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Newsline - April 23, 2008

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 22 that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told him during a meeting they held in Kuwait City that the Iraqi government may revive old contracts for a number of Russian companies, reported. "The prime minister of Iraq...expressed readiness, in response to our request, to view constructively all questions that come up among those companies that earlier had contracts...and would now like to renew those contracts," said Lavrov, who was in Kuwait City for an international conference on Iraq. He said that Maliki "expressed interest in realizing the agreements achieved in February at a meeting of the Russian-Iraqi intergovernmental commission and actively invited Russian companies to come to Iraq." Lavrov told the international conference in Kuwait City that foreign troops should not be withdrawn from Iraq at present. "Iraq's law enforcement structures are not in a position to assume complete responsibility for ensuring security in the country or to effectively counter terrorist groups," he said. "Positive changes have yet to be made irreversible. Consider the recent fighting in Basra and Baghdad...and the latest bomb attacks in the country's central provinces that have claimed dozens of lives." JB

Foreign Minister Lavrov said upon arriving in Kuwait on April 22 that Poland and the Czech Republic have thus far not agreed to Russia's proposal that its personnel have a permanent presence at planned missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. However, according to RBK, Lavrov indicated he does not think the issue is closed. Lavrov said on April 8 that the United States had suggested Russian officers could be deployed at Russian embassies in Poland and the Czech Republic and visit the sites occasionally on the basis of reciprocity, but that this would not be sufficient to ease Russia's concerns, AP reported. The governments of Poland and the Czech Republic have indicated that Russian officers could carry out temporary inspections and monitoring, but have ruled out any permanent Russian presence at the ABM sites. "Officers can be accredited in Russian embassies," RBK on April 23 quoted Lavrov as saying in Kuwait. "But the main thing for us is the possibility of permanently having our representatives at these installations, in order to...mollify our completely well-founded concerns. The dialogue will be continued." JB

The Investigative Committee has removed Valery Khomitsky as a senior investigator for especially important cases, following Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin's firing of Dmitry Dovgy as head of the committee's main investigative unit, "Gazeta" reported on April 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 22, 2008). According to "Gazeta," Khomitsky headed the investigative team that was in charge of the criminal case against Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, who was detained last November for allegedly attempting to embezzle $43.4 million. "Gazeta" also reported that the Prosecutor-General's Office has launched a probe into whether the Investigative Committee acted lawfully in detaining Yelena Mardashova, an accountant with the Nemesida private-security firm, which is owned by Galina Bulbova, the wife of Federal Antinarcotics Committee Lieutenant General Aleksandr Bulbov, who was arrested in October 2007 on charges of abuse of office and illegal wiretapping. Mardashova was released without charges after being held for two days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 14, 2008). Meanwhile, "Kommersant" reported on April 23 that Investigative Committee and Federal Security Service (FSB) personnel conducted another search in connection with the Bulbov case, this time at the offices of Evrobalttur, a travel agency registered to Bulbova and her brother. Bulbova said the search was an attempt to pressure her and her husband. She said that the Nemesida private security firm lost most of its customers after investigators seized documents from its offices and thereby paralyzed its work. JB

Jean-Claude Killy, the French former Olympic ski champion who now heads the International Olympic Committee's Coordination Commission for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, said during the commission's first assessment visit to Sochi on April 22 that getting the Black Sea resort city ready for the 2014 Winter Games is a huge challenge because the Russian resort must build virtually all facilities from scratch, AP reported. "It's probably the most challenging Olympics yet as far as what has to be built," AP quoted Killy as saying at a meeting with the Russian organizers and Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov. "We have a lot of work to do together." Still, while saying that "much remains to be done," Killy said the Sochi games "have the potential to be truly magnificent" and that the visiting commission members were "all very impressed" by what they had seen in Sochi. "I have every confidence that we will succeed," Killy said. According to AP, Zubkov said preparations for the Olympics are "a priority of Russia's leadership" and will be "fulfilled 100 percent," adding: "Sochi can be and will be a super-modern sports center and world-class resort." There has been speculation that Semyon Vainshtok, who resigned on April 17 as the head of Olimpstroi, the state company set up to organize the Sochi Olympics, decided to quit when he understood the problems he faced in trying to get the city ready for the games (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 22, 2008). Sochi Mayor Viktor Kolodyazhny was picked to replace Vainshtok as the head of Olimpstroi. Meanwhile, reported on April 22 that the Russian government has drafted amendments to existing legislation that will allow the transfer of land from some types of "resorts of federal significance" to municipal ownership. According to the website, this will make it possible for Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachev to help Olimpstroi "seize private land" in Sochi to be used for Olympic facilities. JB

