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Newsline - May 5, 2008

The government is planning a major parade of military equipment to be held in Red Square on May 9, when Russia celebrates the victory over Germany in World War II, RIA Novosti and other Russian media reported on May 5. The parade will come two days after the inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev as president and, according to expectations, one day after the confirmation of Vladimir Putin as prime minister. According to the news agency, the parade will include 171 pieces of military equipment, including T-90 tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery, and antimissile defense systems. For the first time, Topol mobile strategic nuclear-capable missiles will also be on display, as will some 30 aircraft. The event marks the first time military equipment has participated in a Red Square parade since November 7, 1990, reported. According to an opinion poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), 70 percent of Russians approve of the renewal of the military parades. Twenty-three percent said the parades are needed "to demonstrate the military might of the army and Russia as whole." Just 10 percent said the parades are a good way of "paying homage to those who died or served during the war." "When the parades were cancelled, there were different public moods," analyst Aleksei Makarkin told, "more pacifist and the army was thought of as something expensive that was taking money from peaceful sectors. Now there is a different approach and moods have changed. Russians believe Russia should become a center of influence in the world and, to do that, a strong army is needed. The parades are seen as the restoration of a tradition from the days when the country was a second global superpower." RC

Analysts and observers continue to speculate on how power in Russia will be structured if, as widely expected, President Putin becomes prime minister when his term expires this week. "Gazeta" reported on May 5 that Putin plans to have 11 deputy prime ministers and plans to take over control of regional policy and the so-called power ministries, areas that were under the Kremlin's control during Putin's presidency. According to the unconfirmed report based on statements by an unidentified government official, current Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov will become a deputy prime minister in charge of oversight and monitoring organs. Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak will become a deputy prime minister in charge of the regions and relations with the heads of federation subjects. The paper reported that current First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov will likely be named to head the Security Council and that the power ministries will either be controlled by Putin personally or by a deputy prime minister, possibly Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev. The source also told "Gazeta" that Putin plans to amend the law on the government, which currently gives the president direct control over defense, security, and foreign policy. The daily reported that presidential aide Sergei Yastrezhembsky, currently in charge of Russia's relations with the EU, has asked both Putin and Medvedev not to include him in the new structure. RC

When Putin takes over as prime minister, one of the most pressing problems facing him will be inflation, "Vremya novostei" reported on May 5. The current level of inflation is running nearly the same as it was when Putin took over as president in 2000, the daily reported. The government has calculed inflation in April at 1.4 percent, and the figure for the first quarter of 2008 is 6.3 percent. "Kommersant" reported on May 4 that gasoline price increases played a major role in April and that this will ensure further high inflation into the summer. Analyst Maria Kataranova told the daily "Vremya novostei" the problem is exacerbated by disagreement within the government about the causes of the problem. "As long as they are discussing the monetary and nonmonetary causes of inflation and trying to combat it with extraordinary measures like temporary price freezes, the situation will not change," she said. "The government needs to work out a long-term, logical, and clearly anti-inflationary policy that is supported by all organs of power." RC

Vladimir Milov, president of the Institute of Energy Policy and a former deputy energy minister, on May 5 published a commentary on arguing that accelerated privatization is necessary in order to increase state revenues and combat corruption. Milov wrote that even though two-thirds of the country's gross domestic product is produced by state companies, only 1 percent of budget revenues in 2007 came from the exploitation of state property. He attributed this ineffectiveness to "a badly regulated and highly corrupted system of state-property management." Milov compared the private oil companies LUKoil and TNK-BP to the state-owned Rosneft, noting that the private companies paid dividends of $2-$3.10 per barrel in 2007 while Rosneft paid $0.70. At the same time, he argued, "investment in the private sector is not less and it is developing more dynamically." He writes that the situation is even worse with Gazprom, whose oil subsidiary paid dividends of just $0.33 per barrel in 2006 and just $4 per barrel in taxes (compared to LUKoil, which paid $42 per barrel). Milov said that when he was deputy energy minister, he proposed privatizing all enterprises that failed to reach established norms in terms of effectiveness, and he urged that such a policy should be instituted now. RC

Aleksei Romanov, a local television journalist in Khabarovsk, and Yana Zelinskaya, a Khabarovsk correspondent for St. Petersburg-based Channel Five, were attacked by unknown assailants in the Far Eastern city on May 5, RIA Novosti reported the same day. According to police, the two were attacked by several assailants outside the apartment building where they live. Romanov suffered a broken nose, but neither victim required hospitalization. Zelinskaya reportedly told the news agency she has no idea why they might have been attacked. The case is under investigation. RC

