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Newsline - May 7, 2008

Dmitry Medvedev, in a lavish Kremlin ceremony on May 7, took the oath of office and officially became the third elected president of the Russian Federation, Russian and international media reported. In a speech before the handover, outgoing President Vladimir Putin thanked the Russian people for their support over the last eight years and urged them to support Medvedev. Putin also promised to continue serving the interests of Russia for the rest of his life. In his speech, Medvedev again emphasized the need to overcome "legal nihilism" and to build a state in which the rights of citizens are "not only guaranteed by the constitution, but in reality observed by the government." He called on all public forces to assist in strengthening civil society and the rule of law. In line with the constitutional requirement, the government of Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov resigned as soon as Medvedev took the oath office; Zubkov will remain acting prime minister until the Duma confirms a successor. Medvedev's first move was to nominate Putin to become the next head of government, and the Duma is expected to hold an extraordinary session to confirm him on May 8. "Vedomosti" reported on May 6 that the Communist Party has confirmed it will vote against confirming Putin. At the moment of Medvedev's ascendancy, Putin automatically became head of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, party official Andrei Vorobyov was quoted as saying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 2008). RC

"Vremya novostei" on May 7 asked leading political analysts to comment on the situation following the end of President Putin's term of office. "Under Vladimir Putin, the presidential administration and the government were essentially one mechanism," Center for Political Technologies Deputy Director Boris Makarenko said. "Now, of course, the government with Putin at its head will be stronger than the cabinet of [Mikhail] Fradkov or Zubkov.... For this there is no need to change the constitution -- it is sufficiently flexible." INDEM think tank Director Georgy Satarov noted that the political expansion of the presidential administration over the last eight years was way beyond the scope of the constitution. "In reality, the parliament was destroyed as an independent branch of power," he noted. "And the courts as an independent institution. And this was done without any changes to the constitution." Most of the analysts questioned agreed that it is likely that the presidential term of office will be extended to five or seven years and that it is quite likely that Putin will return to the presidency at the next election, either in 2012 or earlier. RC

A poll by the Levada Center has found that 67 percent of Russians believe President Medvedev will "act under the control" of Putin and his inner circle, "Vedomosti" reported on May 6. When Russians were asked who should have power, 47 percent answered Medvedev; but when they were asked who they think will have real power in the country, only 22 percent said Medvedev. RC

In one of his last acts as president, Putin on May 6 signed into law a measure that limits the access of foreign investors to 42 so-called strategic sectors of the economy, reported on May 7. The protected sectors include energy, telecommunications, mining, aerospace, and the mass media. The text of the new law was published in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on May 7. Foreign investors will have to receive permission from a special government commission to purchase blocking stakes (more than 25 percent) in companies in the designated sectors. The commission is chaired by the prime minister. Foreign investors seeking to acquire control (more than 50 percent) of an enterprise will similarly need government permission. The new measure does not affect existing stakes or deals that are regulated by international agreements. Analyst Christopher Weafer told the "Financial Times" on May 7 that the expansion of the list of strategic sectors from 16 to 42 is the result of intense lobbying by Russian firms. Protected by the state, these firms will have less incentive to modernize and become more efficient, Weafer said. RC

Analysts from three leading Western investment firms are predicting that the Russian government will move to strengthen the ruble in the next six months, "RBK Daily" and "Vremya novostei" reported on May 6, citing a report by Bloomberg. The analysts from Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Deutsche Bank believe the ruble is seriously undervalued and that the government will strengthen it by 2 percent in the next three months and another 2 percent in the following three months. With inflation running at some 13 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2008), the analysts argue the government will have to bolster the ruble as an anti-inflationary measure. Merrill Lynch said the real value of the ruble should be 17.92 to the U.S. dollar. The current exchange rate is 23.7 rubles to the dollar. RC

