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Newsline - February 4, 2008

Members of Russia's "elite" who have studied at Oxford, Cambridge, and other British universities for British Council-backed masters degrees recently sent President Vladimir Putin an open letter warning that the closures of British Council offices in Russia "not only injure the image of Russia" but represent "a blow to the interests of millions of Russians," "The Sunday Telegraph" reported on February 3. According to the British newspaper, the letter from more than 150 members of the British Alumni Club points out that more than 1 million Russians have used British Council services over the past two years alone. NTV television's Berlin correspondent, Andrei Shilov, who won a scholarship to Bristol University, told "The Sunday Telegraph" that the closures and harassment of Russian staff of the British Council offices in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg are an attempt at intimidation. "People have been frightened by visits from the FSB security services and the tax police," he said. "The message is that Russia lives surrounded by enemies, and the number of enemies is great and getting greater." The newspaper also quoted a spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow as saying of the open letter, "We are honored by this expression of support." Unified Energy Systems CEO Anatoly Chubais recently said that Russians "need to ask ourselves a question: how much does its foreign policy cost Russia and can we pay that price?" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). JB

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak told Interfax on February 3 that a proposed UN resolution on Iran's nuclear program includes "clear signals" to Iran that it must return to full compliance with the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog. "When this document is published you will see that it contains clear signals to Iran and anticipates a certain widening of the sanctions regime imposed by the Security Council earlier," Kislyak said. "What is needed is complete cooperation by Iran with the governing council of the IAEA." He said that Iran should, among other things, "get back to the implementation of the Additional Protocol [to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] on control, freeze uranium enrichment, and take some other measures pending work to untangle all difficult problems." Kislyak called it "quite feasible" to achieve these goals "if relevant political decisions are made." JB

Finance Ministry official Pyotr Kazakevich, deputy director of the ministry's Department of International Financial Relations, spoke to "Gazeta" on February 1 to mark the official splitting of the Stabilization Fund into a Reserve Fund and a National Welfare Fund (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). Kazakevich said the chances that significant amounts from the new funds will be spent on "social and other" projects are "close to zero" (see "Russia: The Pot Of Gold At The End Of The Stabilization Fund,", January 30, 2008). He added that the Finance Ministry has exclusive control over how the funds are invested and pledged the ministry is seeking to avoid the impression that its investments in the West are "politically motivated." He said the ministry is working with Western colleagues to improve the government's transparency and accountability. RC

Two representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights (ODIHR) met in Moscow on February 4 with Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov, reported. Interfax reported that the ODIHR delegates declined to comment on the talks -- which center on whether ODIHR will send monitors to the March 2 presidential election -- saying, "the negotiations are still not finished." On February 1, Foreign Ministry official Sergei Ryabkov told journalists in Moscow that ODIHR is "trying once again to politicize this subject." ODIHR declined to send monitors to the December 2 Duma elections, saying that Russian officials had made it impossible for the election team to carry out its mission. RC

Officials from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi held a press conference in Moscow on February 1 to refute media speculation that the Kremlin intends to wind down the organization, "Vremya novostei" reported on February 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2008). The officials said the organization is being "reorganized," not "liquidated." Nashi leader Nikita Borovikov told journalists Nashi will hold its annual national camp at Lake Seliger this year. In addition, some 10,000 Nashi activists will make a tour of World War II-related sites in and around St. Petersburg this year and the group is organizing a train trip to the Chechen capital, Grozny. He also said that local Nashi activists will participate in the presidential-election campaign of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Duma Deputy Sergei Belokonev (Unified Russia), who formerly headed the Nashi election operation, said it is possible Nashi will be transformed into a political party. He added the group could become an opposition party if it feels that Unified Russia is not paying sufficient attention to the policies of Vladimir Putin. Borovikov added that Nashi will continue its work against "enemy states," naming in particular Estonia. He said the group is preparing a blacklist of Estonians it believes should not be allowed to enter Russia, adding that the list will be turned over to the Interior Ministry. Belokonev told on January 31 that Nashi is planning a special project called "Nashi Media" that is intended as a response to the "howling that one hears in the mass media today." RC

