|Saturday, 18 January 2020|
RFE/RL Newsline, 07-05-30
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 BRITAIN MAKES OFFICIAL REQUEST FOR EXTRADITION OF MURDER SUSPECTBritish Ambassador to Russia Anthony Brenton said on May 28 in St. Petersburg that he "delivered the extradition papers to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the extradition of [Andrei] Lugovoi," whom British authorities want to put on trial for the 2006 poisoning death of Aleksandr Litvinenko, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22 and 23, 2007). On May 25, the British Crown Prosecution Service completed drawing up the papers. Brenton stressed on May 28 that "this is a very serious case, a murder has been committed in the United Kingdom, [and] lot of other people were endangered in the course of that murder," which appears to have been carried out with a lethal polonium-210 isotope. He added that "we are, obviously, very keen that the potential committer of that murder be tried in the United Kingdom, and we look for an early and positive response from the Russian authorities on the extradition request that we have put to them." The previous weekend, British Attorney-General Lord Goldsmith also said that London wants to try Lugovoi, a Russian businessman and former KGB agent, in a U.K. court, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 28. Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika said on May 25 that he told Goldsmith at a recent Group of Eight security meeting in Munich that Lugovoi could be tried in Russia if Britain presents sufficient evidence against him. Goldsmith subsequently said in a statement that he expects "constructive and rapid cooperation from the Russian authorities in bringing this suspect before a British court." The Russian Constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens but allows for them to be tried before a Russian court (see "Russia: Chances Of Litvinenko Suspect's Extradition 'Hypothetical,'" rferl.org, May 25, 2007). Britain has also ruled out exchanging self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who is a bitter enemy of Putin, for Lugovoi, Britain's "The Independent" reported on May 29. Russia has repeatedly sought Berezovsky's extradition from Britain. PM
 BRITISH DIPLOMAT ATTACKED IN SIBERIAAn unnamed Russian police official said in Moscow on May 28 that a group of teenagers beat up Nigel Gould-Davies, first secretary at the British Embassy, in the Siberian city of Chita while he was out for a walk in the early hours of May 26, newsru.com reported. Gould-Davies, who was in Siberia on a lecture tour, was treated in a local clinic for minor injuries and then left the city, which is near the Chinese and Mongolian borders. He said that he could not identify his assailants because they broke his glasses. Police are investigating. "The Guardian" reported from Moscow on May 29 that there have been several such physical attacks by young Russians on British diplomats in the past year. PM
 CLAMPDOWN ON GAY-RIGHTS MARCH TRIGGERS PROTESTS FROM EUROPEOMON riot police and regular police blocked an unauthorized gay-pride demonstration in Moscow on May 27, the anniversary of the 1993 decriminalization of homosexuality in Russia, and detained 31 participants, most of whom were released soon afterward, international media reported. The demonstrators sought to present a petition to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov for their parade to be sanctioned. Luzhkov calls gay-pride marches "satanic" and has repeatedly banned them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and March 1, 2007). Some members of nationalist and Russian Orthodox groups attacked the marchers, pelting them with eggs and shouting "death to homosexuals" and "Moscow is not Sodom." Among those attacked by nationalists and detained by police were parade organizer Nikolai Alekseyev, veteran British gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, Green member of the German parliament Volker Beck, and Marco Cappato, an Italian member of the European Parliament. Beck said that the protesters "asked President [Vladimir] Putin to respect the rights of Russian citizens, [including] their right to speak out" and assemble peacefully. Beck stressed that "these rights are not respected at all in the Russian Federation." Cappato asked the police why they did not protect the marchers against their attackers. Protest organizer Aleksei Davydov was quoted by "The Moscow Times" on May 28 as saying that "one Orthodox protester had a real gun on him. I wonder what he was going to do with it." The mayors of Paris and Rome later condemned the behavior of the Russian police, as did several German, Austrian, and Italian legislators, Deutsche Welle reported on May 28. EU Liberal Democrat leader Graham Watson was quoted by dpa as saying that "Putin must decide whether Russia still adheres to the values of the Council of Europe, of which it is a member." Tatchell was quoted by Reuters on May 28 as saying that what happened to him was very reminiscent of repression by the police in the Soviet Union when Leonid Brezhnev headed the CPSU Central Committee in the 1970s and early 1980s. PM
 PROPONENT OF THIRD TERM FOR PUTIN BACKS DOWNFederation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, who is a leading advocate of a third term for President Putin, said on May 28 that the "matter is closed" and there will be no more discussion of an additional mandate for Putin, whom the constitution bars from seeking reelection when his current term runs out in 2008, newsru.com and the daily "Vedomosti" reported on May 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, March 30, and April 2 and 18, 2007). Mironov added that "we will not be making any decisions regarding a third term. The president said that the matter is closed." The daily reported that unnamed Kremlin-watchers conclude from Mironov's remarks that Putin has already decided on his successor. The experts added that the possibility of amending the constitution to allow the president more or longer terms, as Mironov recently advocated, is now unlikely to be raised until after the 2008 ballot, at the earliest. Putin has repeatedly ruled out a third term but also refused to name a successor. He never completely excluded the possibility of changing his mind about a third term if a "popular groundswell" demanded it. Mironov is a leader of the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party. PM
 PUTIN NAMES GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATES FOR KAMCHATKA, AMURPresident Putin on May 26 formally nominated Aleksei Kuzmitsky, who is acting governor of Kamchatka Oblast, to become governor of Kamchatka Krai, which will come into being on July 1 in accordance with the 2006 law on the merger of Kamchatka Oblast and Koryak Autonomous Okrug, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007). Kuzmitsky must now be approved by the Kamchatka and Koryak legislatures. The current head of the Koryak Autonomous Okrug, Oleg Kozhemyako, said on May 28 that Putin made his decision for the good of the entire region, regnum.ru reported. Kozhemyako, whom some considered a possible contender for the new post, added that "one doesn't discuss orders" once they are given. Putin has also proposed Nikolai Kolesov, a deputy of the Republic of Tatarstan parliament, to succeed Leonid Korotkov as Amur Oblast governor, according to regnum.ru on May 29. Putin dismissed Korotkov, who faces charges of abuse of his official position, earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19 and May 10, 2007). PM/LF
 RUSSIA CALLS FOR EMERGENCY CONFERENCE TO DISCUSS ARMS TREATYRussia on May 28 formally asked the Netherlands, as repository of the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), to convene in Vienna from June 12-15 an emergency conference of states that are signatories to that treaty, according to a statement on the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry (http://www.mid.ru). The statement said convening such a conference in "exceptional circumstances" is one of the options outlined by President Putin in his April 26 address to the Federation Council, in which he warned that Russia would impose a moratorium on compliance with its requirements under the amendments to the original CFE Treaty adopted in 1999 at an OSCE summit in Istanbul until new NATO member states Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia accede to the treaty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and 27, 2007). The "Financial Times" on May 29 quoted Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov as explaining that "we want to resolve this highly unbalanced situation where for a very long time, Russia was unilaterally fulfilling its obligations by signing and ratifying the treaty. We would like to see our partners signing the treaty and fulfilling the same obligations." Peskov added that Russia would have to take unspecified legal steps before Putin's call for a moratorium could be implemented. LF
