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Newsline - March 11, 2008

Vladimir Milov, president of the Institute of Energy Policy, wrote on on March 11 that the state energy companies Gazprom and Rosneft may be on the verge of default, forcing the government to bail them out from the country's hard-currency reserves. The issue of corporate indebtedness has been worrying economists for some time now (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2008, and "Russia: The Pot Of Gold At The End Of The Stabilization Fund,", January 30, 2008). Milov wrote that as the global credit crisis continues, there is a "considerable chance that, at a minimum, there will be a crisis of liquidity in the banking system and, in the worst case, massive corporate default." According to Milov, Gazprom and Rosneft are the "champions of debt accumulation," with total debts of more than $85 billion as of the third quarter of last year. That accounts for some 20 percent of Russia's total corporate debt. The chairman of Gazprom's board of directors is President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and Rosneft's board chairman is deputy presidential-administration head Igor Sechin. Milov writes that Gazprom's debt-to-earnings ratio has reached 70 percent, while Rosneft's is already 106 percent, which leads him to conclude the two companies "are in a deep financial crisis that has so far been covered up only by high world oil prices." Milov says the most likely outcome will be additional loans to the companies from state banks at the order of the government. Milov concludes that "it is important to understand that the reckless policy of restoring the government's influence in the oil-and-gas sector in recent years has not been free for the country. It has a concrete price and a very high one." RC

President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev plan to hold talks with leading lawmakers about creating a legal framework for the formation of a constructive political opposition, "Kommersant" reported on March 11. The paper cites leading Unified Russia figures, including Duma Constitutional Law Committee Chairman Vladimir Pligin, as saying in recent weeks that the party needs political competition. Pligin said Russia needs to act more rapidly to develop a genuine party system. "Kommersant" quoted Union of Rightist Forces Political Council member Boris Nadezhdin as saying no new legislation is needed for an opposition to thrive. He said all that is necessary is for the government to observe the current laws on elections, parties, and the mass media. "When we needed a real opposition, when we were holding elections, [the authorities] scattered and discredited it," Nadezhdin said. "But now that they have been elected for four years, now they can discuss how useful it would be to have an opposition." There were reports in the Russian media recently that, following Medvedev's election on March 2, the Federal Registration Service had been ordered to review all of the 14 currently registered parties with the object of reducing the number of parties to seven or eight. The service has denied receiving such an order. RC

President Putin has nominated Unified Russia Duma Deputy Oleg Kovalyov to be the next governor of Ryazan Oblast, Russian media reported on March 11, citing the Kremlin press service. If confirmed by the local legislature as all of Putin's previous nominees have been, Kovalyov will replace Georgy Shpak, whose term expires this month. Kovalyov's appointment was reportedly agreed to by President-elect Medvedev. On March 9, Putin nominated former Yakutsk Mayor Ilya Mikhalchuk, the Unified Russia coordinator for the Far East, to become governor of Arkhangelsk Oblast, "Vremya novostei" reported on March 11. Mikhalchuk unexpectedly resigned as Yakutsk mayor in September 2007, possibly in connection with the fact that several officials in his administration were facing a total of 20 criminal cases on charges of bribe-taking and abuse of office. If confirmed, Mikhalchuk will replace Nikolai Kiselyov, one of the last regional leaders to have been directly elected rather than appointed by Putin after the abolition of gubernatorial elections in 2005. reported on March 11 that Medvedev plans to replace long-time Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Unnamed sources close to Medvedev told the website that Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak and presidential administration head Sergei Sobyanin are among the people being considered to replace Luzhkov. A source within the Moscow city government told the website that "all the bureaucrats...are preparing for major resignations." RC

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin on March 10 told the UN Security Council, of which he is chairman this month, that the presence of U.S. warships off Lebanon's coast does not help resolve the political crisis in that country, news agencies reported. Churkin added that "we pointed out the fact that basically all Lebanese political forces expressed their concern about [the U.S. naval presence], including the government of Prime Minister [Fuad] Siniora. We have said that such acts bring up some unwanted historical analogies, so we do not see it as a constructive contribution to the situation in Lebanon." U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad argued that "we had forces in the Mediterranean, in the region for some time. Those forces are there to protect our interests and to be able to deal with any contingency that might develop." In Moscow on March 11, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin announced that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will travel to Syria, Israel, and the Palestinian territories from March 19-21 to promote Russia's long-standing call for a regional summit. Kamynin said Lavrov's initiative is a response to the growing tensions between Israel and the Palestinians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 28, and 30, 2007, and January 7, 2008). PM