The director-general of the Russian state-owned nuclear power monopoly Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns signed a civilian-nuclear-cooperation agreement in Moscow on May 6, President Putin's last full day in office. "The United States and Russia were once nuclear rivals," Interfax on May 6 quoted Burns as saying after the signing ceremony. "Now we are partners." on May 6 quoted Kiriyenko as saying that the agreement opens "huge opportunities for creating conditions for the large-scale development of atomic energy under a toughened nonproliferation regime." "The Moscow Times" on May 7 quoted the U.S. Embassy in Moscow as saying that the agreement will give the two countries "a framework to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and to advance nuclear energy worldwide, while enhancing our joint leadership in preventing nuclear proliferation." The paper noted that the deal establishes the legal basis for Russian and U.S. companies to trade in nuclear materials and could also give the United States access to Russian technology and hand Russia lucrative contracts to store spent nuclear fuel. "The Moscow Times" on May 7 quoted Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov as saying that the deal was signed before Medvedev was sworn in as president because the two sides "did not want to postpone this agreement any further, to leave it for another administration." Novikov added, "We waited 20 years for it." As Interfax noted on May 6, the agreement was the subject of 20 years of negotiations that finally moved off dead center at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg in July 2006, during which Presidents George W. Bush and Putin agreed to increase nuclear cooperation. JB

Ultimate approval of the U.S.-Russia civilian-nuclear-power agreement is not a certainty, given that President Bush must now send the agreement to the U.S. Congress, which will have 90 days to block it and where it faces opposition. AP reported on May 6 that Senators Norm Coleman (Republican, Minnesota) and Evan Bayh (Democrat, Indiana) are circulating a letter urging Bush not to send the pact to Congress. The news agency quoted Coleman as saying: "I am very disappointed by the administration's insistence on moving forward to sign a nuclear-cooperation arrangement with the Russians. Particularly at a time when Russia's actively undermining our foreign policy on various fronts, most importantly with respect to Iran." AP quoted Bayh as saying: "U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation is important, but stopping Iran from gaining the capacity to make nuclear weapons is an even higher priority. Russia is not doing all it can to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions, and we need to use all tools at our disposal to get more cooperation from Moscow." According to AP, both senators say Russia's exports of nuclear fuel to Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant and opposition to UN sanctions against Iran make the agreement with Russia suspect. As "Vremya novostei" noted on May 7, the agreement must also be approved by the State Duma. JB

In an interview with "The Daily Telegraph" published on May 7, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev charged that the United States is deliberately quashing hopes for permanent peace with Russia. "We had 10 years after the Cold War to build a new world order and yet we squandered them," the British daily quoted Gorbachev as saying. "The United States cannot tolerate anyone acting independently. Every U.S. president has to have a war." Gorbachev said the "problem" is "not with Russia." "Russia does not have enemies and Putin is not going to start a war against the United States or any other country for that matter," he said. "Yet we see the United States approving a military budget and the defense secretary pledging to strengthen conventional forces because of the possibility of a war with China or Russia. I sometimes have a feeling that the United States is going to wage war against the entire world." Gorbachev denounced U.S. plans to build a missile-defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic to counter a potential nuclear strike by Iran, calling it "a very dangerous step" that is "taking the arms race to the next level." He also condemned NATO's promise of eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine. "The Americans promised that NATO wouldn't move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War but now half of Central and Eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises?" he asked. "It shows they cannot be trusted." According to "The Daily Telegraph," Gorbachev "often sounded like the ageing hard-liners he struggled against in the Kremlin during the 1980s" in the interview, railing against a "military-industrial complex" that he insisted is the "real government" of the United States. The paper reported that Gorbachev, "quoting a Russian documentary on state television, suggested that Margaret Thatcher had supplied weapons to Chechen terrorists." He also rejected charges that President Putin overturned democracy in Russia. "I do not think that glasnost is dead in Russia," Gorbachev said. "There is a phenomenon in the West to criticize Putin's domestic record. But in Russia he has mass support. His popularity ratings are 70 to 80 percent. Is this not democracy?" JB

