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Newsline - March 20, 2003


PUTIN DEPLORES U.S. RESORT TO 'LAW OF THE FIST' IN IRAQ
In a statement responding to the onset of U.S.-led military operations against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, President Vladimir Putin said on 20 March that Washington has made "a big political mistake," and insisted on the quickest possible cessation of hostilities, Russian news agencies reported. Putin deplored the idea that "international law is being replaced by the law of the fist and the principle that the strongest are always right." He added that Iraq poses no danger to the international community, and said that Russia's policy will be "to return the crisis to a peaceful track and to search for a solution to the Iraq problem based on UN resolutions." He said that he has already received reports of casualties and damage in Iraq. VY

DEPUTY DUMA SPEAKER URGES CALM RESPONSE TO IRAQ HOSTILITIES
Vladimir Lukin (Yabloko) said the Kremlin should maintain a "cold-blooded" position regarding the military operation against the regime of Iraqi President Hussein, taking into account that the fighting poses no immediate threat to Russian security and that Russia has very limited prospects of influencing events at this stage, RTR and ORT reported on 20 March. He urged the Kremlin to take advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with the military operation to boost ties with countries that share Moscow's opposition to the war in Iraq. Lukin added that the outbreak of hostilities does not mark the demise of the United Nations, but could lead to a diminished role for it. He urged Moscow to work to restore the UN's importance. "I foresee that the fruits of this war will not be so sweet for the United States," he added, noting that the conflict could produce conflicts between the United States and its allies, as well as domestic political and economic difficulties. VY

DUMA SUPPORTS GOVERNMENT'S POSITION AGAINST IRAQ WAR...
Duma Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin (People's Deputy), chairman of the Duma's Foreign Relations Committee, said on 20 March that since 11 September 2001, the United States has felt particularly vulnerable and has initiated military action against Iraq because it feels Iraqi President Hussein is a threat to its national security, RTR reported. Rogozin added that Russia and the United States have differing conceptions of national security, with the United States preferring a unilateral view to a collective one. Rogozin said that the Duma fully supports President Putin and the government in condemning the U.S.-led military action against Iraq. However, he also criticized the Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) for calling a "premature anti-American protest" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). VY

...AND EXPRESSES CONCERN FOR FATE OF THE UNITED NATIONS
Duma Deputy Konstantin Kosachev (Fatherland-All Russia), deputy chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told ORT on 20 March that the fate of the United Nations is more important than the fate of any individual country as the crisis unfolds. He emphasized that he does not support the regime of Iraqi President Hussein, but he said the Kremlin should support Iraq's call for an emergency UN Security Council session, although he does not believe such a session will be held. VY

U.S. AMBASSADOR TELLS RUSSIA THAT U.S. IS FIGHTING FOR A JUST CAUSE
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told ORT on 20 March that he regrets the onset of a military operation against Iraqi President Hussein without the backing of an explicit UN Security Council resolution. However, he said that the business begun in 1991 must be finished. He emphasized that the United States does not intend to occupy Iraq or to control its oil, but rather to liberate the Iraqi people. He predicted that more and more countries will rally to the U.S.-led coalition as the operation proceeds because "our cause is right." VY

FORMER AFGHANISTAN COMMANDER WARNS RUSSIA TO BE 'VIGILANT'
Moscow Oblast Governor and retired general Boris Gromov, who was the commander of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, warned that "Russia should be very vigilant," "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on 18 March. "In 1991, the war bypassed the Soviet Union, but now things might be different," Gromov was quoted as saying. "Everywhere there are Muslims, although I am not saying that they will necessarily be involved in possible terrorist acts." Defense Ministry spokesman Nikolai Deryabin said that Russia has made no special defense preparations in connection with the beginning of hostilities in the Persian Gulf, the Military News Agency reported on 20 March. VY

LEADING ECONOMIST PREDICTS STABILIZATION OF OIL PRICES...
Leonid Grigorev, director of Moscow-based Expert Institute and formerly World Bank director from Russia, said that the war in Iraq will alter the nature of the global economy, RTR reported on 20 March. He said that he does not believe, as many analysts do, that world oil prices will fall to $12-$14 a barrel. This would not be in the interests of the OPEC countries or of consumers, because if the price falls too low, the incentive to conserve energy will be undermined. Grigorev said that prices should stabilize at about $20 a barrel, which is the optimal price for both the United States and OPEC and will help maintain global economic and political equilibrium. VY

...AS RUSSIAN COMPANIES WRITE OFF THEIR ASSETS IN IRAQ
Russian businessmen who left Iraq in recent days handed over their assets to members of the Iraqi regime and have no hope that they will ever recover them, strana.ru reported on 19 March. Representatives of LUKoil, Zarubezhneft, and Mashinoimport -- which have the largest presences in Iraq -- have written off their losses and said that although their property in Iraq is partially insured, it will be extremely difficult to collect damages if the regime in Baghdad is changed. VY

DEFENSE MINISTER CALLS FOR RECRUITMENT OF CIS CITIZENS FOR RUSSIAN ARMY
Sergei Ivanov has submitted to President Putin a plan for transforming Russia's armed forces into a volunteer force, ORT reported on 19 March. Included in the plan is a proposal to recruit citizens of CIS countries and build the Russian Army on the principle of the French Foreign Legion, "Vremya novostei" reported on 19 March. Ivanov said that leading combat units should be the first to switch completely to a volunteer basis and that competitive salaries will be needed to attract qualified specialists. VY

CHECHEN FOREIGN MINISTER UNVEILS NEW PEACE PROPOSAL
Speaking in Washington on 18 March, Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov presented a new peace plan under which Chechnya would enjoy what he termed "conditional independence," chechenpress.com reported. It is not clear to what extent that status corresponds to that proposed last year by former Russian parliament speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report,"14 February and 19 July 2002). Akhmadov told a briefing at RFE/RL that his plan further provides for the withdrawal from Chechnya of Russian troops and their replacement by a UN peacekeeping contingent, followed by elections to new bodies of power. He said he doubts the planned 23 March referendum on a new Chechen constitution will bring lasting peace to Chechnya. LF

SOME CHECHEN PARLIAMENT DEPUTIES BACK REFERENDUM CALL FOR GENERAL AMNESTY
Several deputies to the Chechen parliament elected in January 1997 have met with Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo and presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii in Moscow, Russian media reported on 19 March. A total of 32 of the 63 deputies have endorsed a statement addressed to President Putin expressing their support for the 23 March referendum, which they said will pave the way for a peaceful solution to the conflict. But at the same time, they told Putin they believe the adoption of the constitution should be accompanied by the granting of an amnesty to "all participants in the Chechen armed resistance," with the exception of those who engaged in kidnappings and terrorism, on the grounds that it will not be possible to restore peace in Chechnya without the participation of former fighters. LF

PROSECUTOR SAYS BASAEV'S ROLE IN GROZNY BOMBING PROVEN
Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii said in Rostov-na-Donu on 19 March that an investigation has established that field commander Shamil Basaev was behind the 27 December car-bomb attack on the Chechen government headquarters in Grozny in which some 70 people died, Russian media reported. Basaev claimed responsibility for that attack last month, but on 11 March Fridinskii said no firm link had been established between Basaev and three suspects in the case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February and 17 March 2003). LF

ABDUCTED CHECHEN HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST RELEASED
Imran Ezhiev, who was abducted by armed men in Shali Raion on 15 March, was found near the village of Berkat-Yurt early on 19 March, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). Ezhiev heads a local branch of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society and is also a coordinator in Chechnya for the Moscow Helsinki Group. LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT WARNS OPPOSITION TO DESIST FROM 'ILLEGAL ACTIONS'
Robert Kocharian warned on 19 March that the Armenian authorities will respond "appropriately" if the opposition continues to engage in "illegal" activities, according to ITAR-TASS and Mediamax, as cited by Groong. Kocharian also said that in view of the "compelling evidence," the authorities were justified in arresting businessman Armen Sargsian on charges of ordering the 28 December killing of Armenian Public Television and Radio head Tigran Naghdalian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He added that law enforcement agencies informed him two weeks ago of the evidence incriminating Sargsian and said that he requested that Sargsian's arrest be delayed in order to avoid fuelling tensions on the eve of the 5 March presidential runoff vote. Senior Prosecutor Hector Sardarian similarly told RFE/RL on 19 March that "we had more than adequate grounds" to arrest Sargsian, but declined to disclose any details of the evidence. Also on 19 March, the Central Election Commission presented Kocharian with his formal presidential mandate, Interfax reported. LF

ARMENIA DENIES U.S. HAS REQUESTED BASING RIGHTS
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told a question-and-answer session in parliament on 19 March that there is no truth to media reports that the United States has raised with the Armenian government the possibility of locating a U.S. air base in Armenia, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The daily "Haykakan zhamanak," as cited by Groong, reported on 15 March that Washington is interested in using an airport at Stepanavan, Djermuk, or Kapan for that purpose. LF

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCHDOG DEMANDS ARMENIAN ACTIVIST'S RELEASE
In an 18 March statement, Human Rights Watch called for the immediate release of Artur Sakunts, head of the Vanadzor branch of the Helsinki Citizens' Assembly, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sakunts was sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment for holding an unauthorized rally to protest a firebomb attack on his organization's premises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003). LF