President Putin attended a performance of the 19th-century Russian comedy "Woe From Wit" in Moscow on March 9, AP reported. At a reception afterward, he noted that the play remains relevant because some of the characters go to extremes to adopt Western customs. He earned a laugh by adding "this is a particular lesson for the new members of the European Union. I'm joking, I'm joking." PM

Aleksandr Dugin, a leader of the Eurasian Movement who reportedly has close Kremlin ties, wrote in the weekly "Profil" that "Europe is on the brink of another war" over Kosova. He argued that the recent "declaration of independence by Kosovo is the moment of truth for Russia. Either Russia confirms its faithfulness to international standards and practices, or acknowledges its own incapacity." He believes that "the Kosovo situation is a textbook example of NATO's strategy. It orchestrated the break-up of [the former] Yugoslavia and proceeded to carve up the new Yugoslavia consisting of Serbia and Montenegro. Once that was accomplished, it dissected Serbia." Dugin stressed that NATO "is out to demonstrate its might and punish that Christian state in the Balkans for the temerity of trying to retain its social, cultural, and geopolitical identity in defiance of the West." He argued that "this geopolitical demonstration is actually a lesson to the Russian Federation concerning its own geopolitical future. It is a signal to Russia indicating what might earn from the West for its continued efforts to defend its territorial integrity and state sovereignty." Dugin warned that "Russia should be fast, firm, and decisive. Serbia is the last fortress on the route of the American advance on Russia. There is no place to retreat to anymore because Russia itself is the next target." PM

U.S. STUDY SEES RUSSIA AS VULNERABLE STATE on March 11 drew attention to a recent report entitled "Index of State Weakness in the Developing World," published by the Washington-based Brookings Institution, which places Russia 65th out of 141 countries in terms of what it defines as weakness. Somalia heads the list, followed by Afghanistan. Bolivia holds place 64, while Iran is number 66. Those two states, Russia, China, India, Venezuela, and several others are classified as vulnerable "states to watch." The report says that Russia's weakness is the result of "low scores in the areas of security and political governance, mainly due to the ongoing civil conflict in Chechnya, human rights abuses, and lacks of political accountability and freedom of expression." PM

INDIA, RUSSIA SIGN MIG UPGRADE CONTRACT and reported on March 10 that India has signed a $964 million contract with the MiG corporation to upgrade at least 64 MiG-29 fighter jets for the Indian Air Force. The deal involves fitting the MiGs with improved weapons as well as new radio equipment and radar, which will extend their expected lives by 15 years. Pakistan's "Daily Times" on March 11 quoted an unnamed Indian Air Force official as saying that India insisted that all but six of the planes be refitted in India as a "precaution" against the delays that India previously encountered when it upgraded its fleet of MiG-21s in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). Russia is the traditional supplier of 70 percent of India's arms, but now faces competition from the United States and Europe for a new $10.2 billion contract to supply India with 126 new multi-role fighters. PM

The organizers of the mass anticorruption protest originally scheduled for February 19, then postponed until March 4 and then March 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 22, and 27, 2008), announced on March 10 that it has been postponed yet again, until an unspecified date in April, the independent website reported. That decision was prompted by the public denial by republican prosecutor's office staffer Gelani Merzhuyev that the organizers had applied to the government for permission to convene the protest. Magomed Khazbiyev, one of the organizers, stressed that they have tried repeatedly to submit such applications but that government officials refuse to accept them. Meanwhile, police are pressuring a second protest organizer, Gilani Imagozhev, to agree to be sentenced to 15 days' detention "for resisting the police," reported. LF

Two villagers were injured late on March 9 when militants opened fire from two directions on a police patrol post in the village of Khasanya on the southern outskirts of Nazran, and reported on March 10. It was at least the third such attack on police personnel so far this year; two police officers were shot dead in January and one slightly injured in a shoot-out in Nazran last month. LF