The chief research officer of the federal Interior Ministry's All-Russian Scientific-Research Institute, Igor Sundiyev, told reporters in Moscow on April 22 that around 20 people have been detained on suspicion of involvement in a series of racist attacks carried out in Moscow and Moscow Oblast from last December through March of this year, Interfax reports. Sundiyev said that 40 people in Moscow and Moscow Oblast were killed or seriously injured in attacks by skinheads. Aleksandr Brod, the director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, said on March 29 that since the start of the year there had been 86 racist attacks throughout the country, in which 49 people were killed and at least 80 injured, Interfax reported. JB

A new monument was unveiled at the grave of former President Boris Yeltsin at Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery on April 23, the first anniversary of his death, international news agencies reported. Speaking at the ceremony, President Vladimir Putin described his predecessor as "an example for all of us." "The tumultuous 1990s were a time of rapid changes and bold, extraordinary people capable of going against the flow, setting new goals, and leading great numbers of people," Putin said. "And Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, without any exaggeration, belongs to that outstanding group of people." President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and Yeltsin's former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin were among the high-profile guests in attendance. "The Moscow Times" on April 22 quoted the sculpture's author, Grigory Frangulyan, as saying that it is made of different kinds of stone and includes a Byzantine-style mosaic. "It's a symbolic composition of an unusual design," he said of the depiction of the Russian tricolor flag. "Kommersant" reported that Yeltsin's widow, Naina Yeltsina, and two daughters, Tatyana Yumasheva and Yelena Okulova, visited the cemetery on April 22 as final preparations for the April 23 ceremony were under way, and thanked Frangulyan for his sculpture. The newspaper also reported that the work collective of Ural State Technical University voted to rename the university in Yeltsin's honor, despite objections by the local Communist Party branch. JB

In a statement released on April 22, the Russian Foreign Ministry claimed that the flight of a Georgian reconnaissance drone over Abkhazia two days earlier constituted a violation of the May 14, 1994, UN-mediated ceasefire agreement between Georgia and the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia. That agreement obliges both sides to observe the cease-fire "on land, at sea, and in the air," and bans the deployment in the conflict zone of "heavy military equipment," defined in a protocol as "all artillery weapons and mortars with a caliber of over 80 cm; all tanks; all armored transport vehicles." It makes no mention of unmanned aerial surveillance devices. LF

Aleksandr Chernogorov has submitted his resignation as governor of Stavropol Krai, citing "family circumstances," reported on April 22. Chernogorov was first elected governor in 1996; in November 2006 he quit the Communist Party to join the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, but was expelled from its ranks in March 2007 for failing to prevent a victory by A Just Russia in the elections to the regional legislature (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). LF

Introducing the new ministers of finance (Tigran Davtian) and of transport and communications (Gurgen Sargsian) to the staff of their respective ministries on April 22, Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian named among his government's objectives transforming Armenia into a regional financial center and creating a more favorable business environment, Noyan Tapan reported. He also said Armenia should aim to become the regional leader in the sphere of Internet technology. LF

Mikhaeil Saakashvili met on April 22 with members of the parliamentary majority United National Movement in the wake of the surprise decision by parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze to withdraw her name at the last minute from the party's list of candidates for the May 21 parliamentary election, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 22, 2008). The list is now headed by Foreign Minister David Bakradze. LF

De facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh on April 22 devoted approximately one-third of his annual address to parliament, which was posted in full the same day on, to what he implied are concerted efforts by Georgia to sabotage efforts by the international community to mediate a peaceful solution of the Abkhaz conflict. Condemning the abduction, apparently by Georgian security, of Abkhaz local official David Sigua and the cold-blooded killing in September of Abkhaz border guards (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007), he reaffirmed that Abkhazia is ready to resume peace talks as soon as Georgia withdraws from the Kodori Gorge the additional troops it deployed there in 2006. Noting that the UN secretary-general has suggested that aspects of his "Key To The Future" peace plan could be incorporated into a final settlement, Bagapsh stressed that repeated Georgian offers of autonomy are of no interest to the Abkhaz, and he called on the UN to stop touting as a possible basis for negotiations the so-called Boden document on dividing responsibilities between Georgia and Abkhazia. Bagapsh hailed the recent Russian decision to drop the economic sanctions imposed on Abkhazia in 1996, and also Russian President Putin's recent proposals for expanding economic cooperation. Bagapsh said the primary objective of Abkhazia's foreign policy is to achieve de iure recognition as an independent state, and he appealed to the population not to be discouraged by Russia's failure to do so immediately after the successful declaration by Kosova of its independence. Bagapsh noted steady economic growth over the past few years, but acknowledged that without foreign investment the prospects for sustaining that trend are limited. He criticized police and local government officials for infringing the rights of the population and indifference to their problems. He recalled the passage last year of a law intended to strengthen the position of the Abkhaz language, stressing the need for more competent language teaching. He also stressed the importance of proposed constitutional amendments that, according to Caucasus Press on February 6, will redistribute power between the president and parliament, empowering the latter to vote no confidence in the government and to reject presidential nominees for prime minister. LF

During the opening of a special training course in Astana for senior civil servants, Prime Minister Karim Masimov unveiled on April 21 a new civil-service reform program, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He explained that the plan was formulated to meet the "need to develop a new personnel policy and new approaches aimed at developing professional managers," and that it will also introduce electronic, web-based "e-government" service to the population to "simplify administrative procedures and shorten the time of rendering civil services." He added that the "main aim of the administrative reforms" is to increase the "competitiveness of the country's economy," and would be supplemented by measures to improve the quality of government services, the introduction of "efficient result-oriented government planning and budgeting," and the reduction of state "intervention in the private sector." RG

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev welcomed his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karimov on April 22 to Astana on the first day of an official state visit to Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. After Nazarbaev welcomed Karimov at the airport, they discussed issues ranging from bilateral relations to regional security. The two leaders agreed to improve the coordination of efforts to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, jointly pledging that "we are very much interested in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan, since extremism, drug trafficking, and other challenges originate there." Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Karimov hailed Kazakhstan as Uzbekistan's "key partner" in the region and said that it "can play a decisive role in resolving many fundamental issues" essential for stability and security in Central Asia, including support for "sustainable development" in the region. But Karimov also argued that Uzbekistan is "in a better position than Kazakhstan for doing business," claiming that "small-sized business constitutes 49 percent of Uzbek GDP," Kazakhstan Today reported. Karimov also announced that he is opposed to the proposal to form a union of Central Asian states, a Kazakh initiative recently raised during the visit to Kazakhstan by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who expressed his support for the idea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). The proposal encompasses the formation of an "economic union" based on regional coordination of economic development and energy resources. Both presidents did agree, however, on a plan to develop a free-trade zone, ordering Kazakh and Uzbek officials to prepare for more specific negotiations in the coming months, Kazinform reported. RG

A district court in Minsk on April 22 sentenced 10 youth activists to prison, labor, or fines for their "active participation in group actions grossly disturbing the public peace" during an unsanctioned demonstration on January 10, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The rally was held in support of the rights of small-business owners and market vendors. The court sentenced Andrey Kim, who was also found guilty of "violence or threats of violence against a police officer," to 18 months in a minimum security correctional institution. Seven activists -- Mikhail Pashkevich, Alyaksey Bondar, Artsyom Dubski, Ales Straltsou, Ales Charnyshou, Mikhail Kryvau, and Tatsyana Tsishkevich -- were sentenced to two years of "corrective labor" at a residential facility. Uladzimir Syarheyeu and Anton Koypish were fined 3.5 million rubles ($1,633) each. The trials of another four activists on the same charge -- Alyaksandr Barazenka, Pavel Vinahradau, Mikhail Subach, and Maksim Dashuk -- were postponed to a later date. Jonathan Moore, the deputy mission chief at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, described the 18-month prison term given to Kim as a political decision. "The obvious conclusion is that Andrey Kim is a political prisoner," Moore told Belapan. "The United States has called and will continue to call on the Belarusian regime to release all political prisoners. At present these are Alyaksandr Kazulin and Andrey Kim," he added, referring to the former presidential candidate who is serving a 5 1/2-year sentence for organizing antigovernment protests. AM

