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Newsline - March 21, 2003


DUMA ADVOCATES UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY EMERGENCY SESSION...
The State Duma on 20 March adopted a nonbinding resolution condemning the U.S.-led military "aggression" against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and urging the government to call for an emergency session of the UN General Assembly, Russian media reported. Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin (People's Deputy), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, presented the resolution. Deputies rejected, however, a tougher resolution proposed by the Communist and Agrarian factions that called for a boycott of U.S. goods, a ban on U.S.-made programming on Russian television, and the severance of parliamentary and cultural contacts between the United States and Russia. Commenting on the two resolutions, Rogozin said the Duma should restrict itself to "condemning the anti-Iraq coalition and extending its united support to President [Vladimir] Putin." Defense Committee Deputy Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Fatherland-All Russia) dismissed the Communist resolution as counterproductive. VY

...AS DEBATE SPILLS OVER ONTO NATIONAL TELEVISION
The heated discussion of Iraq continued on NTV on 20 March when Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) accused Rogozin of being a "soft, pro-American liberal." Mitrofanov said Russia should abandon the UN-imposed sanctions regime against Iraq and supply it with advanced air-defense systems. He also criticized President Putin's response to the onset of war as "full of words, but lacking deeds." For his part, Rogozin said Russia is too weak and its military too disorganized to implement Mitrofanov's suggestions. Analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika think tank, said that Mitrofanov's policy would be suicidal for Russia, since it would lead to a military confrontation with the United States. VY

RUSSIAN GENERALS ANALYZE IRAQ CAMPAIGN...
Duma Deputy Nikolai Kovalev (Fatherland-All Russia), deputy chairman of the Duma Defense Committee and a former director of the Federal Security Service, said on 20 March that the United States opted against a massive air attack against Iraq because the military operation is viewed so negatively by world public opinion, ORT reported. Therefore, U.S. planners chose limited and precisely targeted attacks. Kovalev said that he is not persuaded by U.S. claims that tactics were changed at the last moment because the CIA allegedly received precise information about the whereabouts of Iraqi President Hussein. Such information, he said, would have had to have been checked and rechecked, and there simply was no time to do so. VY

...AND PREDICT 'CONTACTLESS' WAR
Major General Vladimir Slipchenko, a noted military analyst, commented that the U.S. military is a full technological generation ahead of the rest of the world, including Russia, ORT reported on 20 March. Slipchenko said this advantage should enable the United States to conduct a "contactless" war, meaning that it will be able to destroy the Iraqi military at considerable distances and largely avoid direct engagements. Slipchenko also said that the Iraqi military's greatest weakness is its senior commanders. Under any totalitarian regime, he said, there is a lack of people who are able to think independently and creatively. Major General Aleksandr Vladimirov, vice president of the government's Collegium of Military Experts, said the United States demonstrated its overwhelming military superiority during its campaigns in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and, now, Iraq. These demonstrations have "frightened many countries," which are now making intense efforts to boost their military strength. Russia, Vladimirov said, has one unique advantage in that it can still destroy the United States within 20 minutes with a massive nuclear strike, ORT reported on 20 March. VY

MOSCOW TO HOLD TO UN SANCTIONS REGIME AGAINST IRAQ
Responding to calls by some Duma deputies that Russia renounce the UN-imposed economic sanctions against Iraq, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said categorically that the sanctions were put in place by the UN Security Council and may only be lifted by that body, RIA-Novosti reported on 20 March. The main condition for lifting the sanctions is Iraq's disarmament, which must be verified by international inspectors, Ivanov said. VY

FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA REMAINS 'PARTNER' TO U.S...
. Foreign Minister Ivanov said that Russia "has no intention of taking anti-American steps in connection with the onset of the military operation in Iraq," ORT reported on 20 March. "We are not adversaries, but partners of the United States, and our activities are directed only at restoring peace," Ivanov added. "If we find a way to resolve the Iraq problem, that would help resolve the problems of international terrorism and [the] proliferation of [weapons of mass destruction]." VY

...AND U.S. AMBASSADOR SAYS U.S., RUSSIA WILL OVERCOME THEIR DIFFERENCES
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told Ekho Moskvy on 20 March that he disagrees with President Putin, who has said that the military operation against Iraq is unjustified and that there are no links between Iraqi President Hussein and international terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). "Hussein provides aid to the families of suicide bombers who kill Israeli citizens and have ties with the extremist groups Hizballah and Hamas," Vershbow said. He emphasized that although Moscow and Washington currently have serious disagreements, they managed to overcome equally serious disputes in the past and will do so again. Vershbow said that he hopes U.S. President George W. Bush will meet with Putin as scheduled this summer in St. Petersburg. VY

CENTRAL BANK IS PREPARED FOR FALLOUT OF IRAQ WAR...
President Putin on 20 March summoned Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatev to the Kremlin, RTR reported. In front of television cameras, Putin asked Ignatev to explain how the bank has prepared for any repercussions of the Iraq crisis and what the consequences of the military operation there could be for Russia's macroeconomic indicators. Ignatev responded that the Central Bank is ready for any development and that Russia's hard-currency and gold reserves are sufficient to keep the ruble stable. He added, however, that it is too early to make middle-term or long-term predictions about the crisis's microeconomic impact on Russia. VY

...AS PRIME MINISTER CALLS FOR REVISION OF ECONOMIC FORECASTS
Speaking at a 20 March cabinet session, Mikhail Kasyanov said the government's socioeconomic program for 2003 must be revised to take into account possible changes in world oil prices as a result of the conflict in Iraq, Russian media reported. He said that the revised plan must be completed by the end of April. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said that oil prices might rise from current already-high levels during the military operation. "High oil prices will remain until the United States gains control of Iraqi oil production, and this will take time," Kudrin said. VY

FEDERATION COUNCIL MEMBER CALLS FOR IRAQ CRISIS GROUP
Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, called on 20 March for the creation of a special crisis group to formulate Russia's position on Iraq, polit.ru reported. This group should comprise representatives of both legislative chambers, the Russian Security Council, the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, and the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Margelov said. He added that he is skeptical of the Duma's call for a UN General Assembly session in view of the fact that the UN Security Council was unable to forestall the military action against Iraq. VY

TWO MILITARY HELICOPTERS MISSING IN CHECHNYA
The search resumed on 21 March for two Mi-24 Russian military helicopters, each with a crew of two, that disappeared over southern Chechnya in poor weather conditions on the morning of 20 March, Russian media reported. The search was suspended late on 20 March due to heavy snow. LF

CHECHEN NGOS APPEAL TO COUNCIL OF EUROPE
In a 10 March appeal, subsequently posted on chechenpress.com, endorsed by some 30 Chechen NGOs and addressed to senior officials of the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Chechen Committee for National Salvation Chairman Ruslan Badalov expressed those organizations' rejection of the "farcical" referendum the Russian authorities are conducting in Chechnya. The statement also criticized the "colonial nature" of the new draft Chechen constitution and election laws and listed specific articles of the draft that they consider discriminatory. It called on the Council of Europe's Venice Commission to take those shortcomings into account when assessing the draft constitution. The statement noted that the constitution does not recognize Chechen citizenship, although the citizenship concept exists in the constitutions of other subjects of the Russian Federation; that it discriminates against speakers of Chechen by designating Russian as the language of official proceedings; and that it denies the Chechen people the right of self-determination. LF