Former Armenian Foreign Minister Aleksander Arzumanian and Ararat Zurabian, the former chairman of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's now defunct Armenian Pan-National Movement, were arrested on March 10 and taken to the headquarters of the National Security Service, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Their lawyer, Hovik Arsenian, said they are likely to be charged with seeking to seize power in the wake of the disputed February 19 presidential ballot in which Ter-Petrossian claims to have polled 65 percent of the vote; official returns gave him 21.51 percent, compared to 52.8 percent for Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. Also on March 10, police launched a search for parliamentarians Sasun Mikaelian and Khachatur Sukiasian and for Nikol Pashinian, editor of the pro-Ter-Petrossian paper "Haykakan zhamanak," all of whom are reportedly in hiding. LF

Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Armenian Prime Minister Sarkisian on March 10 to congratulate him on his election as president, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported quoting Sarkisian's press service. Putin also stressed the need to resolve the postelection standoff between the Armenian authorities and opposition through "dialogue." Also on March 10, U.S. charge d'affaires in Yerevan Joseph Pennington told RFE/RL that while Washington recognizes that there came a point during the standoff between police and Ter-Petrossian supporters on March 1 when "order needed to be restored," the state of emergency outgoing President Robert Kocharian imposed in response should now be lifted, as should restrictions on the media. Pennington also said the United States has warned the Armenian leadership against "political arrests" of persons "who may have expressed views that were bothersome to the authorities." LF

Over 40 more people have joined the five Georgian oppositionists who launched a hunger strike outside the parliament building on March 9, Caucasus Press reported on March 10. The hunger strikers demand that repeat presidential elections be held; that the parliamentary election in May be truly free and fair; and that all people detained for their participation in the clashes between police and protesters in Tbilisi in November 2007 be released. Six lawmakers from the opposition New Rightists party began a hunger strike on March 10 outside the office of parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze to protest her refusal to meet with them, reported. Burjanadze, for her part, dismissed the hunger strike as "a stage show." She appealed to the opposition to demonstrate solidarity with the Georgian leadership and join in the parliament debate on drafting a formal response to what she termed the "dangerous" Russian decision to withdraw unilaterally from the economic sanctions imposed at a CIS summit in January 1996 on the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008). Konstantine Gabashvili, chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign relations, said on March 11 that the legislature will wait to adopt that resolution until March 14, one day after the Russian State Duma is scheduled to hold a hearing on Abkhazia and the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

In response to the energy crisis triggered by record cold weather and low rates of hydroelectric energy production, Kyrgyzstan on March 10 began rationing electricity, AKIpress reported. According to unidentified officials of the Ministry of Industry, Energy, and Fuel Resources, the new rationing regime will reduce the daily supply of electricity to consumers, and cut off all electricity to consumers who have incurred debts for power supplies, as well as to saunas and some other businesses. The rationing is intended to offset a dramatic decrease in the water level of the Toktogul reservoir, which provides 40 percent of Kyrgyzstan's hydroelectric energy. The Toktogul reservoir was classified as being in a critical state after the water level dropped by some 30 meters over the past four months. Meanwhile, the government intends to supplement hydroelectric power with coal and oil to meet domestic energy needs. RG

Several senior officers of the Kyrgyz National Security Committee and the Ministry of Defense went on trial for high treason on March 10 at the Bishkek army garrison, according to the website. Defendants Valeriy Patsula, Vladimir Berzhnoy, Maksat Mamyrkanov, and Dmitriy Grib face up to 20 years in prison if convicted at the closed trial, presided over by Judge Abdurazak Borombaev. The men are charged with allegedly "passing on confidential information" to an unidentified foreign intelligence service. They were arrested in June 2007 after an internal investigation by the National Security Committee reportedly uncovered evidence of espionage. In another treason trial that ended last month, treason charges against Kyrgyz parliamentary staff member Jypargul Arykova were dismissed for lack of evidence, although she was convicted on a lesser charge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Arykova was arrested in Bishkek in June 2007 along with a Chinese national, allegedly "in the act of passing classified information" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22 and 25, 2007). RG