AZERBAIJAN OFFERS LANDING RIGHTS TO CIVILIAN AIR TRAFFIC
Azerbaijan Airline First Deputy General Director Sabir Ilyasov said Baku is ready and able to offer landing and refueling facilities to civilian aircraft on scheduled flights to the Near East and Middle East diverted as a result of the war in Iraq, Turan and ITAR-TASS reported on 19 March. Ilyasov said the number of civilian landings could be increased by up to 33 percent, but that no such requests have yet been received. Also on 19 March, an unnamed spokesman at the Iraqi Embassy in Baku declined to comment on unconfirmed reports that members of the United Azerbaijan Party have left for Iraq to participate in a "human-shield" action. The spokesman added that he does not know whether some 10-15 Azerbaijanis studying in Iraq are still in that country or have returned to Azerbaijan, Turan reported. LF

U.S. PRESIDENT THANKS AZERBAIJAN, GEORGIA FOR SUPPORT OF ANTITERRORISM CAMPAIGN
In separate letters to Heidar Aliev and Eduard Shevardnadze, U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed his gratitude to both Azerbaijan and Georgia for granting the U.S. overflight rights during the antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan, Russian media reported. LF

GEORGIA READY TO SUPPORT U.S. MILITARY ACTION AGAINST IRAQ
Georgian Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 19 March that Georgia is prepared to provide any assistance it can to the U.S. military offensive against Iraq, Caucasus Press reported. Tevzadze said the most likely request would be for the use of Georgian airspace, but added that no request for help of any kind has yet been forthcoming, and it is unlikely that such a request would be made just hours before the beginning of hostilities. On 18 March, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze told Caucasus Press that the question of Georgia's direct participation in the war "is not on the agenda." But Djaparidze mentioned the possibility that Georgia could provide facilities for U.S. troops should the Turkish parliament again refuse to make its territory available to the United States for the campaign against Iraq. Georgian Intelligence Service Director Lieutenant General Avtandil Ioseliani said on 19 March that he does not envisage an influx of refugees from Iraq, as Kurds fleeing that country are more likely to head for Armenia, Caucasus Press reported. Security measures have been intensified at Georgian airports and military bases and at foreign embassies in Tbilisi, ITAR-TASS reported on 19 March. LF

U.S. AMBASSADOR URGES GEORGIA TO RATIFY MILITARY-COOPERATION AGREEMENT
U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles warned parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Batiashvili during talks on 19 March that the Georgian parliament's continued refusal to ratify an agreement signed last December on bilateral military cooperation could jeopardize the ongoing U.S.-funded "Train and Equip" program for the Georgian armed forces, "Tribuna" reported on 20 March. Batiashvili blamed the parliament's failure to ratify the accord on "pro-Russian" factions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February and 4 March 2003). LF

UN ENVOY MEETS WITH ABKHAZ PREMIER
Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for the Abkhaz conflict, met in Sukhum on 19 March with Abkhaz Prime Minister Gennadii Gagulia and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, Caucasus Press reported. Tagliavini told journalists that the talks focused on implementation of the agreements reached during talks in Sochi on 6-7 March between the Russian and Georgian presidents. Shamba reportedly advocated a key role for the UN in ensuring the implementation of the agreements on repatriation of displaced persons and resuming rail communication between Sukhum and Tbilisi. In Tbilisi, however, Georgian President Shevardnadze told Georgian State Television on 19 March that the UN is incapable of ensuring the implementation of Security Council resolutions, including 28 such resolutions on Abkhazia, Interfax reported. LF

GEORGIA, ISRAEL DISCUSS DEFENSE INDUSTRY COOPERATION
A senior Israeli defense industry official met in Tbilisi on 18-19 March with Georgian State Minister Avtandil Djorbenadze and other Georgian officials to discuss possible Israeli aid to Georgia's military industrial complex, Caucasus Press reported. The Israeli visitor also visited the Tbilisi Aviation Plant. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT ORDERS HEIGHTENED SECURITY
Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev held a meeting with members of the government and the presidential administration on 19 March, after which he ordered measures taken to increase the security of the country and its citizens in view of the Iraq situation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported, quoting the presidential press service. The measures include heightened security around strategic facilities and, in view of Kazakhstan's dependence on energy exports, preparations to protect the country's economy in the event of severe price fluctuations on international commodities markets. The Ministry of Culture, Information, and Public Accord was instructed to instruct the media not to stir up interconfessional or interethnic friction by attaching religious significance to the conflict. Citizens were warned not to travel to countries adjacent to the conflict zone, flights to the conflict area were limited, and the Foreign Ministry was instructed to ensure the safety of Kazakh diplomats and citizens in the conflict zone. Security around certain embassies in Kazakhstan was also stepped up. BB

KAZAKH AIR DEFENSES PUT ON ALERT
Kazakhstan's air-defense system was put on alert in view of the military action against Iraq, Kazakhstan Today reported on 19 March. The report quoted Deputy Air Force Commander Okas Saparov as saying that radar monitoring of the airspace over the country's western and southern regions has been intensified in parallel with preparations for large-scale military exercises that are beginning in western Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). Air Force headquarters is reportedly simulating scenarios of possible developments in the Persian Gulf. Kazakh military officials have been quoted as saying they fear that stray U.S. cruise missiles could fall on Kazakh territory. BB

KYRGYZSTAN BOOSTS SECURITY IN CONNECTION WITH IRAQ SITUATION
First Deputy Chairman of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service Boris Poluektov told ITAR-TASS on 19 March that in reaction to the military operation in Iraq, his country has heightened security at diplomatic representations, at the air base used by the international antiterrorism coalition, and other state facilities. Poluektov was quoted as saying that measures are being taken to raise the combat readiness of military units, and that the passport-control and visa regime has been tightened in response to expectations of an uncontrolled influx of people from neighboring countries, which is considered the most immediate consequence to Kyrgyzstan of the war in Iraq. He added that the possibility of terrorist acts against the coalition air base could not be ruled out. Parliamentary State Security Committee Chairman Ismail Isakov iterated this concern in comments published by Interfax-AVN on 20 March. BB

DATE SET FOR TAJIK CONSTITUTIONAL REFERENDUM
During its 19 March session, the lower house of Tajikistan's parliament set 22 June as the date for a national referendum on controversial amendments to the country's constitution, Tajik radio reported the same day. Among the 161 proposed amendments completely or partially approved by a parliamentary commission, one would authorize a second consecutive seven-year presidential term in office. According to a 19 March ITAR-TASS report, this amendment would permit incumbent President Imomali Rakhmonov to run for re-election two more times when his current term expires in 2006. Other amendments would abolish the guarantee of free higher and vocational education and free medical care. BB

UNOFFICIAL CENSORSHIP ON WAR REPORTING INSTITUTED IN UZBEKISTAN
Unofficial censorship has been restored in Uzbekistan in response to the military operation in Iraq and only the viewpoint of the Uzbek government, which fully supports the war, can be expressed in the media, Deutsche Welle reported on 20 March. Neither the Russian nor the Western European points of view are being reported in Uzbekistan. The report, quoting an anonymous source, said that Foreign Minister Sodyk Safaev summoned the editors of major media outlets and asked them not to report on the war from a pro-Russian point of view, but exclusively from the U.S. position. BB

UZBEKISTAN WILL CONTINUE EFFORTS AGAINST TORTURE
The Uzbek government on 19 March issued a statement promising that the country's authorities will continue their efforts to end the torture of people in detention, Interfax reported the same day. The statement came in response to a draft report submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights by Theo van Boven, the UN Special Rapporteur Against Torture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). According to the report, the Uzbek statement acknowledged that "gross violations of human rights are committed in prisons" in Uzbekistan. It said the authorities are trying to put a stop to such violations, and drew attention to the 2002 convictions of four law enforcement officials for torturing detainees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February 2002). That trial has been hailed by international human rights groups as an encouraging first step in the Uzbek campaign against torture. BB

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT COMMITTEE RECOMMENDS APPROVING EU-ENLARGEMENT TREATY
The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on 19 March recommended that the parliament's plenum approve the accession treaty with the 10 candidate countries expected to join the EU on 1 May 2004, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels reported. Committee Chairman Elmar Brok said the decision sends a "positive signal" to the candidate countries, adding that he is sure the parliament will follow the recommendation when it meets on 9 April to vote on the treaty. However, the European Parliament has yet to agree to the financial package EU leaders negotiated with the candidate countries at the December 2002 Copenhagen summit. The parliament objects to the fact that the package annexed to the treaty stipulates fixed sums, saying this would infringe on its powers as a sovereign budgetary authority in the EU. Brok said he is confident a compromise can be reached. He said one solution would be to state that the package is "indicative" and that it is still possible to revise it on an annual basis from 2004-06. The 10 candidate countries are expected to sign the accession treaty in Athens on 16 April. MS

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER GOES INTO HIDING TO AVOID JAIL
Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) Deputy Chairman Yury Khadyka has chosen to go into hiding to avoid spending 15 days in jail, Belapan reported on 19 March. Khadyka was arrested on 17 March in connection with last week's unauthorized protest in Minsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003), but his trial was postponed due to procedural errors pertaining to one of the charges. Hiding for two months "is better than 15 days in a jail cell, where people have to sleep in overcoats on bare boards, where there is a constant stench from the lavatory, where the trellised tiny window near the ceiling makes it possible to see only a piece of the sky," Khadyka wrote in an open e-mail. Under Belarusian law, a minor civil offense is only punishable within two months after it was committed. AM