CORRECTION:
An item entitled "Analyst Looks for Russia's Interests in Iraq Crisis" in the 18 March 2003 edition of "RFE/RL Newsline" erroneously attributed statements to analyst Boris Makarenko. The assertions that "leading Arab oil-producing countries have long been interested in destabilizing Russia" and that those countries "have supported Islamic extremists in Russia, including Chechen separatists" should have been attributed to the moderator of the program on which Makarenko appeared. RFE/RL regrets the errors. VY

ARMENIA EXPRESSES REGRET AT START OF WAR IN IRAQ
Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on 20 March that "we regret that diplomacy has produced no positive results and that Iraq's disarmament is not occurring peacefully," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. He added that the Armenian leadership sees no point in either supporting or opposing the war, but merely hopes that it will end swiftly and without inflicting undue suffering on the Iraqi people. Also on 20 March, Armenian police spokesman Artak Vardazarian told Arminfo that security has been heightened at all strategic facilities, according to Groong. LF

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ANTICIPATES NEGATIVE FALLOUT FROM ELECTION CRITICISM
Foreign Minister Oskanian also admitted on 20 March that Armenia currently faces "really serious problems" in its relations with the Council of Europe in the wake of international observers' criticisms of serious irregularities during the recent presidential election, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. But he added that Armenia remains faithful to its commitment to democratization and will work to "correct all the mistakes that happened during the election." LF

ARMENIA TO CEDE SIX POWER PLANTS TO RUSSIA
Armenia will transfer to Russia ownership of six hydroelectric-power plants on the Hrazdan River in payment of $25 million of the country's total $40 million debt for supplies of nuclear fuel for the Medzamor nuclear-power plant, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 20 March, citing an Armenian government statement. The six power stations together generate approximately 15 percent of Armenia's energy. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT REAFFIRMS SUPPORT FOR U.S. ON IRAQ...
Eduard Shevardnadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 20 March that Georgia supports the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. He said that no one in any country of the world can sleep peacefully as long as Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. Shevardnadze said Georgia has not received any U.S. requests. for assistance, but that it is ready to make available both its airspace and its military bases. Following the 20 March Turkish parliament vote to grant the United States overflight rights, but not the use of ground facilities, Georgian Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze held an unscheduled meeting behind closed doors with Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili and his deputies, Transport and Communication Minister Merab Adeishvili and Fuel and Energy Minister David Mirtskhulava, Caucasus Press reported. LF

...VETOES LAW ON MINIMUM WAGE
After lack of a quorum thwarted the parliament session on 20 March, President Shevardnadze was constrained in compliance with the constitution to veto the controversial bill mandating a fivefold increase in the minimum wage, Caucasus Press reported. In an attempt to avoid a veto, which he characterized as "a painful measure" for the legislature, Shevardnadze had presented to parliament an alternative bill raising the minimum wage incrementally over a period of two years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 11, 13, 17, and 19 March 2003). Former Minister of State Niko Lekishvili argued on 20 March that the constitution should be amended to grant the president the right to dissolve parliament, Caucasus Press reported. Lekishvili reasoned that the threat of dissolution might deter deputies from boycotting the legislature, as they have over the past two weeks. LF

ABDUCTED GEORGIAN BUSINESSMAN RELEASED
Georgian police under the direction of Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili succeeded on 20 March in liberating Zaza Djikia, whose father Bondo Djikia is governor of Mingrelia and Upper Svaneti, Caucasus Press reported. The kidnappers, who are reportedly from Adjaria, were detained. Zaza Djikia was snatched in Tbilisi on 15 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). Narchemashvili has recently been criticized for failing to reduce the crime rate in Tbilisi and for promoting primarily persons from his home district of Imereti. Following the resignation earlier this week of First Deputy Interior Minister Zurab Chkhaidze, who intends to run for parliament in the elections this fall, Narchemashvili promoted Deputy Interior Minister Shota Asatiani to first deputy and named former Imereti police chief Ruben Asanidze to serve as deputy minister, Caucasus Press reported on 20 March. LF

KAZAKH PARLIAMENTARY LEADER SAYS IRAQ WAR IS DAMAGING UN
Zharmakhan Tuyaqbaev, chairman of the lower house of the Kazakh parliament, told journalists on 20 March that the U.S.-led military operation against Iraq is seriously damaging the authority of the United Nations and the UN Security Council, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Insisting that when such an action involves sovereign states, it must be approved by the Security Council, Tuyaqbaev was quoted as asking how international conflicts will be resolved in future if any country can decide to attack another without UN sanction. According to the report, most Kazakh parliamentarians think the military operation in Iraq will not directly affect Kazakhstan's security, but Tuyaqbaev noted that no one can say whether another country might want eventually to encroach on Kazakhstan's territorial integrity and constitutional system. BB

KAZAKHSTAN'S LOWER HOUSE APPROVES BILL ON PRIVATIZATION OF AGRICULTURAL LAND
The lower house of Kazakhstan's parliament approved a draft Land Code in its first reading on 20 March, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The draft code provides for the privatization of agricultural land, an issue that is highly controversial. Foreign individuals and legal entities may not acquire private farmland, according to the draft. The code must have at least one more reading in the lower house and at least two in the upper house before it is sent to the president for signature. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has been a strong proponent of land privatization. BB

SECURITY BOOSTED IN KYRGYZSTAN
Kyrgyzstan's parliament summoned representatives of the Foreign Ministry, the National Security Service, and the Interior Ministry on 20 March to brief the deputies on steps that had been taken to protect the country's security in view of the war in Iraq, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, akipress.org and Kyrgyz state radio reported. Deputy Foreign Minister Djeenbek Kulubaev said the government's policy on the Iraq crisis remains unchanged and that the conflict should be resolved by peaceful means. Commenting on the reasons for the war, Kulubaev laid the blame squarely on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. Representatives of the security and police agencies told deputies they are taking measures to prevent acts of terrorism and more closely to control the activities of Iraqi citizens in Kyrgyzstan, of whom there are reported to be five, and those of persons from other Arab countries. Security has been stepped up at foreign embassies and consulates that might be targeted for attack. BB

KYRGYZSTAN REGRETS BYPASSING OF SECURITY COUNCIL
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov on 20 March expressed the Kyrgyz government's regret that the recommendations of the UN Security Council concerning Iraq were being ignored, akipress.org and ITAR-TASS reported. Aitmatov warned that an unfortunate precedent was being set and added that Kyrgyzstan has always favored a political settlement based on Security Council resolutions. He expressed the hope that the war in Iraq will be brief, that civilian casualties can be minimized, and that weapons of mass destruction will not be used. Aitmatov also said Kyrgyzstan intends to maintain good relations with both the United States and Russia. The United States, he said, is helping Kyrgyzstan to ensure its independence and national security and to carry out democratic reforms. BB

KYRGYZSTAN REFUSES ADDITIONAL SECURITY AT MANAS AIRPORT
Kyrgyz Deputy Interior Minister Bolot Nogoibaev told ITAR-TASS on 20 March that the Kyrgyz authorities have refused a request from antiterrorism-coalition forces stationed at Manas Airport for additional security checkpoints. Nogoibaev was quoted as saying the request was turned down because additional checkpoints would interfere with civilian traffic at Manas, which is Bishkek's international airport, and that he doubted the request was related to the beginning of the war in Iraq. The coalition air-base command has stated repeatedly that forces stationed at Manas will not be involved in actions against Iraq. BB