 COLLEAGUE REPORTS PROGRESS IN INVESTIGATION OF SLAIN JOURNALIST'S KILLINGThe French daily "Liberation" on May 28 quoted former Russian Army Major Vyacheslav Ismaylov, now a journalist with the bimonthly "Novaya gazeta," as claiming that the October 2006 murder in Moscow of his colleague Anna Politkovskaya was ordered by two senior Chechen officials whose identity is known to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. He quoted Kadyrov as having told close associates that those who masterminded the killing did so on orders from the Federal Security Service (FSB). Ismaylov said that until recently, he and his colleagues were satisfied with the progress of the official investigation into Politkovskaya's murder, but that the FSB is now trying to pin the murder on exiled former oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Two months ago, Ismaylov cast doubts on the authenticity and veracity of an Internet claim by five members of the Chechen Gorets military unit that three of their colleagues were co-opted to kill Politkovskaya on orders from Kadyrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26 and 28, 2007). Also on May 28, kavkaz-uzel.ru quoted Vladimir Vasilev, who chairs the State Duma's Security Committee, as admitting that solving Politkovskaya's murder has proven more difficult than anticipated, but that "all of us -- the authorities, the law enforcement agencies, and Russian society -- have an obligation" to do so. LF
 INGUSH DISPLACED PERSONS' REPRESENTATIVE MEET WITH SENIOR OFFICIALSPresidential-administration deputy head Vladislav Surkov met in the Kremlin on May 25 with Amir Bekbuzarov, the leader of a group of Ingush displaced persons who traveled to Moscow earlier this month in the hope of securing top-level permission to return to their homes in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion, the website ingushetiya.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). Also present were presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak and the presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, Murat Zyazikov and Taymuraz Mamsurov. Zyazikov disclaimed any responsibility for resolving the displaced persons' plight, while Kozak and Mamsurov proposed the gradual return of the displaced persons to the villages in Prigorodny Raion from which they fled in October-November 1992 to escape reprisals at the hands of armed Ossetians. Surkov undertook to "try" to schedule a meeting between Bekbuzarov and President Putin. LF
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 OBSERVERS RELEASE INTERIM REPORT ON ARMENIAN ELECTIONThe OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights made public on May 25 its interim report on the May 12 Armenian parliamentary elections. The report noted "inconsistencies with established regulations and departures from best electoral practices" during the counting and tabulation of votes, but implied that those irregularities were not the key factor that determined the overall outcome of the ballot. The infringements included delays in the vote count and tabulation; alterations made to initial precinct protocols; and discrepancies between protocols and data posted electronically on the website of the Central Election Commission (KNH). It also noted that three of the nine members of the KNH, all representing opposition parties, refused to sign the preliminary protocol on votes cast under the proportional system, and that defeated candidates requested a recount in 12 constituencies. Unknown perpetrators set fire early on May 28 to the apartment door of Larisa Paremuzian, a member of the opposition People's Party of Armenia who alleged vote rigging following her defeat in a single-mandate constituency in the town of Alaverdi, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF
 KARABAKH MEDIATORS VISIT AZERBAIJANThe French and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict held talks in Baku on May 25 with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and President Ilham Aliyev, Azerbaijani media reported. The co-chairmen told journalists after those meetings that the talks focused on the few "basic principles" for resolving the conflict on which the two sides have not yet reached agreement. They said that Aliyev has agreed to a proposed meeting with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian that is tentatively scheduled to take place on June 9 on the sidelines of an informal CIS summit in St. Petersburg. Mammadyarov was quoted by day.az as saying that Armenia has agreed on the withdrawal of its troops from seven occupied districts of Azerbaijan bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and the two sides have agreed on the deployment of peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone. French co-chairman Bernard Fassier was quoted by echo-az.com on May 26 as ruling out the possible application to the Karabakh conflict of the UN plan for Kosova. LF
 AZERBAIJAN EMBARKS ON WTO TALKSAn Azerbaijani government delegation headed by Mahmud Mamedkuliyev, who is a deputy foreign minister and President Aliyev's brother-in-law, began talks with the EU in Brussels on May 24 on the legal steps Azerbaijan needs to take in connection with its bid to join the World Trade Organization by 2010, the daily echo-az.com reported on May 26. Azerbaijan became an observer member of the WTO in 1997, and has since concluded bilateral talks with WTO members Georgia and Moldova, but has disagreements with both the EU and the United States, and also with Turkey. Specifically, Baku wants to retain the right to impose high import tariffs on agricultural produce and manufactured goods in order to protect local producers. Three months ago, on February 28, day.az quoted Mamedkuliyev as saying that 10 relevant draft laws have been prepared, all of which he believes parliament will pass by the end of this year. In June 2006, Mamedkuliyev said that there was resistance within the banking and insurance sectors to WTO demands for liberalization and reform and increased transparency in those sectors. LF
 GEORGIA MARKS INDEPENDENCE ANNIVERSARYGeorgia marked on May 26 the anniversary of the 1918 declaration of an independent republic, Caucasus Press reported. Speaking at a military parade in Tbilisi, President Mikheil Saakashvili appealed for unity as the decisive factor that has always enabled the Georgian nation to defeat its enemies. Saakashvili also defined the primary task of the Georgian armed forces as defending the country's territorial integrity, and, speaking in Ossetian, he stressed the "heroic" contribution Ossetians have made to Georgian history. Supporters of jailed former intelligence service chief Irakli Batiashvili were prevented by police when they tried to disrupt the military parade, calling for Batiashvili's release, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 2007). LF
 GEORGIA HAILS RUSSIAN CONCESSION ON VISASRussia's ambassador to Georgia, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, announced on May 28 that the Russian consulate in Tbilisi will resume issuing visas to some categories of Georgian citizens who wish to travel to the Russian Federation, Russian media reported. The issuing of visas was suspended in October 2006 following the detention of four Russian officers on suspicion of spying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 29 and October 2, 2006). Consul Ivan Kalinkin told journalists that the decision to do so was "a humanitarian act" on the part of the Russian authorities and is not connected with the upcoming visits to Russia of Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and President Saakashvili. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili on May 29 hailed the Russian move as "reasonable and timely," Caucasus Press reported. LF