Roman Nikolaichik, a candidate for the Tver Oblast legislature from the Other Russia coalition, has been involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility, "Novaya gazeta" reported on February 4. Colleagues have been unable to contact him for over 48 hours, the newspaper reported, and they claim a criminal case on trumped-up charges of attempted murder has been opened against him. According to his colleagues, the case against Nikolaichik is politically motivated, and he has previously been harassed by local Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry personnel. Last autumn, journalist and opposition activist Larisa Agap was held against her will in a psychiatric facility in Murmansk for more than 40 days before being released without charge (see " Russian Activist Says Clinic Staff Tried To Kill Her,", August 21, 2007). RC

Deputies from the Magadan Oblast legislature on February 4 unanimously approved Governor Nikolai Dudov for a second five-year term as governor. Dudov was appointed governor in 2002 following the murder in Moscow of his predecessor, Valentin Tsvetkov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2002). RC

Former Chechen Republic Ichkeria (CHRI) President and resistance commander Doku Umarov, who last fall declared himself leader of a virtual North Caucasus emirate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 3007), spent the five weeks from December 15 to January 24 touring Chechnya and Ingushetia to meet with the commanders of the various fronts and assess the military situation, according to a February 1 press release posted on He also met separately on the border between Chechnya and Daghestan with representatives of the Daghestan Front. During that series of meetings, participants reportedly expressed anger at the actions of unnamed former members of the ChRI government now living in exile in Europe whom they accused of conniving with the enemy; Umarov announced that an investigation of their activities is under way. Umarov also met separately with Amir Magas, commander of the North Caucasus emirate armed forces, to discuss military plans for the rest of the winter and for the coming spring and summer, and to draft a new military and political strategy that takes into account the changes underway in the North Caucasus. Umarov reportedly stressed the need to explain more clearly to the population both the aims of the proclaimed emirate and the need to live in accordance with the laws of Islam. LF

The counter-terrorism operation launched in Ingushetia on January 25 was successfully ended on February 3, reported, citing unnamed security services officials. Two young men suspected of involvement in terrorism were shot dead in Nazran on January 30 in the course of that operation; their relatives claim they had no connections with the armed resistance. Also on February 3, Petr Pronko, the press spokesman for the Ingushetia Directorate of the FSB, told Ekho Moskvy that all such operations launched in Ingushetia have the personal approval of President Putin, reported. Meanwhile, the organizers of the abortive mass protest meeting in Nazran on January 26 that served as the rationale for the counterterrorism operation met late on February 1 with representatives from across the republic and decided almost unanimously to postpone an analogous meeting planned for February 23 until May, after the inauguration of the Russian president elected on March 2, the website reported on February 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 28, 2008). LF

Echoing appeals by opposition candidates in the February 19 presidential ballot, Armenia's human-rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian on February 1 denounced the practice of vote buying as "a phenomenon that can abort the establishment of democracy in Armenia" and appealed to voters not to sell their votes for cash or material benefits, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun presidential candidate Vahan Hovannisian have both expressed alarm over media reports that the government plans to "hand out loads of cash" in order to secure a first-round election victory for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Also on February 1, a local court in the small town of Talin formally remanded in pretrial custody four supporters of opposition presidential challenger Levon Ter-Petrossian who reportedly assaulted a man who heckled Ter-Petrossian during a campaign rally on January 27, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and February 1, 2008). LF

Former Economic Development Minister Farxad Aliyev, who was arrested in October 2005 on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership and sentenced two years later to 10 years' imprisonment on charges of expropriation of state property, illegal business activity, tax evasion, accepting bribes, and abuse of his official position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, 2005 and November 1, 2007), released a statement on February 1 saying he plans a 48-hour hunger strike that he will prolong indefinitely if he is not moved from a cold, damp, cramped prison cell and allowed medical treatment, and reported on February 2. Aliyev complained that prison doctors continue to claim he is in good health although he suffers from a serious cardiac condition. LF