TAJIKISTAN FEARS ECONOMIC EFFECTS OF IRAQ WAR
Tajik Deputy Economy and Trade Minister Isroil Mahmudov told a briefing on 20 March that Tajikistan fears the war in Iraq will have a negative effect on upcoming conferences in Dushanbe of the UN Special Program for the Economies of Central Asia (SPECA), Asia Plus-Blitz reported. The two conferences -- one focused specifically on the Tajik economy and another on increasing foreign investment in Central Asia -- are to bring together major international donors and delegates from 37 countries. Tajikistan desperately needs foreign investment. Already on the first day of the Iraq war, Tajikistan received inquiries from potential participants asking if the conferences have been cancelled. "Some people think Tajikistan is close to Iraq," Mahmudov said. He added that the Iraq war has already had an impact on the Tajik economy: gasoline prices have risen 10 to 15 percent. The Tajiks expect that fluctuations on world oil markets will affect the economies of their three main trading partners -- Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan -- and, in turn, negatively affect Tajikistan. BB

BELARUS CRITICIZES U.S.-LED ATTACK ON IRAQ
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement posted on its website (http://www.mfa.gov.by) on 20 March that "The use of military force against a sovereign state without sanction of the UN Security Council violates the fundamental principles of the UN Charter and international law." Valery Lipkin, head of the Belarusian legislature's Human Rights Committee, said on 20 March that "it is unacceptable to impose democracy through the use of military force," Belapan reported. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on 18 March that the imminent U.S.-led war against Iraq would be "an act of cynical aggression in violation of international law," Belarusian television reported. "Everybody understands that this is not a war for the salvation of humanity, but for oil," Lukashenka added. AM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES SENDING NBC BATTALION TO KUWAIT...
The Verkhovna Rada on 20 March approved sending a Ukrainian anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) battalion to Kuwait, Reuters reported. The decision was backed by 253 lawmakers in the 450-seat parliament. National Security and Defense Council head Yevhen Marchuk said the battalion could arrive in Kuwait in 15 days. "Ukrayinska pravda" reported that the United States is expected to finance the deployment, paying $5.8 million to ship the Ukrainian troops and equipment to Kuwait, $50,000 for feeding them while in transit, and $700,000 to support the battalion for every month it spends in the Persian Gulf. AM

...AS IT CONDEMNS U.S.-LED ATTACK ON IRAQ
The Verkhovna Rada on 20 March adopted by a vote of 229 to five a resolution condemning the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, Interfax reported. "The Verkhovna Rada demands that the military actions of the United States, Great Britain, and other countries on the territory of Iraq be immediately halted and all the foreign military formations be withdrawn from this country," the resolution states. AM

ESTONIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES POSITION ON IRAQ WAR
An emergency session of the cabinet on 20 March discussed the situation in Iraq and adopted a formal position on the war, BNS reported. It announced that the need to disarm Iraq is clear and stated: "It's a great pity that Iraq didn't take advantage of the opportunity to resolve the problem peacefully. We hope that only minimal and short-term use of force will be necessary." The government called for giving the United Nations the central role in the reconstruction of postwar Iraq and expressed Estonia's willingness to contribute to the regulation of the postconflict situation and the reconstruction of Iraq. SG

LATVIAN HEALTH MINISTER FIRED
After learning that the Corruption Prevention Bureau had decided to initiate a criminal case against Health Minister Aris Auders, Prime Minister Einars Repse relieved him of his duties on 20 March and assumed temporary leadership of the ministry pending the approval of a replacement, LETA reported. The bureau charged that while serving as the director of the spinal surgery center at the Trauma and Orthopedic Hospital in the fall of 2002, Auders demanded that a patient pay him for surgery he performed even though it had already been paid by an insurance agency. The parliament in January rejected a no-confidence vote against Auders relating to the allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2003). Leaders of both the ruling and opposition factions in the parliament expressed their approval for the dismissal. SG

LITHUANIA PASSES BILL REGULATING FOREIGNERS' PURCHASE OF LAND
By a vote of 90 to 17, with six abstentions, parliament on 20 March approved a bill regulating the implementation of the constitutional amendment granting foreigners the right to purchase agricultural land, BNS reported. The amendment will permit legal and physical entities from EU and NATO countries to purchase farmland in Lithuania after the seven-year transition period stipulated in the Lithuanian EU Accession Treaty. Deputies from the Homeland Union (Conservatives of Lithuania) and the recently formed United and Liberal faction voted against or abstained from voting. The bill previously received 78 votes in favor to 18 against, with seven abstentions, but a constitutional bill requires at least 85 votes to pass (see "RFE/RL Baltic States Report," 10 February 2003). SG

POLES PROTEST U.S. ATTACK ON IRAQ
More than 600 antiwar protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw on 20 March, Polish Radio reported. Protesters held banners reading "Down with U.S. Imperialist Terror" and shouted antiwar slogans. The U.S. attack on Iraq and Poland's participation in the conflict were condemned the same day by the National Trade Union Accord, Pre-Election Women's Coalition, lawmakers from the League of Polish Families, and Self-Defense. Self-Defense leader Andrzej Lepper described the decision to send Polish troops to the Persian Gulf as the "fruit" of President Aleksander Kwasniewski's and Prime Minister Leszek Miller's thoughtlessness and political irresponsibility. The Polish Foreign Ministry stated on 20 March that diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis peacefully have failed and that the use of force, which the ministry had always considered a last resort, has become a necessity. AM

POLISH PHONE, INTERNET OPERATORS OBLIGED TO INSTALL BUGGING DEVICES
The regulation issued by the Infrastructure Ministry "on the execution of tasks related to defense, state security, and public order by telecommunications-service operators" came into effect at the end of February, the "Gazeta Wyborcza" daily newspaper reported on 19 March. The regulation obliges all telephone operators and Internet providers to install equipment to record, store, and monitor all live exchanges (e-mails included) on their networks. Those networks are to be linked to "authorized bodies" -- the Internal Security Agency, the Intelligence Agency, the military police, the border guards, the police, and revenue-inspection offices. AM

PRESIDENT SAYS CZECH REPUBLIC IS NOT AMONG THE WILLING...
President Vaclav Klaus said on 20 March that "the Czech Republic is not part of the coalition that launched a military operation against Iraq," CTK and dpa reported. Klaus also said he "regrets that the Iraqi crisis was not resolved by diplomatic means," according to dpa. CTK quoted presidential spokesman Tomas Klvana as saying that Klaus hopes the goals of the military operations will be achieved "effectively and quickly, and that no big loss of life and suffering will be inflicted on the [Iraqi] civilian population." According to dpa, the statement was made in reaction to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement earlier this week in which he listed the Czech Republic among the "coalition of the willing." MS

