states supplying arms to insurgents and militias in Iraq in other instances. "But the weapons I'm referring to most recently [in Mosul] have been just large cached stockpiles of...things that have been on the battlefield for some time, and were being used by extremists to make improvised explosive devices," Smith said. KR

Regarding insurgent attacks, Smith told reporters that "90 percent of the suicide murders inflicted on the Iraqi people are committed by foreigners brought in by Al-Qaeda to spread destruction." He noted Al-Qaeda's use of children as attackers. "This past week, you have already seen two children exploited for murderous suicide. In Mosul and Tikrit, fifteen-year-olds were exploited to deal death," he said. Smith also responded to allegations that awakening councils or concerned local citizen (CLCs) groups, as the United States calls them, have been infiltrated by Al-Qaeda, stating, "I don't think that there has been a tremendous amount of infiltration of the CLC program by Al-Qaeda. There certainly have been attempts to do so, and we recognize that. We also recognize that the awakening groups are well-led, well-supervised. There is a strong tribal and communal connection in those awakening groups. They know precisely who their members are." KR

A fire broke out at Iraq's Central Bank on January 28, international media reported. The blaze broke out after midnight and engulfed the bank building, damaging the top four floors of the six-story facility, including the Central Bank governor's office. It took firefighters more than six hours to put out the fire, Reuters reported. The news agency also reported that guards prevented the press from taking pictures of the building, which is surrounded by concrete blast walls. The Central Bank is located outside the green zone in the central Baghdad. KR

The Iraqi and Jordanian governments announced on January 26 that an Iraqi firm has been hired to process Iraqi visa applications for travel to the Hashemite Kingdom, "Jordan Times" reported on January 27. The company, identified as TNT Post, will process the visa requests and inform applicants within 10 to 14 days if the application has been approved, Iraq's ambassador to Jordan, Sa'd Jasim al-Hayyani, told the daily. The company will work out of six offices located throughout the country. "Regulating visas in the absence of an active Jordanian Embassy in Iraq is crucial for all Iraqis," al-Hayyani said, noting that the new process will prevent Iraqis from being turned away at the border. The announcement of the new procedure was made following a meeting in Amman between Jordanian Premier Nadir Dahabi and Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani. Critics argue that it will allow sectarian militias to more easily target Iraqis seeking shelter abroad, and that the visa offices will also become easy targets for insurgent attacks. KR

The Japan Bank for International Cooperation announced on January 28 that it has signed an agreement with Iraq to provide loans for reconstruction projects, Japanese media reported. The bank, a government lending institution, will provide up to 182.68 billion yen ($1.72 billion) in soft loans. The agreement is part of a 2003 pledge by Tokyo to provide Iraq with loans totaling up to $3.5 billion. The loans will be used to develop Iraq's electricity, refinery, and port infrastructure, Jiji Press reported. The bulk of the money will apparently be directed to infrastructure projects in southern Iraq. Japanese troops were based in the southern governorate of Al-Muthanna in support of coalition forces until July 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). KR