President Putin has appropriated 10 million rubles (around $425,000) for the carrying out of "repair and conservation work" on the Sergiev Town Church in Jerusalem, with the funding to be allocated in the second quarter of this year, "Kommersant" reported on May 5. "This means that the process of negotiation over the transfer to the Russian Federation of historically Russian property in the Holy Land lost in the 1960s has reached a final phase," the newspaper wrote. According to "Kommersant," Putin may visit the Holy Land in June-July to sign a final agreement with Israel on transferring the church to Russia. The Sergiev Town Church is a two-story, 19th-century building in the center of Jerusalem whose construction was funded by Grand Duke Sergei Aleksandrovich Romanov, the founder of the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society. The premises were taken over by Israeli authorities after Israel and the Soviet Union broke off relations in 1967. According to "Kommersant," the Russian government decided to reclaim the property in 1996, but it was only in April 2005 that Putin, during a visit to Israel, managed to convince then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to start the process of transferring the church back to Russian possession. JB

The Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees has charged that numerous rights violations have accompanied the spring conscription drive, Interfax reported on May 4. "We conduct a weekly meeting," the union's head, Valentina Melnikova, told the news agency. "Around 100 people come to us at each one. The complaints started to arrive at the beginning of March." According to Melnikova, the majority of the complaints have involved military authorities declaring young people with illnesses that clearly disqualify them for military service fit for duty. "The military commissars and military registration and enlistment office staff say rude things, don't accept documents; this happens everywhere," she said. "It is necessary to intervene every time." Melnikova said there have also been complaints involving the abolition this year of certain deferments, including those for inductees whose parents or grandparents are handicapped but not designated as belonging to "Group I," the group with the highest degree of disability. "So far we don't know what to do and how to resolve these problems," she said. "We are asking everyone who could end up in that situation to present two petitions in court -- from the youth and from the parents or the grandmother and grandfather -- right away." In addition, according to Melnikova, young people who finished college and entered a higher-education institute last year are also having problems with draft deferments. "There are very many of these around Russia," she said. "We are now figuring out how to restore the right to that deferment." Melnikova concluded: "The worst thing is that as before, they are continuing to try to send [to the army] the sick -- and the very sick, at that -- and this is [happening] all around Russia." JB

Five police officers were killed late on May 4 and two injured when a radio-controlled explosive device exploded in Grozny's Staropromyslovsky Raion, reported on May 5. On May 3, the Chechen Interior Ministry confirmed that a clash took place the previous day near the village of Roshni-Chu in southern Chechnya between a combined force of Chechen police and Russian Interior Ministry troops and some 30 militants in which two of the pro-Moscow contingent were killed, reported. The separatist website claimed on May 3 that six Chechen police and two Russian servicemen were killed. LF

Addressing on May 2 a congress in Yerevan of the Armenian National Movement (HHSh) he founded 19 years earlier, Levon Ter-Petrossian laid the blame for the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between police and security forces and his supporters squarely on Robert Kocharian, who succeeded him as president in 1998 and relinquished power last month to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Ter-Petrossian said that Kocharian "was the only official who could give an order for the use of force and to shoot at peaceful demonstrators." He added, however, that as president-elect Sarkisian should have prevented Kocharian from doing so, and that "Sarkisian has no more convenient and effective way to prove his innocence than to agree to an independent international investigation" into the events that culminated in the violence. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) called last month for such a probe, and Sarkisian has set up a working group to address that and related demands (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18 and 28, 2008). Ter-Petrossian said that while he still does not acknowledge Sarkisian as legitimately elected (Ter-Petrossian claims to have won the February 19 presidential ballot with 65 percent of the vote), he accepts that the new Sarkisian administration is a "real political factor" and is prepared to embark on a dialogue provided the administration complies with the PACE demands. He added that such a dialogue should contribute to the implementation of real reforms and creating "a normal field for political activity." Ter-Petrossian further announced that he and the 20-odd parties and NGOs that supported his presidential bid will refrain from any move that could result in "political upheaval" at a time when Azerbaijan is increasing the pressure for concessions from Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. And he expressed regret that European organizations did not condemn more trenchantly the procedural violations that marred the February 19 ballot, implying that that failure was a key contributing factor to Kocharian's decision to resort to violence against the protesters on March 1. LF