A district court in Minsk on April 22 fined opposition politician Pavel Sevyarynets 1.4 million rubles ($653) for collecting signatures in support of legislation that would ease restrictions on religious worship, Belapan reported. The court found Sevyarynets guilty under an article of the Administrative Offenses Code regulating citizens' participation in initiating laws. Sevyarynets told the court that over 50,000 signatures were collected under the petition, which calls for reforms of the regulations that currently allow authorities to ban religious services and the construction of places of worship, expel foreign priests, and keep possession of churches seized from religious communities during the Soviet era. Sevyarynets described the court ruling as "illegal," and told Belapan that he intends to inform the European Parliament and the U.S. Congress about the case. AM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on April 22 in Hrodna Oblast that food prices in Belarus should be brought into line with those in neighboring countries, Belapan reported. "Prices in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and European Union countries will be more or less the same," Lukashenka said. "They are a bit lower here today. We are keeping price caps, but this is wrong and paves the way for [disadvantageous] sales of products abroad. There is no other way for us; we will have to raise food prices to prevent products from being washed away to neighboring countries." According to the government statistics office, retail food prices in Minsk rose by 17.6 percent year-on-year in the first three months of 2008. AM

Ukraine has complained to the United Nations about statements made by Russian officials regarding Ukraine's sovereignty, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on April 22. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry delivered the statement to the UN headquarters in New York. Yuriy Serheyev, Ukraine's permanent representative to the UN, said that "the stance stated by the Russian Federation might have unforeseen effects on peace and security." Earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia "will do everything to prevent Ukraine and Georgia from being accepted into NATO," while the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on April 8 that Russian President Vladimir Putin "actually threatened that Russia will begin tearing away Crimea and eastern Ukraine" from Kyiv's authority if the country is offered NATO membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2008). AM

The War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court sentenced Dusan Fustar on April 22 to nine years in prison for crimes committed in 1992, when he commanded a shift of guards at the Bosnian Serb Keraterm concentration camp near Prijedor, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Prior to the sentencing, Fustar expressed regret for his crimes, which included selecting from among the male prisoners a group of 20 people, who were later killed. Fustar was later indicted by The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal For former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and gave himself up voluntarily in 2002. In 2006, the ICTY forwarded his case to the Bosnian court and transferred Fustar to Sarajevo for trial. Since Fustar has already served six years in prison, he will be released after spending a further three years in jail. At the start of the 1992-95 conflict, about 7,000 non-Serbs were rounded up in the Prijedor area and sent to the Keraterm, Omarska, or Trnopolje concentration camps, where they were held in "inhumane conditions and subjected to grave physical, psychological, and sexual abuse," according to the Bosnian court. In the summer of 1992, footage from the Omarska camp drew international attention to the brutal ethnic-cleansing policies of the Bosnian Serb forces. Also on April 22, the Bosnian court in a separate case sentenced three more Bosnian Serbs for war crimes, including the killing of 23 non-Serbs in the Jajce area of central Bosnia in September 1992. Mirko Pekez, aka Guzan, was sentenced to 29 years, while a second Mirko Pekez, aka Peka, and Milorad Savic each received 21-year sentences. The three were detained in late 2007. PM

An unspecified number of EU EUFOR peacekeepers, supported by NATO troops, searched the home of Bosnian Serb businessman Goran Marinkovic in Banja Luka on April 22, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and dpa reported. A EUFOR spokesman said that the five-hour search was especially useful, but did not elaborate. Marinkovic, who imports cigarettes and alcoholic beverages, is suspected by the ICTY of using his money and business contacts to help fund a support network for fugitive war crimes suspects. PM

Visiting Chisinau on April 21-22, Russian Ambassador for special assignments Valery Nesterushkin discussed with Moldovan Foreign Minister Valery Litskai and Minister for Reintegration Vasile Sova the unspecified "new elements" that have emerged in the Transdniester peace process as a result of the April 11 meeting in Bendery between Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin and Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on April 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 14 and 16, 2008). LF

The Afghan government has ordered independent television stations in Kabul to stop broadcasting programs deemed "un-Islamic" or seen as "undermining Afghan culture." Indian soap operas, hugely popular among Afghans, are among the shows that have been branded "un-Islamic," and television stations have been given orders to take them off the air.

Abdul-Qadir Mirzai, the chief news editor for the private television station Ariana, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Ariana has had to stop airing "Kumkum," a popular Indian soap opera. "The Ministry of Information and Culture -- for the second time -- sent an official letter to Ariana television demanding the station refrain from airing the 'Kumkum' drama," he said. Mirzai added that the popular soap opera had attracted many advertisers, and by pulling it off the air, the station would lose both a considerable number of viewers and a significant amount of money.

