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Newsline - April 8, 2008

"The Moscow Times" reported on April 8 that President Vladimir Putin said on April 4 at the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Bucharest that Russia will work to break up Ukraine if that country joins NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 3, 4, and 7, 2008). Citing a report in the daily "Kommersant" from April 7, "The Moscow Times" suggested that an unidentified foreign delegate described Putin as "losing his temper" at the meeting and saying to U.S. President George W. Bush: "do you understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state!" Putin reportedly claimed that Russia will encourage the separation of eastern Ukraine and the Crimea from Ukraine if that country joins NATO. "The Moscow Times" added that "Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who accompanied Putin at the summit, said [on April 7] he did not hear Putin's purported remarks about Ukraine and could not confirm the report." On April 8, the daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying that the United States addressed some of Russia's fears regarding missile defense at the Bush-Putin summit in Sochi on April 6 but "where NATO's expansion is concerned, however, I cannot say I've noticed any indication of readiness to allay our fears." On April 7, Interfax quoted State Duma Speaker and Unified Russia leader Boris Gryzlov as saying that Russia will "review" its relations with any CIS member state that joins NATO. He noted that it is the business of other states to decide whether to join the Atlantic alliance but the business of Russia to decide how to react. On April 8, Interfax quoted Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin as saying that any decision by Ukraine to join NATO will lead to unspecified "consequences" in its relations with Russia. Chernomyrdin, who was a Soviet-era gas specialist, served as Russian prime minister from 1992-98. He made his remarks on Ukraine at a reception to mark his 70th birthday and to present his book "We Tried Our Best." Many remember him for his quote from 1993 that "we wanted the best, but things turned out like always." PM

The daily "Novye izvestia" wrote on April 8 that "threats to Russian security are rooted in the obsolete mentality of its military, not in NATO or elsewhere." The paper quoted Aleksandr Konovalov of the Strategic Estimates Institute as saying that the Russian military should concentrate on strategic planning, including "bona fide cooperation with [NATO], which will automatically solve a lot of problems including difficulties in the relations with post-Soviet republics." He argued that Russia's well publicized "dislike of NATO is just a trick, a ruse expected to mislead the television [news] audience at best. Politicians and the military know better." "Novye izvestia" quoted professor Vladimir Kulagin of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations as saying that the "problems of our relations with NATO are rooted beyond the security sphere. The Russian authorities view any international alliance promoting liberal ideas as a threat.... However, a war with NATO is a sheer impossibility. Russia accounts for 3 percent of the global GDP and NATO countries for 50 percent." Kulagin argued that the steady growth in the budgets of Russia's Interior Ministry, Federal Security Service (FSB), and Emergency Situations Ministry show that the main threats to Russia's security come from within and not from NATO. The paper quoted Aleksei Arbatov of the International Security Center as arguing that established interests in the military encourage fear of NATO as an excuse for putting off important reforms in the military itself. He added that "we never hesitate to make threats [to other countries] but do not offer anything" positive as an alternative. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on April 8 that Russia and the United States are moving toward a compromise on missile defense but that serious moves in that direction "have barely begun." PM

President Vladimir Putin will be confirmed as prime minister on May 8, one day after the inauguration of President-elect Dmitry Medvedev, Russian media reported on April 7, citing Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov. Gryzlov, who also heads the Unified Russia party, also confirmed that he intends to ask Putin to take over as the head of the party at a party conference on April 14-15. Analyst Andrei Ryabov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on April 8 that the authorities want the new ruling tandem in place for the May 9 Victory Day celebration and military parade. Ryabov added that the unclear new power structure is "a Byzantine" formulation and as such attributes great importance to symbolism and "the way it is presented in the mass consciousness." Gryzlov also said that Medvedev would be offered a seat on the party's political council, but is not expected to become a member. He added that the Duma will consider legislation that would separate the country's legislative and presidential elections by a two-year interval. This led some observers to speculate that an early presidential election could be scheduled for 2009, paving the way for Putin's possible return to the Kremlin, "Vedomosti" reported on April 8. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia head Vladimir Zhirinovsky said the only other way to separate the elections would be to extend the presidential term of office, which would require constitutional changes that Putin has said he opposes. Analyst Yevgeny Minchenko agreed, telling the daily that the tradition of monolithic power in Russia is too strong for the tandem leadership model to last long. Analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said that if there are no changes, bureaucratic inertia will work in Medvedev's favor and he will gradually eclipse Putin if he is able to hold on to the presidency. RC