A delegation of Turkmen officials led by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov arrived in Tashkent on March 10 at the start of an official visit to Uzbekistan, Uzbek Television reported. Berdymukhammedov met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov, and said that he is seeking to deepen bilateral relations during his visit, noting the "common roots and historic ties" between the two countries. The two presidents signed a set of bilateral agreements, including new accords on transportation, agriculture, cross-border trade, and water resources. A separate protocol was also signed calling for a political dialogue between the Turkmen and Uzbek ministries of foreign affairs. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Karimov said that they discussed the situation in Afghanistan, and also agreed to implement a bilateral agreement on trade and political relations for 2008-12. RG

In a statement on March 10 marking Women's History Month and International Women's Day, U.S. President George W. Bush honored Iryna Kazulina, the deceased wife of imprisoned Belarusian former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, the White House website reported. "America honors women like Iryna Kazulina," Bush said. "Iryna's husband, Alyaksandr Kazulin, is serving a five year prison sentence for protesting Belarus's fraudulent 2006 elections. Iryna worked relentlessly for her husband's freedom. In doing so, she became a leading voice for all political prisoners held captive by [Belarusian President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka's regime," he said. Kazulina died on February 23 after a long fight with breast cancer. "The Lukashenka regime refused to release her husband to be with his wife in her final days. That's the definition of brutality. And the United States calls upon that government to release Alyaksandr Kazulin immediately, just like they ought to release every other political prisoner in Belarus," Bush said. AM

President Lukashenka on March 10 told a group of British legislators and businesspeople that "Belarus has never let Europe down, and we would like to be treated appropriately," Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "Prospects for relations between Belarus and the EU will depend on whether the European Union's foreign policy is independent of the United States," Lukashenka said. He noted that 20 percent of the natural gas and 40 percent of the crude oil Europe receives from Russia are delivered through Belarus. "I believe the European Union has the right idea of Belarus's role in Europe. Unfortunately, the prospects for relations between Belarus and the European Union do not lie exclusively in the Europe-Belarus sphere," Lukashenka said. "I want to assure you that all agreements that we will reach will be kept inviolate.... You will get full support for work in the Belarusian market," he added. AM

Several prominent Belarusian nuclear physicists have urged the authorities to abandon their plans for the construction of a nuclear power plant, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on March 10. The physicists said at a March 9 meeting that the construction of a nuclear power plant is not an "unavoidable necessity" for Belarus, and that the country does not meet the economic and technical conditions for its construction. Yahor Fyadzyushkin, the head of the Institute of Humanitarian and Environmental Technologies of the Minsk-based International Academy of Information Technology, said that "the idea of building a nuclear power plant in Belarus could bring about a lot of trouble and difficult ordeals, which the authorities seem to be ready to put on the shoulders of the people." "Under no circumstances would we agree that it is feasible to build the plant in Belarus," he said. "Since the dispute about whether or not a nuclear power plant should be built began, nobody has ever offered any distinct data in favor of the nuclear power industry," Fyadzyushkin said. The Belarusian Security Council in mid-January made "an ultimate political decision" regarding the construction of a nuclear power plant. The government intends to put the first unit of the 2,000-megawatt plant into operation in 2016, and launch the second one in 2018. AM

Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Kurt Volker on March 10 told RFE/RL that the United States supports the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to move closer to NATO. "There's got to be a 'yes' from our side, saying, 'We welcome the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine.' That is the directional aspect of this," said Volker, who is also the U.S. ambassador-designate to NATO. "Do we offer them a Membership Action Plan? That's a decision that NATO needs to take by consensus. If it's not at [the planned NATO summit in April in] Bucharest, the directional aspect remains the same: they have indicated their desire to come closer and we want to help them," Volker said. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk in mid-January sent a letter to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer asking him to offer Ukraine a NATO Membership Action Plan at the Bucharest summit. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel on March 10 said that "a country should become a NATO member not only when its temporary political leadership is in favor but when a significant percentage of the population supports membership," in a reference to Ukraine. According to public opinion surveys, slightly more than half of the Ukrainian population opposes possible membership in NATO. AM

Prime Minister Tymoshenko said on March 10 in Brussels that her government will ensure the transparency of privatization processes in Ukraine, as well as equal conditions for foreign investors' access to the Ukrainian market, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "We have pretty good macro-economic indexes [allowing us to] become a trustworthy partner of the European Union," Tymoshenko said. "Within three or four months, we will privatize Ukrtelekom [Ukraine's largest telecommunications company], chemical plants, and power industry enterprises," she said. The government on February 6 approved a detailed plan for the allocation of Ukrtelekom's shares: 25 percent plus one share will remain state property, while 67.79 percent will be sold at auction. AM