Mirzai insists the Indian soap opera, based on the love story of a Hindu couple, does not undermine Afghan culture or corrupt young Afghans' morals. Indian movies and television series do not usually include sex or nude scenes.

Afghanistan's Ministry of Information and Culture issued a "final" deadline of April 22 to several other private stations, including Tolo and Noorin, to stop airing similar soap operas. Most private television stations have complied with the order.

During the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, music was outlawed and television was banned for being un-Islamic.

In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, Culture Minister Abdulkarim Khorram, a conservative, defended the hard-line stance on foreign serials, saying they put Afghanistan's family institutions at risk.

"For instance, these serials show a woman who simultaneously has relationships with three or four men. Or they have children out of wedlock, or other similar things," he said. "These serials are watched by everyone, from children to adults; and it damages the ethics and moral well-being of families."

At the same time, Afghan television stations have come under fire from parliament's Committee on the Fight Against Drugs and Moral Corruption, which has criticized them for airing programs that "are foreign to the Afghan mentality and culture." The committee caused a stir in the local media by introducing a package of proposals to be discussed in parliament as possible amendments to existing laws.

Among other issues, the committee suggests outlawing the consumption of alcohol, banning both men and women from dancing in public, and preventing television stations from airing "controversial" films and programs. The lawmakers also want to clarify under what circumstances and conditions female and male athletes should be allowed to train together. Some of them suggest dancing should be banned altogether as a profession for women.

Erfanullah Erfan, a member of the committee, says the introduction of such proposals "has been necessary for a variety of reasons," including "an increase in the number of young boys and girls being dragged into dancing groups against their will and many of them being abused and even raped."

Erfan said the committee has amended the original text of the proposals to eliminate calls for the outlawing of T-shirts, video games, and snooker in Afghanistan.

The package of proposals, which has received extensive media coverage in the country, has provoked mixed reactions among Afghans.

Conservatives have welcomed it. The influential Council of Clerics and conservative lawmakers, including a former warlord, Abdurrasul Sayaf, have taken a tough stance against television stations that broadcast programs with liberal content. Other lawmakers, however, have defended what they call private television's right to freedom of speech.

Television and radio executives, meanwhile, are calling for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai and religious leaders to discuss what they call "coverage of sensitive issues." Karzai has yet to publicly comment on the issue, and it remains unclear whether the meeting will take place.

Many ordinary Afghans say they don't have too many options for entertainment and leisure, and that banning their favorite television serials deprives them of what little enjoyment they have in their impoverished country. They say if the country's leaders want to fight un-Islamic and dangerous elements, they should tackle more concrete issues, such as young girls being sold by their families to settle debts or family feuds.

It is not the first time private television stations have been criticized by Afghan politicians and clerics for "undermining Afghan traditions and culture." Last month, Tolo television was condemned for showing a group of men and women dancing together, as well as for hosting a national music contest, "Afghan Star," a takeoff on the "American Idol" talent-search show.

Afghan Finance Minister Anwar-ul-haf Ahadi said on April 22 that his country is seeking to secure $50 billion in aid over the next five years at a donors' meeting in Paris in June to support Kabul's five-year development plan, AFP reported. The Afghan National Development Strategy (ANDS) was presented to donors at an "aid effectiveness" conference in Kabul. After the meeting, Ahadi told reporters that the plan will be assessed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and that the finalized strategy will become the basis for aid requests at the donors' conference. "For this strategy, the Afghan government has asked the world for $50 billion in aid for five years," he said. "All [aspects] of government are included: security, good governance, capacity building, equal rights of women," he said. Generation of electricity is among the major projects covered by the strategy, as well as building thousands of miles of roads and dams and irrigation systems, Ahadi said. AT

An Indian worker and his Nepalese colleague employed at a security training camp in Herat Province, western Afghanistan, have been abducted, allegedly by Taliban militants, AFP reported on April 22. The two men were traveling to Adraskan district, bordering Iran, when they were kidnapped by armed attackers. Their driver was freed and is being questioned by police. A spokesman for the Herat police, Abdul Rauf Ahmadi, told AFP that "we sent our police to the area, but they had gone missing, [and] we found their vehicle abandoned." AT

