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Newsline - April 15, 2008

Outgoing President Vladimir Putin has accepted an invitation to head the Unified Russia party, reported on April 15. Addressing Unified Russia's party congress in Moscow, Putin not only agreed to become the party's chairman, but also announced that he will be Russia's prime minister. The delegates to the congress then unanimously voted in favor of Putin becoming the party's chairman, after which Putin again addressed the convention, vowing a serious cleansing of the party's ranks. President-elect Dmitry Medvedev also addressed the congress, thanking the party for its support in the March presidential election and for its invitation to join its ranks. However, he turned down the offer to join the party, saying it would be premature to do so given that he will soon become president. On April 14, Unified Russia approved amendments to its charter that allow a nonparty member to become its chairman, thereby paving the way for Putin to become its leader without joining the party. Unified Russia's former leader, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, will probably become head of the party's Supreme Council, "RBK Daily" reported on April 15. JB

The daily "Gazeta" wrote on April 15: "The long-predicted new system of power is finding its first formal contours: a nonparty president bunched with a prime minister, a nonparty leader of the largest party, which controls the parliament, the economy, and the regions. At the same time, the authority of Medvedev in foreign policy, defense, security, and personnel questions may be revised by the State Duma. Those in Unified Russia call Putin's entry into the party part of a logical strategy of building political institutions." "RBK Daily" quoted Aleksandr Khinshtein, the State Duma deputy and writer for "Moskovsky komsomolets," as predicting that Putin, once he has agreed to head Unified Russia, will over time become like the late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping by "seeking to become the informal leader" of the country and "keeping all of the levers of power in his hands." JB

Konstantin Simonov, general director of the Moscow-based National Energy Security Fund, wrote in "Vedomosti" on April 15 that a new system for rating the effectiveness of regional governors will make them more dependent on the prime minister -- that is, Putin -- while the presidential envoys to the federal districts will "de facto be withdrawn from the system of the presidential administration and tied to the cabinet of ministers" -- meaning, again, a shift of power to Putin as prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 1 and 11, 2008). According to Simonov, Putin has also been working to consolidate the state's shares in the Gazprom and Rosneft energy companies into "one structure" under Rosneftegaz, the company that owns 100 percent of Rosneft on behalf of the state, which will end up within Putin's "zone of authority." RussiaToday reported on April 15 that the Russian government plans to transfer its gas assets, including those in distribution and refining, to Rosneftegaz and then swap its shares for those of Gazprom, which will allow the state to gain control over the gas giant. According to RussiaToday, the state currently owns a 39 percent stake in Gazprom through the Federal Property Agency. JB

The Kremlin announced on April 14 that President Putin will travel to Libya for talks with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi on April 16-17. Putin's discussions are expected to focus on gas exploration deals linked to the Russian energy giant, Gazprom, Reuters reported. Putin told State Duma leaders last month that he has not ruled out "top-level visits" as part of the "Russian-Libyan dialogue." He also told the parliamentary leaders that relations with Libya "include financial problems," Interfax reported on March 11. Gazprom announced earlier this month it is conducting talks with its Italian partner, ENI, about a potential asset swap involving projects in Libya, "The Moscow Times" reported on April 15. According to the paper, the announcement followed a meeting between ENI chief executive Paolo Scaroni and Gazprom head Aleksei Miller with Putin in Moscow and "heightened EU fears over its increasing dependency on Russian gas supplies." "The Moscow Times" cited an unnamed Gazprom spokesman who said he does not know whether Putin and Libyan officials will discuss further involvement for Gazprom in Libya or whether Gazprom officials will accompany Putin to Libya. The paper also noted that Putin's visit to Libya comes on the heels of a visit there by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Ukraine's subsequent announcement that state energy firm Naftohaz Ukrayiny won an agreement to start pumping oil in Libya. According to "The Moscow Times," Yushchenko said Naftohaz has won back the rights to a Libyan field that it previously held in 2003 and that he will discuss the potential construction of an oil refinery in Libya when Qaddafi pays a return visit to Ukraine later this year. JB