A jury in St. Petersburg on April 7 rejected charges against three men accused of plotting to assassinate St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, "Vremya novostei" reported on April 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 12, 2007). The three suspects were declared innocent and ordered released after the jury found there was no evidence a crime had been committed. The main evidence against the men was a recorded phone call in which one of the men said they had agreed "to make some noise around Matviyenko" and the fact that two of the men were arrested directly after purchasing a grenade and some explosives on a Petersburg street. The men claimed they thought they were buying ordinary fireworks. RC

The Russian authorities have filed court appeals seeking the closure of some 8,274 nongovernmental organizations since 2002, "Vedomosti" reported on April 8. In all, more than 11,000 NGOs were refused official registration last year, out of some 227,577 operating in the country. About one-sixth of the total has been checked so far. Many NGOs have closed of their own accord since strict new registration requirements were introduced in 2006. Activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva estimated that 600,000 NGOs operated in Russia in 2002. Maria Konevskaya, an NGO activist in St. Petersburg, told "Vedomosti" she expects a "purge" of NGOs this summer, with the closure of an additional 15,000-20,000 nationally. RC

Russians continue to prefer to hold their savings in rubles, a new survey by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) has found, reported on April 7. With the dollar falling by 9 percent against the ruble in 2007, just 2 percent of Russians say they prefer the dollar, while 92 percent keep their savings in rubles. Six percent use the euro. Only 12 percent of Russians say they regular check the value of the dollar, compared to 22 percent in 2006. Forty-seven percent of respondents said they expect the dollar to continue its decline. The dollar presently buys 23.60 rubles. RC

A Moscow district court on April 7 rejected a case filed by Moldovan journalist Natalya Morar against the FSB, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported the same day. Morar has twice been refused permission to enter Russia because the FSB alleges she is a risk to national security (see RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). At the request of the FSB, the court hearing was closed to the public, meaning that no light was shed on why the FSB considers Morar dangerous. Morar's lawyer, Yury Kostanov, told RFE/RL that no compelling evidence against Morar was presented and said the journalist will appeal the ruling to the Moscow Municipal Court. RC

Political analyst Grigory Belonuchkin, who served as a Communist Party election monitor during the December 2, 2007, State Duma elections, has been hospitalized following an April 2 attack on him outside his Moscow apartment, "The Moscow Times" reported on April 8. On April 1, a Moscow court postponed hearings in a case filed by Belonuchkin in which he accused the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party of election fraud. The case was postponed because Unified Russia representatives failed to appear in court. Belonuchkin told the daily that a man called and asked to speak urgently with him in person. The analyst agreed to meet the caller on the street outside his apartment. He said that after the two walked a short distance, a second man appeared and the two strangers began beating him. He suffered a concussion and other minor injuries. Belonuchkin said he believes the assault was a result of his election-monitoring activities, and he could think of no other reason why he would be attacked. He told the daily he has received anonymous threatening phone calls since he filed the case and was warned not to monitor the March 2 presidential poll. RC

The European Commission announced on April 7 the approval of an 11 million-euro ($17.27 million) grant of humanitarian aid in compensation to victims of the war in Chechnya, according to The EU package provides targeted assistance for internally displaced persons and other vulnerable groups in Chechnya, including humanitarian aid for their protection and shelter, as well as for income-generation activities and mother-and-child health. In the statement accompanying the announcement of aid, the commission explained that the move was essential to improve the living conditions of the population in Chechnya, which it defined as "extremely difficult," and to "show its solidarity with these vulnerable people who are still in need of humanitarian assistance in order to reconstruct their lives and build a new future." Since 1999, the European Commission has allocated more than 220 million euros ($345 million) in aid to Chechnya. Due to the conflict in Chechnya, some 14,000 Chechens were forced from their homes and remain displaced in neighboring Ingushetia, while another 4,900 Chechens are in Daghestan, in addition to some 2,100 refugees currently in Azerbaijan and 1,100 in Georgia. RG