POLL SAYS 22 PERCENT OF MINSK RESIDENTS VOTED UNDER COMPULSION
Approximately 22 percent of Minsk residents who participated in the early voting in the 2 March local elections said they did so under pressure from their bosses, school administrators, dormitory chiefs, and others, according to a poll conducted by Belapan that was published on 19 March. Twenty-three percent of respondents said they were prompted to vote by their superiors, but not compelled; 45 percent claimed that they volunteered to vote before the official polling day; and 10 percent said they voted early because of their inability to cast their votes on 2 March. AM

EU WANTS TO BOOST RELATIONS WITH UKRAINE, BUT IS COOL ON UKRAINIAN EU MEMBERSHIP
The EU pledged on 18 March to step up its economic and trade relations with Ukraine, but again said membership is not on offer for Kyiv, AP reported. Ukrainian Premier Viktor Yanukovych said after meeting with senior EU officials and foreign ministers on 18 March that Ukraine needs "a stronger message" from Brussels regarding future relations. Instead, EU officials elaborated on its "Wider Europe" strategy, which envisages stronger economic and political relations with countries that stand little chance of joining the union, such as Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, and South Caucasus countries (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 11 and 18 March 2003). The EU on 17 March signed a market-access agreement with Ukraine on farm products and on trade in services, bringing the country a step closer to membership of the World Trade Organization. AM

ESTONIA'S COALITION ACCORD MIGHT BE SIGNED SHORTLY
After another round of talks on 19 March, negotiators from Res Publica, the Reform Party, and People's Union predicted that their coalition agreement will be signed on 26 March, BNS reported. This date was named because it is expected that President Arnold Ruutel will convene the new parliament's first session on 27 March. Reform Party Deputy Chairman Meelis Atonen said that it appears realistic that the draft of the accord will be approved by the end of the week. Res Publica Chairman Juhan Parts noted that consensus has been reached on matters of state administration, local governments, and foreign and defense policy. Res Publica board member Tonis Palts said the results of the negotiations on various topics will not be announced separately, but as a package after the means to finance them has been approved. He rejected criticisms that the negotiations are taking too long. "We are sending a signal to society that we are talking things over very profoundly," he said. SG

LATVIAN PARLIAMENT BACKS ACTION TO DISARM IRAQ
Parliament approved a bill on Latvia's participation in the international operation to disarm Iraq by a vote of 73 to 24 in an extraordinary session that ended on 20 March, shortly after midnight, LETA reported. The leftist For Human Rights in a United Latvia and the National Harmony Party voted against the bill. The bill expresses support for UN Security Council Resolution 1441 and reaffirms the Latvian "parliament's decision of 19 February 1998 to support the UN Security Council's and other UN member states' efforts to implement resolutions on Iraq." It authorized the government to ensure funding for the Latvian military units that could be sent to participate in the international coalition to disarm Iraq. The government was also asked to make decisions concerning the provision of humanitarian aid and other assistance to Iraq. SG

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT BEGINS WORKING VISIT TO BRUSSELS
Rolandas Paksas began a three-day working visit to Brussels on 19 March with a meeting with European Commission President Romano Prodi, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. The meeting lasted more than half an hour and focused on improving links between the EU and Lithuania and on the Kaliningrad transit issue. Prodi promised to do everything he could to help Lithuania become a full-fledged member of the Schengen agreement. In later talks with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson, Paksas described his recent visit to Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003). Robertson noted that Paksas was the first leader of one of the seven NATO candidate countries approved in November to visit NATO headquarters. Robertson did not comment on the declaration of the Vilnius 10 countries on Iraq. "NATO is not the Warsaw Pact," he said. "Here every country has the right to express its opinion democratically." Paksas also met with EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen. SG

POLISH PRESIDENT BIDS FAREWELL TO IRAQ-BOUND SOLDIERS
President Aleksander Kwasniewski on 19 March delivered a farewell address in Brodnica, northern Poland, to 36 soldiers of the 4th Chemical Regiment who are to be deployed to the Iraq conflict zone on 21 March, PAP reported. "I have faith in your safe return home. We will be awaiting you.... Poland could always be proud of its military. Good luck, and see you soon on Polish soil," Kwasniewski told the soldiers. AM

CZECH GOVERNMENT DOUBLE-TALKS ON IRAQ...
The Czech government on 19 March passed a resolution reiterating its earlier position that it is prepared to extend humanitarian aid to Iraq and to assist in the country's reconstruction, but Czech troops will not participate in military action, CTK reported. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told journalists that the Czech anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit stationed in Kuwait will intervene only if Iraq uses weapons of mass destruction. Spidla declined to comment on a statement made earlier by Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda in which he told the BBC that "the [Czech] government is on the side of the world community that wants Iraq disarmed." Spidla said only that the resolution was unanimously approved by the government. He said on 19 March that the NBC contingent in Kuwait "will operate as an independent unit" and would not take part in coalition military operations against Iraq because the UN Security Council has not approved such operations. Spidla added that the cabinet continues to believe that the basis for world stability and security must be entrenched in a Euro-Atlantic framework of cooperation and a policy of collective security. President Vaclav Klaus said he agrees with the government's resolution. MS

...AND EXPELS FOUR IRAQI DIPLOMATS
Foreign Minister Svoboda on 18 March told the BBC that the government has declared four Iraqi diplomats persona non grata and asked them to leave the country by 21 March, CTK reported. He said the decision was "among other things, based on information received from our intelligence services." Svoboda said two Iraqi diplomats remain at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague and that no other measure is envisaged "for the time being." MS

STATE OF ALERT DECLARED IN CZECH REPUBLIC
Premier Spidla announced on Czech Television on 20 March that a state of alert has been declared in the Czech Republic due to the beginning of hostilities in Iraq, CTK reported. Spidla said this is not a "high alert," but called on citizens not to underestimate risks. He said all the "relevant state bodies" have made timely preparations for the expected situation and are now "ready to manage the tasks we are faced with." MS

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT TO FOREGO CRITICIZING CZECH REPUBLIC ON BENES DECREES
The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on 19 March decided to drop its intention to criticize the Czech Republic for not expressing regret for the deportation of some 2.5 million Sudeten Germans as a result of the 1946 Benes Decrees, CTK reported. The criticism was to come in the European Parliament's resolution on the expected enlargement of the European Union. Deputies Johannes Swoboda, Ursula Stenzel, and the committee's rapporteur for the Czech Republic, Jurgen Schroeder, said the statement made by President Vaclav Klaus on 14 March can be considered a substitute for such an expression of regret (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003). Swoboda added, however, that a similar "political gesture" made by the Czech government would have been preferable. The committee's recommendation still includes the Schroeder's proposal that the plenum call on the Czech Republic to formally recognize the injustice of the Benes Decrees, and says EU legislation is expected to help strengthen the protection of ethnic minorities and respect for human rights in the Czech Republic. MS

SLOVAK PRESIDENT REACTS TO OUTBREAK OF HOSTILITIES IN IRAQ
President Rudolf Schuster said on 20 March after the start of military operations in Iraq that, as a future NATO member, Slovakia cannot do anything but support the military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, CTK reported. Schuster said Hussein failed to take advantage of several opportunities to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis, and that Hussein rejected cooperation with the international community regarding the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1441. "The tactics of the Iraqi regime were again equivocal -- the same traditional tactics with which he has been misleading and deceiving the allies for 12 years," Schuster said. He added that the U.S.-led attack is not one against the Iraqi people, and its goal is not to destroy or conquer Iraq. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said on 20 March that Slovakia does not face any direct threat or danger resulting from the attack. MS

U.S. OVERFLIGHTS OF SLOVAKIA
Forty-three U.S. military aircraft flew over Slovakia on 19 March and one U.S. military convoy transited Slovak territory, CTK reported the same day, citing a statement Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Gandel gave to AFP. MS

VISEGRAD FOUR CANCEL BRATISLAVA SUMMIT
A summit meeting of heads of the Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and Slovak governments scheduled for 20 March in Bratislava has been canceled because of the Iraq crisis, CTK reported. The decision was made in the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush's 17 March ultimatum to Iraqi President Hussein, CTK reported. Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said on 19 March that he does not know when a new date for the summit will be set, adding that it depends on developments in Iraq. The same day, some 300 people gathered in central Bratislava to demonstrate against the impending war in Iraq, CTK reported. MS

HUNGARIAN PREMIER DEFENDS GOVERNMENT'S STANCE ON IRAQ
Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy defended his government's position on the war against Iraq at a meeting of Parliament's Foreign Affairs committee on 19 March, "Nepszabadsag" reported the following day. Medgyessy confirmed that no Hungarian soldiers will be sent to Iraq, but did not rule out the possibility of sending medical units later. Opposition members of the committee objected that Hungary appears on U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's list of countries that are willing to liberate Iraq by military force. Medgyessy replied that Hungary was put on that list because it granted the use of airspace and provided a transit route for shipments necessary for the defense of Turkey. Meanwhile, the daily also reported that the Alliance for the Nation, which is headed by former Prime Minister Viktor Orban, issued a statement on 19 March condemning the moves taken by the Hungarian government in support of what it termed the "bellicose" U.S. policy. The statement said such moves run counter to the position taken by the general public and Hungary's European allies. MSZ

FORMER IRAQI GENERAL NOT IN HUNGARY
Major Robert Stern, the U.S. press officer at Hungary's Taszar military air base, has categorically denied an AFP report that former Iraqi Chief of Staff General Nizar al-Khazraji is in Hungary, the MTI news agency reported on 19 March. AFP had quoted al-Khazraji's son Ahmed as claiming that the former commander, who disappeared from Denmark under mysterious circumstances on 17 March, is now in Hungary. MSZ