"Vedomosti" reported on April 15 that President Putin will be accompanied on his visit to Libya April 16-17 by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and Anatoly Isaikin, the director-general of Russia's Rosoboroneksport state arms exporter. According to the paper, nearly $3 billion in contracts for the sale of Russian arms to Libya have been prepared for Putin's visit. "Vedomosti" reported that the contracts include the sale of 12 of Russia's new Su-35 jet fighters and Tor-M2E short-range missile-defense systems, as well as ammunition and spare parts for arms that Libya bought from the Soviet Union along with maintenance and repair of those aging weapon systems. However, the paper also reported that the arms sales to Libya could be slowed down or even scuttled because of the issue of Libya's debt to Russia. According to the paper, the debt issue remains unresolved at least in part because of the arrest last autumn of Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak. Indeed, some Russian media reported after Storchak's arrest last November for alleged embezzlement that the arrest had disrupted talks on the repayment of Libya's debt to Russia, which stands at around $3.5 billion. "Vremya novostei" on November 29 quoted an unidentified Finance Ministry official as saying that it was largely due to Storchak's efforts that Russia had found a way to deal with Libya on the debt issue. Meanwhile, "Vedomosti" reported on April 15 that Russia is facing "serious" competition from France in the area of arms sales to Libya, with Paris working intensively to try and convince Tripoli to purchase 18 Rafale fighter jets for more than 2.5 billion euros (more than $3.9 billion). JB

With President Putin poised to travel to Libya for talks with Libyan leader Qaddafi, another potentially complicating factor in Russian-Libyan relations is the fate of Aleksandr Tsyganov, an employee of LUKoil Overseas, a subsidiary of the Russian oil major LUKoil, who was detained by Libyan authorities in Tripoli last November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007) and remains imprisoned there. Libyan intelligence alleged that he illegally received information about oil and gas fields in Libya on the eve of tender for 12 of the country's gas fields. "Vremya novostei" reported on April 15 that the Russian government views the Libyan charges against Tsyganov as unfounded. JB

Members of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's bodyguard and the Vostok battalion headed by Sulim Yamadayev engaged in a protracted shoot-out on April 14 following a collision between their respective columns of vehicles in the town of Gudermes, Russian media reported. Both sides summoned reinforcements. described the clash as verging on an all-out battle, but Russian media failed to report any casualties. The Chechen resistance website, by contrast, cited unconfirmed reports that two Vostok members were killed in the car crash and four more in the shoot-out, together with six of Kadyrov's bodyguards and an unspecified number of passers-by. It claimed that up to 27 people were injured. Kadyrov, who was in Moscow on April 14 to attend the Unified Russia congress, has called several times in recent months for the Vostok battalion, which is subordinate to Russian Military Intelligence, to be disbanded on the grounds that its members routinely defy police and engage in human rights violations. LF

The Moscow City Court on April 11 rejected as not falling under its jurisdiction a suit filed by the Ingushetian prosecutor's office accusing the website of extremism and demanding its closure, reported. The court referred the case to the Kuntsevo Raion court on the grounds that the registered owner of the website, Magomed Yevloyev, lives in that Moscow district. The website has for the past three years repeatedly reported on and condemned corruption and mismanagement among the republic's leadership. LF

Acting on his constitutional prerogative, President Serzh Sarkisian named the new ministers of defense and foreign affairs on April 14, Noyan Tapan reported. Armed Forces Chief of Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister Colonel General Seyran Ohanian was named defense minister. Ohanian was born on July 1, 1962, in the then-Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, and graduated in 1983 from the Baku Higher Military College, after which he made a career in the Soviet military. He returned to Karabakh in 1991 to fight in the Nagorno-Karabakh Defense Army and was seriously wounded, losing a leg. Then Nagorno-Karabakh Republic President Robert Kocharian named him chief of staff in 1993, and Kocharian's successor, Arkady Ghukasian, appointed him defense minister in 1999. Following Sarkisian's appointment one year ago as Armenian prime minister, Ohanian moved to Yerevan to head the Armenian Armed Forces General Staff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 1999, and May 3, 2007). Eduard Nalbandian, whom Sarkisian has appointed foreign minister, was born in 1956 and served as a Soviet diplomat after graduating in 1978 from the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). He served from 1994-98 as Armenian ambassador to Egypt and from 1999 as ambassador to France. LF