 PROMINENT GEORGIAN BUSINESSMAN FOUND MURDEREDZviad Tsetskhladze, a businessman who also represented the Revival party of former Adjar Republic head Aslan Abashidze in the Georgian parliament from 1999-2003, was found dead in his office in Tbilisi late on May 28, lenta.ru and Caucasus Press reported on May 29. He reportedly died of suffocation after his mouth was taped closed with scotch tape. LF
 KAZAKHSTAN ISSUES ARREST WARRANT FOR PRESIDENT'S SON-IN-LAWKazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetov announced on May 28 that an arrest warrant has been issued for former Kazakh Ambassador to Austria Rakhat Aliev, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Aliev, who is married to the eldest daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, faces criminal charges related to the abduction of two bank officials in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 12, and 20, and May 14 and 24, 2007). He was formally dismissed on May 26 as ambassador. Kozhakhmetov added that Aliev also faces charges of corruption and "links to organized criminal groups," and said that a special group of investigators and a deputy prosecutor-general have left Astana for Vienna. Aliev has denied the charges, and accuses Nazarbaev of "trying to silence" him following his announcement that he intends to run for president. RG
 KAZAKH, TURKMEN PRESIDENTS MEET FOR TRANSPORT TALKSFollowing a meeting in Astana between Kazakh President Nazarbaev and visiting Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, the two leaders issued a joint statement on May 28 affirming bilateral cooperation in the transport and energy sectors, Interfax reported. The statement pledged to expand joint efforts in developing an ambitious transport network linking the two countries with China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. A second agreement was also signed concerning energy cooperation based on a trilateral accord agreed with Russia on May 12 for the construction of a trans-Caspian gas pipeline through Russian territory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Speaking to reporters in Astana, Berdymukhammedov confirmed that a final agreement on the trans-Caspian pipeline will be signed in September. He also announced that he wants his country to play a more active role in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), reversing the policy of former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who downgraded Turkmenistan's status to an associate member of the CIS in 2005. RG
 KAZAKH COURT FINES JOURNALIST FOR PARTICIPATING IN PROTESTA Kazakh district court in Almaty on May 25 imposed a fine on independent journalist Sergei Duvanov after he was convicted of organizing an unsanctioned gathering, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Duvanov joined a small group of protesters in Almaty on May 24 who rallied to demonstrate against recently approved constitutional amendments that allow President Nazarbaev to serve an unlimited number of terms in office. The court fined Duvanov 20,000 tenges (about $150), according to Kazakh TV. RG
 KYRGYZ PREMIER SAYS PROTESTERS 'ATTACKED' HIS MOTORCADESpeaking to reporters during his visit to the northern Kyrgyz Talas district, Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev said on May 28 that the "attack" on his motorcade on May 26 was a "planned action" directed against the government, AKIpress reported. As Atambaev arrived in Talas district, his convoy was stopped by about 500 participants in a nearby demonstration by local environmental activists demanding the closure of a controversial gold mine in the area. Local police arrested eight protesters involved in the rally, sparking a demonstration of over 3,000 protesters the next day calling for the release of the detainees. Atambaev's visit to Talas was intended to defuse tension over the operations of the Andash and Jerooy gold mines, which local residents and activists say have caused significant damage to the local environment and harmed residents' health. RG
 BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION COALITION DEMOTES FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATESome 600 delegates to the opposition congress held in Minsk on May 26-27 decided to replace former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who led the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces, with four co-leaders, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. Now the council is chaired by United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka, Belarusian Communist Party leader Syarhey Kalyakin, and Social Democratic Party (Hramada) acting head Anatol Lyaukovich. Milinkevich, too, was offered a position of co-chairman but he declined it, saying he will concentrate on developing his For Freedom movement. The congress also adopted a "strategy of action" envisaging a "constructive dialogue with the authorities." An alternative strategy proposed by advocates of street demonstrations and civil-disobedience actions was not put to a vote. "The fight for power in the country has been replaced by a fight for power among the opposition," Milinkevich commented on the course of action adopted by the congress. "The simulation of activity will not be met with support from the public," he added. JM
 PROSECUTOR DEMANDS HEAVY FINES FOR BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONISTSThe prosecutor in the trial of four members of the unregistered opposition Youth Front on May 28 demanded punishing each of the accused by a fine of 15,500,000 rubles ($7,260), Belapan reported. Barys Haretski, Dzmitry Fedaruk, Aleh Korban, and Anastasiya Palazhanka were charged with acting on behalf of an unregistered organization under an article of the Criminal Code that carries a fine or a prison sentence of up to two years. The prosecutor also suggested that the 17-year-old Palazhanka be additionally sentenced to corrective labor. Alyaksey Yanusheuski, another Youth Front member charged in the case, is currently in the Czech Republic. JM
 UKRAINIAN TOP POLITICIANS AGREE ON EARLY ELECTIONS...Following overnight talks, President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz announced on May 27 that they have reached a deal on holding early parliamentary elections on September 30, Ukrainian and international media reported. The deal was struck after Ukrainian media reported on May 26 that President Yushchenko had summoned additional riot-police troops to Kyiv, which he subordinated to himself by a decree on May 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007). The deal specifies that on May 29-30 the Verkhovna Rada will adopt necessary legislation to hold snap elections and will subsequently be dissolved, following the resignation of parliamentary mandates by deputies from Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc. The Ukrainian Constitution stipulates that the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada is legitimate only if it has more than 300 deputies. Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc jointly have some 170 lawmakers. The deal also obliges the president to endorse all bills passed by ruling coalition lawmakers after April 2, when Yushchenko issued his first decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and when opposition lawmakers refused to participate in parliamentary work. JM
 ...BUT WILL VERKHOVNA RADA FOLLOW?President Yushchenko on May 29 suspended his April 26 decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and calling for new elections on June 24, in order to make it possible for parliamentarians to convene a full-fledged session on May 29-30 and adopt a package of bills necessary for the elections, Ukrainian media reported. Parliamentarians, however, failed to open the session in the morning, reportedly discussing in the lobbies the issues on which they have failed to agree within the framework of the anticrisis group created by Yushchenko and Yanukovych in early May to prepare draft legislation for early polls (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). Parliament speaker Moroz said on May 29 that parliamentarians still disagree on whether to endorse the introduction of the so-called imperative mandate that would prohibit deputies from changing factions in the Verkhovna Rada. Another point of contention is the creation of a voter registry by the Cabinet of Ministers and the Central Election Commission ahead of the September 30 polls, which is specified by the May 27 deal between Yushchenko, Yanukovych, and Moroz. Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc reportedly argue that there will be no time to compile a full-blown voter registry until September 30, while ruling coalition deputies think otherwise. JM