Speaking to reporters in Yerevan, Armenian Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian defended on April 7 the Armenian parliament's recent adoption of restrictions on public rallies and demonstrations, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Danielian also dismissed a recent joint statement from the Council of Europe's Venice Commission and the OSCE's Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) criticizing the new restrictions for unacceptably restricting "the right of assembly in a significant fashion" and countering European standards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2008). Danielian went on to assert that the government is "unlikely" to overturn the controversial restrictions, which empower the authorities to ban any public rallies and demonstrations deemed as seeking a "violent overthrow of constitutional order" or that pose a threat to "state security, public order, public health, and morality." In separate comments on the restrictions, former Justice Minister David Harutiunian, currently serving as the chairman of the parliament's Legal Affairs Committee, argued instead that a modification of the new law would present "a unique opportunity to further improve our law and bring it into conformity with European standards." But Harutiunian, who is also the head of Armenia's delegation to the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), defended the law's extraordinary powers granted to police and security forces and ruled out the restoration of the more liberal prior version of the law. The issue will be raised in planned negotiations between the Armenian authorities and officials from the Venice Commission and ODIHR set to open on April 15 in Yerevan. RG

Sona Truzian, the spokeswoman of the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office, announced on April 7 the start of a criminal investigation targeting former Armenian Army General Manvel Grigorian, after a former associate accused him threatening his life, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Grigorian, who also served as deputy defense minister, was dismissed on April 2 after he reportedly supported opposition leader and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Grigorian also heads the influential Yerkrapah Union of veterans of the Karabakh war and, according to opposition claims, pledged that he would not permit the army to be deployed against participants in last month's postelection protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). Grigorian was accused by a former associate, Ara Marukian, a senior official of the Armavia national airline, of threatening to kill him and his family members in an April 6 phone conversation. A nephew of the deposed general, Hrant Grigorian, told reporters on April 7 that "his activities" as a parliamentary deputy from the ruling Republican Party (HHK) led by President-elect Serzh Sarkisian, would not be affected by his uncle's dismissal or criminal case, Arminfo reported. RG

In an announcement from its Moscow headquarters, Dmitry Pleskonos, a senior executive of the Russian Vimpelcom telecommunications group, announced on April 7 that the company intends to invest $74 million to upgrade and modernize its fixed-line and mobile-phone networks in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Pleskonos also said that the latest upgrade follows about $90 million in similar upgrades of the Armenian networks by Vimpelcom during 2007. He also noted that the additional investment sought to correct ArmenTel's declining share in the Armenian market for wireless service, after the abolition of ArmenTel's legal monopoly on mobile telephony and the launch of the country's second wireless network, VivaCell, in 2005. With less than one-third of an estimated 2 million Armenian mobile-phone users, ArmenTel has been steadily outpaced by the VivaCell rival, which is owned by another Russian telecom giant, MTS, and claims to have attracted 400,000 subscribers during the past seven months alone. Vimpelcom, Russia's second-largest mobile-phone operator, acquired a 90 percent stake in ArmenTel in late 2006, in a nearly 342 million-euro (then $436.3 million) buyout of shares from Greece's Hellenic Telecommunications Organization, which first acquired a majority stake in ArmenTel in 1998 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2006). RG

The leader of the pro-government Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, announced on April 7 that Central Bank Chairman Tigran Sarkisian is in line to become the next prime minister, Arminfo reported. According to Tsarukian, whose party is a junior partner in the governing coalition, Sarkisian will be nominated following the April 9 inauguration of President-elect and current Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian (no relation to Tigran). But he did say that Sarkisian's candidacy "has not been discussed" with the president-elect, and warned that "no matter who is appointed to that post, the Armenian people will criticize him." RG