HUNGARY LAUNCHES INVESTIGATION INTO USE OF EU FUNDS SLATED FOR EDUCATION OF ROMA
Laszlo Teleki, political state secretary for Romany Affairs at the Prime Minister's Office, has ordered an internal investigation following a report that EU subsidies earmarked for education of Roma have not been spent for that purpose, "Nepszabadsag" reported on 20 March. The action comes after a London-based NGO, the European Committee on Romani Emancipation, called on members of the European Parliament to temporarily stop transferring subsidies earmarked for Roma to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary and to freeze funds already transferred. The group accuses the three countries of failing to spend money on improving Roma education. MSZ

SEARCH FOR MASTERMIND BEHIND SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER'S ASSASSINATION CONTINUES
Parliamentary speaker Natasa Micic, who also acts as Serbian president, on 19 March called on the population to help the authorities find the killers of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and curb organized crime, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The authorities have already arrested a large number of people believed to have links with the so-called Zemun clan, an underworld group which is suspected of being behind Djindjic's murder. So far, however, police have been unable to locate Milorad Lukovic "Legija," the group's head, who is believed to be hiding in Belgrade. In related news, police on 19 March detained Serbian Deputy Prosecutor-General Milan Sarajlic for his alleged links with Lukovic's group. Sarajlic was dismissed from his position the same day. UB

CROATIA EXPRESSES REGRET THAT IRAQ WAS NOT DISARMED PEACEFULLY
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 20 March saying that Croatia regrets that Iraq was not disarmed peacefully, Hina reported. "The Croatian Government is disappointed that the Security Council has not shown enough unity required to take more efficient action to achieve this objective, which is legitimate in terms of international law," the statement read. "Croatia is ready to take an active part only in an action authorized by the Security Council. At the same time, Croatia will honor its earlier assumed obligations agreed with the USA-led coalition forces." "Croatia calls for maximum restraint and taking all required precautions in order to avoid civilian casualties," the statement continued. The ministry underscored Croatia's readiness to participate in postwar reconstruction in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February, 12 and 19 March 2003). UB

U.S. AMBASSADOR SAYS CROATIA'S POSITION ON IRAQ IS 'DISAPPOINTING'
In an interview with the weekly "Globus" on 19 March, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Lawrence Rossin sent a warning to the Croatian government (the full text in English and Croatian can be found at: http://www.usembassy.hr/issues/030319.htm#english). Asked about the Croatian government's position on Iraq, Rossin said: "The Croatian Government had an opportunity to strengthen cooperation and partnership with the large coalition of countries, led by the United States. Your Government chose not to be part of that coalition, and has decided to take a low-profile, and that's very disappointing." Rossin, who did not rule out that there may be negative consequences for Croatia, regretted that the country's leadership did not follow the examples of the British and Spanish leaders, who supported the United States despite strong domestic opposition. The Foreign Ministry tried to play down the interview in a press statement: "Ambassador Rossin's statement is undoubtedly disappointing to a certain extent, but it should be viewed in the context of the current tense political circumstances. The Croatian government expects Croatian-U.S. relations to continue developing in line with mutual interests and to the benefit of both nations." UB

HIGH REPRESENTATIVE WARNS OF ECONOMIC CRISIS IN BOSNIA
Paddy Ashdown, who is the international community's high representative, in a 19 March press statement issued by his office (http://www.ohr.int) called on the Bosnian authorities to create conditions to avert an imminent economic crisis. To this end, Ashdown proposed, the Bosnian authorities should adopt business-friendly legislation, create a single economic space, and establish a single customs service and a countrywide VAT system. "I do not believe this country will return to ethnic conflict, but I would not like to predict the outcome if, from failure of will or courage, we dodge the challenge of tough, deep and urgent reform to our economy," Ashdown warned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 13, 18, and 20 February 2003). UB

AMBASSADOR SEES NO THREAT TO U.S. CITIZENS IN BOSNIA
U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Clifford Bond said in Sarajevo on 19 March that he has no information about possible threats to U.S. citizens in Bosnia, "Dnevni avaz" reported. Bond denied that the U.S. has asked the Bosnian government to open its airspace or to allow the use of SFOR bases for the military operation against Iraq. SFOR troops have reportedly stepped up security measures prior to the first military strikes against Iraq, Tanjug reported. Also on 19 March, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Janet Bogue said in Sarajevo that the U.S. will stop its military aid to Bosnia should the government fail to sign an agreement by 1 July exempting U.S. citizens from responsibility before the International Criminal Court, "Dnevni avaz" reported. UB

FOREIGN MINISTRY OF SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO REGRETS WAR
The joint Foreign Ministry of Serbia and Montenegro expressed its regret on 20 March that the Iraq crisis could not be resolved within the framework of the United Nations, Tanjug reported. The ministry accused the Iraqi regime of having made its own citizens the victims of its irresponsible policy. It added that it had expected that the Iraqi regime would recognize the seriousness of the situation and the international community's determination to insist on systematic and unconditional compliance with the obligation to disarm, and thus avoid the use of force as a final resort. UB

FORMER YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT SLAMS ATTACK ON IRAQ AS VICTORY OF POLITICAL SHORTSIGHTEDNESS
Former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica on 20 March sharply condemned the U.S.-led attack on Iraq as a victory of political shortsightedness, Tanjug reported. Kostunica said the military action to disarm Iraq means killing civilians, violating international law, and trampling on the values that American democracy was originally built upon. Kostunica said the operation would replace one authoritarian regime with another. UB

MACEDONIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY FORMS CRISIS STAFF
The Foreign Ministry has formed a crisis staff that is to analyze and coordinate developments related to the Iraq crisis, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 20 March. The staff will collect information on the security situation of Macedonians abroad as well as on economic issues or a possible wave of refugees. UB

ROMANIA INFORMED BEFOREHAND OF START OF MILITARY ACTION IN IRAQ
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney informed Romanian President Ion Iliescu on 20 March about the impending start of military operations against Iraq several hours before they began, Mediafax reported the same day. Cheney reportedly said that U.S. President George W. Bush had instructed him to tell Iliescu that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis had ended in failure. Cheney also conveyed U.S. appreciation for Romania's position regarding the Iraq conflict. MS

OPPOSITION FAILS TO HALT ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT'S 'ASSUMPTION OF RESPONSIBILITY'
A motion submitted by the three opposition parties -- the Greater Romania Party (PRM), the National Liberal Party (PNL), and the Democratic Party -- to prevent Premier Adrian Nastase from "assuming governmental responsibility" was rejected at a joint session of Romania's parliament on 19 March, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). PRM deputy Augustin Bolcas said the constitution allows the procedure to be used for a single law, while the government is using it to have no less than 17 laws on the struggle against corruption approved. Nastase replied that the cabinet is using a precedent set in 1999 by the previous government -- of which the PNL and the Democrats were members -- when it adopted a package of laws on economic reform. The motion was rejected with 234 votes against and 124 in favor. Unless the opposition presents a no-confidence motion within 72 hours, the package will be considered to have been approved by parliament. MS

MOLDOVAN ANTIAIRCRAFT MISSILES IN HIZBALLAH HANDS?
Some 40-50 Russian-made Strela portable antiaircraft missiles have allegedly reached the Lebanon-based Hizballah movement from Moldova in a deal orchestrated by former Lebanese honorary consul in Chisinau Mahmud Ahmad Hammud, who was expelled from Moldova last year, Flux reported on 19 March. Citing "governmental sources requesting anonymity," Flux alleged that some of the Strela missiles were transferred to southern Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. It also said that Israeli military experts believe that by May, Hizballah will have some 100 such missiles. The sources cited by Flux said the missiles could be used along Israel's northern border after the launching of military operations against Iraq by U.S. forces. MS

U.S. AMBASSADOR TO MOLDOVA SAYS BAGHDAD 'CYNICALLY' USES MOLDOVAN YOUNGSTERS
U.S. Ambassador to Moldova Pamela Hyde Smith said on 19 March that she is "saddened" by the report that 15 young Moldovans have volunteered to serve as human shields in Baghdad, Infotag reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). She said the United States "respects the rights of all people to express their views," but the 15 Moldovans "are being used cynically by a brutal dictator." Hyde Smith appealed to the families and friends of the 15 to do all they can to "urge them to return to Moldova immediately." According to a Flux report, the Moldovans who volunteered to serve as human shields belong to the Moldovan branch of the far-right National Bolshevik Party of Russia, which is led by writer Eduard Limonov. MS

CHISINAU, TIRASPOL ENDORSE VORONIN INITIATIVES
Meeting in Chisinau on 19 March in a new round of negotiations, representatives of Moldova and Transdniester initialed a protocol establishing the mechanisms for implementing President Vladimir Voronin's proposal on the joint elaboration of a new constitution, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The three mediators -- the OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine -- also signed the document. The protocol is to be signed by the chairmen of the two parliaments by the end of March. It stipulates that a joint commission be set up to work on the new basic document. The commission should start work in early May, and the text of the new basic document should be finalized within six months, according to OSCE mission head William Hill, Flux reported. MS

OSCE EXPERTS INSPECT EVACUATED RUSSIAN ARSENAL FOR TRANSDNIESTER
A group of OSCE experts from Hungary on 18 March began inspecting in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy a 38-car freight train loaded with Russian military equipment that left Tiraspol on 15 March, Infotag reported. This is the fifth train of Russian military equipment to be evacuated from the separatist region this year. On 18 March, Russian soldiers in Transdniester began loading the first train to evacuate ammunition from the region. That train was expected to depart on 20 March and will be the first to remove ammunition in the past several years. MS

BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER ADDRESSES THE COUNTRY ABOUT IRAQ
In a televised speech on 19 March that was posted on the government's official website (http://www.government.bg), Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski iterated his government's support for U.S.-led efforts to disarm Iraq. He also explained once again parliament's decision to authorize Bulgaria's participation in the so-called coalition of the willing. Saxecoburggotski said Bulgaria has used all diplomatic channels to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but that those efforts have failed. "The conclusion is that Iraq has refused to disarm in response to the will of the international community and itself opted for the serious consequences of its own behavior," Saxecoburggotski said. "The actions undertaken by Bulgaria are in pursuance of the political decision of the National Assembly on 7 February 2003.... That decision clearly stated the parameters of our support in pursuance of [UN Security Council Resolution] 1441: transit, temporary deployment of aircraft, and the sending of Bulgarian anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) troops on a defensive and humanitarian mission to a country neighboring Iraq." UB

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HE CANNOT ACCEPT THE WAR ON IRAQ
In a televised address to the parliament published on his official website (http://www.president.bg), President Georgi Parvanov said on 20 March that he considers the war on Iraq unacceptable, as it is weakening the United Nations because it was started without a UN Security Council resolution. Parvanov said in the future it will be difficult for Bulgaria to defend national interests within the framework of the UN, the EU, and NATO. He also queried whether the decision to participate in the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition was legitimized by the 7 February parliamentary decision. "We have been part of a [process of exerting] forceful pressure, but this does not necessarily mean that we will also become part of the military, forceful solution," Parvanov said, adding that Bulgaria must make clear that it cannot share political responsibility for a war that is not legitimized by the UN. UB

IRAQI KURDS LOOK AHEAD
At present, the Kurds in northern Iraq enjoy a level of autonomy that falls just short of full-fledged statehood. They have their own currency, their own military, an elected parliament, and representation abroad. What is the political agenda of the Kurdish leadership in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq? Are they counting on securing the measure of autonomy they currently enjoy in northern Iraq, or are they banking on greater gains?

For decades, the Kurdish leadership has pursued its national dream of full-fledged independence. However, Kurds in different parts of the region have not always held a unified front. Since the early 1970s, Kurdish political parties have been fighting each other as well as outside governments, further weakening their political voice in the world. During Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Iraqi military violently put down a northern Kurdish uprising. More than 1 million Kurds fled Iraq, and about 600,000 remained in refugee camps in the northern no-fly zone. In this small area of autonomy, the Kurds held their first free elections in 1992.

Clashes between rival Kurdish factions made that first government ineffective, but now they have put aside their differences and are standing together on a common platform calling for the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime and the establishment of a "federal and democratic" system in Baghdad. The Kurdish national dream of full-fledged independence has been put on the back burner.

"We believe that our role will start after the regime change. Our role will be to preserve and protect the stability and security of the new regime.... We came to this agreement [at the London conference in December 2002] as the representatives of the Iraqi people, and with the approval of the United States," said Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mas'ud Barzani in an interview conducted by the United Arab Emirates daily "Gulf News" in late January. He stressed that no attack would be made from Kurdish-controlled areas for two main reasons: "We don't intend to move our troops outside of Kurdish-ruled areas, and within this region, there are no targets for us to hit."

Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the other main Kurdish faction in northern Iraq, confirmed this position, adding that the Kurdish forces were not planning to attack any Arab cities, in spite of reports that the Kurdish militias were undergoing intensified training. "It is not good for future relations between Kurds and Arabs if we were to attack Arab cities like Mosul or Kirkuk. If we attack Kirkuk, we would provoke Turkey. If we attack Mosul, and there are casualties, this would create a kind of animosity between Kurds and Arabs. For this reason, we are not planning to attack any Arab or Iraqi towns," he said in an interview with "Gulf News."

The idea of an independent Kurdistan is a nagging concern for Ankara, whose interests in the region involve sketchy territorial claims on oil-rich Kirkuk and Mosul, as well as a desire to suppress irredentist ambitions among its own Kurdish population. While Syria has encouraged Iraqi opposition groups, and Iran has absorbed more than 100,000 Kurdish refugees, neither country would be keen on the idea of an independent Kurdistan for fear that it might inspire their own Kurdish populations. The Baghdad regime has also fanned the fire in order to turn disenchanted Arab Iraqis against an ethnic minority.

Talabani, however, explained that independence is a "dream." "We are revolutionaries, but realistic revolutionaries. We feel that we must struggle for a tangible goal. We must struggle for what we can achieve," he said. "In this century, Kurdistan is divided between Turkey, Iran, and Syria. It is impossible to change the borders of all these countries, but we can achieve our goal of a democratic and federal system in Iraq."

The shift in the Kurdish national agenda from autonomy to federalism was agreed in parliament by all parties on 4 October 1992, and a paper was drafted on the makeup of a future government in Baghdad. If, or when, President Hussein is removed from the scene, the Kurdish local administration in northern Iraq is willing to make a number of concessions, such as the handover of its militias to a new central government in Baghdad, conforming to the currency mandated by the Iraqi central bank, and giving up its foreign representation.

In an indication of the desire to assuage Ankara's concerns about Kurdish ambitions, KDP Political Bureau member Nechirvan Barzani and PUK leader Talabani on 18 March visited the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported. The communique that came out when an opposition meeting in Ankara concluded the next day reiterated commitment to Iraq's territorial integrity, promised to use Iraqi natural resources to the benefit of the entire population, and stressed equal rights for all Iraqis, Arabs, Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, and others, Anatolia news agency reported. Stated concern for the Turkoman minority could serve as a pretext for a Turkish incursion in the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

One vital issue is how the Kurdish local administration would be able to meet its operational costs once it submits to the authority of a federal government. Most of Arbil's revenues stem from the smuggling of oil through the Ibrahim Khalil border with Turkey. The Arbil government pocketed 25 percent of the proceeds from the daily 600,000-liter shipment, and the Iraqi president's son, Uday, kept another 25 percent, according to a PUK official. In recent months there has been a lull in the economy of Kurdish-ruled areas as a result of prevailing tensions and the strengthening of a local currency -- the "Swiss dinar" -- against the U.S. dollar. Kurdish parliament speaker Roush Nuri Shaways said that the regional government has been raking in less than 5 percent of its erstwhile revenues from Ibrahim Khalil.

The Kurds' "friends" have betrayed them repeatedly in times of upheaval. But they seem to believe that their trust is not misplaced this time around. "Nowadays -- and I repeat, nowadays -- the United States is our friend. The United Kingdom is also a friend, so is France," said Talabani. "There was a time when Kurds believed they had only their mountains, and if these mountains were taken away from them, they would cease to exist. This is a Kurdish proverb. But the day has gone forever that we had only our mountains. Now we have many friends all over the world."

U.S. PRESIDENT ANNOUNCES LAUNCH OF 'BROAD AND CONCERTED CAMPAIGN' IN IRAQ
President George W. Bush addressed the American people at 10:15 p.m. (EST) on 19 March to announce the beginning of a "broad and concerted campaign" to disarm Iraq shortly after the first cruise missiles fell on Baghdad around dawn on 20 March, local time. Stressing the "crucial support" of a 35-country coalition, the president stated that military operations aim "to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger." The president's four-minute address focused on the themes that have formed the crux of the administration's case for military action -- the peril of weapons of mass destruction in the wrong hands and the promise of liberation from tyranny for the Iraqi people. "We have no ambition in Iraq, except to remove a threat and restore control of that country to its own people," the president announced. While noting that U.S. forces "come to Iraq with respect for its citizens," President Bush was adamant that "this will not be a campaign of half measures, and we will accept no outcome but victory." DK

U.S. ATTACKS BAGHDAD
Approximately 90 minutes after the expiration of a U.S.-imposed deadline for Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his sons to leave Baghdad, Operation Iraqi Freedom got under way in the predawn hours of 20 March with more than 40 cruise missiles and two Stealth fighters dropping "bunker-busting" bombs on a "target of opportunity" in Baghdad -- a senior member of the Iraqi regime -- CNN reported on 20 March. The Pentagon reportedly has said that Saddam Hussein was the target, CNN reported. An Iraqi official said the attacks targeted "military positions and facilities," according to Reuters. Air-raid sirens rang through Baghdad at around 9:00 a.m. local time, signaling "all clear," and soon after the Iraqi leader addressed the nation, saying, "We pledge to you in our name, the name of the leadership, and the name of the Iraqi people, and Iraq' s heroic army, in the Iraq of civilization, faith, and history, that we will resist the invaders." Hussein's speech was carried on Iraq Television and Iraq Radio. Later, the Iraqi information minister reported that 10 Iraqis were killed in the attack on Baghdad, CNN reported. CNN then said that the International Committee of the Red Cross confirmed that one Iraqi was killed and 14 others were wounded in the early morning attacks. KR

ATTACK 'PRELUDE' TO GREATER ATTACKS
At U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) headquarters at Camp Al-Sayliya, Qatar, a British military spokesman said that five Iraqi officials had been targeted in the initial strikes, Reuters reported on 20 March. "There was a meeting of five Iraqi personnel which they [CENTCOM planners] thought they would have a go at and so they decided to strike," the spokesman said. Another British military official later reported that vehicles were struck in the incident, but he did not elaborate. U.S. officials called the incident a "decapitation strike." The U.S. strike on Baghdad appeared to precede the stated strategy of U.S. military planners, which was to unleash thousands of precision-guided weapons on the first day of the military campaign, according to an AFP report on 19 March. "I do not think our potential adversary has any idea what's coming," U.S. Air Force Colonel Gary Crowder said, adding that the U.S. strategy is to drop about 10 times more precision-guided bombs than the 300 to 400 dropped on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War, AFP reported. KR