Speaking at a press briefing in Washington on May 6, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the United States has repeatedly called on Russia to "de-escalate and reverse" recent "provocative" moves that threaten Georgia's territorial integrity and reiterate its commitment to Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty. She said those moves have "significantly and unnecessarily heightened tensions in the region." At the same time, Perino said the United States has warned Georgia not to embark on any military action, but to "pursue a peaceful solution" to its conflicts with the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. LF

Kazbek Tavbulatov, who has been investigating the discovery on May 4 of a grave containing six bodies near the town of Gudermes, died in a traffic accident in Gudermes on May 6, reported. Chechen authorities believe that the bodies in the grave may have been victims killed by members of the Vostok battalion subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry. The daily "Kommersant" reported in its May 6 edition that local police were alerted to the grave by a former Vostok serviceman who left the unit following a shooting incident in Gudermes last month between Vostok personnel and bodyguards for Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, 16, 18, and 21, 2008). A seventh body discovered on May 6 elsewhere on the outskirts of Gudermes is believed to be that of a member of the Vostok battalion, reported, without giving any details of how or when the victim died. LF

Presidential national-security adviser Garnik Isagulian told journalists in Yerevan on May 6 that opposition groups that supported the failed presidential bid by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian bear a share of the responsibility for the postelection violence on March 1-2 in which 10 people died, RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Referring to the violence as "a great tragedy," he said he considers it inappropriate "to look for the guilty," thereby implicitly rejecting the demand by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for an "independent, transparent and credible inquiry" into the clashes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18 and 28, 2008). Isagulian said President Serzh Sarkisian's impending decision to establish a consultative "public chamber" on which prominent public figures and opposition politicians will be represented will facilitate the urgently needed dialogue between the authorities and the opposition. Also on May 6, parliament speaker Tigran Torosian announced the establishment of an ad hoc parliament commission to assess international criticism of recent elections and propose ways of eliminating violations during future ballots, including amendments to current election legislation, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Former Justice Minister David Harutiunian, who now chairs the parliament committee on legal affairs, will head that commission, on which all parliamentary parties will be represented; other political parties and NGOs will be invited to join the commission without the right to vote on its decisions. Meanwhile, staff of the Special Investigation Group within the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office conducted a search of Yerevan headquarters of the opposition Fatherland and Honor party late on May 6 and confiscated two computers and all written records, reported. LF

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov met for the first time late on May 6 in Strasbourg on the sidelines of a meeting of Council of Europe foreign ministers with Eduard Nalbandian, who was named last month to succeed Vartan Oskanian as Armenian foreign minister, the Armenian Foreign Ministry announced. Both ministers subsequently described their talk as constructive, and reaffirmed their countries' commitment to seeking a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict. Nalbandian professed to be optimistic, saying that "the most important thing is that we reached agreement on continuing talks." At the same time, he stressed the need to create an atmosphere of trust between the two sides. Mammadyarov said they will propose a meeting in June between the two countries' respective presidents. The two foreign ministers also met separately earlier on May 6 with the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group tasked with mediating a solution to the conflict. LF

Speaking in Brussels on May 6, Georgian State Minister for Reintegration Temur Iakobashvili told journalists that as a result of the deployment of additional Russian troops to Abkhazia, Georgia is "very close to a war" that it is trying to avert, Caucasus Press reported. On May 1, Iakobashvili was quoted as saying in Tbilisi "there will be no war," and as giving the number of additional Russian troops sent to Abkhazia as 700 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2008). The additional Russian contingent includes over 400 paratroopers armed with artillery and antiaircraft defense systems, reported on May 6. Iakobashvili also said on May 6 that the Georgian leadership has asked the EU to assume a more active role in reducing tensions, and formally requested the dispatch of an EU contingent to participate in policing the conflict zone, but that the EU has not yet taken any decision on doing so. LF