 SLOVAKIA WORRIED KOSOVA IS PRECEDENT FOR HUNGARIANS...Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said on May 26 that Bratislava fears independence for Kosova could encourage ethnic Hungarians to seek more autonomy in Slovakia. "We want the UN Security Council resolution to include the formulation that this is not a precedent, that it is a unique case that cannot be applied to any other similar situations in Europe or in the world," Fico said on national radio. The Slovak daily "Sme" reported on May 24 that Foreign Minister Jan Kubis expressed similar concerns. Kubis argued that the text of a draft UN resolution granting Kosova independence "should show more strongly that this is a solution sui generis," adding that "we're not in favor of collective rights, certainly not for ethnic minorities, and certainly not...on Slovak territory." Kubis nonetheless reiterated that, like other EU states, Slovakia will back supervised independence for Kosova. Slovakia is one of the 15 members of the Security Council that will vote on the future of Kosova. Bratislava has sent mixed messages in recent months. The Foreign Ministry has aligned itself with other EU states in support of the proposed settlement, but Fico on March 31 argued that borders in the Balkans should not change, parliament passed a resolution calling for an agreement with Serbian consent, and President Ivan Gasparovic on April 26 said, "a compromise needs to be reached." Ethnic Hungarians make up 10 percent of Slovakia's population. The German ambassador to Serbia, Andreas Zobel, elicited outrage in Serbia -- and a reprimand from Bonn -- when, in April, he warned Serbia that its ethnic Hungarians might seek independence if Serbia were not to accept independence for Kosova. Hungary immediately said it has no claim to the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina, where Serbia's Hungarians are concentrated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and 16, 2007) AG
 ...WHILE 15 EUROPEAN STATES SAY KOSOVA IS KEY PROBLEMA meeting of the leaders of 15 states from across Central and Southeastern Europe concluded on May 26 that the unresolved status of Kosova is the key issue facing the region, Reuters reported the same day. Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who hosted the three-day summit in Brno, added, however, that "we don't have a common view on how to solve the problem." The gathering was attended by the Serbian president, but not by representatives of Kosova, whose hopes for statehood currently lie with the UN Security Council. Klaus said the unresolved status of Transdniester and political tensions in Ukraine are the region's other key problems. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko withdrew at the last moment for crisis talks with his rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. One of Europe's most strident Euroskeptics, Klaus said that EU membership is key to resolving the region's problems, the news agency CTK reported. On the issue of Kosova, Klaus said the status quo is no longer tenable and that the Kosovars themselves should decide their future. Kosovar Albanians make up over 90 percent of the region's population and are uniformly demanding sovereignty. The Czech Republic has no official role in efforts to resolve the situation in Kosova, but Klaus gained a high profile in 1999 when he attacked NATO's intervention in Kosova and, at the height of the crisis, chose to present a new book in the Yugoslav Embassy in Prague. AG
 SERBIA LIFTS SELF-IMPOSED BAN ON ARMS EXPORTS TO ARMENIAThe Serbian newspapers "Danas" and "Glas javnosti" on May 24 reported that the new Serbian government has given the go-ahead for the arms producer Zastava to export weapons to Armenia. "Danas" quoted an unnamed Zastava official as saying that Belgrade now believes that "our arms shipment to Armenia's security forces would in no way damage relations between Serbia and Russia, in other words, that it would not have a negative impact on Moscow's official stance toward the final solution of the status of Kosovo-Metohija," the Serbian name for Kosova. The same source said Russia agreed to the deal days before. A second shipment of arms to the Armenian Defense Ministry was halted in autumn 2006 when Belgrade, citing "higher state and national interests," banned arms sales to former Soviet republics. The total deal is worth $2.6 million. Moscow has traditionally been the guarantor of security for Armenia, as well as its most important economic partner. Azerbaijan has in recent years substantially increased its military budget, prompting Armenia to increase its defense spending amid fears that Baku is preparing to try to reconquer the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh. AG
 SERBIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MAKES BOSNIA FIRST PORT OF CALL...Serbia's new foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, spent May 28 in Sarajevo and Banja Luka in talks that featured a strong restatement of the new government's commitment to cooperation with the UN's war crimes tribunal, local media reported the same day. This was Jeremic's first trip abroad since he took office on May 16, a fact that Bosnia-Herzegovina's foreign minister, Sven Alkalaj, told television reporters was an important message to the region, as well as to Brussels and Washington, that the two countries can cooperate. Many Bosnians remain convinced that Serbia was guilty of genocide during the 1992-95 war, despite a ruling in February by the UN's top court that Belgrade's material and political support for Bosnian Serbs during the war did not amount to genocide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2007). In comments aired on May 28 by Bosnia-Herzegovina's main television channel, BH TV1, Jeremic stressed another section of the court's ruling, saying that "the part of the ruling stating that Serbia did not do what was within its powers to prevent genocide in Srebrenica is exceptionally grave for Serbia." He said Belgrade "will do absolutely everything to ensure all our domestic legal and international obligations are discharged within the shortest possible time." Jeremic made similar commitments on May 24 at a meeting with the head of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, Rene Van den Linden, when, according to AP, he described cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as not just an "international obligation, but also our moral duty toward our neighbors." AG
 ...AND DISCUSSES CITIZENSHIPSerbian Foreign Minister Jeremic's talks in Bosnia also addressed the question of dual citizenship, local media reported on May 28. Bosnian Foreign Minister Alkalaj told BH TV1 that the question needs to be "fully formulated," as "numerous issues are at stake here including social, property, legal, and tax issues." In March, Alkalaj questioned the validity of the current dual-citizenship agreement on the grounds that it was signed when Serbia and Montenegro still formed part of the same state. Bosnian public radio reported on May 28 that citizenship was "underlined as the sole open question" in bilateral relations. Both Jeremic and Alkalaj said the difficulties of forming governments after elections in Bosnia in October 2006 and Serbia in January 2007 had affected relations, and they promised to revive ties. AG
 BOSNIA'S CROATS ANGRY AT MARGINALIZATION BY U.S.Leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Croatian community have expressed anger at Washington's decision not to invite them to three-day talks about the lack of progress toward reform in the country, the Croatian news agency Hina reported on May 25. In separate statements issued on May 25, the country's three largest Croatian parties said it is unacceptable and unproductive to hold talks on vital issues without representatives of the Croatian community. The talks ended on May 24 with Washington expressing its disappointment that the Bosnian Muslims' and Serbs' key politicians failed to overcome their differences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007). There has long been the feeling among Croats, who make up roughly 14 percent of the population, that they receive less attention than the country's two largest communities, the Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. In an interview aired by the BBC on May 17, Paddy Ashdown said that he rated his relative lack of attention to the Croats as one of the key mistakes he made during his years as the international community's representative in Bosnia. AG