U.K. DEFENSE SECRETARY WARNS OF NEXT WAVE OF ATTACKS
British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said on 20 March that there is a clear timetable for the next wave of attacks, Reuters reported. "These are the opening stages of the military operation, and I anticipate that in time we will see further evidence that this is part of a continuing campaign." Hoon later told Sky News that experts were examining the Iraqi president's early-morning speech to determine whether it was pre-recorded or live. Hussein did mention the date in his speech but did not appear to say anything specific about early-morning events. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called a meeting of his war cabinet early on 20 March to discuss the campaign in Iraq before holding a full cabinet meeting, Reuters reported. British Foreign Minister Jack Straw has asked Turkey for overflight rights, Reuters reported on 20 March. Straw reportedly made the request on 19 March to Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. The Turkish National Assembly was expected to vote on 20 March on granting overflight rights to the United States (see RFE/RL "Newsline," 19 March 2003). KR

IRAQI OPPOSITION EMPHASIZES MILITARY CAPABILITY
Bayan Jabr of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) told Czech Radio 1 on 19 March that his organization has 40,000 trained and armed troops at its disposal. "We have at our disposal tanks, armored vehicles, missile launchers, and chemical-protection means, masks and antichemical clothing," he added. The SCIRI military unit is known as the Badr Brigade or Badr Corps, and INC Chairman Ahmad Chalabi said in the 15 March issue of "Al-Hayat" daily newspaper that the Badr Brigade is part of the Iraqi opposition's "joint field command" that was created during its late-February meeting in Salah Al-Din. Any opposition group that has a military wing is part of this joint field command, he said, and its forces will play a major role in the liberation of Iraq and in subsequently maintaining security. BS

CHINA CRITICAL OF COALITION STRIKES
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a press conference on 20 March that his country is gravely concerned about the U.S. strikes launched against the Iraqi regime, RFE/RL reported. "This [attack on Iraq] ignores the opposition of most countries and peoples of the world and goes around the UN Security Council, which constitutes a violation of the UN Charter and basic norms of international law. We hereby express our grave concern, so we strongly urge relevant countries to immediately stop military action and go back to the right path to find a political settlement to the Iraq issue and seek the best way to solve the Iraq problem within the UN framework," Kong said. KR

TEHRAN CONDEMNS U.S. ATTACK ON IRAQ
Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi early on 20 March denounced the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, IRNA reported. "American military operations on Iraq are unjustifiable and illegitimate," Kharrazi said, according to a Foreign Ministry statement. He said Iran will not enter the conflict on either side. "The third war in this sensitive region began by the challenge to the authority of the UN," Kharrazi said. "America's continuing refusal to pay attention to collective rationality and the precious achievements of half a century of efforts by various nations will result in the total destruction of security and peace." BS

TEHRAN RADIO COMMENTARY DENOUNCES U.S.
An Iranian state radio analyst using the name "Mr. Kheradmand" commented on 20 March that "the American military aggression against Iraq lacks the support of the United Nations Security Council [and] is therefore an illegal action contrary to the international regulations." Kheradmand dismissed the U.S. objectives of disarming Iraq and liberating its people. Washington says some 45 countries have joined the "coalition of the willing" against the regime of Iraqi regime, but Kheradmand dismissed this as "the support given by a handful of countries to America." Kheradmand concluded, "America and Britain have the blood of the innocent people on their hands and they are responsible for the heavy material losses of this unjustified war. These two countries must be answerable for their illegal actions." BS

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT DEPLORES U.S. RESORT TO 'LAW OF THE FIST' IN IRAQ
In a statement responding to the onset of U.S.-led military operations against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, President Vladimir Putin said on 20 March that Washington has made "a big political mistake," and insisted on the quickest possible cessation of hostilities, Russian news agencies reported. Putin deplored the idea that "international law is being replaced by the law of the fist and the principle that the strongest are always right." He added that Iraq poses no danger to the international community, and said that Russia's policy will be "to return the crisis to a peaceful track and to search for a solution to the Iraq problem based on UN resolutions." He said that he has already received reports of casualties and damage in Iraq. VY

LEADING RUSSIAN LIBERAL URGES CALM RESPONSE TO IRAQ HOSTILITIES
Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Lukin (Yabloko) said the Kremlin should maintain a "cold-blooded" position regarding the military operation against the Iraqi regime, taking into account that the fighting poses no immediate threat to Russian security and that Russia has very limited prospects of influencing events at this stage, RTR and ORT reported on 20 March. He urged the Kremlin to take advantage of the U.S. preoccupation with the military operation to boost ties with countries that share Moscow's opposition to the war in Iraq. Lukin added that the outbreak of hostilities does not mark the demise of the United Nations, but could lead to a diminished role for it. He urged Moscow to work to restore the UN's importance. "I foresee that the fruits of this war will not be so sweet for the United States," he added, noting that the conflict could produce conflicts between the United States and its allies, as well as domestic political and economic difficulties. VY

DUMA SUPPORTS GOVERNMENT'S POSITION AGAINST IRAQ WAR...
Duma Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin (People's Deputy), chairman of the Duma's Foreign Relations Committee, said on 20 March that since 11 September 2001, the United States has felt particularly vulnerable and has initiated military action against Iraq because it feels Iraqi President Hussein is a threat to its national security, RTR reported. Rogozin added that Russia and the United States have differing conceptions of national security, with the United States preferring a unilateral view to a collective one. Rogozin said that the Duma fully supports President Vladimir Putin and the government in condemning the U.S.-led military action against Iraq. However, he also criticized the Communists and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) for calling a "premature anti-American protest" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). VY

...AND EXPRESSES CONCERN FOR FATE OF THE UNITED NATIONS
Duma Deputy Konstantin Kosachev (Fatherland-All Russia), deputy chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told ORT on 20 March that the fate of the United Nations is more important than the fate of any individual country as the crisis unfolds. He emphasized that he does not support the regime of Iraqi President Hussein, but he said the Kremlin should support Iraq's call for an emergency UN Security Council session, although he does not believe such a session will be held. VY

LEADING ECONOMIST PREDICTS STABILIZATION OF OIL PRICES...
Leonid Grigorev, director of Moscow-based Expert Institute and formerly World Bank director from Russia, said that the war in Iraq will alter the nature of the global economy, RTR reported on 20 March. He said that he does not believe, as many analysts do, that world oil prices will fall to $12-$14 a barrel. This would not be in the interests of the OPEC countries or of consumers, because if the price falls too low, the incentive to conserve energy will be undermined. Grigorev said that prices should stabilize at about $20 a barrel, which is the optimal price for both the United States and OPEC and will help maintain global economic and political equilibrium. VY

...AS RUSSIAN COMPANIES WRITE OFF THEIR ASSETS IN IRAQ
Russian businessmen who left Iraq in recent days handed over their assets to members of the Iraqi regime and have no hope that they will ever recover them, strana.ru reported on 19 March. Representatives of LUKoil, Zarubezhneft, and Mashinoimport -- which have the largest presences in Iraq -- have written off their losses and said that although their property in Iraq is partially insured, it will be extremely difficult to collect damages if the regime in Baghdad is changed. VY

AFGHAN GOVERNMENT BACKS USE OF FORCE TO DISARM IRAQ
The Afghan government on 19 March expressed backing for the United States in its effort to disarm Iraq, Radio Free Afghanistan reported the same day. A statement from the Foreign Ministry in Kabul, issued roughly 12 hours before the expiration of U.S. President George W. Bush's 48-hour ultimatum demanding that President Hussein and his sons leave Iraq, said the use of force is justified because the Iraqi leader "does not seem to have complied with all UN demands to fully disarm and eliminate all weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in due time." The statement added that the territorial integrity of Iraq must be preserved and that the Iraqi people must control their destiny under a democratic system. The Afghan Foreign Ministry further urged the U.S.-led coalition forces to put special measures in place for the protection of civilians in the event of war in Iraq. The statement concluded by wishing the Iraqi people peace and security. AT

IRAN CLOSES ITS BORDERS, SAYS NO REPORTS OF REFUGEES
Deputy Interior Minister and Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs chief Ahmad Husseini said on 20 March that Iran's border with Iraq was closed shortly after the U.S.-led attack against Baghdad began around dawn the same day, Iran's IRNA news agency reported. Husseini said no refugees had been seen approaching the border, but he predicted the conflict could result in up to 1.2 million refugees heading for Iran. Husseini reiterated that Iran would host the refugees at camps established inside Iraq. Khorramshahr Governor-General Mohammad Ali Shirali said on 19 March that his Khuzestan Province city is ready for any refugees, IRNA reported. Shirali described preparation of a camp "in Khin region, 8 kilometers away from Khorramshahr, near Shalamcheh border, inside Iran." He urged locals to stay calm, saying, "Since the police and army forces stationed at the border strip are on full alert, the people should not be worried at all." BS