An explosion damaged the Baku-Novorossiisk oil-export pipeline near Derbent in southern Daghestan close to the frontier with Azerbaijan on the morning of February 3, and reported. Some 100 tons of oil was spilled, much of which flowed into the Rubas River that flows into the Caspian Sea. The cause of the blast has not yet been determined. Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR has a contractual agreement with Russia to export up to 5 million tons of crude annually via that pipeline, but in recent years has exported considerably less, according to on June 5, 2007. LF

A seven-member NATO assessment team that held meetings last week in Tbilisi with senior Georgian officials issued a positive assessment of Georgia's fulfillment of the specifically defense-related aspects of its Individual Partnership Action Plan, Caucasus Press reported on January 1. Georgia's chances of being offered a Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- the final preparatory stage before a formal invitation to join the alliance is issued -- have, however, been severely damaged by the brutal police crackdown on demonstrators in Tbilisi on November 7 and by allegations that the outcome of the January 5 presidential election was rigged. Writing in"The Washington Post" on February 4, Bruce Jackson described that crackdown as one of several "familiar juvenile delinquencies of young democracies finding their way in the post-Soviet world." Implicitly acknowledging that Georgia may not succeed in obtaining an MAP at the April NATO summit, Minister for Euro-Integration Giorgi Baramidze said on January 31 he hopes Georgia will be offered an MAP in the fall of this year, if not in April, Interfax reported. In an extensive interview published on January 29 in the Russian daily "Kommersant," Baramidze said Tbilisi is prepared to sign a formal agreement with Moscow guaranteeing that in the event Georgia becomes a NATO member it will not agree to host a NATO military base. LF

A group of about 1,200 miners ended a nearly two-day strike on February 3 after the management of the Kazakhmys Corporation that operates the Yuzhno-Zhezkazgansky mine in the Karaganda region agreed to most of their demands, including a pay raise and better working conditions, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan Today reported. According to a leader of the striking miners, Kanatbek Murzatov, the strikers decided to end their protest after meeting with Kazakhmys Corporation executive Eduard Ogai and securing a new contract meeting about a dozen of the miners' demands. The striking miners, who work in three separate mines operated by the company, secured a pay raise that will effectively increase their salaries from an average of between 130,000-140,000 tenges (about $1,100) to about 200,000 tenges. RG

Kazakh Finance Minister Bolat Zhamishev met on February 2 in Astana with visiting World Bank Vice President for Europe and Central Asia Shigeo Katsu and signed a new agreement for a $174 million loan package to fund four projects in Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Following the meeting, Zhamishev told reporters that the World Bank loan is "supported by additional funds from the state budget," making the total financing for the project over $500 million. Katsu explained that the World Bank loan is "aimed at improving the life of Kazakh citizens, as well as at modernizing key sectors of the economy," and included support for "the modernization of health-care institutions," as well as funding projects aimed at "resolving environmental issues" and "boosting the effectiveness" of the state customs sector. RG

The Tajik Supreme Court on February 2 sentenced a citizen of Uzbekistan to 18 years in prison after his conviction for being a member of the IMU, according to the Avesta website. Presiding Judge Bobokalon Murodov identified the Uzbek man as Otkir Safarov, adding that he illegally crossed the Tajik border and has lived in Tajikistan over the past 10 years under another name and with a forged passport. The judge also explained that Safarov "stayed illegally in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan and committed offenses" over the "past nine years." RG

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on February 3 held a one-on-one meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at Putin's residence in Sochi, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Lukashenka also met with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is Putin's chosen successor. The presidential press office said that Lukashenka and Putin discussed issues concerning the expansion of trade and economic ties, relations in the defense sphere, transit through Belarusian territory, the development of border infrastructure, and the coordination of activities in the international arena. The press office also said that meetings "in an informal environment and a confidential atmosphere, make it possible to discuss in detail the entire complex of relations and exchange opinions on a broad range of issues." AM

Zmitser Dashkevich, leader of the unregistered organization Youth Front, was prevented on February 2 from traveling to Lithuania, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The authorities recently released Dashkevich from a correctional facility before the end of the 18-month term he was serving for heading an unregistered organization. Dashkevich was traveling to Vilnius, where he intended to resume studying at the Vilnius Teachers' Training University. Belarusian border guards ordered Dashkevich to get off the bus, claiming that he is listed in a database of people prohibited from leaving Belarus. Officers told Dashkevich that he should ask the Minsk district court, which convinced him, for an explanation as to how long he will be on the list. AM