 WAR CRIMINAL ESCAPES IN BOSNIAA convicted Bosnian Serb war criminal escaped on May 25 and remains on the run, local media reported on May 25 and 28. Radovan Stankovic was being taken in an armed vehicle from his prison to a dental appointment 2 kilometers away when a passenger car blocked the road. Stankovic escaped his guards and was then whisked away by the car. The suspected getaway car was on May 28 found abandoned near the Montenegrin border, the news agency SRNA reported the same day. Stankovic, who was arrested in 2002, was transferred by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague to Bosnia in September 2005. His was the first case to be passed over to a domestic court. A court in Sarajevo in November 2006 sentenced him to 16 years in prison for crimes against humanity, rape, and enslavement, a sentence that the appeals court increased to 20 years in March 2007. Stankovic was jailed in Foca, where during the war he ran a house in which Bosnian Muslim women were imprisoned and raped. Stankovic was one of the 23 suspected war criminals most wanted by The Hague. AG
 MACEDONIAN GOVERNMENT IN CRISISMacedonia's coalition government is currently in crisis talks after the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh) on May 26 said it was leaving the coalition in a row triggered by the government's efforts to reach out to two other ethnic Albanian parties. The departure of the PDSh would deprive the government of its narrow majority in parliament, potentially prompting fresh elections less than a year after the last parliamentary elections. A small ethnic Albanian party, the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), ended a boycott of parliament and joined the government on May 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). That development was not criticized by the PDSh. However reports that the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), the largest Albanian party, was preparing to end its boycott in exchange for legal changes to the status of Albanian veterans of the 2001 conflict and the status of the Albanian language were swiftly followed by an announcement on May 26 that the PDSh had left government. The PDSh's deputy leader, Menduh Thaci, told local media that his party was not consulted about the talks with the BDI. The BDI and the PDSh have been at loggerheads since elections in July 2006, with the BDI describing the PDSh's decision to join the government as a betrayal of the Albanian community. The BDI had, until then, been in coalition governments continuously since the end of the six-month conflict in 2001 between ethnic Albanian separatists and Macedonian forces. In comments reported on May 27 by Reuters, Thaci sought both to explain why the PDSh had failed to secure such concessions from the government -- "the PDSh was waiting for the right moment...when this subject would be addressed within the governing coalition," he said -- and to undermine the credibility of any deal. Thaci described the dialogue with the BDI as a "manipulation" because the VMRO-DPMNE, the government's senior party, "is not ready to talk about the serious problems facing Albanians." Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who comes from the VMRO-DPMNE, told local media on May 27 that the crisis was a result of "misunderstandings," acknowledging that he agreed "in principle" to a set of legal proposals by the BDI, but denying that they related either to language or to former guerrilla fighters. He also denied that the PDSh was not consulted. Since the elections in 2006, Macedonian politics has been plagued by tensions, in the form of the parliamentary boycott, disputes within the governing coalition, and differences between Gruevski and President Branko Crvenkovski. These problems have combined, in the EU's assessment, to slacken the reform drive and that, plus concern at possible instability triggered by the debate about the future of neighboring Kosova, has resulted in sustained pressure on the Macedonian government to resolve its differences with ethnic Albanian politicians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 9, and May 18 and 21, 2007). AG
 EU PRESSES ALBANIA TO CHOOSE COMPROMISE FIGURE AS PRESIDENTEU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on May 24 urged Albania's political parties to choose a president with cross-party support, the dailies "Koha jone" and "Shekulli" reported on May 25. Rehn was speaking after meeting in Brussels with Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who responded that "it is possible to choose a consensual president and all parties are trying to get to that." President Alfred Moisiu on May 21 called on the country's politicians to set aside their quarrels, focus on reform, and choose a consensus candidate. Moisiu, who emerged as a compromise choice in 2002, has not ruled out running for reelection himself. The governing coalition has a narrow majority in parliament but needs a two-thirds' majority to push through its own candidate. In recent days, several small opposition parties have accused the government of preparing a "coup d'etat" by arguing that the speaker of parliament should assume the president's powers in the period between the new president's election and his swearing in. The opposition maintains that the outgoing president should retain his powers until his successor formally assumes the post. The election is due to be held in June; Moisiu's mandate ends on July 24. Rehn also pressed for bipartisanship in efforts to reform the country's electoral law. AG
 EU SEEKS TO REVIVE TALKS ON TRANSDNIESTER...The European Union on May 25 hosted talks on fresh negotiations about the future of Moldova's separatist region, Transdniester. The meeting ended with no fixed date given, but, according to an EU Observer report from May 25, Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said he hopes multilateral talks can resume "very soon." The Moldovan news agency Basa reported on May 28 that talks could begin again in June, citing unnamed EU officials. The EU itself would only be an observer in the process, but it is directly affected by the dispute, as Moldova is seeking EU membership. The EU wants Moldova, Transdniester, Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to assume the burden of finding a solution, rather than the process being left to bilateral talks between Moldova and Russia. Multilateral talks were suspended in February 2006 when Transdniester walked out. The meeting in Madrid was attended only by the three mediators in the dispute -- Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE -- and the two observers, the EU and the United States. In the 15 years since Russian troops intervened to end the conflict in Transdniester, the process came closest to a breakthrough in November 2003, when, at the last minute, Moldova withdrew from a deal brokered by Moscow. In mid-April, Moldova and Russia were again reported to be on the verge of an agreement, giving Transdniester substantial autonomy and authority within Transdniester. Moldova has denied that Russia presented a planned settlement, but the report -- by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation -- has nonetheless resulted in substantially greater diplomatic activity in the past six weeks than in the preceding 12 months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and 27, and May 7 and 25, 2007). AG
 ...WHILE U.S. SAYS RUSSIA COULD HELP MOREU.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried on May 24 called for Russia to "engage seriously" to convince Transdniester to return to talks on its status. In testimony to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), a U.S. government agency charged with monitoring compliance with OSCE agreements, Fried said that the Russian and Moldovan governments have recently called for a resumption of multilateral talks, but that "Russia has to date failed to use its heft to bring the Transdniestrians back to the negotiating table." Fried was also critical of Russia's behavior toward Moldova, saying that "despite promises by President [Vladimir] Putin himself last fall that the ban against Moldovan wine and agricultural goods would be lifted, the ban is still in place." AG