Relatives of supporters of former President and defeated opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian who were arrested in the wake of violent clashes with police in Yerevan on March 1 staged a protest on April 14 outside the Council of Europe representation to demand their release, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Police observed the protest but did not intervene. Also on April 14, it was announced that two more people have died of injuries sustained during the March 1 violence, raising the death toll to 10, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

Touring western Georgia on April 14, Mikheil Saakashvili warned opposition parties participating in the May 21 parliamentary elections that any attempt to provoke a popular uprising should the opposition dispute the results of the ballot will be resolutely quashed, Caucasus Press and reported. He said that the very possibility of such unrest "frightens foreign investors." The nine-party United Opposition-National Council-New Rightists bloc warned last week that a mass uprising is "inevitable" if the election outcome is rigged in favor of the pro-Saakashvili National Movement for a Victorious Georgia, reported on April 8. LF

Defense Ministry officials rejected on April 14 as unfounded an article published in the weekly "Kviris palitra" alleging that the government plans to launch an offensive to regain Abkhazia that could necessitate the imposition of a state of emergency and the postponement of the May 21 parliamentary ballot, Caucasus Press reported. The officials stressed Tbilisi's commitment to resolving the conflict peacefully. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev met on April 14 in Astana with David O'Reilly, the visiting CEO of the U.S. Chevron energy corporation, and discussed plans to expand the Chevron-led TengizChevroil consortium's development of the offshore Tengiz oil field in the Caspian Sea, Kazinform reported. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, O'Reilly noted that the first stage of the consortium's Tengiz project was completed and that TengizChevroil was able to increase oil production by 4 million tons, to reach an annual output of 18.7 million tons of oil by the end of the year. He added that the consortium is seeking to move forward with the second stage of the project, with projected production to reach 24 million tons of oil annually. In October 2007, the Kazakh authorities imposed a 74.4 billion-tenge ($609 million) fine on the Chevron-led consortium for violating national environmental legislation, stemming from a set of complaints first filed against the consortium between 2003 and 2006 for the illegal storage of uncondensed sulfur (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2007). Referring to the environment aspects of the project, O'Reilly said that he discussed the issue with Nazarbaev and offered to implement a "project on storing and utilizing sulfur." RG

In an announcement to reporters in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Deputy Minister of Energy and Industry Akylbek Tyumenbaev said on April 14 that a new electricity-rationing regime will be introduced for at least six months, AFP reported. He added that the regime will impose new restrictions on electricity for homes and "places of entertainment," cutting all electricity for seven hours every night. A less restrictive electricity-rationing regime was introduced last month that reduced 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 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 2008). 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, and to deal with the effects of record cold weather. Over the longer term, the government intends to supplement hydroelectric power with electricity generated from coal and oil to meet domestic energy needs. RG

Addressing a meeting of the official representatives of diplomatic missions in Bishkek, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov called on April 14 for greater cooperation and coordination on the usage of regional water resources in Central Asia, AKIpress reported. Chudinov warned that "unresolved issues of the joint use of water resources may cause serious consequences in the region and even environmental disasters," citing the serious environmental damage inflicted on the inland Aral Sea. He then argued that the "coordinated and mutually beneficial" use of water resources would also "make it possible to move toward forming a common Central Asian energy market." RG

The chief of the General Staff of the Tajik armed forces, General Ramil Nodirov, met on April 14 in Dushanbe with CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha and discussed the planned expansion of Tajikistan's participation in CSTO activities, Asia-Plus reported. Tajikistan is seeking to increase its participation in the CSTO's planned Border-2008 military exercise set for May in Armenia. Bordyuzha welcomed the Tajik interest in greater involvement and told Nodirov that the CSTO "rated highly the level of preparedness and active participation of servicemen of the Tajik Army." Bordyuzha and Nodirov also reviewed detailed plans to bolster regional security, combat drug trafficking, and strengthen counterproliferation efforts between the CSTO and Tajikistan, ITAR-TASS reported. Bordyuzha arrived in Dushanbe on April 13 for a three-day working visit. The CSTO is a regional security organization founded in 1992 and comprises the original members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty -- Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, which were joined by Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Belarus in 1993. RG