...AND DISAGREES WITH CHANGING DICTATORIAL REGIMES BY USING FOREIGN MILITARY FORCE
In an interview with the daily "Hospodarske noviny" on 21 March, President Klaus said he does not share the opinion of U.S. President George W. Bush and British Premier Tony Blair that the inhumane and undemocratic regime in Iraq is sufficient grounds for justifying its overthrow, CTK reported. "There are many inhumane and undemocratic regimes in the world. After all, we also lived under one of them," he said. Klaus said it is naive to believe the reconstruction of Iraq after the war will be an easy task. "The institutional transformation of a country is a task measured in decades, not in years -- as everyone who has tried radically to transform communism well knows," he remarked. MS

CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER STANDS BY HIS WORDS
Klaus met on 20 March with Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda to discuss the latter's statement the previous day that the Czech Republic would be on the side of the coalition in the event of a war in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). Svoboda told journalists before the meeting that he saw no reason to retract his statement. "When I say I side with the position of the [opposition] Civic Democratic Party [regarding the Iraq conflict], I do not necessarily have to be an ODS member," he said. "When I say the Czech Republic sides with the coalition, that, too, does not mean the Czech Republic is a member" of that coalition. MS

CZECH PREMIER SAYS PRAGUE'S POSITION ON IRAQ WAR 'HALFWAY' BETWEEN U.S. AND EU
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said on Czech Television on 20 March that the Czech government's position on the Iraq war is "precisely halfway" between the position of the United States and that of the European Union, CTK reported. Spidla said the government views the military operations launched against Iraq as the last possible means to impose the implementation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq, but regrets that the U.S.-led coalition did not succeed in obtaining a new mandate from the UN for the operation. He also said the attack on Iraq must not affect Trans-Atlantic relations, and it is in the Czech Republic's interest to have "the best possible allied and political relations with both its European neighbors and the United States." MS

ANTIWAR PROTEST IN PRAGUE'S CENTRAL SQUARE
Some 500 people gathered in Prague's central Wenceslas Square on 20 March to protest the U.S.-led military action against Iraq, CTK reported. The protesters later marched to the U.S. Embassy, carrying lit candles and antiwar banners and chanting antiwar slogans. Earlier on 20 March, antiwar activists hung a banner reading "No to War" from one of Prague's bridges over the Vltava River. Two recent public-opinion polls show that a majority of Czechs are opposed to the war in Iraq, CTK reported. According to a survey conducted by the SC&C polling agency and published by the daily "Lidove noviny" on 21 March, 70 percent are opposed to the war. A poll conducted by STEM and released on 20 March showed that 55 percent of respondents are opposed to it. MS

CZECH MINISTRY RELEASES LIST OF FORMER COMMUNIST POLICE COLLABORATORS
The Czech Interior Ministry on 20 March published a list of some 75,000 Czechs identified as agents of the former secret police (StB), CTK and international news agencies reported. The 5,700-page list has also been posted on the ministry's website (http://www.mvcr.cz). Since 1997, Czech citizens have been allowed access to their own secret police files, but not those of other people. A new law adopted by parliament last year allows access to all files available. The new law allows access to files on Czech citizens, but not to those who are now Slovak citizens or citizens of other countries who acted on behalf of the StB. It does, however, list 3,150 Czech citizens who provided the StB with information from abroad, mainly on the activities of exiled Czechs. The list does not include the names of those who continued to be secret agents after the overthrow of the communist regime. MS

PRIME MINISTER SAYS SLOVAKIA IS NOT A BELLIGERENT IN IRAQ CONFLICT...
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda told journalists after a meeting of the Slovak Security Council on 20 March that Slovakia is not a direct participant in the war on Iraq, TASR reported. Dzurinda said the deployment to Kuwait of a Slovak/Czech anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit and Slovakia's decision to grant the United States overflight and transit rights all stem from UN Security Council resolutions, up to and including Resolution 1441. "This represents the legal framework and the limits within which we move," he said. Dzurinda also said the NBC unit's mandate received from the parliament allows for the possibility of entering Iraqi territory for the purpose of rendering humanitarian help. "Our soldiers will make no difference between citizens of Kuwait and Iraq, nor between soldiers and civilians" if they are called upon to provide such help, he said. MS

...AND DEFENDS SUPPORT OF U.S. POSITION IN CONFLICT
Speaking on Slovak Television on 20 March, Dzurinda appealed to his fellow citizens to show greater support for the U.S.-led military action against Iraq, CTK reported. He said the United States bears the greatest share of the responsibility for defending democratic development in the world, and is therefore also the first target of fanatics and terrorists. "The question is whether we leave them alone with this problem," he said. "We have the right to be afraid, but not to be cowards. We have the right to foreign investments, to the NATO security umbrella, but we do not have the rights to duplicity," he said. "That is why the government stood, stands, and will stand on the side of the United States." Dzurinda added, "The democratic world must not await for evil and terror to assume unmanageable proportions before it acts against them.... I know very well that it is often more comfortable to wait in a sheltered place until the storm recedes and to rely on others doing away with the unpleasant things, but that would be dishonest and dishonorable." MS

SLOVAKIA'S LEADERS BELIEVE IRAQ WAR WILL NOT INFLUENCE OUTCOME OF EU REFERENDUM
Premier Dzurinda, President Rudolf Schuster, and parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky told journalists on 20 March that they do not believe the war in Iraq will influence the outcome of the 16-17 May referendum on EU accession, TASR reported. Schuster said it is natural for the outbreak of war to not produce a "good mood" among people, but added that he expects the atmosphere to change by the time the conflict in Iraq is resolved. Dzurinda said opinion polls showing that a large proportion of Slovaks are opposed to NATO accession illustrate emotions triggered by the use of force. "I believe that a majority will make their decision [on EU accession] in the referendum by using reason," he said. MS

HUNGARIAN PRESIDENT, PREMIER ALLAY PUBLIC APPREHENSIONS AT OUTBREAK OF IRAQI WAR
President Ferenc Madl on 20 March told reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy that he is convinced that government officials have taken all necessary measures in response to the outbreak of war in Iraq and on cooperation with international organizations, Hungarian television reported. Madl said it is regrettable that the UN, the EU, and NATO were unable to adopt a common position, although they all agreed on the need to disarm Iraq. "There is a war on, but Hungary is not taking part in any combat action, and the country's territory is not a military theater," he pointed out. For his part, Medgyessy said the government's point of departure was that Iraq presents a genuine threat to the world, adding that a military strike was launched only after all efforts to find a peaceful solution were exhausted. Medgyessy also expressed the hope that Hungary will be able to take part in the reconstruction of Iraq. MSZ

HUNGARY'S FIDESZ INTENSIFIES ANTIWAR STANCE
FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Zsolt Nemeth, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, on 20 March said that in the legal and political sense Hungary is a member of the war coalition and the government has done nothing to remove Hungary from the list of states supporting the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Declaring that the time has come to engage in straight talk, Nemeth said the United States does not have international authorization for a war in Iraq. The same day, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban told reporters in Brussels that Hungary has no obligations whatsoever to become involved in the war, the daily reported. He said it is regrettable that the Hungarian government's international prestige has plummeted in recent weeks because Hungary is not on the side of peace. "Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that a new world order is unfolding before our eyes, in which certain groups are attempting to firmly and aggressively obtain global economic positions and increase their global weight by displaying military strength," Orban commented. MSZ