The residents of several apartment buildings in central Minsk protested on February 2 against the authorities' plan for the redevelopment of Karl Marx Street that provides for their eviction to buildings on the outskirts of the city, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Minsk authorities intend to turn the street into a pedestrian zone with a hotel, casino, and shopping center, and therefore want five buildings containing at least 80 apartments to be cleared of residents. Residents were offered apartments of the same size, but the protesters claim that due to the difference in the price of apartments located downtown and on the outskirts, they will be least $100,000 worse-off. "Officials tell us that we will be given apartments of the same size, but they say nothing about compensation for our apartments' value," Belapan quoted protesting resident Dzmitry Marchenka as saying. Uladzimir Arlou, a prominent Belarusian writer who also faces eviction from the buildings, said that "no one is going to move out." "As for me, I am ready to fight to the bitter end," he added. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on February 2 that the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) the day before adopted a decision to forego the services of RosUkrEnergo, UkrGazEnergo, and other intermediaries in gas supplies to Ukraine, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko said that the government will hold talks in an evolutionary way in order not to destabilize either gas transportation across Ukrainian territory or Ukraine's domestic market. However, President Viktor Yushchenko, who heads the RNBO, has not directly confirmed that such a decision was made. Yushchenko said that the RNBO on February 1 decided to formulate within 10 days a single strategy in accordance to which the government and Naftohaz Ukrayiny, the state-owned gas company, will hold all international talks on the gas issue. "What is our goal? To have cheap gas or to give an answer how and by whom it is delivered? Certainly, we are interested in the former," Yushchenko said. Under the current gas-delivery scheme, Russian gas giant Gazprom sells gas to RosUkrEnergo, a Swiss-registered joint venture between Gazprom and Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash, and then RosUkrEnergo resells it to UkrGazEnergo, a Ukrainian-registered joint venture between RosUkrEnergo and Naftohaz Ukrayiny. AM

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said on February 3 that the detention of Ukrainian political analyst Serhiy Taran in St. Petersburg is a "step that does not correspond with the spirit of neighborly relations between Ukraine and Russia," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Taran, who is a member of the leadership of the coalition Pora Party and a director of Ukrainian branch of the International Institute For Democracy, was detained by Russian border guards in St. Petersburg's airport on February 1 and expelled the next day. The officers told Taran that he is a "person whose stay in Russia is undesirable." The ministry said that Taran's research interests do not include Russian issues and that the goal of his visit to St. Petersburg was to attend a congress of trade unions rather than participation in a public discussion on social or political issues. The ministry also expressed regret that "such a step was taken on the eve of extremely important events in Ukrainian-Russian relations." AM

Serbs voted on February 3 against a sharp turn towards nationalism, electing Boris Tadic to serve a second term as president. The margin of Tadic's victory remains unclear, as some votes remain to be counted, but Tadic had just 51 percent of projected votes when his rival, Tomislav Nikolic, conceded victory. Nikolic himself secured 47 percent of the vote. The remaining ballot papers were spoiled. Nikolic emerged from the first round of the elections, held on January 20, with a four percentage-point lead over Tadic, securing 39 percent of the total votes compared with Tadic's 35 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2008). Tadic's comeback suggests that the supporters of most of the other seven candidates in the first round, including Serbia's various ethnic minorities, switched their support to Tadic. It also appears that most supporters of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) voted for Tadic, whose Democratic Party (DS) is in government with the DSS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). That had been in doubt because of the refusal of the DSS's leader, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, to endorse Tadic, and also because Kostunica's tough rhetoric about the EU has, at times, been closer to Nikolic's than Tadic's. AG