Some 400 people demonstrated in eastern Afghanistan on April 22 against high food prices, in what was reported to be the first such protest in the country, AFP reported. The demonstrators blocked a road linking Jalalabad to the capital Kabul, and demanded that the government set caps on prices at food markets. "We can't afford to buy food. We want the government to control the prices," AFP quoted one demonstrator as saying. The cost of wheat flour has more than doubled in recent weeks, while oil and sugar prices are also rising. The crowd expressed anger toward Pakistan, which is Afghanistan's main food supplier but has stopped wheat exports to its neighbor in the past month. Presidential spokesman Homayun Hamidzada told reporters in Kabul that "countries like Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and India, from which we traditionally purchase food, also face food shortages, and that is why they are not ready to sell food under easy circumstances to the private sector." The Afghan government is seeking to purchase some $50 million worth of wheat from Kazakhstan, Pakistan and other countries. AT

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton said in Washington on April 22 that if Iran attacked Israel with nuclear weapons during her presidency, the United States would "totally obliterate" Iran, Reuters reported. She told ABC television that "I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran" in retaliation for a potential attack on Israel, which Clinton speculated could happen in the next decade. "That's a terrible thing to say, but those people who run Iran need to understand that, because that perhaps will deter them from doing something...reckless...and tragic," Clinton said. Reuters quoted rival Democratic candidate Barack Obama as telling ABC separately that "saber-rattling" like Clinton's statement would not give "good results." He said that if elected, he would respond "forcefully and swiftly" to an Iranian attack on Israel. VS

Iranian diplomats met with the deputy head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Olli Heinonen, in Tehran on April 21 and 22 to discuss purported evidence that Iran may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons, news agencies reported. An unnamed Iranian diplomat told Reuters that the talks were positive, although Iran has denied that there is valid evidence showing that it seeks nuclear weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2008). The talks at the Atomic Energy Organization in Tehran lasted about five hours, IRNA reported on April 22, adding that Heinonen was due to leave Tehran on April 23. The agency quoted an unnamed Iranian official as saying that Iran has already clarified the nature of the "purported studies" about suspected weapons development activities, and is holding talks to show its goodwill and the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad wrote to parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel on April 21, accusing him of making false allegations against the presidency and usurping his authority to enact laws, Radio Farda reported on April 22, citing Iranian agency reports. Haddad-Adel stated at a parliamentary session on April 20 that the president failed to publicly inform official bodies that three ratified laws were in force, and proceeded to do so himself. Ahmadinejad wrote on April 21 that only the president can promulgate laws, and sent documents to Haddad-Adel showing that the laws have been enacted. Radio Farda reported that the letter was published in the Tehran media before Haddad-Adel read it. Ahmadinejad stated that Haddad-Adel's allegations were slanderous and would encourage others to pressure the government. "How is your violation to be dealt with, and how is one to make up for this harm?" he wrote. Ahmadinejad and Haddad-Adel have previously been seen as political allies, and some lawmakers have accused Haddad-Adel of lobbying for the government in parliament, though this is not the first dispute over the promulgation of laws. The latest legislation in dispute includes a law on shop signs and another on investment and economic cooperation between Iran and Kuwait, Radio Farda reported. VS

Acting Finance Minister Hossein Samsami said in Tehran on April 22 that he hopes "new methods" can be used in the coming months to improve Iran's economic situation and curb inflation, IRNA reported. He was speaking at an event bidding farewell to his predecessor Davud Danesh-Jafari and formally presenting Samsami to the ministry. He said changes must be made to the banking sector to eliminate "pseudo-usurious" practices. The government of President Ahmadinejad has forced banks to lower interest rates; high interest rates are considered usury under Islamic law. Samsami said financial facilities must meet the needs of both consumers and producers. He said a package of policies recently proposed by the Central Bank have to be amended in line with government policy against inflation. The package proposes that loan rates be set on the basis of the inflation rate, though some lawmakers have called the proposal harmful to domestic production as it would raise the cost of loans. Samsami said his ministry will implement a number of presidential directives to make changes to sectors including the insurance industry, IRNA reported. VS

Hojjatoleslam Javad Taheri, the congregational prayer leader in the district of Fahraj, near Bam in the southeastern province of Kerman, was kidnapped by unknown attackers late on April 21, Radio Farda reported on April 22, citing Iranian authorities. Iranian intelligence and security forces are searching for him, ISNA reported. Taheri was kidnapped by three or four men "dressed as Baluchis" as he was trying to repair his car tire, which had been deliberately punctured, Radio Farda reported, quoting two Tehran-based websites seen as close to conservative leaders, Tabnak and Farda. Kerman Province has seen repeated acts of violence and banditry. VS