HUNGARIAN POPULATION FALLS
The Central Statistics Office's annual report has listed Hungary's population in 2002 at 10.175 million, a decline of 534,000 since 1981, "Magyar Hirlap" reported on 21 March. The population comprises 4,837,000 men and 5,337,000 women, according to the report. The number of towns rose from 96 in 1980 to 252 last year, while the number of smaller communities fell from 3,016 to 2,883. The number of Budapest residents was 1,739,000 in January 2002, accounting for 17 percent of the country's population. MSZ

FORMER SERBIAN PROSECUTOR ADMITS LINKS TO UNDERWORLD
Sacked Serbian Deputy Prosecutor-General Milan Sarajlic on 20 March admitted that he was on the payroll of the underworld gang known as the "Zemun clan," which the Serbian government believes was behind the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Beta reported. Sarajlic said he has received money for obstructing investigations into high-profile killings, for providing information about the whereabouts of a protected witness, and for providing other internal information (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic said on 20 March that in the course of the investigations into Djindjic's slaying, police have detained more than 1,900 people, of whom about 800 are in custody. UB

HEAD OF SERBIAN SUPREME COURT RESIGNS
Supreme Court head Leposava Karamarkovic on 20 March submitted her resignation, citing pressure from politicians and the media that made it impossible for her to carry out her duties, Beta reported. Karamarkovic's resignation came after Bosko Ristic, the chairman of the Serbian parliament's administrative board, called on her to resign because she had achieved little while heading the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Vladan Batic on 19 March announced the forced retirement of 35 judges. "The inefficiency of the courts enabled some killers and other criminals to avoid justice for years," RFE/RL quoted Batic as saying on 20 March. UB

DEFENSE MINISTER EXPECTS SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO TO JOIN PARTNERSHIP FOR PEACE PROGRAM SOON
Defense Minister Boris Tadic said on 20 March that he expects the new state-union of Serbia and Montenegro to be admitted to NATO's Partnership for Peace program by the end of this year, Beta reported. Speaking before the media in Belgrade the same day, NATO Parliamentary Assembly Secretary-General Simon Lunn said one of the key conditions for the new state-union to be admitted to the program is its full cooperation with The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal. Tadic pledged to fulfill this condition, but added that he has no information about the whereabouts of former Bosnian Serb Military leader Ratko Mladic and other indictees who are allegedly hiding in Serbia or Montenegro. UB

MONTENEGRIN OPPOSITION WITHOUT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE?
The third round of talks between the major opposition forces to decide on a joint candidate for the presidential elections slated for 11 May ended without result on 20 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The Liberal Alliance did not accept the Alliance for Change coalition's proposal to nominate an independent candidate. Liberal Alliance leader Miodrag Zivkovic said after the meeting that the talks were over as far as his party is concerned, but stressed that the opposition forces will maintain good relations, Beta reported. The opposition's boycott of the previous presidential votes on 22 December and 10 February contributed to their failure, as turnout failed to meet the 50 percent threshold required by law. Parliament has since abolished that minimum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2002 and 10 February 2003). UB

CROATIAN PRESIDENT SAYS WAR ON IRAQ ILLEGITIMATE
President Stipe Mesic said in a televised address on 20 March that the war on Iraq lacks legitimacy, as it is not based on a UN Security Council resolution, Hina reported. "We cannot accept the establishment of a model of behavior in international relations that would allow, to put it simply, those who possess force to decide to take military action against the regime of any country," Mesic said. "For if we accept that in the case of one country, with what moral right could we turn it down in the case of another?" He added that "as far as Croatia is concerned we have been and will remain friends of the United States. But it is precisely on behalf of those democratic values, the values of the free world that America promoted in the past, that we have opted for peace to the utmost limit and not for war." UB

UNMIK HEAD SAYS TALKS ON KOSOVA SHOULD BE POSTPONED
Michael Steiner, the head of the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), said on 18 March that Kosovar politicians should understand that Serbia must be given time to consolidate following the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. He therefore proposed to postpone the planned tripartite talks of UNMIK, Kosovar institutions, and the Serbian government. At the same time, he said he does not accept any of the conditions set in the agenda for the talks by the Serbian side, which has demanded the return of some 200,000 refugees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 14 March 2003). UB

MINORITY PARTIES UNITE IN KOSOVAR PARLIAMENT
Ten lawmakers of political parties representing a variety of ethnic minorities announced on 18 March that they have formed a joint parliamentary group called Other Communities, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. The new group includes legislators from the ethnic Bosnian Vatan coalition, the ethnic Bosnian Party for Democratic Action in Kosova (DSDAK), the Civic Initiative of the Gorani (GIG), the Party of Albanian Ashkaly in Kosova (PDASHK), and the United Roma Party of Kosova (PREBK). UB

ALBANIANS STAGE PROTEST IN MACEDONIA
Some 2,000 ethnic Albanians gathered for a peaceful protest in the western Macedonian town of Tetovo on 20 March, "Dnevnik" reported. The protesters demanded that some 130 former members of the disbanded National Liberation Army (UCK) be released from prison. The protests were organized by students from the two universities in Tetovo and by former UCK members. The UCK staged an uprising in March 2001 that resulted in more rights for Macedonia's Albanian minority. The government subsequently declared an amnesty of imprisoned UCK members, but not all have been released (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 12 March and 8 October 2002). UB

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT, GOVERNMENT EXPLAIN POSITION ON IRAQ WAR
Presidential spokeswoman Corina Cretu on 20 March said that President Ion Iliescu believes that by backing the U.S.-led military action against Iraq, Romania is acknowledging the need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, which are endangering peace and security in a region already fraught with dangers, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Iliescu is persuaded that Romania has acted and continues to act responsibly and in accord with its international obligations, Cretu said. At the same time, Romania is persuaded that the UN and the European Union will have important roles to play in Iraq's reconstruction process. Bucharest hopes the differing opinions on Iraq will not be transformed into a "permanent rupture" within the Euro-Atlantic community, she said. In a separate declaration, Romania's cabinet said the use of force by the United States against Iraq was "the last resort" to achieve the disarmament of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime after repeated failures to do so by peaceful means. The cabinet expressed the hope that the military operations will be quick; produce as few victims as possible among Iraqi civilians, who have suffered much under dictatorship; and succeed in destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. MS

U.S. AMBASSADOR APPRECIATES ROMANIA'S SUPPORT ON IRAQ
U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest, in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 20 March, said the United States is fully backed by the Romanian authorities because "Romanians understand the risks of living under dictators such as [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein." Guest said he is proud to represent a country that is defending democratic values by serving in one that stands up for the same principles. He said that, by acting as it has, the United States is exposed to risks far greater than those faced by Romania or the other countries that have joined the anti-Hussein coalition. He emphasized that the situation does not require that a state of emergency be declared in Romania, adding that the relevant U.S. and Romanian security agencies are working closely together. "There is no reason to panic; it is sufficient to be vigilant," Guest said. Defense Ministry State Secretary George Maior told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 20 March that no state of alert has been declared after the beginning of the U.S.-led attack, but some additional measures have been taken to ensure the security of sensitive locations that might be targeted by terrorists. MS