An unusually large percentage of Serbs -- 67 percent -- voted in the election, the Central Election Commission reported. This compared with just 49 percent who voted in 2004 and the 45 percent who voted in 2002, an election that was ultimately invalidated. A larger turnout would normally be expected to favor Nikolic, whose nationalist supporters are usually seen as being disciplined. However, analysts believe that the importance of these elections -- depicted by Tadic as a referendum on Serbia's relations with the EU -- mobilized moderates in larger numbers, and largely explains why the turnout rate in the 6.7 million electorate was up from 61 percent in the first round to 67 percent. Prior to the runoff, there were indications that a victory for Tadic would result in Kosova delaying its declaration of independence for some weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). Tadic's victory also raises the possibility that the governing coalition will survive the DSS's failure to back Tadic. AG

Russia has confirmed a report published by the Serbian daily "Blic" on January 31 that it has granted political asylum to two members of the family of the late Slobodan Milosevic, his wife Mirjana Markovic and his son Marko Milosevic. However, while "Blic" reported that their application was granted before the New Year holidays, Russia's Federal Migration Service announced that they were granted asylum in March 2006, after applying in late 2005. According to the international media, Moscow justified the decision on the grounds that the two faced "significant threats against their lives in Serbia." Serbia has issued international arrest warrants for both Markovic and Milosevic on a range of charges, including, in Markovic's case, complicity in the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic. Neither Milosevic, who left Serbia in October 2000, nor Markovic, who left in February 2003, were able to attend the funeral of the former Serbian and Yugoslav president, who died in March 2006 in detention in The Hague before his trial for war crimes was concluded. Another member of the Milosevic family resident in Russia, the former president's brother Borislav, told Reuters that "it is news to me" that the two have received asylum. Borislav Milosevic served as Yugoslavia's ambassador to Russia while his brother was in power. AG

The EU's planned mission to Kosova will be known at "EULEX," the deputy head of the planning team, Alessio Zuccarini, told the news service Balkan Insight on February 1. The choice of name derives from "lex," the Latin word for law, and reflects the nature of the mission, which will include roughly 1,800 prosecutors, judges, and police officers. It remains unclear when the mission will be deployed. Preparations, though, are complete, with Zuccarini saying the mission is now "only awaiting the green light." A leaked report of meetings between U.S. officials and a top Slovenian diplomat indicated that, in order to secure the acquiescence of the UN secretary-general, Western powers may want to deploy the mission prior to a declaration of independence by Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). The EU's mission will replace one deployed by the UN in 1999, but the UN's mission was far broader in character, with UN officials occupying key executive positions in many areas of Kosova's public life. The designated head of the EU mission, Dutch diplomat Peter Feith, will have a three-year mandate, Kosovar dailies have reported in recent days, citing EU officials. AG

Several thousand foreigners who fought alongside Bosnian Muslims during the 1991-95 war demonstrated on February 2 against plans to deport them, local media reported. The rally, which was held in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, came ahead of the expected deportation of one of the group's leading members, Imad al-Husayn, who is more commonly known as Abu Hamza, and was presented by one of its organizers as a demonstration of support for him. Hamza, who is the deputy leader of the foreign veterans' organization, has contested the decision, arguing that his life is in danger if he is repatriated to Syria. Bosnia last year reviewed the citizenship of hundreds of foreigners who fought in the war as part of a broader review of naturalization procedures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, April 12, June 28, August 22, November 19, and December 18, 2007). In all, 613 foreign-born Bosnians, 575 of them from Muslim countries, have been stripped of their citizenship. It is unclear how many were volunteers. The first foreign-born citizen to be deported was an Algerian, Atau Mimun, who was adjudged to be a "threat to national security" and expelled in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007). AG

Macedonians and Albanians will be free to cross each others' borders without a visa, the Macedonian government announced on February 1. The details and the date have yet to be decided, government spokesman Ivica Bocevski told local media. Albanian's Top Channel TV and the Macedonian news agency MIA reported that the agreement will be formalized later in February, when Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski visits Tirana. The decision represents a major U-turn, as Macedonia had been intending to tighten, rather than loosen visa requirements starting on February 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). That requirement has now been dropped, pending the introduction of the visa-free regime. The tightening of visa rules had been explained by EU regulations. Bocevski said that the visa-free regime will also comply with EU requirements. The existing visa agreement was signed in 1997. AG