A group of over five dozen Kazakh soldiers were stricken on May 5 with food poisoning after eating contaminated food in a military mess hall in Astana, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to an official of the Emergency Situations Ministry, the 67 servicemen were under close medical supervision but were reported to be in satisfactory condition. The exact cause of the food poisoning is still being investigated, although initial reports said that some food stocks were improperly stored at the military facility, resulting in spoiling. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev visited the same military base in Astana on May 6 in an unrelated inspection of new weapons systems, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The president, along with the visiting Azerbaijani and Kyrgyz defense ministers, Colonel General Safar Abiyev and Ismail Isakov, respectively, attended a demonstration of the Kazakh Army's recently modernized equipment, including T-72B tanks, armored personnel vehicles, and the Aybat, Nayza, and Semser artillery systems. Nazarbaev also inspected the newly introduced computerized logistical and personnel-management system. Military attaches representing some 20 countries also attended the demonstration as observers. RG

Kalibek Yelshibekov, the deputy police chief in the town of Semey in the East Kazakhstan Oblast, announced on May 5 that Kazakh police have arrested an Uzbek citizen whom they suspected of being a potential suicide bomber, Kazakh Television reported. The unidentified man was said to be wearing in a belt laden with live explosives and was arrested after being stopped by police in a routine traffic check. Munitions experts from an engineering regiment stationed at a local army garrison successfully defused the explosives. Police officials later reported that the Uzbek man has been working in Kazakhstan for the past three years and they are as yet unable to determine his motives or his intended target for the bombing. He was arrested along with the two other occupants of the car, his son and a 20-year old woman. RG

In Moscow on an official visit, Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin met on May 6 with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to prepare the details of the planned visit to Kazakhstan by new Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, according to ITAR-TASS. At a joint press conference following the meeting, Tazhin explained that Medvedev's visit will focus on "issues of energy policy" as well as "transportation issues and security problems," while Lavrov added that the visit is a reflection of the significance of the "strategic partnership" between Kazakhstan and Russia. RG

In a statement released by its office in Dushanbe, the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) announced on May 6 that it has been forced to close its office in Tajikistan after being denied official registration by the Tajik authorities, according to the Avesta news agency. NDI will also suspend all programs and activities in the country in an apparent protest over the government's refusal to approve the organization's documents submitted for reregistration, as required by law. In the statement, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who serves as the chairwoman of the NDI board of directors, appealed to the Tajik authorities to reconsider, stating that "the registration of the NDI in Tajikistan will become a positive sign of the Tajik government's readiness to fulfill its commitments with regard to international cooperation." For his part, NDI President Kenneth Wollack expressed concern and stated that "we are very sorry that the government of Tajikistan does not want to learn experience in reform of other countries." The statement noted that NDI has been active in Tajikistan since 2002 and as Wollack stressed, "highly rates its relations with civil groups and parties across the whole of the political spectrum of Tajikistan." "We are looking forward to resuming programs with our partners," he added. NDI operates throughout Central Asia and maintains offices in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. RG

Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, on May 6 issued a statement expressing its regret over Minsk's recent move to declare 10 U.S. diplomats persona non grata (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2008), the EU Presidency's website ( reported. "Such a measure is unjustified and harmful to the interests of the people of Belarus," the statement reads. "The presidency would like to express its solidarity with the United States and its diplomatic service. It calls on the government of Belarus to reconsider its decision and to take immediate steps allowing for a normalization of the relationship between Belarus and the United States on the basis of mutually beneficial cooperation." JM

David Merkel, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, has said that if the Belarusian authorities make positive steps on human rights, in particular allowing peaceful demonstrations, and release former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin and two other recently imprisoned opponents, Washington will "talk to them" about lifting sanctions against the Belarusian State Petrochemical Industry Concern (Belnaftakhim), Belapan reported on May 6. Merkel said the Belarusian government is seeking the abolition of the U.S. sanctions as a condition for a return to normal operations at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, where only four U.S. diplomats are now working. But Merkel stressed that "these are separate issues; the sanctions are tied to human rights and political prisoners." In November 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that any assets that belong to Belnaftakhim in the United States should be frozen. The resulting sanctions also barred U.S. citizens from doing business with Belnaftakhim and its subsidiaries. JM