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 AFGHAN LAWMAKER BLAMES WARLORD FOR ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTAhmad Khan, a member of the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) from Samangan Province in northern Afghanistan, has accused General Abdul Rashid Dostum of being behind an attempt on his life, Kabul-based Ariana Television reported on May 28. Unidentified gunmen ambushed Ahmad Khan's vehicle as he was traveling in Samangan on May 23, killing his bodyguard and driver but leaving the lawmaker unhurt. Ahmad Khan told the Wolesi Jirga on May 28 that "General Dostum is directly involved in the attempt on my life. I have evidence to prove my claim. In Asad of 1385 [July 2006], General Dostum warned me in a telephone conversation. He insulted me with many bad words and warned me several times." Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, has held the nominal title of the chief of staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces of Afghanistan since March 2005. But he is also involved in a struggle with other rival local commanders and government officials for control of several provinces in northern Afghanistan, including Samangan. On May 26, a gathering estimated to number in the thousands took place in Aybak, the provincial capital of Samangan, blaming Dostum for the attempt on Ahmad Khan's life, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The protesters burned an effigy of Dostum. Meanwhile, Mohammad Alem Saei, a member of the Wolesi Jirga from Takhar Province, east of Samangan, told the lower house that the claim made by lawmaker Ahmad Khan was part of a conspiracy against General Dostum. "The conspiracy has been hatched with the help of some high-ranking officials; maybe the Interior Minister [Zarar Ahmad Moqbel] and several other officials who are involved in the conspiracy against General Dostum," Saei said. Saei is a member of the Junbesh-e Melli, a political party founded by Dostum. Dostum relinquished his official title as head of the party in 2005 in order to accept the undefined post of chief of staff of Afghanistan's armed forces, but unofficially he continues to control it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2005). AT
 PROTESTS IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN LEAD TO DEADLY CLASHESUnauthorized demonstrations in Jowzjan Province on May 28 turned violent, leaving six people dead and injuring around 30. The Afghan Interior Ministry, in a press release the same day, called the unauthorized demonstrations "inconsistent with all laws" of Afghanistan, state-run Radio Afghanistan reported. According to the statement, "thousands of General Dostum's supporters started an illegal demonstration and rebellion against national interests in Jowzjan...without prior notice to security sources." The "demonstrators carried out an armed attack against police, wounding four" when the National Police tried to maintain order, the statement said. Supporters of Dostum also raided a police station and attacked guards protecting the residence of Jowzjan Governor Joma Khan Hamdard. According to the report, the riots took place after the police arrested six people suspected of involvement in the assassination attempt against Ahmad Khan, a Wolesi Jirga member from Samangan (see above). The six have been handed over to the Attorney-General's Office for further investigation. In a statement, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the violent demonstrations in Jowzjan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on May 28. "It is the legitimate and constitutional right of every Afghan to take part in peaceful demonstrations, but these demonstrations must not turn violent and cause the breakdown of law and order in the country," Karzai said in his statement. AT
 TALIBAN RELEASES THREE AFGHAN HOSTAGESTaliban militants have released three Afghans kidnapped in early April along with two French nationals, according to a website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5 and 30, 2007). The French nationals were released earlier, their employer, an aid organization, confirmed on May 26. A posting on the Taliban website on May 27 said the three Afghans, identified as Hazrat, Mohammad Hashim, and Gholam Rasul, were released without any compensation. In a statement on May 27, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said he was "delighted" by the release of the Afghan hostages and thanked all who worked to ensure their release. AT
 IRAN PROPOSES NUCLEAR POWER COOPERATION WITH ARAB NEIGHBORSIran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told a conference in Tehran on May 28 that Iran is ready to transfer its nuclear expertise to Persian Gulf neighbors under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Radio Farda reported, citing agencies. Speaking to the 17th International Conference on the Persian Gulf, organized by the Iranian foreign ministry's research department, Mottaki said Gulf countries' demand for access to peaceful nuclear energy disproves "America's accusation against Iran [that it] seeks to make nuclear weapons." He said he hopes "constructive and comprehensive nuclear negotiations" will address Iran's "right to have nuclear energy" and "possible concerns" in Western states about Iran using its nuclear program to make bombs. Radio Farda reported that some observers interpret Middle Eastern states' growing interest in nuclear technology as a sign of their concern about Iran becoming a nuclear power. Iran's deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, Mohammad Reza Baqeri, told ISNA in Tehran on May 27 that Iran structures its relations with Arab states from a position of "strength and kindness." He said Iran will work to thwart the efforts of "plotters" -- an apparent reference to the United States -- trying to ruin its relations with Arab states, even if it cannot "sever" their hands. VS
 IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SUMMONS ENVOY OVER 'INTERFERENCE'Iran's Foreign Ministry on May 27 summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Philippe Welti, to express its dissatisfaction with alleged spying and subversive activities in Iran, which the ministry says are backed by the United States, agencies reported. Switzerland represents U.S. interests in Iran, in the absence of formal diplomatic ties between the two countries. Ahmad Sobhani, director-general for American affairs at the Foreign Ministry, expressed Iran's "strong objection" to what he called the U.S. government's and intelligence agencies' "hostile interference" in Iran's "internal affairs." He said Iran has recently uncovered several "espionage networks" in central, western, and southwestern Iran, "Etemad" reported on May 28. He said these are dedicated to infiltrating and undertaking unspecified "sabotage" work in Iran, under the guidance of U.S. "intelligence services." Sobhani said such initiatives violate the U.S. government's legal commitments to respect states' sovereignty and independence, and that the United States must provide explanations in this regard. VS
 IRANIAN OFFICIAL EXPECTS ONE-THIRD REDUCTION IN GASOLINE IMPORTSMohammad Reza Nematzadeh, a deputy oil minister and head of the ministry-affiliated National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company, told a Tehran seminar on May 27 that Iran hopes to cut its gasoline imports by 30 percent with the implementation of a new gasoline-pricing plan that began with a May 22 hike in gasoline prices. Iran raised the price of gasoline from 800 rials to 1,000 rials a liter -- or from about $0.09 to just under $0.11 -- and is now requiring drivers to buy gasoline with "smart cards" that measure consumption. The initial measure precedes the implementation of a new two-tiered pricing system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 2007). Nematzadeh said Iran imported 30 million liters of gasoline daily in the year to March 20, 2007, and currently imports a daily 33 million to 34 million liters to meet enormous domestic demand for gasoline. Gasoline consumption reportedly dropped 2.4 percent in the week starting May 19, the daily "Iran" stated on May 28. Iranian drivers purchased 542.2 million liters in the week starting May 19, down from 555.7 million liters the previous week, the daily reported, attributing this to the price hike implemented on May 22. VS