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey on April 14 expressed concern about the imprisonment of U.S. citizen Emanuel Zeltser in Minsk, Reuters reported. "The government of Belarus failed to provide timely notification of his arrest or information about his medical condition, and did not inform the U.S. Embassy of his recent transfer to a state psychiatric hospital," Casey said in a statement. Zeltser was reportedly arrested at the Minsk airport on March 12 and charged with conspiracy to commit fraud. The 54-year-old New York-based lawyer, who was born in Russia but emigrated to the United States, is an expert on Russian organized crime and money laundering, and has testified before Congress and appeared as a legal analyst on television and radio. His legal clients include the late Georgian opposition politician Badri Patarkatsishvili. JM

Lawmakers from the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) met on April 14 in Kyiv to discuss how to save their ruling majority in parliament, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. NUNS leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko told journalists that the coalition will be preserved if the BYuT gives up its plans to create an ad hoc parliamentary commission intended to prepare constitutional changes. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko last week announced that her bloc wants to amend the Ukrainian Constitution in order to "balance the branches of powers" in the country. Meanwhile, BYuT lawmaker Viktor Taran told journalists on April 14 that the coalition meeting unanimously approved a decision to ask President Viktor Yushchenko to dismiss Viktor Baloha, the head of the Presidential Secretariat. However, some NUNS lawmakers later that day asserted that there was no vote concerning Baloha during the coalition meeting. JM

President Yushchenko met with his Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski, in Warsaw on April 14, for talks on border cooperation, road construction projects, and both countries' preparations to host the finals of the Euro 2012 European Football Championship, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Yushchenko and Kaczynski also attended the signing of a contract between Sarmatia, a company founded by the Polish and Ukrainian governments, and the U.S.-owned Granherne Ltd. to conduct a feasibility study on the Odesa-Brody oil pipeline. The pipeline, built by Ukraine in 2002, was originally intended as part of a project to transport Caspian Sea crude to the Polish port of Gdansk and on to other points in Europe, helping to break Russia's sole control of Central Asian oil exports. In 2004, the Ukrainian government gave permission for the Odesa-Brody oil pipeline to transport Russian oil in the opposite direction. Progress on the Odesa-Brody-Gdansk project has been extremely slow, in part because of its estimated cost of $2 billion, and because of questions as to whether oil shipped via this route can compete with Russian oil transported to markets through pipelines without sea transport. JM

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said on April 14 that a recent report in Britain's "The Times" about Russia allegedly pressuring UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is a "pure and simple fabrication," news agencies reported (see Part I, "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). The daily reported from Moscow on April 11 that unnamed "Western diplomats fear" that Ban might "hand Russia significant concessions on the newly independent Kosovo" in a bid to secure Moscow's backing for a second term for himself. Churkin said on April 14 that his country is not "entirely happy" with Ban's views on Kosova, but he strongly denied that Moscow is linking the issue with Ban's future in office. Churkin stressed that "no threats, veiled or direct, have ever been made. This is not a manner in which Russia does business with its international partners, certainly including the secretary-general of the United Nations." He added that the question of a second term for Ban "is something we'll decide along with other members of the Security Council in about three years." Churkin stressed that the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) must not force local Serbs to accept Kosova's declaration of independence in any form. He added that the UN should not interfere in issues "which may have status repercussions" in Kosova. Churkin argued that "we think there is certainly room for improvement in the UNMIK operation...on the ground. We are going to make our views clear to everybody." PM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on B92 Television on April 14 that his government will organize local as well as parliamentary elections in 16 municipalities of Kosova on May 11 in order to "make it clear that Kosovo is part of Serbia," AP reported. UNMIK officially does not "support or hinder" Serbia's holding parliamentary elections in Kosova, but UNMIK spokesman Aleksandar Ivanko said recently that for Belgrade to organize the local vote there would be "in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1244...and will have no legal validity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, and April 1 and 10, 2008). Joachim Ruecker, who heads UNMIK, said recently that the UN would welcome Serbian support in organizing local elections later in the year in five mainly Serbian municipalities. PM

The Iranian authorities this month have added several more names to the list of political activists, human rights campaigners, and journalists who have been imprisoned for voicing dissent.