ROMANIAN OPPOSITION PARTIES SUBMIT NO-CONFIDENCE MOTION
The three opposition parties represented in parliament submitted on 21 March a no-confidence motion in the cabinet headed by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. The motion follows the 19 March "assumption of responsibility" by the cabinet on a package of 17 anticorruption bills (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 March 2003). The Greater Romania Party, the National Liberal Party, and the Democratic Party say in their motion that instead of fighting corruption, the proposed package would foster it and that approving the package would amount to "the legislative approval of the dictatorship of the Social Democratic Party." The opposition parties demand that the 17 bills be debated by parliament individually. The no-confidence motion is backed by 173 lawmakers from the three formations. MS

MOLDOVAN PREMIER 'CONCERNED' ABOUT OUTBREAK OF HOSTILITIES IN IRAQ
Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev on 20 March told journalists in Chisinau that he is "concerned" about the outbreak of military hostilities in Iraq, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Tarlev said that Baghdad "evidently bears a great share of responsibility" for the hostilities. Moldova's position, he said, has been explained in detail at the UN and other international forums, and it is now necessary to "make all possible efforts to end this war as quickly as possible and to restore peace and global stability." It is important, he said, that Moldova "not contribute to the bloodshed." MS

SENIOR RUSSIAN DIPLOMAT SAYS MOLDOVA, TRANSDNIESTER WANT RUSSIAN TROOPS TO STAY
Visiting Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov said in Chisinau on 20 March after talks with President Vladimir Voronin that both Chisinau and Tiraspol want the Russian contingent stationed in the Transdniester to remain after a settlement of the conflict is reached, Flux reported. Trubnikov said that both sides consider the presence of the Russian troops "a necessity," and that Russia is sympathetic to that request. Trubnikov added that the "modality" of the continued presence remains to be worked out with the OSCE and with Ukraine, which are the other two mediators in the conflict. Trubnikov called Voronin's initiative to elaborate a new constitution jointly with Transdniester representatives "a daring initiative." He also said he expects that during Russian President Vladimir Putin's planned visit to Moldova in autumn "responsible, daring, and productive decisions" for solving the Transdniester conflict will be made. Trubnikov met on 19 March in Tiraspol with members of the separatist leadership. MS

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT SETS DATE FOR LOCAL ELECTIONS
Parliament on 20 March decided that local elections will be held on 25 May, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The elections will be held in the 33 raions that were recently reestablished to replace the former 10 counties in the country's new local-administration division. Mayors will be chosen in direct elections. MS

MOLDOVAN PARTIES SET UP LEFT-CENTER UNION
Ten Moldovan political formations on 20 March set up a Left-Center Union, Infotag reported. The union comprises the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) and the extraparliamentary Democratic Party, the New Force Party, the Agrarian Democratic Party, the Socialist Party, the Labor Union, the Party of Socialists, the Speranta/Nadezhda Movement, the Republican Party, and the Party of Civic Dignity. President Voronin signed the document on the union's creation as the PCM's leader. The document stipulates that each party shall "preserve its [own] political identity" and shall have the right to act in conformity with its own program. The document also stipulates that members of the Left-Center Union may run in elections on common or separate lists. The signatories pledged to work for the country's territorial reunification and for the settlement of the Transdniester conflict, for Moldova's integration into the EU, and for a "socially oriented and efficient reformed economy." MS

BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER CALLS FOR MORATORIUM ON DISCUSSING IRAQ WAR...
Speaking before parliament, Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said on 20 March that Bulgaria's position on Iraq should be evaluated at a later stage, BTA reported. "I suggest that we discuss the present issue with all the concerns and fears it gives rise to in two months' time and see whether the situation has not changed radically in favor of Bulgaria's decision," Saxecoburggotski said. In response to criticism from President Georgi Parvanov and the Socialist Party (BSP), who criticized the fact the U.S.-led coalition went ahead with war without an explicit UN Security Council resolution, Saxecoburggotski repeated that Bulgaria -- which is currently a Security Council member -- supported such a resolution. "This failed, but not due to a lack of will on our part," he said. After the debate, Saxecoburggotski, Parvanov, and parliamentary speaker Ognyan Gerdzhikov appeared together before reporters. Gerdzhikov said that now war has begun, it is important for all Bulgaria's institutions to demonstrate unity in promoting national interests such as NATO and EU membership, Darik Radio reported. UB

...AS SOCIALISTS CRITICIZE INTERNATIONAL ANTITERRORISM COALITION
Threatening to call for a vote of no confidence, Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev said on 20 March that the government is acting unconstitutionally because it joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq without seeking parliament's consent, BTA reported. Stanishev's comments echoed the position of former BSP Chairman President Parvanov. Stanishev also criticized the international antiterrorism coalition that was formed after 11 September 2001, saying it is undermining the authority of the UN Security Council and the EU's joint foreign and security policies. In Stanishev's view, the BSP-led Coalition in Bulgaria is the only political force in Bulgaria that respects the concerns of the Bulgarian people and that has supported the European position on Iraq. Conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova said that the 7 February parliamentary decision fully legitimized Bulgaria's support for the United States. She dismissed Parvanov's criticism of the war as a "losing position" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 March 2003). UB

BULGARIAN NBC UNIT READY TO LEAVE SOON
Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov said on 20 March that the anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical warfare (NBC) unit promised by the government is ready to be deployed to a country neighboring Iraq by the end of this week, mediapool.bg reported. The unit will be put under U.S. command as soon as an agreement has been signed that regulates the unit's tasks, rights, and place of deployment. It is expected that the unit will be based in eastern Turkey. UB

SECURITY STEPPED UP FOR EMBASSIES IN SOFIA
Security measures were stepped up in Bulgaria in the wake of the initial attacks against Iraq, mediapool.bg reported. Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov said on 20 March that security measures for the embassies of Israel and Britain were doubled after the fighting began, adding that other embassies are well protected. The ministry's chief secretary, General Boyko Borisov, however, said 28 foreign embassies in Sofia have asked for additional protection, but the ministry lacks the necessary resources. UB

PUTIN WARNS CHECHENS THEIR FUTURE IS IN THEIR OWN HANDS


In a televised address to the Chechen people broadcast on 16 March, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke in unprecedentedly sympathetic terms of the sufferings the Chechens have endured, first during the "unjust" 1944 deportation to Central Asia and again during the "tragedy" of recent years which, Putin acknowledged, "has not spared a single family." But at the same time, Putin argued that it is now up to the Chechens themselves to determine whether they prefer a peaceful and prosperous future to the continuation of "hostilities." Putin did not, in this address, use the term "antiterrorist operation."

The key to peace, Putin told his audience, lies in approving the draft Chechen constitution and election legislation in the republic's 23 March referendum. "I am convinced that the constitution is the basis for a political settlement in Chechnya. Its adoption will make it possible to elect truly democratic authorities that function with the people's trust," Putin declared. He went on to assure his audience of his government's commitment to restoring Chechnya's economy; putting an end to reprisals and human rights violations, including nocturnal detentions and the extortion of bribes by military personnel manning checkpoints; and to creating conditions in which "people in Chechnya, like those elsewhere in Russia, have the opportunity to live, relax, receive medical attention, and bring up their children normally." But he concluded his address by implying again that the Russian authorities will be in a position to deliver on those promises only in the event that the Chechens vote in the 23 March referendum for constitutional order. "The future of your children and grandchildren, the future of the Chechen land itself, is in your hands," Putin said.