Police in Kabul lifted a brief siege on February 3 on the house of Abdul Rashid Dostum after he and dozens of his men beat up a former campaign aide, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported the same day. Media reports suggested that Dostum and around 50 armed men attacked and abducted one of his former campaign managers, Akbar Bay, and one of Bay's bodyguards late on February 2. More than 100 police or security officers, armed with assault rifles and machine guns, later surrounded Dostum's home in Kabul for several hours. Police later lifted the siege, with Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari saying security forces will refer the incident to prosecutors "as soon as possible" for possible legal action. Both Bay and his bodyguard were reportedly freed and hospitalized. Dostum, an ethnic-Uzbek strongman, spent decades as a powerful northern warlord but was co-opted by President Hamid Karzai in 2005 to take a vaguely defined role as "Afghan Army chief command." DW

Iran summoned France's ambassador in Tehran, Bernard Poletti, on February 3 over what it described as France's unfriendly attitude with regard to Tehran's nuclear program and in response to the French Foreign Ministry summoning Iranian Ambassador Ali Ahani on February 1, international news agencies reported. Ahani was summoned over recent hostile remarks about Israel made by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2008). Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said at his weekly press conference in Tehran on February 3 that the Iranian envoy should not have been summoned because Ahmadinejad pointed out some "realities" about Israel. Hosseini deplored the fact that France "has ignored" Israeli actions in the region and its "threats" against Iran. He also criticized plans by the French to open a base with 500 soldiers in the United Arab Emirates, calling it a threat to the Persian Gulf's security, Radio Farda reported. France signed a deal with the United Arab Emirates in January to build a permanent base, due to become operational in 2009, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said at the February 3 press conference that divisions between the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, over imposing another set of sanctions on Iran have persisted, with "radical" states insisting on punitive measures, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on February 4. He said Iran will duly announce its response to another sanctions resolution if it is passed. The UN Security Council is currently examining a sanctions resolution proposed by the 5+1 powers over Iran's refusal to comply with calls to curb its nuclear program. Hosseini said Iran remains committed to its cooperation program with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and he stated simply that it will continue, when asked if sanctions would affect Tehran's cooperation. He stressed that "we're not talking at all" with the IAEA about suspending uranium enrichment, a fuel-making process that Western powers want Iran to stop. Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, told a gathering in Tehran on February 3 that the great powers' insistence on issuing another resolution was "irrational," and that resisting the will of the Iranian people to have a nuclear program would be harmful to those powers, Iran's Mehr news agency reported. He said this is a good time for talks on the nuclear issue, and suggested the 5+1 powers could initiate talks with Iran; he welcomed the reported readiness of EU foreign-policy chief and Iran interlocutor Javier Solana to hold discussions as a "very good thing." VS

Iran's state inspectorate has issued a report in which it warned that tardy sewage and waste-management projects, "for lack of sufficient funds," are damaging the environment and threatening drinking-water supplies in Iran in the long run, ISNA reported on February 2. The inspectorate noted that the formation of state water-regulation and sewerage companies was a step toward assuring the supply of clean water and protecting rivers, but it said insufficient funds have delayed waste and sewage treatment initiatives, especially in rural districts. It also stated that 48 percent of water supplied through pipes in rural areas was lost because the pipes are not repaired or maintained. It observed that the level of nitrates in wells providing drinking water in some areas is "disastrous," and "has reached uncontrollable levels" in some provinces like Tehran and a number of frontier provinces. Nitrates, which can be harmful to humans, are formed when organisms break down chemical and organic waste flowing into rivers or water supplies. VS

Ahmad Borqani, a former lawmaker and deputy minister of culture in the reformist government of former President Mohammad Khatami, died of a heart attack on February 2, Iranian media reported. He received the ninth-largest number of votes, about 1.1 million, among 20 Tehran candidates elected to the Islamic republic's sixth parliament in February 2000. Before that he was the deputy culture minister for press affairs, at a time when the reformist government sought to expand or maintain press freedoms. Reformist personalities paid tribute to him -- Khatami called him a pious and generous person on February 3, while former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi called him a leading personality in Iran's cultural and media spheres, ISNA reported. VS