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, which sent a formal note of protest on May 6 over an airborne antisubmarine torpedo of the Russian Black Sea Fleet found in Crimea last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 6, 2008), said later the same day that the incident will not change Kyiv's attitude to the fleet, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "The incident involving the missile cannot provide a pretext for considering the Black Sea Fleet's early withdrawal," Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vasyl Kyrylych told journalists. He added that Ukraine has strictly complied with a bilateral agreement "which says in clear terms that the Black Sea Fleet will remain based [in Crimea] until 2017." Meanwhile, the Russian Navy's command commented on May 6 that the object found in Crimea was not really a weapon, but rather a dummy torpedo, which does not pose any threat to people or the environment. There has been no explanation of how the Russian torpedo landed on the Crimean beach. JM

A survey conducted by the pollster FOM-Ukraine has found that 66.8 percent of respondents say the relations between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko are "conflicting" or "strained," while 16.4 percent say they are "calm" or "friendly," Interfax-Ukraine reported on May 6. The poll of 2,000 Ukrainians found that Yushchenko's performance is seen negatively by 51.4 percent of respondents, while Tymoshenko's performance is viewed negatively by 49.9 percent. According to FOM-Ukraine, if presidential elections had been held in April, Tymoshenko would have won 23.7 percent of the vote, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych 21.2 percent, and Yushchenko 8 percent. JM

Sixteen EU member states plus Norway are to offer visas to most Serbian citizens free of charge, the French government announced on May 6, just days before early parliamentary elections in Serbia on May 11 that may decide the country's future relations with Brussels, local media reported. The bulk of the 17 countries are members of the EU's Schengen zone, which has no internal border controls, and a visa to any one Schengen state normally entitles the holder to unimpeded travel within the zone. Currently, the standard fee for a Schengen visa is 35 euros ($54), but observers say that the fee is the least significant hurdle for most visa applicants. The EU's commissioner for justice and home affairs, Jacques Barrot, is to travel to Belgrade on May 6-7 to discuss a road map for talks aimed at abolishing the visa requirements altogether. Visa-liberalization talks with other countries of the western Balkans are under way or scheduled to commence soon. TV

In its annual report to Congress on terrorism around the world, the U.S. State Department describes Bosnia-Herzegovina as a "weak, decentralized state" in which "ethnically based political confrontations continued to undermine national government" in 2007. Issued on April 30, the report continued, "As a result of weak interagency communication, competing security structures, and political interference in law enforcement, Bosnia is vulnerable to exploitation as a potential staging ground for terrorist operations in Europe. The dysfunctional Bosnian state government and efforts by Republika Srpska officials to undermine state-level institutions contributed to a slowdown, and in some cases, setbacks in efforts to improve operational capabilities to combat terrorism and terrorism finance." However, the report -- which devotes just six paragraphs to Bosnia -- also acknowledged that Bosnia's law enforcement bodies cooperated with U.S. counterterrorism efforts and noted Bosnia's deployment in Iraq and ongoing training to prepare its troops for further missions in Iraq or Afghanistan. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has rejected the report's criticism, according to the Banja Luka daily "Nezavisne novine" on May 3, saying it is the central institutions that undermine the entities and that Bosnia's internal organization is a matter for its citizens. TV


Richard Boucher, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, said in Paris on May 6 that Iran is seeking to keep Afghanistan weak and unstable by delivering arms to the Taliban while appearing to support the government in Kabul, AFP reported. "They interfere in a variety of different ways, perhaps not as violently as they do sometimes in Iraq," Boucher said. "But what we see is Iranian interference politically, Iranian interference in terms of the money that they channel into the political process, Iranian interference in terms of playing off local officials against central government, trying to undermine the state in that way." Boucher continued: "In many ways they [Iran] do support the work of the government, but they also work with the political opposition, they work with the local opposition." Boucher told reporters that "several shipments" of weapons from Iran to the Taliban have been intercepted. Preparations are under way for a major international donors' conference for Afghanistan to be held in the French capital on June 12. AT