Referring to the general elections in Serbia scheduled for May 11, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in Brussels on March 10 that "now Serbia has a crucial choice to make," news agencies reported. He added that Serbia "can either turn to the European future or risk isolation. The first option will take Serbia forward toward stability, stronger freedoms, and increasing prosperity along with the other countries of the region. The other a road to nowhere" (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13 and 25 and March 5, 2008). Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, argued that "Serbia faces a challenge. It faces a choice of either going toward Europe or staying nationalistic." Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said that his country remains opposed to signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with any government in Belgrade that does not fully cooperate with the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). "EU integration and cooperation are also based on values -- and one of those values is the position where impunity is not accepted," he stressed. Rupel pointed out that it will be necessary for the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) to "keep up its work" because there have been organized Serbian attacks on the Serbian-Kosovar border. Verhagen noted that "what we want to avoid is a soft partition" of Kosova. The Belgrade daily "Danas" wrote on March 11 that Serbian President Boris Tadic and his Democratic Party believe that they have few challengers for the pro-European vote in the May 11 elections. The anti-EU nationalist vote will be split among at least four parties, but they could easily form a broad coalition after the elections and form a government, the paper added. Several Serbian participants at a roundtable held by RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service said on March 10 that Serbia could face political and economic instability in the run-up to the elections and possibly for several weeks afterward. PM

Croatian Generals Ante Gotovina, Ivan Cermak, and Mladen Markac on March 11 went on trial at the ICTY in The Hague on charges of war crimes allegedly committed during the Croatian Army's Operation Storm in August 1995, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Operation Storm, together with Operation Flash shortly before it, ended a rebellion by members of Croatia's Serbian minority, which was supported by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and established the authority of President Franjo Tudjman's government throughout Croatia. Prosecutor Alan Tieger told a three-judge panel at the opening of the trial that the charges arise "from the forcible elimination of Krajina's Serbs from Croatia and the destruction of their community...and the roles and responsibilities of three men, generals in the Croatian Army, in that process." He added that Operation Storm sought not only to retake land but also "to drive out the Serb civilian population and ensure their permanent removal." The charges against the three generals include the murder, expulsion, or persecution of Serbian civilians and the destruction or looting of their property. Many observers expect the trial to shed some light on historical controversies stemming from Operation Storm, such as the possibility of clandestine deals between Tudjman and Milosevic, and how many of tens of thousands of Serbs were driven from their homes by Croatian forces, rather than told to leave by local Serbian authorities. Tudjman and Gojko Susak, who was his defense minister, are mentioned in the indictment as having helped plan Operation Storm. The two died before the ICTY could formally indict them. Some Croatian commentators charge that the trial constitutes an attack on the overall legacy of Operation Storm, a charge that the ICTY denies. PM


The United Nations is expected to step up its reconstruction and aid activities in Afghanistan under the leadership of its new special envoy, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, AFP reported on March 10 from Kabul. Under his leadership, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) will reinforce its assistance mission and support government institutions through cooperation with President Hamid Karzai, according to Christopher Alexander, the UN's deputy special representative for Afghanistan. "We need to accelerate our work, we need to coordinate an effort that is larger than ever and more complex than ever before, and we need to focus on implementation," Alexander told reporters in Kabul. AT

BBC News on March 10 reported that the Afghan government has opened a new office dedicated to dealing with complaints from the Afghan public. The office, with a staff of 23, will pass the complaints on to the office of President Hamid Karzai. The body is headed by Asadullah Wafa, the former governor of Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province. Though the office is currently located in Kabul, other branches are due to be set up in the provinces. Among the problems plaguing Afghanistan is widespread corruption, which stymies the public's influence and ability to seek change. AT

NATO forces in Afghanistan have clashed more often with Taliban insurgents in 2008 than in the same period last year, although fighting has occurred in fewer places, NATO said on March 10, Reuters reported. "ISAF has been more active than we were last year; we are going out to get them...rather than them coming to us," Captain Mike Finney said. Data collected by the Afghanistan NGO Security Office indicate that there has been a 39 percent increase in Taliban attacks in the first two months of this year over the same period in 2007. Although NATO says it is making progress against the Taliban, observers say there is an impasse on the ground that is undermining Western public support for troops deployments there. AT