Deputies endorsed on May 2 by a vote of 101 in favor and six against proposed amendments to the 2008 state budget that raise anticipated revenues by 41.8 percent to a total of 10.48 billion manats ($12.64 billion) and expenditures by 29.8 percent, to 11.6 billion manats, Azerbaijani media reported. Finance Minister Samir Sharifov explained that the increases reflect the rise in the price of Azerbaijani oil from $50 to $70 per barrel. Deputy Interior Minister Asker Alekperov on May 3 rejected opposition criticism of the restrictions on holding public rallies, reported. He argued that "democracy does not mean that someone can hold meetings wherever he wants to." LF

The opposition Musavat party decided on May 3 to postpone indefinitely a rally -- the first since last year -- it planned to hold the following day after the Baku municipal authorities rejected all three proposed venues but gave permission to hold it on the outskirts of the city, Azerbaijani media reported. The aim of the rally was to protest rising prices and reprisals against journalists and to demand amendments to the election law in the run-up to the presidential ballot scheduled for October 15. Senior Musavat functionary Arif Hacili was quoted on May 5 by as saying the party will no longer request formal permission from the city authorities to stage rallies, but go ahead and hold them anyway. LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry on May 2 formally demanded that Russia withdraw immediately the additional peacekeeping troops it has deployed to the Abkhaz conflict zone under the CIS aegis, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30 and May 2, 2008). Then late on May 3, the Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement rejecting as untrue the assertion earlier that day by an unnamed Russian Defense Ministry official that Georgia is preparing to launch a military incursion into Abkhazia within the next few days, reported. It likewise denied a statement by the same unnamed official that plans are being drawn up to evacuate Foreign Embassy staff from Tbilisi. Also on May 3, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists in Moscow after meeting in London with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Georgia's "inability to negotiate" problematic issues with Russia derives from the support it receives from the international community for its aspiration to join NATO, reported. LF

Two Georgian spy drones were shot down over Abkhazia during the late afternoon of May 4, reported, quoting Kristian Bzhania, de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh's spokesman. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement later that day saying the flights were unauthorized and constitute proof that the Georgian leadership "has ignored our repeated warnings concerning the dangers of violating" the May 1994 UN-mediated cease-fire agreement and related UN Security Council resolutions. The Georgian Foreign Ministry denied any Georgian drones were shot down and branded the Abkhaz allegations and Moscow's endorsement of them a "provocation," reported. The ministry further affirmed that the Russian peacekeeping operation in Georgia has transmuted into "open military aggression against Georgia with the aim of annexing part of its territory." LF

The United National Movement, recently renamed the United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia, convened a congress in Tbilisi on May 3, attended by some 19,000 delegates, who adopted a manifesto for the coming four years that focuses primarily on national security, lowering unemployment, and social welfare, Caucasus Press reported. Addressing the gathering, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili listed among the party's achievements over the past four years the eradication of corruption and the ouster of authoritarian Adjar leader Aslan Abashidze. He described Georgia as the flagship of democracy in the region and as on the front line of the battle between good and evil, in which it is "protecting the future...of the democratic world," reported. LF

President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced on May 2 the appointment of Feliks Kulov, the leader of the opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) Party, to head a new state energy investment body, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kulov served as prime minister following Bakiev's election as president in 2005, but his subsequent renomination was rejected twice by parliament. He later defected to the opposition and led mass protests against the Bakiev government. Kulov recently withdrew from the opposition's "People's Kurultai" (Grand Congress) or alternative parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 14, 2008). Kulov assumes the leadership of a newly created state entity empowered to oversee and develop small and medium-sized electrical power industries, according to Kabar. The body also seeks to expand the supply of electricity to Kyrgyzstan's mountainous and remote rural areas. RG

Kyrgyz Deputy Minister of Industry, Energy and Fuel Resources Akylbek Tumenbaev opened a meeting in Bishkek on May 2 of officials from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan to discuss plans to improve regional cooperation in the management and use of water and energy resources, AKIpress reported. The officials, primarily deputy ministers from each country's energy ministry, focused on the water and energy resources of Kyrgyzstan's Naryn-Syr Daria river basin. At the end of the meeting, which is set to reconvene on May 14-15, participants adopted specific measures governing the use of the water and energy resources at the Kyrgyz Toktogul reservoir, which provides 40 percent of Kyrgyzstan's hydroelectric energy. The Kyrgyz government recently decided to introduce a new electricity-rationing regime, lasting for at least six months, that entails cutting electricity supplies for seven hours every night (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). The rationing program is intended to offset a dramatic decrease in the water level at the Toktogul reservoir. RG