TEHRAN RADIO SAYS BAGHDAD COUNTERING U.S. 'PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE'
Baghdad is repeatedly changing its radio frequencies in an effort to counter "America's psychological and propaganda warfare," Tehran radio reported in the hours after the United States launched an attack on Iraq on 20 March. Iran's IRNA later cited Iraqi dissident sources as saying that Baghdad has both fixed and mobile radio stations for this purpose. American Commando Solo II missions are broadcast from Pennsylvania Air National Guard EC-130E aircraft on AM, FM, and other frequencies. Tehran radio added that the United States started broadcasting on the Radio Baghdad frequencies soon after the attack commenced, so Al-Shabab, Baghdad, and Sawt al-Jamahiriyah radios have changed their frequencies. An early announcement from Tehran radio, citing Reuters, said the U.S. Army had taken control of the Iraqi frequencies, with an Arabic-speaking announcer stating, "The attack on Iraq has begun." BS

BAHRAIN OFFERS EXILE TO IRAQI PRESIDENT
Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has offered asylum to Saddam Hussein, the "Bahrain Tribune" website reported on 20 March (http://www.bahraintribune.com/). King Hamad made the offer during an emergency cabinet session on 19 March, saying, "The alternative to war and destruction is that the Iraqi president passes on the ruling responsibilities to sides who can handle the situation in a way that preserves Iraq's dignity and the Iraqi president's status," adding, "Bahrain, as the second home to all Arabs, is ready to host Iraqi President Saddam Hussein should he wish to live here in all dignity and respect without this in any way undermining Iraq's capacities and status," King Hamad said. KR

IRAQI OPPOSITION LEADERS MEET IN ANKARA
A meeting of Iraqi opposition groups in Ankara that was hosted by the Turkish Foreign Ministry ended on 19 March, the Anatolia news agency reported. Representatives of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, the Iraqi National Accord, Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi Turkmen Front, the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Movement for Constitutional Monarchy, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the SCIRI participated in the meeting, as did Turkish and U.S. officials. The objective of the meeting was to determine Iraq's future political structure and the opposition's representation in it, IRNA reported. The meeting's final statement announced the intention to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity, national unity, and independence, as well as the desire to eliminate weapons of mass destruction. Iraqi natural resources would be used for the Iraqi people's benefit; uncontrolled refugee movements would be discouraged; and racial, ethnic, gender, linguistic, and religious discrimination would be eliminated, according to the statement. The meeting originally was scheduled to start on 18 March, according to a 17 March MENA dispatch, but U.S. presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad decided to change the date. BS

AL-KHOI DENIES ROLE OFFERED IN POSSIBLE IRAQI ADMINISTRATION
Abd al-Majid Khoi, the son of the late Grand Ayatollah Khoi and secretary-general of the London-based Al-Khoi Foundation, denied in the 19 March issue of London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the U.S. government has tapped him as the possible head administrator of southern Iraq or that his recent trip to Kuwait had anything to do with such a tasking. Al-Khoi said Iranian officials leaked the story in order to undermine some Iraqi Shia individuals by linking them with Washington (see "Iranian Official Details Division Of Iraq," in "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 March 2003). Al-Khoi went on to say that by now all the Iraqi opposition, including the Iran-backed and -based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution Iraq (SCIRI), is in some way connected with Washington. If a war does occur, al-Khoi said, it will be added to "the list of crimes of the ruling Iraqi regime that has taken Iraq and the region to this situation through its arrogance, misconduct, inhuman adventures, indiscriminate attacks on the Iraqis' neighbors, plus its failure to abide by international resolutions and attempts to shirk them." BS

LATVIAN PARLIAMENT BACKS ACTION TO DISARM IRAQ
Parliament approved a bill on Latvia's participation in the international operation to disarm Iraq by a vote of 73 to 24 in an extraordinary session that ended on 20 March, shortly after midnight, LETA reported. The leftist For Human Rights in a United Latvia and the National Harmony Party voted against the bill. The bill expresses support for UN Security Council Resolution 1441 and reaffirms the Latvian "parliament's decision of 19 February 1998 to support the UN Security Council's and other UN member states' efforts to implement resolutions on Iraq." It authorized the government to ensure funding for the Latvian military units that could be sent to participate in the international coalition to disarm Iraq. The government was also asked to make decisions concerning the provision of humanitarian aid and other assistance to Iraq. SG

POLISH PRESIDENT BIDS FAREWELL TO IRAQ-BOUND SOLDIERS
President Aleksander Kwasniewski on 19 March delivered a farewell address in Brodnica, northern Poland, to 36 soldiers of the 4th Chemical Regiment who are to be deployed to the Iraq conflict zone on 21 March, PAP reported. "I have faith in your safe return home. We will be awaiting you.... Poland could always be proud of its military. Good luck, and see you soon on Polish soil," Kwasniewski told the soldiers. AM

CZECH GOVERNMENT DOUBLE-TALKS ON IRAQ...
The Czech government on 19 March passed a resolution reiterating its earlier position that it is prepared to extend humanitarian aid to Iraq and to assist in the country's reconstruction, but Czech troops will not participate in military action, CTK reported. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told journalists that the Czech anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit stationed in Kuwait will intervene only if Iraq uses weapons of mass destruction. Spidla declined to comment on a statement made earlier by Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda in which he told the BBC that "the [Czech] government is on the side of the world community that wants Iraq disarmed." Spidla said only that the resolution was unanimously approved by the government. He said on 19 March that the NBC contingent in Kuwait "will operate as an independent unit" and would not take part in coalition military operations against Iraq because the UN Security Council has not approved such operations. Spidla added that the cabinet continues to believe that the basis for world stability and security must be entrenched in a Euro-Atlantic framework of cooperation and a policy of collective security. President Vaclav Klaus said he agrees with the government's resolution. MS

...AND EXPELS FOUR IRAQI DIPLOMATS
Foreign Minister Svoboda on 18 March told the BBC that the government has declared four Iraqi diplomats persona non grata and asked them to leave the country by 21 March, CTK reported. He said the decision was "among other things, based on information received from our intelligence services." Svoboda said two Iraqi diplomats remain at the Iraqi Embassy in Prague and that no other measure is envisaged "for the time being." MS

STATE OF ALERT DECLARED IN CZECH REPUBLIC
Premier Spidla announced on Czech Television on 20 March that a state of alert has been declared in the Czech Republic due to the beginning of hostilities in Iraq, CTK reported. Spidla said this is not a "high alert," but called on citizens not to underestimate risks. He said all the "relevant state bodies" have made timely preparations for the expected situation and are now "ready to manage the tasks we are faced with." MS

SLOVAK PRESIDENT REACTS TO OUTBREAK OF HOSTILITIES IN IRAQ
President Rudolf Schuster said on 20 March after the start of military operations in Iraq that, as a future NATO member, Slovakia cannot do anything but support the military action against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, CTK reported. Schuster said Hussein failed to take advantage of several opportunities to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis, and that Hussein rejected cooperation with the international community regarding the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1441. "The tactics of the Iraqi regime were again equivocal -- the same traditional tactics with which he has been misleading and deceiving the allies for 12 years," Schuster said. He added that the U.S.-led attack is not one against the Iraqi people, and its goal is not to destroy or conquer Iraq. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said on 20 March that Slovakia does not face any direct threat or danger resulting from the attack. MS

U.S. OVERFLIGHTS OF SLOVAKIA
Forty-three U.S. military aircraft flew over Slovakia on 19 March and one U.S. military convoy transited Slovak territory, CTK reported the same day, citing a statement Foreign Ministry spokesman Boris Gandel gave to AFP. MS

CROATIA EXPRESSES REGRET THAT IRAQ WAS NOT DISARMED PEACEFULLY
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 20 March saying that Croatia regrets that Iraq was not disarmed peacefully, Hina reported. "The Croatian Government is disappointed that the Security Council has not shown enough unity required to take more efficient action to achieve this objective, which is legitimate in terms of international law," the statement read. "Croatia is ready to take an active part only in an action authorized by the Security Council. At the same time, Croatia will honor its earlier assumed obligations agreed with the USA-led coalition forces." "Croatia calls for maximum restraint and taking all required precautions in order to avoid civilian casualties," the statement continued. The Ministry underscored Croatia's readiness to participate in post-war reconstruction in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February, 12 and 19 March 2003). UB

U.S. AMBASSADOR SAYS CROATIA'S POSITION ON IRAQ IS 'DISAPPOINTING'
In an interview with the weekly "Globus" on 19 March, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Lawrence Rossin sent a warning to the Croatian government (the full text in English and Croatian can be found at: http://www.usembassy.hr/issues/030319.htm#english). Asked about the Croatian government's position on Iraq, Rossin said: "The Croatian Government had an opportunity to strengthen cooperation and partnership with the large coalition of countries, led by the United States. Your Government chose not to be part of that coalition, and has decided to take a low-profile, and that's very disappointing." Rossin, who did not rule out that there may be negative consequences for Croatia, regretted that the country's leadership did not follow the examples of the British and Spanish leaders, who supported the United States despite strong domestic opposition. The Foreign Ministry tried to play down the interview in a press statement: "Ambassador Rossin's statement is undoubtedly disappointing to a certain extent, but it should be viewed in the context of the current tense political circumstances. The Croatian government expects Croatian-U.S. relations to continue developing in line with mutual interests and to the benefit of both nations." UB

BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER ADDRESSES THE COUNTRY ABOUT IRAQ
In a televised speech on 19 March that was posted on the government's official website (http://www.government.bg), Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski iterated his government's support for U.S.-led efforts to disarm Iraq. He also explained once again parliament's decision to authorize Bulgaria's participation in the so-called coalition of the willing. Saxecoburggotski said Bulgaria has used all diplomatic channels to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but that those efforts have failed. "The conclusion is that Iraq has refused to disarm in response to the will of the international community and itself opted for the serious consequences of its own behavior," Saxecoburggotski said. "The actions undertaken by Bulgaria are in pursuance of the political decision of the National Assembly on 7 February 2003.... That decision clearly stated the parameters of our support in pursuance of [UN Security Council Resolution] 1441: transit, temporary deployment of aircraft, and the sending of Bulgarian anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) troops on a defensive and humanitarian mission to a country neighboring Iraq." UB

BULGARIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HE CANNOT ACCEPT WAR ON IRAQ
In a televised address to the parliament published on his official website (http://www.president.bg), President Georgi Parvanov said on 20 March that he considers the war on Iraq unacceptable, as it is weakening the United Nations because it was started without a UN Security Council resolution. Parvanov said in the future it will be difficult for Bulgaria to defend national interests within the framework of the UN, the EU, and NATO. He also queried whether the decision to participate in the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition was legitimized by the 7 February parliamentary decision. "We have been part of a [process of exerting] forceful pressure, but this does not necessarily mean that we will also become part of the military, forceful solution," Parvanov said, adding that Bulgaria must make clear that it cannot share political responsibility for a war that is not legitimized by the UN. UB

FOREIGN MINISTRY OF SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO REGRETS WAR
The joint Foreign Ministry of Serbia and Montenegro expressed its regret on 20 March that the Iraq crisis could not be resolved within the framework of the United Nations, Tanjug reported. The ministry accused the Iraqi regime of having made its own citizens the victims of its irresponsible policy. It added that it had expected that the Iraqi regime would recognize the seriousness of the situation and the international community's determination to insist on systematic and unconditional compliance with the obligation to disarm, and thus avoid the use of force as a final resort. UB

FORMER YUGOSLAV PRESIDENT SLAMS ATTACK ON IRAQ AS VICTORY OF POLITICAL SHORTSIGHTEDNESS
Former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica on 20 March sharply condemned the U.S.-led attack on Iraq as a victory of political shortsightedness, Tanjug reported. Kostunica said the military action to disarm Iraq means killing civilians, violating international law, and trampling on the values that American democracy was originally built upon. Kostunica said the operation would replace one authoritarian regime with another. UB

MACEDONIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY FORMS CRISIS STAFF
The Foreign Ministry has formed a crisis staff which is to analyze and coordinate developments related to the Iraq crisis, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 20 March. The staff will collect information on the security situation of Macedonians abroad as well as on economic issues or a possible wave of refugees. UB

ROMANIA INFORMED BEFOREHAND OF START OF MILITARY ACTION IN IRAQ
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney informed Romanian President Ion Iliescu on 20 March about the impending start of military operations against Iraq several hours before they began, Mediafax reported the same day. Cheney reportedly said that U.S. President George W. Bush had instructed him to tell Iliescu that diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis had ended in failure. Cheney also conveyed U.S. appreciation for Romania's position regarding the Iraq conflict. MS

MOLDOVAN ANTIAIRCRAFT MISSILES IN HIZBALLAH HANDS?
Some 40-50 Russian-made Strela portable antiaircraft missiles have allegedly reached the Lebanon-based Hizballah movement from Moldova in a deal orchestrated by former Lebanese honorary consul in Chisinau Mahmud Ahmad Hammud, who was expelled from Moldova last year, Flux reported on 19 March. Citing "governmental sources requesting anonymity," Flux alleged that some of the Strela missiles were transferred to southern Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza. It also said that Israeli military experts believe that by May, Hizballah will have some 100 such missiles. The sources cited by Flux said the missiles could be used along Israel's northern border after the launching of military operations against Iraq by U.S. forces. MS

U.S. AMBASSADOR TO MOLDOVA SAYS BAGHDAD 'CYNICALLY' USES MOLDOVAN YOUNGSTERS
U.S. Ambassador to Moldova Pamela Hyde Smith said on 19 March that she is "saddened" by the report that 15 young Moldovans have volunteered to serve as human shields in Baghdad, Infotag reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). She said the United States "respects the rights of all people to express their views," but the 15 Moldovans "are being used cynically by a brutal dictator." Hyde Smith appealed to the families and friends of the 15 to do all they can to "urge them to return to Moldova immediately." According to a Flux report, the Moldovans who volunteered to serve as human shields belong to the Moldovan branch of the far-right National Bolshevik Party of Russia, which is led by writer Eduard Limonov. MS

GEORGIA READY TO SUPPORT U.S. MILITARY ACTION AGAINST IRAQ
Georgian Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 19 March that Georgia is prepared to provide any assistance it can to the U.S. military offensive against Iraq, Caucasus Press reported. Tevzadze said the most likely request would be for the use of Georgian airspace, but added that no request for help of any kind has yet been forthcoming, and it is unlikely that such a request would be made just hours before the beginning of hostilities. On 18 March, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze told Caucasus Press that the question of Georgia's direct participation in the war "is not on the agenda." But Djaparidze mentioned the possibility that Georgia could provide facilities for U.S. troops should the Turkish parliament again refuse to make its territory available to the United States for the campaign against Iraq. Georgian Intelligence Service Director Lieutenant General Avtandil Ioseliani said on 19 March that he does not envisage an influx of refugees from Iraq, as Kurds fleeing that country are more likely to head for Armenia, Caucasus Press reported. Security measures have been intensified at Georgian airports and military bases and at foreign embassies in Tbilisi, ITAR-TASS reported on 19 March. LF

KAZAKH AIR DEFENSES PUT ON ALERT
Kazakhstan's air-defense system was put on alert in view of the military action against Iraq, Kazakhstan Today reported on 19 March. The report quoted Deputy Air Force Commander Okas Saparov as saying that radar monitoring of the airspace over the country's western and southern regions has been intensified in parallel with preparations for large-scale military exercises that are beginning in western Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). Air Force headquarters is reportedly simulating scenarios of possible developments in the Persian Gulf. Kazakh military officials have been quoted as saying they fear that stray U.S. cruise missiles could fall on Kazakh territory. BB

KYRGYZSTAN BOOSTS SECURITY IN CONNECTION WITH IRAQ SITUATION
First Deputy Chairman of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service Boris Poluektov told ITAR-TASS on 19 March that in reaction to the military operation in Iraq, his country has heightened security at diplomatic representations, at the air base used by the international antiterrorism coalition, and other state facilities. Poluektov was quoted as saying that measures are being taken to raise the combat readiness of military units, and that the passport-control and visa regime has been tightened in response to expectations of an uncontrolled influx of people from neighboring countries, which is considered the most immediate consequence to Kyrgyzstan of the war in Iraq. He added that the possibility of terrorist acts against the coalition air base could not be ruled out. Parliamentary State Security Committee Chairman Ismail Isakov iterated this concern in comments published by Interfax-AVN on 20 March. BB

RFE/RL REPORTER ASSAULTED IN HERAT
Ahmad Behzad, a reporter working for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan was assaulted and detained by security personnel in Herat Province on 19 March, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Behzad said the incident occurred when he was interviewing Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, who was in Herat for the inauguration of the local office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) (see "RFE/RLNewsline,"19 March 2003). Behzad said that when he asked Jalali about reported human rights violations -- especially violations of the rights of women -- in Heart Province, he was stopped by Herat Governor Ismail Khan and ordered to leave the room. When Behzad did so, Herat Security Chief Nasir Ahmad Alawi began beating him and took him in custody. Behzad said he was released six hours later and suffered only superficial wounds. More than 50 people witnessed the incident, Behzad added. Behzad also said that in his view Herat Province officials expect international journalists to act in the same manner that journalists from Afghan state media do. International human rights groups have criticized Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan for his policy of segregating the sexes, as well as for the poor treatment of prisoners and lack of respect for press freedom in the province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2002 and 13 and 16 January 2003). AT

U.S. LAUNCHES MAJOR OPERATION IN KANDAHAR PROVINCE...
Approximately 1,000 U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division launched an operation in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar Province just minutes after the military campaign in Iraq began on 20 March, international media reported. Colonel Roger King, spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Operation Valiant Strike is focused on the province's Maruf District and was initiated after U.S. forces received "a mosaic of different intelligence inputs," AP reported on 20 March. Kandahar government spokesman Khaled Pashtun said that "the U.S. forces were looking for Taliban" forces, adding that he was unsure if Al-Qaeda members were also being targeted, AP reported. King said Operation Valiant Strike is the largest military operation in Afghanistan since Operation Anaconda in March 2002. AT

...BUT DENIES ANY CONNECTION WITH THE STRIKES ON IRAQ
Colonel King said it is only a "coincidence" that the military strikes in Afghanistan began just after U.S.-led military operations were begun in Iraq, AP reported. However, the timing of Operation Valiant Strike in Afghanistan "appears to indicate that the Bush administration wants the war against terror at the same time that it prosecutes a war against Iraq," "The New York Times" commented on 20 March. AT

CONFUSING REPORTS ABOUT OPERATION VALIANT STRIKE
Most sources reporting from Afghanistan have stated that Operation Valiant Strike is concentrated in southern Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. However, "The New York Times" reported from the headquarters of U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, that the operations were concentrated in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad in Nangarhar Province and in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan's Balkh Province. If true, Operation Valiant Strike could constitute a significant military action by the United States to subdue not only remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but also the warlords in northern Afghanistan. AT

U.S. AND ITALIAN FORCES ATTACKED IN KHOST PROVINCE
On 19 March, unidentified gunmen launched an attack on U.S. and Italian forces stationed in eastern Afghanistan's Khost Province, Radio Afghanistan reported the same day. No casualties were reported. AT

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