What the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" referred to as Putin's Chechen "charm offensive" has, moreover, been bolstered by the offer of other concessions intended to convince the electorate of Moscow's preference for the constitutional, rather than the military, approach to restoring "order" in Chechnya. Those proposals include a power-sharing treaty with Moscow that would grant Chechnya broad "economic autonomy"; a reduction in the number of military checkpoints; and financial compensation for those Chechens whose homes were destroyed during the fighting. In addition, Kremlin officials have hinted they will not reject out of hand proposals by Chechen clergymen and parliament deputies to grant an amnesty to all Chechen fighters, with the exception of those suspected of abductions for ransom or terrorist activities.

Some Chechens, including many deputies from the parliament elected in 1997, indeed believe that at this juncture the referendum constitutes the most acceptable, if not the only, alternative to what Putin referred to as ongoing "devastation." Others, however, doubt whether the adoption of a new constitution can effect any positive changes. Some might refuse to vote in order to protest continued human rights abuses. German journalist Tomas Avenarius, who recently visited Grozny, quoted Chechen officials and human rights activists as saying that since the 23-26 October hostage taking by Chechen militants at a Moscow theater, there has been a massive increase in the nocturnal abductions by Russian forces of Chechen civilians, few of whom are ever seen again alive. Avenarius quoted the head of the local election commission in Staraya Sunzha on the outskirts of Grozny as predicting that "if people continue disappearing almost every night, our village will boycott the referendum." In some villages, tensions are running even higher. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on 7 March reported that leaflets are being distributed urging people not to vote and that local election staff have received death threats.

Among those Chechens who do not reject the referendum on principle, there is considerable confusion over precisely what sort of relations the new constitution provides for between Chechnya and the federal center. "The Moscow Times" on 18 March quoted several Chechen displaced persons in Ingushetia, all of whom confessed that they are puzzled by seemingly contradictory articles of the draft constitution affirming that, on the one hand, Chechnya is a sovereign entity and, on the other, that it is an inalienable part of the Russian Federation.

Officials in both Moscow and Grozny are anxious to dispel any suspicions that the outcome of the 23 March voting will be adjusted to yield the desired result -- a high turnout and an overwhelming vote in favor of both the draft constitution and the new election legislation. Strict security measures have been introduced, with all polling stations under guard to prevent the theft of ballot papers and some 5,000 police deployed to maintain order. Two polling stations will be set up at camps in Ingushetia for Chechen displaced persons to enable residents to cast their ballots.

Cynics might ask why Moscow considers it necessary to go to so much trouble, given that no more than 40 international observers -- mostly from the OSCE and the organization of the Islamic Conference -- will be deployed to monitor the vote at 414 polling stations. The answer to that question hinges on what Moscow hopes to achieve by the referendum, and whose opinion and support it most values. "Argumenty i fakty" has suggested that the Russian leadership's primary objective is demolish Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's legitimacy by electing a new Chechen leader. That ballot is to be held in December concurrently with the Russian State Duma elections.

The same publication also identifies three groups that, it suggests, are vying for control of Chechnya. They are the present pro-Moscow leadership headed by Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov; the various armed opposition groupings -- some, but not necessarily all, of which are subordinate to Maskhadov -- and the "moderate opposition," which unites various influential figures and factions in the Chechen diaspora who, "Argumenty i fakty" suggests, are currently sitting on the fence and waiting to see how the armed conflict in the republic ends.

While Putin's 16 March address was clearly intended to win over the hearts and minds of the Chechen electorate, it is conceivable that other aspects of the public-relations campaign undertaken in connection with the referendum are intended at least in part to send the message to that third group that no questions could be raised about their legitimacy, should they come out on the side of the Kremlin and field candidates in the elections for a new president and parliament. But assuming that the so-called moderates do seek -- with or without the Kremlin's support -- to replace the Kadyrov leadership, "Argumenty i fakty" notes that there is no guarantee they will be able to put aside personal rivalries and form an election alliance or that, once in power, they will not split into warring factions -- just as Maskhadov's government disintegrated in 1998.

IRAQI INFORMATION AND INTERIOR MINISTERS BRIEF REPORTERS, SAY PRESIDENT ESCAPED ATTACK
Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf and Interior Minister Mahmud Dhiyab al-Ahmad briefed reporters in Baghdad at 1:00 p.m. local time on 21 March, Al-Jazeera reported. Al-Sahhaf confirmed that U.S. planes targeted a house belonging to the family of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but insisted that Hussein escaped unhurt. He asserted that "international law does not apply to the invading forces," calling U.S.-led coalition troops "mercenaries" and "war criminals," and hinting that they would be treated as such -- presumably suggesting that Iraq might not adhere to international conventions related to the treatment of prisoners of war. "We will carry on our fight; we will capture his mercenaries," Al Sahhaf said in a statement directed at U.S. President George W. Bush. Al-Sahhaf also denied that video reports of Iraqi soldiers surrendering being played in the international media are fabricated and insisted that no Iraqi soldiers have surrendered. Al-Ahmad told the press that he had spoken with an official in Umm Qasr, Iraq's sole deep-water port, and "confirmed" that coalition forces had not entered the area. Meanwhile, Reuters reported on 21 March that U.S. marines raised the U.S. flag over the new port area in Umm Qasr -- less than 2 kilometers from the old port area, which is reportedly still in Iraqi hands -- British Troops secured the Al-Faw Peninsula, according to CNN. KR

IRAQI PRESIDENTIAL STATEMENT CONDEMNS 'ACCURSED ACTIONS'
Iraq Television read a statement attributed to Saddam Hussein at 11:00 p.m. local time on 20 March in which the Iraqi president cites his country's ability "to hold onto right against falsehood" as U.S.-led forces invade his country. The statement addressed the United States and coalition forces, saying: "What have you found after you sunk in your sick, devilish imagination that led your friends, accursed be they, to say that the Iraqi Army and people will receive your aggression and the armies carrying out your orders by chanting and dancing with over-excitement? Or, have you seen and heard what Almighty God promised us and the mujahedin -- the power to hold onto right against falsehood to inflict disgrace on the criminals? What will you tell your people and humanity after all the crimes you committed and those you intend to commit?" The statement ended with Hussein remarking, "May you be accursed and may your actions fail." KR

WHAT THE IRAQI GOVERNMENT TOLD THE NATION
Iraq Radio broadcast an Iraqi Armed Forces General Command communique on 20 March detailing the first hours of battle with U.S.-led coalition forces. The general command reported that coalition missiles hit several government buildings, houses, and shops in Baghdad and its suburbs, and fired 72 Cruise missiles. The Iraqis claimed that a number of the missiles were shot down by Iraq "before reaching their target." The communique added that coalition forces attempted to "penetrate" Iraqi borders around Al-Nukhayb (in western Iraq, northeast of the Ar'ar border crossing between Iraq and Saudi Arabia) and Akashat (close to the Syrian border in western Iraq). The communique said Iraqi missiles targeted the Al-Dawhah (west of Kuwait City), the Ali Al-Salim Airbase (west of Al-Dawhah), and the Al-Shuwaykh Port (the main commercial port in Kuwait). The communique reported that four "mujahedin fighters" were killed, and one officer and five "fighters" were wounded. "Our Armed Forces and courageous Ba'ath Party vanguards, in splendid cooperation and creative military performance, confronted the invader forces that uselessly tried to penetrate our borders." The communique vowed that invading forces "will know what fate they will face at the hands of Iraq's soldiers and men, who will deal to them devastating and crushing blows." KR