U.S.-led coalition troops killed several insurgents during a raid in Nangahar Province on May 5, AP reported. The troops also detained a militant suspected of helping foreign fighters and conducting bomb attacks in the region, according to a military statement. The coalition did not state the exact numbers of militants killed. In Kandahar on May 6, three police officers and two civilian women were wounded when a bomb attached to a bicycle exploded near the officers' car, provincial police official Mohammad Shoaib told AP. According to the news agency's count, more than 1,200 people -- mostly militants -- have died in insurgency-related violence in Afghanistan this year. AT

Government officials in Badakhshan Province, one of the major opium-poppy-producing regions in Afghanistan, have said that poppy cultivation in the province will be totally eradicated by the start of next year, the Bakhtar news agency reported on May 6. Badakhshan Governor Munshi Abdul Majid said that poppy cultivation decreased 70 percent last year, and that farmers in the district of Darayim, which was formerly a main hub of poppy cultivation and trafficking, have completely stopped growing the crop. "This year we don't have plans for wiping out poppy cultivation, but we have plans for not cultivating poppy. We have informed everyone not to cultivate poppy. We have decreased poppy cultivation to almost zero," Majid said. Some residents believe that poppy cultivation was the main reason for insecurity and the slow pace of development in Darayim district, but others have been hit hard by the loss of their livelihood. Bakhtar quotes one resident as saying: "Our poppy fields were destroyed by the authorities. Now we have no money and my 10 family members are starving." Other residents in the district said government and NGO support does not suffice, and that farmers may start growing poppies again unless serious reconstruction work begins. AT

Pakistan agreed on May 6 to export 50,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan to avert a food crisis there, and said it will reach an agreement on further exports with the Afghan government, Reuters reported. Pakistan's highest economic decision-making body, the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), approved the export to Afghanistan at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani. "The ECC approved the export of 50,000 tones of wheat to Afghanistan to avert a food crisis in addition to their annual requirement," a previously agreed export of 600,000 tons, the prime minister's office said in a statement. Pakistan has sought to crack down on the smuggling of wheat flour to Afghanistan as food prices there have surged. AT

Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said in Geneva on May 6 that Iran will continue to cooperate with the IAEA and abide by the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), but will not surrender its right under the treaty to produce nuclear fuel, Fars news agency reported. Soltanieh was addressing a preliminary committee for a conference to review the NPT. He said that "Iran will never forego its right" to use peaceful energy, which he said includes producing fuel. The West has demanded Iran stop enriching uranium, due to its potential military applications. Soltanieh's remarks appear to confirm statements made by Iranian officials recently indicating Iran will not to be persuaded to abandon such activities by economic and other incentives being proposed by the permanent members of the UN Security Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5 and 6, 2008). Soltanieh denounced the "nuclear apartheid" imposed on the world, "especially" by Great Britain, France, and the United States, and said it is wrong to equate nuclear programs with efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. He said the NPT and the IAEA's charter do not prohibit fuel-making activities for members, but merely oblige states to make statements on their activities that have to be verified. He added Iran and other "peace-loving states" will continue efforts to force Israel -- which is thought to have nuclear weapons -- to join the NPT and give up its nuclear arsenal. VS

A group of 77 members of parliament on May 6 called on Iran's intelligence minister to take unspecified action against former President Mohammad Khatami for his recent remarks criticizing terrorism and state-sponsored violence, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2008). Khatami told students in Gilan, northern Iran, on May 2, that the legacy of late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini does not include acts of violence abroad in an attempt to export Iran's revolutionary regime. The 77 lawmakers said in a parliamentary observation -- likely a written note -- that such remarks will be used by "the arrogant and Zionist media" as a pretext to attack "the sacred government of the Islamic republic and accuse our country of terrorism," Fars reported. The legislators asked how Khatami gave himself permission to cast "doubts in the minds of international opinion" about Iran's regime. Radio Farda observed that the note should,, in line with parliamentary rules, be read out at a public session of parliament on May 7. Other conservative voices chided Khatami for his comments in recent days, including the daily "Kayhan," which has called on Khatami to "explain his antinational statements," Radio Farda reported on May 6. VS