Azerbaijani Central Election Commission Chairman Mazakhir Panakhov announced on April 7 that the presidential election will be held on October 15, Turan reported. Incumbent President Ilham Aliyev is widely expected to win reelection to a second term. The last presidential election, in October 2003, sparked violent clashes after Aliyev was easily elected to succeed his father as president in a ballot that was roundly criticized as neither free nor fair, and that resulted in the injury of opposition supporters and innocent passersby, with two people reportedly killed, including a 5-year-old boy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6 and 17, 2003). That election was also held on October 15. RG

A statement issued by the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office on April 4, read on the air during a news broadcast by the state's AzTV-1 charged that the recent assault of opposition journalist Agil Xalil was carried out by his "homosexual partner," Turan reported. Xalil's boss at the newspaper, Azer Ahmedov, recently claimed that security personnel sought to coerce Xalil into signing an affidavit accusing "his colleagues or homosexuals" of assaulting him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2008). Reacting to the statement, the head of the Helsinki Civil Assembly's Azerbaijan National Committee, Arzu Abdullayeva, criticized the accusations as "very disgraceful" and characterized it as "a dirty campaign" seeking to avoid a formal investigation. Xalil, a journalist with the opposition "Azadliq" newspaper, was stabbed in the chest by unknown assailants in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2008) and in late February, was assaulted by unknown assailants in Baku (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Xalil accused security officers of being complicit in the attacks. RG

Speaking to reporters in Baku, the OSCE representative on the freedom of the media, Miklos Haraszti, expressed on April 7 his concern over the arrests of journalists in Azerbaijan and called for an end to the criminalization of defamation in the country, ANS-TV reported. Haraszti stated that the "criminalization of journalists for libel, defamation and insult is unacceptable" and urged the Azerbaijani authorities to take immediate steps to prevent the violation of media rights in the country. Haraszti's statements coincide with an ongoing hunger strike conducted by a group of opposition journalists, including two jailed opposition editors, Qanimat Zahid and Eynulla Fatullayev, demanding the release of all imprisoned journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2008). U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse also expressed similar concern about the poor state of media freedom in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2008). Responding to the criticism, Siyavus Novruzov, a senior legislator from the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, countered on April 7 that "the hunger strike of journalists and the opposition's involvement in this action is a show" aimed at "putting pressure on Azerbaijan," according to the APA news agency. He added that the hunger strike was "orchestrated by foreign forces, countries, and embassies." For his part, presidential-administration official Ali Hasanov argued on April 7 that the "media situation in Azerbaijan is not bad" and said that the government "condemned" the ongoing hunger strike, according to ANS-TV. RG

In an April 7 announcement in Tbilisi, Davit Gamkrelidze, the leader of the opposition New Rightists party, declared plans to join the National Council opposition bloc in preparation for the country's upcoming parliamentary elections, Caucasus Press and Georgian Television reported. One of the leaders of the opposition bloc, Levan Gachechiladze, hailed the announcement, urging the Republican and Labor parties to join them in a united effort. Gamkrelidze vowed to "defeat [the] authorities" in the May 21 parliamentary elections. Gachechiladze ran as the opposition National Council's presidential candidate but lost the January 5 election to incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili, garnering only about 26 percent of the vote (see "Georgia: Saakashvili Wins, But With Far Weaker Mandate,", January 7, 2008). RG

Kazakh Ombudsman Askar Shakirov met on April 7 with a delegation of officials from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Astana and discussed plans for greater cooperation to expand protections for refugees, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The UN officials, Oscar Mundia and Oldich Andrysek, praised the work of the Kazakh ombudsman's office in its effort to protect the rights of refugees and announced plans for increasing Kazakhstan's participation in a joint regional effort by the UNHCR and the European Commission in Central Asia. RG

The Kazakh public foundation Transparency Kazakhstan opened on April 7 a new anticorruption center in Almaty, intended to provide legal advice to citizens and consumers, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Speaking at a press conference in Almaty, the chairman of the foundation's board of directors, Vitaly Voronov, said the new center "will receive reports from citizens about cases of corruption and provide them with legal consultations, protect their rights and interests," and he stressed that its services will also be provided to "corporate bodies and entrepreneurs." RG