The Presidency Council has signed off on the Accountability and Justice Law ratified by parliament on January 12, international media reported on February 3. Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is one of three members of the Presidency Council, said in interviews last week that the council would not approve the law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). The law replaces the Coalition Provisional Authority-era de-Ba'athification Law. Though it issued the law, the council said it was concerned over some clauses that may impede the national-reconciliation project, AP reported. It also expressed concern over the retirement of employees it said possess high qualifications of which Iraq is in dire need. The council, which also comprises President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi, said it will propose amendments to the law. The new law paves the way for thousands of former members of the Ba'ath Party to return to government jobs. Those who have reached retirement age will be eligible to collect pensions. Under the new law, some 7,000 low-level Ba'athists from the former secret police and intelligence services who are now employed by the Iraqi government will be pensioned off. AP quoted Ali al-Lami, a senior official who helped draft the legislation, as saying some 13,000 low-level former Ba'athists will be offered reinstatement, while some 3,500 former high-ranking Ba'athists will not be reinstated, but will be offered retirement and pensions. KR

The Presidency Council has reportedly drawn up a proposal to restructure the government, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on February 2. The proposal calls for streamlining ministries, eliminating some and merging others. Under the proposal Nuri al-Maliki would remain prime minister, but Mahmud al-Mashhadani will be replaced as speaker of parliament. Al-Mashhadani was due to step down last year as part of an agreement forged with lawmakers, but has remained in the post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). According to Al-Sharqiyah, al-Mashhadani will likely be replaced by another member of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front. Iraqi Islamic Party Deputy Secretary-General Iyad al-Samarra'i and party member Usamah al-Tikriti have reportedly been nominated. Other possible contenders include front member Zafir al-Ani. Recent Iraqi media reports said al-Ani has been nominated to replace Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i, but al-Ani rejected the nomination. The news channel also reported that negotiations to return the front to government following a several-month boycott have reached a stalemate. No agreement has been reached with regard to the front's participation in the security forces and its demand for real participation in several other ministries and institutions. KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki has chaired a meeting of the Ninawah Governorate crisis cell, which is charged with overseeing military operations to crush Al-Qaeda in the governorate, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on February 2. Speaking in Mosul, al-Maliki said the government has drafted a Ninawah Law Enforcement Plan similar to the Baghdad Law Enforcement Plan, which was launched in February 2007 to bring security to Baghdad. "The plan has already started. We came to Ninawah today to begin the march toward confronting terrorism and Al-Qaeda," al-Maliki said. He praised Ninawah residents for their "patience and endurance," saying terrorism will soon be defeated. Meanwhile, security forces in neighboring Salah Al-Din Governorate have issued an alert to prevent the infiltration of terrorists from Ninawah, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Police and army troops have reportedly been instructed to prevent the entrance of all persons under the age of 40 to Salah Al-Din from Ninawah. Governorate forces have also set up additional checkpoints inside Salah Al-Din in an effort to capture terrorists who may have fled Mosul to areas farther south. KR

President Talabani, who has spent several days in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, said on February 2 that an agreement has been brokered that will pave the way for Turkoman representatives to return to their seats on the Kirkuk Governorate Council after a several-month boycott, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Arabs boycotting the council returned to work in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline, December 5, 2007). "We reached a solution with a delegation representing the Iraqi Turkoman Front on the issue of their participation," Talabani said. "We are waiting for [the Turkomans'] return to the governorate council. God willing, the long and unjustifiable boycott of the council by our brothers the Turkomans has come to an end." Talabani said the dispute was resolved after Talabani and Governorate Council Chairman Rizgar Ali agreed to meet the front's seven conditions. It appears one of the conditions is the establishment of awakening councils in the governorate. Turkomans have claimed their citizens are being kidnapped and killed at alarming rates, and that the Kurdish-dominated police are not doing enough to protect the Turkoman population. The police deny the claim. Rizgar Ali said last week that despite police objections to the formation of an awakening council in Kirkuk, the establishment of such councils should be standard practice. KR