The Iranian parliament's presidium formally accepted on May 6 an interpellation motion presented by 16 lawmakers to summon Trade Minister Masud Mirkazemi to appear in parliament to answer questions, which could lead to his dismissal, Radio Farda reported on May 6, citing Iranian media. The signatories want Mirkazemi to provide the chamber with explanations on eight areas, including what were termed unsuitable trade policies; permission given for the importation of sugar in recent years, which has gravely harmed domestic producers and farmers; and the failure to support domestic manufacturing firms. Some members of parliament have accused the ministry of failing to take adequate measures in response to recent food price hikes. One of the signatories, Ali Asgari, has said that "nobody is responsible in this country for high prices, and people have to buy goods at whatever price they are sold, and nobody answers for this." Another signatory, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, said ministers would not be summoned to parliament for formal interrogation if they acted on legislators' intermittent proposals and criticisms, Radio Farda reported. VS

Parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel urged Iranians to save water and electricity, and he warned in parliament on May 6 that Iran will face a drought in coming months, ISNA reported. Haddad-Adel said Iran experienced a harsh winter and now faces drought, and thrift is both rational and a moral duty for Iranians. He said drought is afflicting not only Iran, but "the climate has been disrupted" and many countries are facing similar conditions. While he speculated that Iran's drought might not be the result of changing climatic conditions, he said that "the alarm bells are at any rate sounding over the threat of food shortages around the world." He said Iranian officials have recently asked the public to reduce their water consumption by 10 percent, and he said the same should apply to electricity. Haddad-Adel said the government has begun forming provincial committees or headquarters to counter the drought's effects. Separately, a member of parliament's Agriculture Committee, Jafargholi Raheb, told ISNA on May 5 that some 120 Iranian towns and 6,000 villages or rural districts may face drinking-water shortages in coming months due to insufficient rainfall. He said excessive heat in the months of March and April has dried up the precipitations of previous months. Raheb said provincial governors in northern provinces -- an area of rice and fruit cultivation -- have already formed emergency headquarters to manage water resources. VS

Al-Sadr Trend parliamentarian Nasir al-Sa'idi told the Aswat Al-Iraq website on May 7 that Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is in Iraq. Al-Sadr reportedly left Iraq months ago and was rumored to be studying in Iran under the patronage of the government. "Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr is at his office in the holy city of Al-Najaf, and any other news in this regard is not true," al-Sa'idi said. Al-Sa'idi also told the website that the Al-Sadr Trend hopes that Iraqi President Jalal Talabani will help mediate the crisis between the Sadrists and the government, saying, "We trust the president of the republic and we prefer him to mediate." KR

Al-Sadr Trend lawmaker Hasan al-Rubay'i announced on May 6 that he is suspending his position in parliament in protest against the U.S. and Iraqi crackdown on the Imam Al-Mahdi Army in Al-Sadr City, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Rubay'i claimed that Iran controls 75 percent of the security services in Iraq, and that the Al-Sadr Trend is its main target. Meanwhile on May 6, the Iraqi army arrested 42 policemen in Baghdad for their alleged role in aiding militiamen. Leaders in parliament are reportedly calling for the formation of a committee comprising members of security and human rights bodies to help resolve the crisis in Al-Sadr City, Al-Sharqiyah reported. Al-Sadr Trend lawmaker Liwa Sumaysim told the "Aswat al-Iraq" website in a May 6 interview that some political blocs are trying to block negotiations to end the crisis, apparently a reference to the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance. "There are some parties that were supposed to be a part of the initiative and instead have succumbed to the pressures of intensifying the crisis," he said. KR

Arkan al-Hasnawi, a battalion commander in the Al-Mahdi Army militia, reportedly died on May 6 from wounds sustained during fighting in Al-Sadr City the previous day, according to Iraqi media reports. Al-Sharqiyah television described al-Hasnawi as the most important wanted commander of the Iranian Qods Force's special groups. KR