Manuchehr Mottaki told a conference of foreign ministers of Iraq's neighbors in Kuwait on April 22 that regional states must exchange views, appreciate the "rightful demands" of Iraqis, and cooperate more to stabilize Iraq, IRNA reported. He said Iran believes the situation in Iraq would improve quickly if Iraqis were given control of the country and Iraq's armed forces were properly trained and equipped. Iran "is strongly suspicious" of the role of occupying powers in fomenting instability and violence, Mottaki said. He added that "certain third parties" have in recent months fanned ethnic and religious discord in Iraq and "paved the way for the presence of lawless groups in Iraq, and are in this way encouraging continued instability in certain areas." He condemned the "mistaken policies" of foreign powers in Iraq, which he said include "a contradictory approach to...terrorism, and the refusal to confront terrorist groups; the aim of this policy is to threaten the security of neighboring states." He may have been referring to the Mujahedin Khalq Organization, a leftist militant group opposed to the Tehran government, whose presence in Iraq is tolerated by U.S. forces, or to the PJAK, a Kurdish guerrilla group sporadically active in Iran's border regions. VS

Salih al-Ubaydi, the official spokesman for Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told RFE/RL in an April 22 interview that he does not believe al-Sadr will order his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, to fight the Iraqi government. Al-Sadr issued an ultimatum to the government earlier this week, saying he would launch an open war if the government did not call off security operations targeting Sadrists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2008). "I think Sayyid Muqtada does not accept any kind of clashes with government troops. If any kind of open war starts, it will start against the occupation forces. But if the occupation forces try to make use of the Iraqi troops in front of them during [any such] clashes, we have to defend ourselves," al-Ubaydi said. Asked if al-Sadr has control over the entire Al-Mahdi militia, al-Ubaydi said: "We do not say that we have control over all of them. But at the same time, we have started very good work to take control of this popular institution. And at the same time, we have done good work to distinguish the bad people who have penetrated in order to tarnish our reputation." He added that "the government knows very well that there are many senior figures in the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army who are killers, and who have committed many crimes under the authority of the government," but that the Baghdad authorities have not taken steps to prosecute those criminals. KR

Salih al-Ubaydi told RFE/RL that the Imam Al-Mahdi Army is not supported by Iran, adding: "It is very well known that there are some political parties playing the Iranian role in Iraq. It is not the Sadrists; it is the al-Hakim party," or the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Al-Ubaydi addressed Iranian interference in Iraq, saying that "it is very well known that Iran also has participated in this campaign against the Sadrists in Al-Basrah, because the Sadrists in Al-Basrah have good control, and at the same time they do not take their orders from the Americans or the British counsels, nor from the Iranian counsel there. So, it is a kind of propaganda against the Sadrists to push them out of Al-Basrah, and they can work upon their investments inside Al-Basrah" (see "Iraq: Al-Sadr's Militia 'Won't Fight Government,'", April 22, 2008). KR

Iraqi security forces have ended their operations in the southern governorate of Al-Basrah, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 22. Major General Abd al-Karim Khalaf, the head of the Interior Ministry's operations center, announced the establishment of a Port Police Department which will help control maritime passage and prevent criminal activity in the port area. Earlier this week, security forces evacuated government buildings occupied by various political parties and civil society organizations. BBC News reported on April 22 that U.S. and British forces are carrying out special operations in Al-Basrah with the goal of detaining senior members of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, other unspecified Shi'ite militiamen, and members of a local tribe. KR

The Kuwait conference for foreign ministers of Iraq's neighboring states ended on April 22 with Arab countries voicing greater support for Iraq but making no concrete commitments to reopen their embassies in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 22, 2008). The conference's final statement praised recent steps taken by the Iraqi government to confront armed groups, as well as the government's commitment to dismantle all militias and extra-governmental armed groups, the Kuwait news agency (KUNA) reported. The statement recognized the importance of the Paris Club's decision last year to write off significant levels of Iraqi debt, and invited all creditors to follow suit. However, it does not appear that any of Iraq's neighbors met an Iraqi request to forgive billions of dollars in debt incurred by Saddam Hussein's regime. Participants in the conference also supported the joint efforts of Iraq and its neighbors to prevent the illegal transit of arms to and from Iraq, KUNA reported. Participants agreed to hold the next neighbors' meeting in Baghdad in six months. KR