At a cabinet meeting on May 2, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov ordered the removal of a rotating gold statue of his late predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, from the center of the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, Turkmen Television and the Russian-language Turkmen opposition website reported. The order called for the 74-meter-high gold-plated statue, officially known as the "Arch of Neutrality," to be relocated to the outskirts of Ashgabat from its present location near the presidential palace. Berdymukhammedov also recently decided to reverse Niyazov's official renaming of several days and months after himself and his family members, effectively restoring the previous names of the months and days of the calendar and reverting to the traditional Turkmen-language translation of the months and days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2008). Berdymukhammedov also issued a pardon for some 900 convicts. RG

In a move to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, President Islam Karimov issued a decree on May 1 approving an action plan aimed at improving and strengthening the protection of the rights and freedoms of Uzbek citizens, the Uzbek National News Agency website reported. He also endorsed the creation of a new special commission empowered to implement the action plan. The parliament was also instructed to adopt new legislation designed to "improve the legal basis of protecting the political, social, and economic rights and freedom of citizens." RG

Eleven U.S. diplomats left Belarus on May 3, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported, leaving just four diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, including Jonathan Moore, the deputy mission chief. On April 30, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry declared 10 U.S. diplomats persona non grata and ordered them to leave the country within 72 hours (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2008). The 10 expelled diplomats were reportedly joined by one Marine who guarded the embassy and was not on the expulsion list. "We're considering all options, but this is not a tit-for-tat thing," U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of State David Merkel told RFE/RL on May 2, responding to a question as to whether Washington will retaliate by expelling Belarusian diplomats. There were 32 diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk at the beginning of 2008. JM

The National Bank of Ukraine said in a paper dealing with fiscal policies in Ukraine in the first quarter of 2008 that the government's rising spending on social programs remains a major inflationary factor in the country, Interfax-Ukraine reported on May 5. Inflation in Ukraine from January to March was 9.7 percent, demolishing the government forecast of 9.6 percent for the entire year. JM

Leaders of 19 countries in Central and Southeastern Europe agreed at a summit held in Ohrid, Macedonia, that their region has no alternative to EU and NATO membership, local and international media reported on May 3. However, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski, who hosted the meeting, also told reporters after the two-day event concluded on May 3 that progress on the "road to Europe" is not yet irreversible. The chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, criticized the EU for signing a premembership Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia, but not with his country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2008). "We were told the deal would be signed first in April, then in May, and now June is mentioned as a possible date. Our people are hurt and a bitter feeling lingers. Bosnia has fulfilled all the conditions. Serbia got the deal. The countries who have committed genocide got it, but not Bosnia, who was the victim," Silajdzic said. The summit was held under the auspices of the Central European Initiative (CEI), which has 18 members ranging from the Czech Republic, Austria, and Italy to Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and the Balkans. Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended as an observer and was invited by his Croatian counterpart, Stjepan Mesic, to visit Croatia in mid-June; Croatia and Turkey are the only two countries currently holding membership talks with the EU, while Macedonia -- the third candidate -- hopes to start talks later this year. Croatia and Albania were offered NATO membership at a NATO summit on April 2-4 in Bucharest, but Macedonia's application was vetoed by Greece (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2008). The CEI leaders agreed that the next summit should be held in Serbia's Vojvodina region and that regional energy and transport questions will be at the center of discussions. TV

The Italian automobile firm Fiat signed a memorandum of understanding with Serbia's Zastava to set up a joint company to invest $1.09 billion in two new car models to be manufactured in Zastava's factory in Kragujevac, central Serbia, local and international media reported on April 30. Fiat is to own 70 percent of the new company, according to these reports, though the specifics of the deal and legally binding contracts still remain to be worked out. Fiat's chief executive, Sergio Marchione, said the investment "demonstrates our confidence and trust in Serbia, its industry, management competence, and the skill of its workers, not to forget the Serbian automotive market itself, which we consider an integral extension of our domestic market." Zastava, which is currently operating far below capacity, already manufactures the Fiat Punto in Kragujevac; the first new models under the deal are now planned to roll off the production line in 2009. TV

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki dispatched a delegation of leading Shi'ite figures to Iran last week to present Tehran with mounting evidence of Iran's support for rogue militias in Iraq. But Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia continues to battle Iraqi and U.S. forces in Baghdad and other areas, and who has been in Iran for months, refused to meet with the delegation.