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev met on April 7 with Prime Minister Igor Chudinov to review state priorities, AKIpress and ITAR-TASS reported. Bakiev opened the meeting with a sharp rebuke of Chudinov for allowing "some members of the government, deputy ministers, and heads of government agencies to share their points of view at interstate meetings or official trips abroad as a position of the government." He warned that "none of the officials should express their own views on behalf of the government without permission of the prime minister and the government," adding that in the future any such official "would be disciplined." Moving on to a review of his priorities, Bakiev stressed that although investment is key to the country's development, investors with their own interests "should not damage the interests of the state," and he said that "we should not offer any privileges that could damage the country's economic development." RG

The Council of the European Union decided in Brussels on April 7 to extend by one year the EU's sanctions against Belarusian officials, Belapan reported, quoting a spokesman of the council. "Grounds for revising the sanctions will be the complete and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Belarus and the conducting of free and fair parliamentary elections this fall," the spokesman told the agency. There are currently 41 people on the EU's list of Belarusian officials subject to a visa ban and an assets freeze in connection with their involvement in a crackdown on civil society or the disappearances of opposition politicians in Belarus. In particular, the list includes President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman, presidential-administration head Henadz Nyavyhlas, Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau, and Central Election Commission head Lidziya Yarmoshyna. The EU sanctions are "incompatible with civilized interstate relations...and an absolutely counterproductive measure," Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou said on April 7. JM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in Hanoi on April 7 that his country is ready "to do everything for Vietnam," Belarusian state media reported. Lukashenka, who arrived in Vietnam on a two-day state visit on April 7-8, met with Non Duc Manh, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and Vietnamese President and Prime Minister Nguyen Minh Triet. Both sides reportedly signed a contract on the delivery of more than 500 Belarusian tractors to Vietnam. Lukashenka stressed the need for Belarus and Vietnam to increase their trade almost tenfold in the next two or three years from $63.6 million in 2007. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko made a two-day state visit to Libya on April 7-8, Ukrainian media reported. During talks with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Yushchenko reportedly discussed mutual cooperation prospects in the trade, economic, agricultural, transportation, and oil and gas sectors. Yushchenko told journalists in Tripoli on April 7 that Ukraine will supply three An-74 multipurpose transport aircraft to Libya under an agreement reached in 2003. JM

On April 7, Kosova's leaders signed the country's new constitution, which is based on the plan drafted by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2008). President Fatmir Sejdiu said that the document "paves the way for the long-awaited process of Euro-Atlantic integration.... We've taken an important step in our sovereignty by drafting our modern constitution [and] proved to the democratic world our seriousness." He stressed that the constitution provides many guarantees for the rights of Kosova's ethnic minorities, who make up about 10 percent of the population. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci called the document a "guarantee of freedom." The parliament is expected to ratify the constitution soon. PM

Pieter Feith, who is the EU's and international community's chief representative in Kosova, told RFE/RL on April 7 that it is important for the Serbian minority to support Kosova's constitution because it guarantees them a good future. He noted that the Ahtisaari plan, which Belgrade rejects, addresses all the fundamental issues affecting the minority, including its economic well-being and cultural development in a democratic, multiethnic state. Feith added that Belgrade-backed plans for a de facto partition of Kosova will not benefit anyone there and called on the Serbian leadership to focus on the future rather than the past (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 31, and April 3, 2008). PM


Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta on April 7 denied that Iran is interfering in Afghan domestic affairs, IRNA reported the same day. He said there is no proof that Iran is backing opposition to the Afghan government. Speaking to reporters in Kabul, he said that the people of Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran share the same religion and language. "There are rumors about Iran's interference in Afghan domestic affairs, but I once again emphasize that there is no document to that effect," he said. "What the Iranian foreign minister and president say is important to us, not what others claim." AT