The leader of the unregistered Democratic Party of Iran, Abbas Khorsandi, is among the latest targets of the Iranian security services. Khorsandi was sentenced last week to eight years in prison after being found guilty of threatening Iranian state security by setting up "an illegal political group." A 50-year-old economics professor in the northern town of Firuzkuh, Khorsandi was arrested about seven months ago and has spent more than two months in solitary confinement in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

Khorsandi's wife, Forozandeh Seylespur, tells RFE/RL that her husband has become a prisoner of conscience because of his stated opposition to the Iranian government. "He got this sentence only for holding opposing views," Seylespur says. "He hasn't done anything to justify getting such a sentence. He was only involved in writing. He has acted -- in a totally peaceful manner -- as a writer and human rights activist. He has voiced his views only through the pen and in speeches."

The news of Khorsandi's lengthy prison sentence followed reports about the arrest of another peaceful campaigner, Khadija Moghaddam. The women's rights activist and member of the One Million Signatures Campaign was arrested by security officers, who Moghaddam said "forcibly entered her home" and treated her in a "despicable manner."

Moghaddam has reportedly been charged with spreading propaganda against the state, disrupting public opinion, and acting against national security. The court has set a bail of some $110,000 for her release.

The One Million Signatures Campaign was launched in 2006 as a nonpolitical movement that calls on parliament to change what it calls "discriminatory laws in Iran," including laws on inheritance, divorce, and child custody, which the campaign says treat women unfairly.

In an interview with RFE/RL earlier this year, Moghaddam said it is time to abolish such laws, which were adopted many centuries ago. "What I say now is the opinion of all Iranian women," Moghaddam said. "We live in a century when women take an active part in political, economic, social, and cultural affairs alongside men. We work, we study, and we should not be considered as half of a man. Sixty-four percent of [Iranian] university students are women. They cannot accept a 1,400-year-old rule that considers a woman as half of a man."

Some 600 Iranian activists have signed an open letter condemning Moghaddam's arrest and calling for her release. "Moghaddam has been active for years in creating jobs for women and forming women's cooperatives," the letter says. "Who would believe that she has harmed national security or caused public offense?"

Rights activists say that the arrests of peaceful campaigners, independent journalists, and anyone who is critical of the government have become routine under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. International organizations including Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have harshly criticized Tehran for cracking down on all voices of dissent in the country.

RSF has called Iran "the biggest prison in the Middle East" for journalists and authors whose views differ from the government's. According to the media rights group, dozens of Iranian journalists and rights campaigners have been imprisoned and accused of undermining national security for "simply being outspoken."

On April 5, 30-year-old Elham Yaqubi was arrested and accused of threatening national security for taking part in a peaceful demonstration. The same day, Parvin Ardalan, an award-winning rights activist, was charged with spreading propaganda against the state, a month after she was banned from traveling to Sweden to collect her Olof Palme Award.

Ardalan has been summoned to court at least three times this year. She received a summons two days after the Olof Palme Foundation announced that she had won the prestigious award for human rights activists.

(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Taliban militants attacked a police post in Arghandab district in the southern province of Kandahar on April 14, killing 11 police officers, AFP reported. Deputy provincial police chief Amanullah Khan told the news agency that the attackers were thought to have been disguised in police uniforms, and that "initial investigations indicate that one of the policemen had ties with the Taliban. The Taliban infiltrated the post and opened fire on the police -- there was no exchange of fire." The understaffed Afghan police force is thought to be an easy target for Taliban insurgents. Earlier on April 14, two British NATO soldiers were killed and two wounded in a blast near Kandahar Airfield, where thousands of foreign troops are based. The British Defense Ministry said the troops' vehicle hit an explosive device during a patrol. In the eastern province of Khost the same day, Afghan and U.S.-led troops arrested six militants suspected of planning suicide attacks, AFP reported. A coalition statement said that the insurgents' commander, Mohammad Ghanam, "was one of the two militants who were the focus of the operation. He was directly involved in the preparation of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices." Ghanam is part of the Haqqani network, an antigovernment insurgency faction based in eastern Afghanistan and headed by a key Taliban-linked leader, Jalaluddin Haqqani. AT

Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, on April 13 told a parliamentary security committee that a coalition weapons drop accidentally wound up in the hands of Taliban militants, AP reported. Saleh said that international forces intended to deliver supplies of food, weapons, and ammunition by helicopter to a police checkpoint in Zabul Province in late March, but that the delivery arrived in the wrong place and was retrieved by insurgents. But Hamidullah Tukhi, a lawmaker from Zabul, told the security commission that he does not believe the location of the drop was a mistake, adding that the supplies were placed some 300 feet from the home of a Taliban commander. Saleh said Tukhi's account was based on "rumors." It was not clear what country the helicopter belonged to, and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the U.S.-led coalition have denied ownership of the helicopter in question. AT

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told a news conference in Kabul on April 14 that Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants based in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan are facing pressure on two fronts, which can be increased further with more coordination between the two neighbors, Reuters reported. "The extremists have to deal with pressure from the Pakistan side and pressure from the Afghan side," Boucher said. "The more we can do that in concert with each other, the more squeezed Al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters in those areas will feel." He added that he believes Pakistan is determined to combat terrorists in the border region. "What we're seeing is now, first of all, a lot of Pakistanis unfortunately getting killed, but also a lot of determination on the Pakistani side to deal with it," Boucher said. "We're working very hard with the new Pakistani government to take advantage of the opportunity to build democracy and help work with them against extremism." AT

A meeting scheduled for April 14 between senior Iranian Atomic Energy Organization officials and Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was cancelled for unknown reasons, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. Atomic Energy Organization chief Gholamreza Aqazadeh and his deputy for international affairs, Mohammad Saidi, were to meet with el-Baradei for what had been described as routine talks on Iran's program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 14, 2008). The meeting was cancelled by mutual agreement, the Atomic Energy Organization announced in Tehran on April 14 without giving details. AP quoted an unnamed diplomat in Vienna as saying that el-Baradei had intended to use the meeting to ask Iran for more information regarding suspected past or ongoing nuclear weaponization activities. Iran insists it has a strictly peaceful and lawful nuclear program. VS

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the press in Doha on April 14 that she sought to win support from Arab politicians against Iran's nuclear program during her visit to the capital of the Persian Gulf state, AFP reported. She attended a democracy forum in Doha, and later described Iran as a source of regional extremism, and accused it of undermining regional regimes, and working with "radical" Shi'ite elements like Hizballah in Lebanon and the Hamas administration in Gaza. She said it is in the interest of regional states to join hands against Iran's "nuclear ambitions." In Tehran, parliamentary deputy Reza Talai-Nik accused Israel and the United States of trying to sow discord among Persian Gulf states through "complex scenarios," ISNA reported. Talai-Nik, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said Gulf states are trying to maintain balanced relations with the United States, Israel, and Iran. Most "regional specialists and politicians," he said, believe "the occurrence of any new threat against Iran would cause the greatest harm" to Iran's Gulf neighbors. He said conversations between Iran and Persian Gulf states have indicated an ongoing effort among Gulf states to reduce or prevent tensions between Iran and the United States. A "parallel interaction" with Iran, the United States, and Israel has developed into a constant policy of these states, he said. ISNA cited an unnamed Iranian Foreign Ministry official as regretting Qatar's invitation to Livni on April 14, given what the official said are Israel's ongoing "crimes" against Palestinians and its "savage siege and attack" on them. VS

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi wrote on April 14 to Iranian police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam to inform him that threats against her "life and security" and that of her family have "recently intensified," Radio Farda reported on April 14, citing a statement from her law office. She enclosed photocopies of threats sent to her office on April 3. She told Ahmadi-Moqaddam she has no personal disputes with anyone and defended human rights plaintiffs free of charge, and concluded thereby that those threatening her "are opposed to my...opinions." She said one of the threats was signed by a group called the Anti-Baha'i Society and it warned her to stop serving the interests of foreigners and Baha'is. Baha'is are a religious group founded in Iran in the 19th century, and effectively outlawed in Iran since the 1979 revolution. Another threatening letter said Ebadi has been repeatedly warned to mind what she says in public, and but has continued to speak abroad. The letter told her, "you are being warned for the last time to amend your conduct, or you will taste the vengeance for betraying the country and Islam," Radio Farda reported. VS