The Iraqi delegation reportedly met with Qasim Suleimani, the head of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps' Qods Force, on May 1, and was expected to meet again with him on May 2. The force is suspected of being the main supplier of Iranian-made weapons to Iraq. It has also been linked to the training of Iraqi militiamen. The delegation was slated to meet with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well.

On May 2, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini downplayed the delegation's visit, saying, "Iranian officials will hold talks with this delegation in line with helping settle differences and ongoing clashes in Iraq."

Al-Sadr spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi told Al-Sharqiyah television on May 1 that the delegation, comprising Shi'ite politicians from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), was "fishing in troubled waters." Al-Ubaydi said the Sadrists were reluctant to divulge the whereabouts of al-Sadr for political and security reasons. He acknowledged to AFP on May 1 that al-Sadr and other leading members of the so-called Al-Sadr Trend are in Iran. Al-Sadr has been rumored to be studying in the Iranian holy city of Qom.

Al-Ubaydi cited statements by government officials in recent days, including by Prime Minister al-Maliki, that the government would not sit and negotiate with al-Sadr. He confirmed, however, that al-Sadr's representatives have met with President Jalal Talabani and parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani in recent days, and said the dialogue with those officials continues.

"We reject any interference by the [UIA] in this crisis, except when such interference is carried out within the context of the national parliamentary initiative," al-Ubaydi said. "This is because we have found that the [alliance] is lacking in credibility."

The Al-Sadr Trend, which is represented in parliament by 30 "independent" politicians, withdrew its ministers from the cabinet in April 2007. It pulled out of the UIA, which exists mainly as a parliamentary alliance, in September, leaving the UIA in control of around half of parliament's seats.

The friction with the UIA is mainly due to an ongoing rivalry between al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is headed by Shi'ite politician Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. Al-Ubaydi alleges that al-Hakim's quest for a super-region in southern Iraq and his desire for his party to win big in governorate elections in October are the driving force behind the government's crackdown on the Sadrists.

Of the UIA figures in the delegation, at least one, Hadi al-Amiri, has long-standing ties to Iran. Al-Amiri is the head of the former armed wing of the ISCI. Formerly known as the Badr Corps, it was set up with Iranian support in the early 1980s. The Badr Corps entered Iraq following the fall of the Hussein regime and later claimed to be disarming and turning to humanitarian work under the name Badr Organization. Al-Sadr spokesman al-Ubaydi told RFE/RL on April 22 that it is not the Sadrists, but the ISCI's Badr forces that are armed and funded by Iran.

Other members of the delegation include deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Atiyah, Islamic Al-Da'wah Party legislator Ali al-Adib, and Tariq Abdullah, an aide to al-Maliki.

Al-Ubaydi described the delegation to Al-Arabiyah television on May 1 as "Iranians par excellence," claiming that al-Adib holds Iranian citizenship and al-Amiri is a "former general of the Iranian Army." He told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on April 30 that the presence of Iranian weapons in Iraq is "quite normal," since Iran "sells weapons to anyone who wants, and the Al-Sadr Trend, Al-Qaeda, and the parties in Iraq's political process [a reference to the Badr Corps] have Iranian weapons." He added, "Therefore, it is quite natural to find Iranian weapons because they are bought and sold and any party can buy them."

On April 29, Prime Minister al-Maliki told reporters that the government will not tolerate weapons in the hands of any forces outside its control. He maintained his position that the government is not singling out al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and that all armed groups will be dealt with. "We will not go back on our aim to disarm the militias, dissolve the Al-Mahdi Army, Islamic Army, and Umar Army, and terminate Al-Qaeda," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq quoted him as saying. The latter three groups are Sunni insurgent groups.

"When we say that there is one army, we mean the state army and not the army of the militias, regardless of the names and types.... Whoever insists on the existence of an army or an armed group wants to compete with the state in its responsibility, and such logic is totally rejected," al-Maliki added.