"There is no doubt that the continuation of the war on terrorism is a priority in Afghanistan," President Hamid Karzai told a press conference in Kabul. "There is also no doubt that Pakistan suffers at the hands of terrorism," the Bakhtar news agency reported on April 7. Karzai added that "this is a joint struggle. If either of us comes up short in this struggle, then we will have harmed our people." Recently returned from the NATO summit in Bucharest, Karzai said he is very optimistic about the results of the summit and noted the "exceptionally strong backing" the alliance offered to Kabul AT

Following reports that an insurgent leader was in the area, U.S. and Afghan forces attacked an isolated village in a mountainous region of northeastern Afghanistan on April 7, AP reported the same day. As the result of the attack at least 16 people were killed. According to Nuristan Province Governor Tamim Nuristani, U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces believed that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who heads the militant group Hizb-e Islami, which has links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, though Hekmatyar has denied direct links with those groups, was meeting with top deputy Kashmir Khan in the Dohabi district. A fierce bombardment that included air strikes was launched. The chief of Nuristan's provincial council, Rahmatullah Rashid, said 19 people were killed in the battle, all of them civilians. He said six children, five women, and eight men were killed in the attack, which he said was relayed to him by villagers via radio. But U.S. Marine First Lieutenant Richard Ulsh said coalition forces have "received no reports of civilian casualties at this time as a result of that conflict." AT

In tribute to Afghan journalist Ajmal Naqshbandi, who was brutally beheaded by Taliban insurgents last year, authorities in the Afghan capital named a street after him on April 7, Xinhua news agency reported the same day. While unveiling the plaque of the avenue, the president of the national journalists' union, Abdul Hamid Mubariz, condemned the Taliban for killing Naqshbandi and called on the journalist community to work toward intensifying the freedom of expression in Afghanistan. Naqshbandi, a 20-year-old freelance journalist, was accompanying Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo as his translator in the southern Helmand Province in April 2007 when he was kidnapped by Taliban insurgents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 13, 2007). After they killed Naqshbandi, the militants released Mastrogiacomo in exchange for five Taliban prisoners. AT

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on April 7 that Iran would not accept any proposal from the 5+1 powers -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany -- concerning its nuclear program if these "violate or restrict" Iran's "rights" to such a program, IRNA reported. The powers are pressuring Iran to abandon sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities. Hosseini cited "new incentives" he said Iran has recently received, though he did not elaborate. Rather, he urged "the authors of such proposals" to abide by their "own international commitments" and fulfill the "duties" the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has set them. Hosseini said Iran's case with the International Atomic Energy Agency has resumed a "normal course," and there have been no recent contacts from the EU's chief diplomat and Iran interlocutor, Javier Solana, to resume talks, IRNA reported. VS

Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Herandi accused foreign embassies in Tehran on April 6 of "encouraging" or inciting Iranian artists against Iranian national interests, Radio Farda reported on April 7, citing Iranian media. Saffar-Herandi is a close ally of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and has been an outspoken critic of reformist newspapers, effectively accusing some of them of treason. He told a gathering of ministry staff that some in Iran might find it hard to discern such "unprecedented initiatives" by foreign embassies. He criticized unspecified staff in his ministry who allowed the recent screening of a film in Iran that he said insults Islam and Iran. Saffar-Herandi said he will not allow actors and filmmakers to help "corrupt" society "as long as I remain in this position." Radio Farda reported separately that the ministry recently announced it will undertake a "cleansing" of public libraries, presumably of books deemed impious or touting unorthodox views on life and religion. The broadcaster commented that the cleansing would probably lead to the removal of books the ministry previously approved as acceptable for public consumption. VS