The parliamentary research center in Tehran has examined ways of responding to possible chemical and biological attacks on Iran, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 15. The research center noted that biological weapons could be a suitable means of attacking "economic targets" in Iran, and "evidence shows" that advanced states and "the great powers" have most frequently used such weapons against developing states. It stated that using such weaponry would be easy given the many ways harmful agents could be introduced into the country, including through insects, animals, travelers, and legal or illegal food or drug imports. It added that it would be very difficult to confront such an attack if any large number of people in Iran were affected. "In managing the crisis, the operational, logistical and administrative and financial planning sectors must work in complete coordination," the center stated, adding that Iran must protect its health-care centers and financial resources during any "crisis or war." It urged the government to take relevant public-information, educational, and planning measures. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will meet with European Union officials in Brussels on April 16, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on April 14. "The visit aims to strengthen political, economic, security, and military ties," al-Dabbagh told reporters. "We will [also] discuss Iraqi-European understanding in the field of energy with a special emphasis on gas. Iraq has vast gas reserves, and the EU is badly in need of gas," he added. Al-Dabbagh said the meetings will also address a cooperation and trade agreement "that will pave the way for Iraq to enter into a certain type of partnership with EU countries." KR

Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i has reportedly called a relative of slain Iraqi Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khu'i and advised him to demand that the Iraqi government reopen the investigation of al-Khu'i's 2003 assassination, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 14. The ayatollah was killed outside a mosque in Baghdad, allegedly at the order of rival Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2003). Citing sources from al-Khu'i's family, the news channel reported that al-Rubay'i told Prime Minister al-Maliki to reinstate charges against al-Sadr for the ayatollah's murder. The sources said they believe the government is trying to exploit the family to serve its own interests. KR

Thamir al-Tamimi, an adviser to the Sunni awakening councils in Iraq, has announced the formation of a new political front headed by awakening-council leaders and activists who seek to join the political process, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 14. The Iraqi Al-Karamah Front will have no religious or sectarian leanings, al-Tamimi said. Its main tenets include the belief that Iraq is an Arab state, and that the interference of neighboring countries is a more critical issue than the presence of coalition forces on Iraqi soil. "The Iraqi Al-Karamah Front will work toward building a unified, strong Iraq and ending the schemes aimed at dividing Iraq, whether through federalism or other means," al-Tamimi told a press conference in Baghdad. "The front will also call for and work toward achieving full independence and making all foreign forces leave the country -- or organize their presence through agreements that would not harm the country's sovereignty or dignity, as is the case in many independent countries." KR

Iraq's neighboring countries on April 14 agreed to increase security cooperation at the end of a two-day meeting in Damascus, international media reported. The meeting, which is the second of its kind in six months, focused on the roles of Iran and Syria in Iraq. Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi told delegates that although fewer foreign fighters have infiltrated Iraq over the past year, Iran continues to play a negative role, particularly in its alleged support for militiamen in Iraq. "Syria and Iran ultimately do not want the United States to emerge victorious in Iraq," one delegate told Reuters. "This has been the underlying tone of all conferences on Iraq. Look at the latest developments there. It is difficult to say Muqtada al-Sadr is holding out the way he is doing without Iranian support," the unidentified delegate added. Al-Arabiyah television reported from Damascus on April 14 that an argument broke out between representatives from Iraq and Iran during the closed-door meeting. Delegates from Iraq's six neighboring states attended the meeting, as well as representatives from Egypt, Bahrain, the Arab League, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the European Union, and the Group of Eight major industrialized states (G8). Foreign ministers from Iraq's neighbors are scheduled to meet in Kuwait in the coming days. KR

Richard Butler, a British photographer working for CBS News, was set free on April 14, two months after he was abducted from his Al-Basrah hotel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). Butler told Al-Iraqiyah television on April 14 that the Iraqi army's performance in securing his release was "brilliant." "The army stormed my house and overcame my guard," Butler said. The commander of operations in Al-Basrah, Staff Lieutenant General Muhan al-Frayji, said soldiers carrying out house-to-house weapons searches stumbled upon Butler. "The British journalist was in one of the rooms, sitting on the floor with his head covered with a black bag and his hands tied behind his back," al-Frayji said. One guard was arrested but three other men present at the time of the raid evaded capture. KR