Al-Maliki said the delegation dispatched to Iran was not there to negotiate. "I did not send a delegation to Iran or any other state for negotiations. I did not permit myself or any of the field commanders to negotiate with any of the criminal gangs, militias, or outlaws. I said this before and I say it now: I will not negotiate. I set conditions for building the state. Whoever abides by them is a true citizen, and whoever rebels against them is an outcast."

In a statement to the people of Al-Sadr City on May 1, the prime minister again commented on the ongoing security operations targeting militias in the Baghdad district. He said the government is making security and reconstruction in Al-Sadr City -- arguably the poorest area in the capital -- a priority.

"We realize the magnitude of the suffering of Al-Sadr City's residents. Thus, we have drawn up the necessary plans to address the issue of housing, rehabilitation of the youth, and creation of proper job opportunities for them, and to build more schools and heath centers," he noted.

"We regret to say that what aggravates the suffering of citizens and harms them is that Al-Sadr City is controlled by criminal gangs and outlaws who obstruct construction and reconstruction projects and implement agendas that clash with national interests. This makes it imperative for us to confront those groups firmly and strongly. Entrenching security and enforcing the law are the responsibilities of the government," al-Maliki added. "We reiterate that those [militiamen] have no option other than laying down their weapons and stopping their tampering with citizens' security."

On April 30, government spokesman Tahsin al-Shaykhali told reporters in Baghdad that militiamen in Al-Sadr City have prevented the flow of aid to the impoverished area. Al-Shaykhali said that out of 77 vehicles carrying oil into Al-Sadr City recently, only 22 arrived. "They tried to intervene and intercept those...and steal those vehicles," he said of the militias. "Eighty percent of the needs regarding medicine and the treatment, and even the surgical end -- that is, the surgical operation is present and is being given in the hospital in Al-Sadr City," he said.

Meanwhile, the director-general of Fatima Al-Zahra Hospital told IRIN, the humanitarian news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, that hospitals in Al-Sadr City are still experiencing medicine and equipment shortages, IRIN reported on May 1. He said the hospitals face shortages in painkillers, bandages, syringes, and other first-aid materials. Moreover, ambulances come under regular attack. "Work in my hospital has gone down 50 percent," he said, blaming a nearby Iraqi Army checkpoint that "makes it very hard for medical staff and patients to get to the hospital."

The government and coalition forces intend to pour $2.5 million in aid and reconstruction investments into Al-Sadr City in the next 90 days, U.S. Major General Kevin Bergner told reporters on April 30, in what he described as a "first installment." The Iraqi government had earlier announced an allocation of $150 million in aid to Al-Sadr City.

Given the Sadrists' intense distrust of the UIA, it appears that the delegation will achieve little in terms of talks with al-Sadr or his representatives. The al-Mashhadani-Talabani route might yield more success, given that the two are far away from intra-Shi'a politics (al-Mashhadani is a Sunni Arab, while Talabani is a Sunni Kurd).

However, those talks may take longer to achieve desired results. As al-Ubaydi was quick to point out, the trend has major issues with Prime Minister al-Maliki, and believes he has reneged on several earlier commitments. Moreover, al-Ubaydi said, the Sadrists need "a third party" to act as an observer to any talks between the Al-Sadr Trend and the Shi'ite-led government, aka the UIA.

The Afghan Defense Ministry has called on Pakistan to prevent "terrorists" from using its territory as Islamabad seeks to negotiate a peace deal with a Taliban commander on its side of the border, AFP reported on May 4. The Defense Ministry expressed concern that such a deal would not reduce the activity of militants based in the Pakistani border regions. It cited media reports that a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban has vowed to continue the "real jihad" in Afghanistan even if a peace deal is reached with Islamabad. "Afghanistan supports any action resulting in peace and stability in the region, but only if such actions do not cause further terrorist activities in Afghanistan," the ministry said in a statement. "Afghanistan's biggest hope from the brotherly and friendly country of Pakistan is that its land not be used by terrorists against Afghanistan." The U.S. State Department said last week that Al-Qaeda is regathering in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Northwest Frontier Province, both on the border with Afghanistan. AT

Afghan officials say they have arrested two government employees for suspected involvement in the assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai on April 27, AP reported on May 4. The two suspects -- a nurse for the police forces and a Defense Ministry weapons expert -- are thought to have collaborated with the gunmen who targeted Karzai at a military parade in Kabul, killing three people. Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said that two assault rifles used in the assassination attempt were government-issued weapons. Intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh has accused Al-Qaeda-linked militants based in Pakistan of planning the assassination attempt. AT