A new study says peace efforts in Afghanistan are disconnected from one another and lack support from the international community, the Canadian Press reported on March 10. The report by the Canadian Council for International Cooperation is based on 58 interviews carried out in Afghanistan in January and February. It calls on the Canadian government to encourage the international community and Afghan government to help boost existing peace initiatives. In the longer term, it says peace requires a sustained commitment by the international community, including Canada, to work with the Afghan government, civil society, women's groups, and opposition and antigovernment groups. The council interviewed diplomats, non-governmental organizations, Afghan government officials, and community leaders in preparing the report. AT

Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, met on March 10 with Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili in Tehran to discuss the recent events in Gaza, IRNA reported. Jalili told Shallah that 60 years of Palestinian resistance have shown that "terrorism cannot overcome the will of the people, even in the form of a regime." He said Israel's recent strikes targeting Hamas sites in Gaza "revealed to the world the fake proponents of human rights." He was referring to Western powers, which Iran claims are indifferent to the plight of the Palestinians. Shallah thanked Jalili for Iran's support for "the Islamic resistance" and called for continued assistance. The former head of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Yahya Rahim-Safavi, said separately in Tehran on March 10 that Israel should take seriously the stance of Hizballah in Lebanon, IRNA reported. He was apparently referring to Hizballah's effective declaration of war on Israel following a car bombing in Damascus in February that killed veteran Hizballah operative Imad Mugniyah. Israel has denied it was involved. Rahim-Safavi, who is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's chief adviser on military affairs, was speaking at an event marking the release of a commemorative stamp for Mugniyah. He said he hopes "certain Arab states" will sever their diplomatic ties with Israel's "fake regime," IRNA reported. VS

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabr al-Thani told a conference in Doha on March 10 that the best way to avoid a regional conflict is for Arab states of the Persian Gulf to talk to Iran, and called this dialogue "vital" for the region, Radio Farda and agencies reported. He said Persian Gulf states could benefit from Iran's nuclear program if it is peaceful, but that if it has military goals, they must find out if it is directed at them or at states further away. Western states suspect Iran may use its nuclear program to develop weapons, though Iran denies it has anything but a civilian nuclear program. Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has failed to convince the UN body of the peaceful nature of Iran's program. Sheikh Hamad said Iran's recent clarifications to the IAEA were not enough to remove all doubts about its program; he warned, however, that "it is important...that no one shoves the region toward a new crisis and that as [Iran's neighbors] we have an understanding of this issue," Reuters reported. Sheikh Hamad said recent wars in the Middle East have been based on "unsound studies," and that regional states have not benefited in any way. "The most important thing is that we do not enter into an international game in which we will be exploited," Reuters quoted him as saying. VS

Iranian reformists' criticisms of government policies have apparently grown stronger in recent days as the March 14 parliamentary polls approach, Radio Farda reported on March 10. The broadcaster quoted former parliament speaker and head of the reformist National Trust Party Mehdi Karrubi as saying on March 9 that provocative public statements by unnamed politicians have harmed Iran's position in the international dispute over its nuclear program. The report indicated he was referring to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has frequently denounced Western powers and Israel, a state Iran does not recognize. Karrubi said his party, which is taking part in the coming polls, favors a policy of interaction with foreign powers on the basis of "revolutionary principles," but without provocation. "Our policy is based on detente, and we want interaction with the whole world, except Israel," Karrubi said. He added that there is no reason why Iran should not have ties with the United States, provided Washington "respects our rights and does not seek dominance." "The issue of talks with America will also be pursued" if the party wins enough seats to influence the future parliament's agenda, he said. Mohammad Reza Khatami, a former deputy speaker of parliament and a member of the reformist Participation Front, separately criticized the government's economic policies in a March 9 debate with the current deputy speaker, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, Radio Farda reported. What is the result of the ruling conservatives' "economic slogans," Khatami asked, or their promises to improve the lot of Iranians over the past three or four years? He said the Ahmadinejad government has opened many factories since it took power in 2005 "thanks to the investments of previous years," and asked if "this government has left anything for future governments to inaugurate." VS