Israel launched a week of civil-defense drills for citizens on April 7, amid media speculation that the drills were to prepare citizens for counterattacks following any U.S.-Israeli strikes on Iran, New York City's "The Daily News" reported. The newspaper reported that the Turning Point 2 drill was the largest-ever exercise of this type in Israel and included rescue operations at simulated chemical and biological attack scenes. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on April 7 that it was a "routine drill...Israel is not seeking violent confrontation," reported. The daily cited unnamed Israeli observers as speculating that any strikes on Iran might occur late in November 2008, in the last days of the administration of President George W. Bush. Separately, Israel's National Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of Olmert's security cabinet, said in Jerusalem on April 7 that an Iranian attack on Israel would provoke a response that would "lead to the destruction of the Iranian nation," though he said he thinks an Iranian strike is unlikely, AFP reported. He said that the "Iranians are aware of our strength but continue to provoke us by arming their Syrian allies and" Hizballah in Lebanon. He added that an Iranian attack is unlikely because the Iranians "understand the meaning of such an act." VS

"Influential" conservative members of Iran's next parliament are said to be working to maintain the composition of the presidium in the next chamber and exclude prominent newcomer Ali Larijani from a presidium seat, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 7, citing Iranian websites. Iran held elections on March 14 for the eighth parliament since 1979. The seventh parliament's presidium was seen as working closely with President Ahmadinejad, while the last elections have apparently brought in conservative deputies critical of Ahmadinejad, including Larijani. The daily reported that unnamed members of the seventh and eighth parliaments have been consulting for months on how to keep the presidium as it is; this would keep Ahmadinejad allies Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Mohammad Reza Bahonar as speaker and deputy speaker, respectively. Larijani is a former secretary of the Supreme National Security Council who resigned last year over disagreements with Ahmadinejad. He won the most votes in the Qom constituency in the March elections. VS

Iranian police have shot dead a "bandit" or suspected drug trafficker in the district of Bam in southeastern Iran and seized 400 kilograms of opium, district police commander Abbas Ibrahimi told IRNA on April 6. Ibrahimi said passengers in a car shot at police when ordered to stop at a checkpoint, at an unspecified date. Three of the passengers escaped and one was shot, he added. The police chief of the western Luristan Province, Qasem Nasri, separately told IRNA on April 6 that two armed thieves committed suicide in the district of Dorud in the province on April 5, after they were surrounded by police. They stole a car and put the owner in the trunk, but abandoned the car as they fled police, "Kayhan" reported on April 7. VS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili met in Tehran on April 7 with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari and assured him Iran is doing everything to help assure Iraq's peace and stability, IRNA reported. He told al-Jafari, who heads the Shiite Al-Da'wah Party, that Iran will place its "political, security, and economic" experience at the service of reconstruction in Iraq, and he accused "foreigners" of undermining Iraq's security. Al-Jafari reportedly informed Jalili of the latest developments in Iraq. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said the same day in Tehran that Iran has formally received a request for talks on Iraq from the United States and is studying the letter, IRNA reported. Iran, Iraq, and the United States have had several rounds of talks on Iraqi security in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007, and February 13 and 15, 2008). VS

Sheikh Kazim Unayzan, chief of the Southern Arab Tribal Council, told Al-Sharqiyah television in an interview aired on April 7 that Iran has invaded southern Iraq and intends to use Iraq as a base to spread its influence to the Persian Gulf states, which have a sizable Iranian population. He said recent events in Al-Basrah reflect a struggle for influence and power pitting two nationalist, patriotic parties, Al-Fadilah and the so-called Al-Sadr Trend, against Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'ite parties. "Some political forces are now working for the Iranian intelligence and they received funds from [Iran]. The Iranians are seriously thinking of creating an unbalanced Iraq that supports a theory that is not pan-Arab. This means [Iran] wants to keep Iraq away from its pan-Arab affiliation," Unayzan said. "These [Iranian] forces worked from Karbala and even Baghdad up to the farthest part of Iraq." Asked about the Iraqi government's crackdown on Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Unayzan said the Al-Sadr Trend is being targeted because of its immense popular support. "I do not say the Al-Sadr Trend is impeccable. There are failures and there are doubts about some of its elements, but 90 percent of this trend is clean and patriotic.... It offered large sacrifices...these sacrifices should bear fruit," he said. KR