Police officials on May 4 announced that Pakistani militiamen killed a 7-year-old Afghan girl for allegedly smuggling a 3-kilogram bag of flour across the Afghan-Pakistani border, Bakhtar news agency reported. The militiamen reportedly threw the girl in front of a moving truck. The killing sparked clashes between the Afghan and Pakistani border police, but no injuries were reported. Hundreds of adults and children have started to smuggle flour from Pakistan to Afghanistan in response to the sharp increase in the cost of wheat at home, caused in part by Pakistan's recent ban on wheat exports. Child smugglers between five and 12 years old say they are sometimes beaten by the Pakistani border police, but persist in trying to smuggle flour because the staple food is prohibitively expensive in Jalalabad, Nangahar Province. Bakhtar quoted the head of the Nangarhar customs office, Ihsanullah Kama Wal, as saying that "the price of flour will decrease in 10 to 15 days. This is a temporary problem. The government has bought flour from other countries, and it will soon reach the market." AT

Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura met President Karzai during a previously unannounced visit to Afghanistan on May 4, AFP reported. Arriving in Kabul after a stop in Islamabad, Komura told reporters that he has called on Afghan leaders to focus on improving the quality of governance and stepping up efforts against the narcotics trade. Komura also said he asked his Afghan counterpart, Rangeen Dafar Spanta, to work to improve relations with Pakistan. Komura said Japan will ask for more international support for Afghanistan at a conference of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries in Japan in July. Japan has been a major donor to Afghanistan, pledging $1.3 billion since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in southern Iran on May 4 that Iran will face down Western sanctions over its contested nuclear program, and "nobody can deter the Iranian people" from the goal of progress, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Khamenei told a crowd in Nurabad, Fars Province, that "we will continue our path with strength, and we will not let the arrogant trample on the Iranian people's rights." Representatives of the 5+1 powers, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, met in London on May 2 and agreed to offer Iran new economic incentives to convince it to stop its nuclear activities. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the press in London on May 2 that the six countries held a "productive meeting" and concluded that they wish to "address directly" the "very serious" threat posed by Iran's uranium-enrichment activities. He said the powers agreed that a dual-track strategy of punitive measures and incentives should be pursued, Reuters reported, and that they are updating the last set of economic incentives offered to Iran in June 2006, and will reveal and present them to the Iranian government. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki urged those countries the next day not to cross any "red lines" in their proposals, Radio Farda reported; Iran has said its "right" to produce nuclear fuel is nonnegotiable. Also on May 4, Khamenei urged officials to make Iran's economy efficient enough to be impervious to UN sanctions. He vowed that Iranians will withstand sanctions as they have for "the past 30 years," Radio Farda reported. VS

Mohammad Khatami, the reformist president of Iran from 1997 to 2005, told students in Gilan, northern Iran, on May 3 that the late revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, never intended a violent "exportation" of Iran's revolutionary polity or ideals, Radio Farda reported on May 4, citing Iranian media. The 1979 revolution led by Khomeini toppled Iran's Westernizing monarchy to install a religious-inspired regime with a state-owned economy. The West has repeatedly accused Iran since then of backing Islamist terrorist or militant groups in the Middle East. In his speech, Khatami criticized what he described as the distortion of Khomeini's ideas in Iran. "What did [Khomeini] want and what did he mean by exporting the revolution -- that we should take up arms and provoke explosions in other countries? Or form groups to cause damage in other countries? The imam was vigorously opposed" to this, Khatami said. Radio Farda observed that most Iranian media censored that part of his speech, and these remarks were only reported by ISNA and "Kargozaran," the daily linked to the centrist Executives of Construction party. Khatami said terrorism is bad, whoever its agents are, and "even worse" when carried out in the name of religion. He deplored the rigid views of certain elements in Iran, who he said demonize or condemn other Iranians for having differing religious or ideological beliefs. Such a division, he said, "shows a great deviation in our society, and indicates an internal confrontation" that might lead to the "collapse of the Islamic republic," Radio Farda reported. VS