Ruhollah Hosseinian, a right-wing cleric and parliamentary candidate for Tehran in the March 14 polls, told students on March 10 that he wrote 70 letters to the authorities when he worked with the Intelligence Ministry in the 1980s to complain of prisoners' mistreatment by officials who later became reformists, the conservative Fars agency reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). Hosseinian was referring to the 1984-89 period when Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri was intelligence minister and Hosseinian represented the revolutionary prosecutor's office at the ministry. Hosseinian is on the candidate list being fielded by the United Front of Fundamentalists, the leading right-wing coalition in the upcoming polls. He told students at a question-and-answer session at Shahid Beheshti University that he resigned in the 1980s because of the "radicalism of this same faction that later became known as" reformists. Many present-day reformists were zealous revolutionaries in the 1980s; some participated in the 1979 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, while many failed to distance themselves from -- or even participated in -- the executions of prominent officials after the 1979 revolution. He said separately that the main culprit in the murders of dissidents and writers in the late 1990s -- which have been blamed on rogue intelligence ministry agents -- "was a man called Musavi who was among [reformist] forces at the Intelligence Ministry. That is what we said, though they never answered." Hosseinian has in the past accused reformists of complicity in the murders of a number of state critics and liberals. Those killings led to an apparent purge of ministry staff by the reformist government of then-President Mohammad Khatami in 1998. The intelligence minister at the time, Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi, resigned under pressure. VS

A suicide car bomber blew himself up outside a popular hotel frequented by foreigners and government officials in Al-Sulaymaniyah on March 10, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. At least two other people were killed in the blast and more than 30 injured. State-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported that 10 people were killed. Footage of the blast, aired on Al-Sharqiyah television on March 10, showed broken windows, demolished cars, and damage to an outer wall surrounding the Al-Sulaymaniyah Palace Hotel. The hotel is reportedly frequented by officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Al-Sulaymaniyah has been largely free of violence, although two suicide bomb attacks there left 13 dead in 2005. The bombing came on the eve of a meeting of the Arab Parliamentary Union in nearby Irbil. KR

Representatives of 19 Arab and Islamic states are attending the 50th Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (AIPU) conference in Irbil, Iraqi media reported on March 11. Iraqi Parliament Speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani is hosting the meeting, along with his deputies Arif Tayfur and Khalid al-Atiyah. The delegates attended a welcoming ceremony at the Kurdistan National Assembly, the Kurdish region's parliament, on March 10. Kurdish regional President Mas'ud Barzani welcomed the delegates, calling their attendance at the Iraqi conference a "historic event." AIPU Secretary-General Nur al-Din Boushkoug told reporters on March 10 that the willingness of Arab states to meet in Iraq sends a signal to the Iraqi government that failing to consult with other Arab countries would be a grave mistake. He called the conference a major turning point in other Arab states' relations with Iraq. States in the region have been hesitant to engage with Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime. Boushkoug said all but three of the 22 Arab League member states are attending the conference. Representatives from Libya, Somalia, and Comoros could not attend. KR

Al-Sharqiyah television on March 10 cited sources in the defense and interior ministries as saying Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has issued a decree appointing 18,000 "militants" to security positions. The sources "revealed that thousands of those included in the decree, a copy of which media outlets have received, come from non-Iraqi origins and do not have the military qualifications that make them eligible to hold the rank of an officer or the position of a commissioner," the news channel alleged. Al-Sharqiyah contended that the appointments were politically motivated "to serve the interests of certain parties and militia leaders." It reported that al-Maliki's decree, issued in October, appointed 5,700 people to the position of lieutenant colonel and 6,000 to the post of commissioners. The report has not been independently verified. KR

Iraqi soldiers on March 10 found cooking-gas cylinders rigged with explosives at several homes in Wasit Governorate in southern Iraq, Voices of Iraq reported on March 11. The cylinders were left at several homes left empty by families displaced from the governorate. The report did not say how many homes or identify the displaced people. The governorate is predominantly Shi'ite, which would indicate that the displaced were probably Sunni Arabs. An army source told the news agency that the cylinders were found in two neighborhoods north of Sawayrah city, about 100 kilometers north of Wasit, the capital of the governorate. Several houses were also booby-trapped. The troops were apparently checking security in the neighborhoods in anticipation of the return of displaced families, the news agency reported. KR