Sheikh Unayzan told Al-Sharqiyah television that he has no intention of forming an awakening council, but rather, he and other tribal leaders will "establish a force to strike at the militias collaborating with Iran." He claimed that the "Iranians killed -- only in Al-Basrah -- 31 heads of tribes and clans, 37 doctors...400 women, and a large number of pilots and ordinary people who belonged to the Ba'ath Party and former security and intelligence services." He said the tribal council does not belong to any political party, including the Ba'ath Party or any faction that opposes the Iraqi government. He said the council is composed of 77 tribes and more than 3 million people from the Al-Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan governorates. He said the council's goals in the upcoming local elections are to prevent the establishment of federalism, block the oil law, and "prevent absolute subservience to Iran." He added, "We will demand protection for our areas in the south to prevent all neighboring countries and not only Iran from infiltrating them." Sheikh Sabah Muhsin al-Maliki, head of the Bani Malik tribes, told Al-Sharqiyah television on April 7 that some disputes remain among tribes in southern Iraq. The resolution of these disputes is a priority for the tribal council. Meanwhile, Unayzan contended there is no one to reconcile with, since all the Shi'a reject reconciliation with the Ba'athists. He added that those former Ba'athists who have good and honorable intentions could be rehabilitated at a later date. Both men are on a tour of regional Arab states to mobilize support for the tribal council. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told CNN in an interview aired on April 7 that supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr will be banned from taking part in governorate-council elections later this year unless the militia disbands. "A decision was taken [on April 6] that [Sadrists] no longer have a right to participate in the political process or take part in upcoming elections unless they end the Al-Mahdi Army," al-Maliki said. Al-Sadr spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on April 7 that the Sadrists will ignore al-Maliki's demand. He contended that only the parliament has the ability to ban the militia from taking part in the elections, and added that the Al-Mahdi Army did not participate in 2005 elections. Instead, supporters of the militia ran for parliament as independent candidates. Meanwhile, al-Sadr spokesman Hasan al-Zarqani said on April 7 that al-Sadr will disband his militia if senior Shi'ite clerics advise him to do so. Al-Zarqani said al-Sadr will seek rulings from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as well as senior Shi'ite clergy based in Iran on whether to disband the militia, Reuters reported. Al-Zarqani said delegations from al-Sadr's offices in Al-Najaf and Qom, Iran, will meet with the clerics. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari will meet with al-Sadr in Iran this week, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 7. KR

Sixty-nine tribal chiefs in the eastern Wasit Governorate signed a document on April 6 pledging support for the Iraqi government and security forces in a bid to end violence there, Voices of Iraq reported on April 7. The agreement calls for a tribal fine of 100 million Iraqi dinars ($83,000) should anyone in the governorate carry out an act of aggression against police or army forces. It also bans anyone from carrying guns. Violators will be punishable under the law, and the violator's clan is prohibited from mediating or defending him, the news agency reported. Clans traditionally intervene in the legal process to resolve violations and disputes. Violence broke out in the governorate last month when government forces clashed with locals during security operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). KR

Two newly released reports have found that more than half of Iraqis living in Jordan are suffering from mental distress and need psychosocial support, the "Jordan Times" reported on April 7. The two studies, carried out by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Medical Corps (IMC), found Iraqis are under high levels of emotional and psychological distress. The IOM report, based on interviews with 200 displaced Iraqi families, said more than half of respondents experienced panic attacks, anger, tiredness, sleep problems, and fear. "The insecurity of their refugee life, a lack of employment and the de-professionalization of Iraqis whose qualifications are unrecognized [by the Jordanian government], poor living conditions and access to health and social services...has further aggravated the situation," the IOM study said. It also found that domestic violence is on the rise, with 15 percent of women interviewed saying there was an increase of violence within the family. Children showed behavioral and learning difficulties attributed to stress in the family. Meanwhile, the IMC report found that one in two Iraqis are in need of psychosocial support. Just 5 percent of Iraqis reported having access to mental health care. Reasons for needing psychosocial services included stress (64 percent), violence (22 percent), displacement (22 percent), death, kidnapping, or unknown status of a family member and related grief (21 percent), and depression (19 percent), the daily reported. KR