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf told a conference in Tehran on May 3 that "current class divisions in Tehran" are not acceptable and the capital faces social threats, including psychological pressure from difficult working conditions, the Fars news agency reported. Qalibaf told a conference of surgeons that most people in Tehran work two shifts totaling up to 16 hours a day to make ends meet, and "every day suffer the harshest psychological pressures." He said that "traffic, air pollution, migration, and marginal living conditions have today reached levels in Tehran that go beyond those of a conurbation. We do not have a large city today in Tehran, but an urban system." He said the megalopolis has come to include a number of districts or towns Iranian officials still refer to as separate entities, such as Eslamshahr or Varamin, though in that regard, he added, "we are deceiving ourselves." He did not cite a population figure for Tehran, but said it is growing by about 3.5-3.8 percent, presumably annually, and that migration into Tehran is causing a strain on the city and leading to a "marginal life" for thousands. "You look at most people in this city, they are tense and grumpy and one sees less liveliness" among them. He said the city government has programs to help create wealth in the city. "Increasing wealth is not the same as distributing money, [which] ultimately takes us toward poverty." He vowed to create 30 more kilometers of subway lines in Tehran in the next two years "with or without government help," in addition to the 49 kilometers he said are currently in use. VS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters on May 4 that although the Iraqi government is aware of the presence of Iranian weapons in Iraq, it does not have hard evidence of Iranian support for militias there. He said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has decided to form a special committee comprising representatives of the general command of the armed forces, the ministries of defense and interior, and the Ministry of State for National Security Affairs to examine and document potential cases of interference. "The Washington Post" reported that al-Dabbagh later said his comments were misinterpreted, and insisted that Iraq does, in fact, have "hard evidence" of Iranian interference. "There is interference and evidence that [Iran] has interfered in Iraqi affairs," the daily on May 5 quoted al-Dabbagh as saying. "The truth came out; there is evidence of Iranian weapons in Iraq. Now we need to document who sent them." Separately, "The New York Times" on May 5 quoted a U.S. official as saying that four Iraqi Shi'ite militiamen who were captured in Iraq late last year and interrogated separately said that Lebanese Hizballah is training Iraqi fighters at a camp near Tehran. KR

Iraqi deputy speaker of parliament, Khalid al-Atiyah, said on May 4 that a delegation he led to Iran last week to discuss that country's alleged meddling in Iraq was "constructive," and that the two sides agreed to continue joint efforts to bring security to Iraq. He did not say, however, whether Iran agreed to end its apparent interference and support for militias in Iraq. The same day, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq said that the delegation on May 3 briefed leading members of the United Iraqi Alliance, including Prime Minister al-Maliki, on the visit to Iran, and that the delegation reported a positive Iranian response. But Al-Sharqiyah television cited sources on May 4 as reporting that the delegation was not well received. The sources said the delegates' impression of the meetings was negative, and that it appeared the Iranian leadership is not happy with positions adopted by al-Maliki. AP reported on May 4 that the delegation received a frosty reception from General Qasim Suleimani of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Quds Force, who was presented with evidence of Iranian interference in Iraq, including weapons with date stamps showing they were produced in Iran as recently as this year. Suleimani reportedly questioned the origin of the documentation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2008). KR

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi gave a detailed account of his meetings with Turkish officials last week in a statement posted to the Iraqi Islamic Party's website on May 3, stating that he sensed a change in Turkey's policy toward Iraq. "In the past Turkey focused on Kirkuk by defending the Turkomans there," al-Hashimi said. "Today, however, it is equally interested in various political, economic, and social fields. On the other hand, we see a change in the policy of [Iraq's] Kurdish leaders. At present, their vision is rational and objective and they seek to close the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] file, which encourages the Turkish government to expand its circle of relations and interests in Iraq." Al-Hashimi added that Turkey is eager to help reconstruction efforts in Iraq, and will soon open a consulate in Al-Basrah. In recent days, Turkish war planes have continued to target PKK rebel positions in northern Iraq. Turkish Chief of the General Staff General Yasar Buyukanit said in a May 3 press release that air operations on May 1 and 2 resulted in the death of "150 terrorists" and "caused great panic among the members" of the PKK, a Turkish-Kurdish separatist group with bases inside Iraqi territory. The PKK denied that 150 fighters were killed and called the claim "totally unfounded," Iraq's Sbay Media website reported on May 4. The PKK said six fighters for the Iranian Kurdish rebel group Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) were killed on those days. KR

Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, escaped unhurt from a roadside bomb attack in Baghdad on May 4, Iraqi media reported. She was heading to the national theater to attend a cultural festival when the attack occurred. Her chief bodyguard, Adil Kaways, told KurdSat television that four bodyguards were injured in the attack, and one of the convoy's vehicles was destroyed. KR