 IRAN'S AMBASSADOR COMMENTS ON IRAN-U.S. TALKSIran's ambassador in Baghdad, Hasan Kazemi-Qomi, told the press in Baghdad on May 28 that "we clearly stated all our concerns about Iraq's issues" in talks that day with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, IRNA reported. Kazemi-Qomi said he told the U.S. ambassador that the problems of Iraqis will only increase if the U.S. occupation of Iraq continues, and that Iran is willing to help improve the functioning of the Iraqi government. Kazemi-Qomi said participants in the talks agreed on the need to help the Iraqi government maintain security in the country. He said "the most valuable point of today's talks" was that they focused only on Iraq's problems. He added that his side "gave the requisite response" to U.S. allegations about Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs and reported support for Iraq insurgents. In response to a question about the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), a left-wing militant group that opposes Iran's government and operates in Iraq, Kazemi-Qomi said "the Iraqi government is determined to expel these people from its territory," IRNA reported. The MKO is considered a terrorist organization by Iran and the U.S. State Department. VS
 IRAN JAILS TRADE UNIONISTThe Tehran Revolutionary Court on May 28 sentenced Mansur Osanlu, the head of the Tehran bus drivers' union, to five years' imprisonment after finding him guilty of subversive activities, ILNA reported. He was given four years for "acting against national security," and one year for "engaging in propaganda against the system" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27 and 29, 2006, and January 5 and May 2, 2007). Osanlu has repeatedly run afoul of the Iranian authorities for his union activities on behalf of Tehran bus drivers. The latest sentence comes after an investigation initiated at the Tehran Revolutionary Court prosecutor's office on February 24, 2007, ILNA reported. The agency separately reported on May 28 that student activist Babak Zamanian, who has also been charged with "acting against national security," has been released on bail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). Zamanian posted bail worth 50 million tumans (about $54,000). Ali Azizi, a student at Amir Kabir University in Tehran where Zamanian studied, told ILNA that Zamanian was held for 38 days in solitary confinement. VS
 U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ COMMENTS ON MEETING WITH IRAN...Ryan Crocker told reporters in Baghdad on May 28 that Iran must put policy into practice if change is to come in Iraq, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Crocker said the talks revealed a "good congruence" between U.S. and Iranian policy on Iraq. "The Iranians...laid out their policy toward Iraq -- their aims and goals in terms very similar to our own policy and very similar to what the Iraqi government has set as its own set of guiding principles. From that point of view, I would say that the talks proceeded positively," Crocker said. "What we underscored to the Iranians, though, is that beyond principle there is practice and what we need to see is Iranian actions on the ground come into harmony with their stated principles." Looking ahead, Crocker said, "We're going to want to wait and see not what is said next, but what happens next on the ground." He said the Iranian delegation did not raise the issue of Iranians currently held in U.S. custody, nor did it demand a timetable be set for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. KR
 ...AND SAYS IRANIANS DID NOT RESPOND TO U.S. POINTSCrocker said the Iranian delegation did not respond to a U.S. demand that it stop arming insurgents in Iraq. "I laid out before the Iranians a number of our direct specific concerns about their behavior in Iraq, their support for militias that are fighting both the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces. The fact that a lot of the explosives and ammunition that are used by these groups are coming in from Iran, that such activities led by the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Council] Qods Force needed to cease, and that we would be looking for results," Crocker said. "The Iranians did not respond directly to that." Asked what concerns the Iranians raised at the meeting, he said: "The Iranians did not go into any great detail. They made the assertion that the coalition presence was an occupation and that the effort to train and equip the Iraqi security forces had been inadequate to the challenges faced." The Iranian delegation also proposed "a trilateral mechanism to coordinate on security matters," Crocker noted, adding, "That, of course, would be a decision for Washington." KR
 IRAQI SHRINE ATTACKED IN BAGHDAD...A car bomb exploded outside the Imam Sheikh Abd al-Qadir al-Kilani Shrine (also known as the Al-Qadiriyah Mosque) in Baghdad on May 28, damaging the structure and killing more than 20 people, RFI reported the same day. Sixty-eight others were wounded in the attack. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned the bombing, saying in a statement, "The targeting of the holy Al-Qadiriyah Mosque through this criminal act proves once more that those [perpetrators] lack the slightest ounce of religious or moral ethics that can deter them from committing such barbaric crimes." Meanwhile, Sheikh Nehru al-Gazanzani, representative of the Al-Qadiriyah tradition worldwide, told Al-Sharqiyah television on May 28 that the bombing could spark reprisal attacks by followers of the imam throughout the Middle East, as well as in Asia and Africa. Speaking of the significance of the imam, he said, "It was Abd al-Qadir al-Kilani who brought Sunnis, Shi'a, and all other sects, ethnicities, and denominations together after the orthodox caliphate in Islamic history." Al-Gazanzani blamed Al-Qaeda for the bombing, as well as Iran, claiming Tehran uses Al-Qaeda to achieve its political goals in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," March 14, 2006). KR
 ...AS IMAM CALLS ON IRAQIS NOT TO REACTIn a May 28 interview with state-run Al-Iraqiyah television, Mahmud al-Isawi, the imam of the Al-Qadiriyah Mosque, called on Iraqis not to react as they did following the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). "I call on Iraqis to react wisely. Such acts [of sabotage] will only seek to foment sedition and divide national ranks.... Therefore, while urging the Iraqis to act wisely, I call on them not to allow such acts to blind their vision," al-Isawi said. Al-Sharqiyah television reminded viewers on May 28 that it reported one week ago that Iraqi security sources were aware that an attack against the shrine was being planned in a neighboring country. It questioned why the shrine was not secured, claiming that the lack of security implied complicity between the Iraq and the unidentified neighboring country responsible for the bombing. KR
 IRAQI SHI'ITE LEADER PLEDGES TO PROTECT SUNNIS, CHRISTIANSShi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr pledged during his Friday Prayer sermon in Al-Kufah on May 25 to protect Iraq's Sunni Arabs and Christians, Al-Jazeera television reported the same day. Addressing Sunnis, al-Sadr said the "occupier" separated the Sunni and Shi'ite communities "to weaken the Iraqi people," adding, "I am ready to cooperate with [Sunnis] at all levels." He later added: "I will not forget to say the blood of Sunnis and Iraqi Christians are prohibited to be shed by Iraqis as they are either our brothers in religion or in the homeland. They have sought our refuge, and we announce our readiness to defend them.... I tell the Christian brothers that Islam serves the needs of the minorities." Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani last week stressed the need to protect Iraq's Christian community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). Al-Sadr also addressed recent proposals on de-Ba'athification, saying any move by the government to reverse the de-Ba'athification process would "not be allowed," adding, "If the government does so, this will...make us, the people, part company with it." KR
 IRAQI OPPOSITION APPEARS SET ON BRINGING DOWN PREMIERBy Kathleen Ridolfo
Iraqi political parties and blocs are taking steps to restyle themselves, apparently frustrated with the sectarianism and political stagnation plaguing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's "national-unity" government.
Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has been working toward a return to power since he left office in 2005. A Shi'ite and former Ba'athist, he has worked to establish relations with Sunni oppositionists, including former Ba'ath Party members. He began talking to insurgent leaders in 2005 and appears to have played a key role in establishing a line of communication between some insurgent groups and the Iraqi government.
Allawi is also courting Iraqi political parties and blocs, including the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), hoping they will join him in forming a non-sectarian national-salvation government. The former leader claims he has a plan to end sectarian violence that is supported by the United States, the United Kingdom, and regional Arab states.
Sunni Arab leader Salih al-Mutlaq told RFE/RL in a March 9 interview that there is broad support for Allawi's plan from al-Mutlaq's Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, Al-Tawafuq, Al-Fadilah, some supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi Turkoman Front, and minority Kurdish parties, as well as from Allawi's coalition, the Iraqi National List.
Allawi has said little publicly about his plans, but that may change in the coming days. President Jalal Talabani told reporters on May 15 that Allawi was returning to Iraq and "will contribute, together with his natural and historical allies, to national and political action, as well as to addressing possible shortcomings through constitutional and parliamentary mechanisms."
Shi'ite leaders are also engaged in efforts to rebrand their parties, and their actions come as both a response to internal rivalries and a recognition that al-Maliki's government is under threat and may not survive the next year.
For parties such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which on May 12 changed its name to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), the rebranding is long overdue. Since its return to Iraq on the heels of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, SCIRI has lost out to al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army for popular support. Al-Sadr won out, largely because he was viewed as a steadfast leader who never fled Iraq, even though the Saddam Hussein government assassinated his father and brothers. SCIRI, on the other hand, could not overcome the characterization that it was Iranian-backed, having been established and supported by Tehran since 1982.
Though al-Sadr does not have a political party and has personally remained on the sidelines of politics, his supporters participated in the 2005 legislative elections, garnering 30 seats. Until recently, six of the cleric's supporters held cabinet positions. They resigned their posts in April to protest al-Maliki's refusal to set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. At the time, al-Maliki said he "welcomed" the resignations, but the loss of the cleric's support -- he helped put al-Maliki in office -- may soon further erode al-Maliki's position.
Al-Sadr's ability to influence political events cannot be ignored. Although he has been in hiding for months and his whereabouts are disputed -- some say he fled to Iran ahead of the Baghdad security plan, while others contend he is hiding out in southern Iraq -- he was still able to rally tens of thousands in two Iraqi cities to demonstrate against the presence of the multinational forces on April 10, the fourth anniversary of Hussein's fall.
Now, al-Sadr appears poised to pull out of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). His withdrawal from the UIA, which includes SIIC and al-Maliki's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, would significantly weaken the UIA's strength in parliament. Another Shi'ite party, Al-Fadilah, which draws its grassroots support from Al-Basrah, pulled out of the UIA in March because of internal Shi'ite disputes, taking 15 parliamentary seats with it. Should al-Sadr pull out, the UIA will be left with 83 seats in parliament, down from the 128 it won in the December 2005 election.
If he does withdraw, al-Sadr will have once again proven himself a shrewd politician. By distancing himself from al-Maliki, al-Sadr will have avoided association with an administration widely considered a failed project that is heavily tainted by U.S. influence.
Al-Sadr is also cleaning up his Imam Al-Mahdi Army, getting rid of rogue militiamen accused of violations against citizens and crimes against the Sunnis. In cleansing the Al-Mahdi Army of its criminal elements, al-Sadr can present the militia as a nationalist group fighting to restore Iraq's honor.
In an effort to highlight his Iraqi nationalist, antioccupation, antifederalist reputation, al-Sadr has also offered an olive branch to Sunni Arab leaders. Al-Anbar Awakening leader Hamid al-Hayis met with representatives of al-Sadr in Baghdad on May 22 to discuss steps toward ending Sunni-Shi'a discord and forging national reconciliation.
This is not the first time al-Sadr has tried to align himself with Sunni Arabs on a nationalist platform. He formed a close alliance with Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari in 2004, but relations have since frayed.
Al-Sadr has also sent his longtime representative Ahmad al-Shaybani to meet with Sunni leaders throughout the Middle East to seek their help in forging relations with Sunnis in Iraq, "The Washington Post" reported on May 20.
"We want to aim the guns against the occupation and Al-Qaeda, not between Iraqis," al-Shaybani said. A representative of the 1920 Revolution Brigades acknowledged that his group has had informal discussions with al-Sadr's representatives.
By presenting his movement as an alternative to Allawi, al-Sadr is appealing to the nationalist, anti-U.S. elements of Al-Tawafuq. Should al-Sadr find a way to align with Al-Tawafuq and Al-Fadilah, his alliance would outweigh the UIA in parliament by at least six votes. However, any alliance he forges with Al-Tawafuq would be short-lived, since the latter can only overlook the cleric's theological tendencies for so long. But as the saying goes, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Al-Tawafuq threatened to leave the government earlier this month after front leaders said al-Maliki's administration was failing to meet its commitments toward constitutional reform, including de-Ba'athification.
Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders quickly tried to stave off a departure, and Talabani and al-Maliki assured Al-Tawafuq that they will establish mechanisms in the "coming phase" to bring the front into the decision-making process.
Meanwhile, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told the London-based "Quds Press" on May 22 that the option of setting up a new political front "continues to be on the back burner." Two days later, al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party cited him as saying the front has withdrawn -- but not canceled -- its threat to leave the government.
In addition to being able to offer a fair amount of parliamentary leverage -- the front has 44 seats -- Al-Tawafuq lends legitimacy to any alliance it joins because it is the main voice of Iraq's Sunni Arabs within the political process.
For the moment, it appears Al-Tawafuq is weighing its options, but some members have acknowledged the political landscape in Iraq must change. Front member Salim Abdallah al-Juburi told Al-Arabiyah television on May 18 that all of Iraq's political blocs "will be compelled to reorganize along nonsectarian lines" in the coming months.
But it is unclear how much time will pass before a change will come. "There is no agreement," al-Juburi said, "on the concept of national reconciliation," a key issue for the Sunnis. Whichever party they align with in the future must be able to present to them -- and guarantee -- a national-reconciliation plan that enshrines their rights and participation in any future governments.