IRAQI LEADER OFFERS 'CASH AWARDS' TO FIGHTERS
President Hussein has offered cash rewards to "stalwart Iraqi fighters" who are successful in shooting down enemy aircraft or in capturing or killing coalition forces, according to a 21 March announcement read on Iraq Satellite Channel Television. The awards range from 10 million Iraqi dinars ($3,300) to 100 million dinars. KR

U.S., U.K. CONFIRM IRAQI OIL-FIELD FIRES
Military spokesmen for the United States and United Kingdom said on 21 March that fires were burning at the Rumaila oil field in southern Iraq, Reuters reported. They declined to elaborate on the origin of those blazes, the agency added. International media, including CNN and the BBC, reported the same day that some 30 oilwells appeared to be on fire, but the military sources suggested the figure might be lower -- "four to nine wells ablaze," according to U.S. Marine Major David Andersen. AH

TURKISH NATIONAL ASSEMBLY APPROVES OVERFLIGHT RIGHTS, WITH STRINGS ATTACHED...
The Turkish National Assembly on 20 March approved a motion granting overflight rights to foreign armed forces for six months, signaling an apparent victory for Washington in its effort to enlist Turkish cooperation in the U.S.-led war on Iraq, "Anatolia" reported the same day. The vote does not allow foreign troops to launch attacks on Iraq from Turkish soil, however, further hampering U.S.-led efforts to open a northern front in Iraq, AP reported. The motion also gives the Turkish government the authority to send Turkish troops abroad, sparking fears that Ankara might use the conflict to occupy Kurd-held territory in Iraq. According to the "Anatolia" report, the Turkish forces would enter northern Iraq "in a way whose content, limit, and time would be determined by the government, and using these forces in northern Iraq within principles that would be determined when necessary in order to maintain an effective deterrence." KR

...LEAVING MILITARY COOPERATION IN LIMBO
Turkey was still delaying opening its airspace on 21 March amid overnight talks with Washington on the terms for overflights and Turkish troop movements, Reuters reported. A Turkish Foreign Ministry source told the news agency that talks were adjourned "because there are snags both concerning airspace use and movement of Turkish troops into northern Iraq." The United States is reportedly balking at what it considers to be excessive demands by Turkey for detailed information on every overflight, Reuters added. Ankara was expecting a reply from Washington on 21 March, the agency reported. AH

NATO STRENGTHENS RULES OF ENGAGEMENT FOR NATO FORCES IN TURKEY
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson issued a statement on the NATO website (http://www.nato.int/) in Brussels on 20 March in which he said the NATO Defense Planning Committee approved amendments to strengthen the rules of engagement for NATO forces in Turkey in light of the military conflict in neighboring Iraq. "These rules will ensure our forces can effectively carry out their mission, whatever the circumstances," Robertson stated. He said NATO's deployments are for "purely defensive measures," adding, "If there is any attack on Turkey, NATO will fulfill its obligations under the Washington treaty," which includes a clause defining an attack on one member as an attack on all members. KR

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER ADDRESSES COUNTRY...
British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed his country on 20 March, saying British forces "are engaged from air, land, and sea" in the military campaign to unseat President Hussein and disarm Iraq, according to the 10 Downing Street website (http://www.number-10.gov.uk/). Blair said that he gave the order on 18 March for British forces to engage in military action in Iraq. "Their mission [is] to remove Saddam Hussein from power and to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction," he said. Blair told the British people that the world is under threat from "disorder and chaos born either of brutal states like Iraq...or extreme terrorist groups." Blair added that intelligence reports led him to fear collaboration between such regimes and terrorist groups that might "come together and deliver catastrophe to our country and world." He said the choice is clear: "Back down and leave Saddam hugely strengthened; or proceed to disarm him by force. Retreat might give us a moment of respite, but years of repentance at our weakness would, I believe, follow." Blair won parliamentary backing for a military attack on Iraq on 19 March (see "Iraq: Blair Wins Parliament Backing For War," http://www.rferl.org). KR

...WARNS OF PROLONGED CAMPAIGN...
Blair confirmed on 21 March that eight British troops and four U.S. soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed during the Iraq campaign. Officials from both countries reported the incident was not a result of enemy fire. Blair, speaking on the sidelines of an EU meeting in Brussels, also stressed, "I should warn that our forces will face resistance and that the campaign, necessarily, will not achieve all its objectives overnight." AH

...AND CONCEDES 'NO POINT IN MINIMIZING' EU DIFFERENCES OVER IRAQ
Blair stressed support among EU member states and candidate countries at the same 21 March press conference but admitted "there is no point in minimizing the differences" within the bloc, Reuters reported. In response to the question of whether he is tiring of his European partners, Blair, who has consistently tried to rally support for a tough international stance on Iraqi disarmament, said "unhesitatingly 'no.'" "Where there are the disagreements, the right way to handle them is not turn our back on our other partners but to engage with them," the agency quoted him as saying. Blair stressed that the EU has agreed to work together to solve the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, Reuters reported. AH

U.S. CONFISCATES IRAQI ASSETS, URGES INTERNATIONAL FREEZE ON HUSSEIN'S HOLDINGS
U.S. President George W. Bush issued an executive order on 20 March confiscating all nondiplomatic Iraqi assets in the United States and determining that they be used to provide humanitarian assistance in a post-Hussein Iraq, according to the White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/orders/). Iraqi assets in the United States have been frozen since the 1991 Gulf War. The U.S. State Department (http://www.state.gov/) released a statement by U.S. Treasury Secretary John Snow, whose department is charged with overseeing the management of the Iraqi funds. "The United States calls today upon the world to identify and freeze all assets of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi regime, and their agents pursuant to established international obligations," Snow said, adding, "The success of economic sanctions requires international cooperation and effective enforcement." KR

FRANCE REBUFFS U.S. REQUEST AS INFRINGEMENT ON SOVEREIGNTY
Even as some European leaders stressed the need to repair trans-Atlantic relations damaged by the rift over military action in Iraq, tensions continued between Paris and Washington when France rejected a U.S. request that it expel Iraqi diplomats, Reuters reported on 21 March. A French Foreign Ministry spokesman is quoted as saying the issue is one of French sovereignty, adding, "We have been asked to expel Iraqi diplomats in Paris. Such a decision concerns our sovereignty. There is no reason to do so," the spokesman said. U.S. Ambassador to France Howard Leach reportedly approached France with the expulsion request. France has been a staunch opponent of UN backing for military intervention in Iraq. AH

EUROPEAN COUNCIL SAYS COMMITTED TO IRAQ'S TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY
The website of the European Union's Greek Presidency (http://www.eu2003.gr) on 20 March issued a "statement on Iraq" on the occasion of the union's Spring European Council 2003. The statement noted that the EU is committed to the territorial integrity, sovereignty, stability, and full disarmament of Iraq. It called on the UN to play a "central role during and after the current crisis" and committed the EU to assist in meeting the humanitarian needs in Iraq, adding, "We support the UN secretary-general's proposal that the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi people can continue to be met through the 'Oil for Food' program." The entire statement can be viewed on the Greek Presidency's website. KR

WHITE HOUSE RELEASES NAMES OF ADDITIONAL COALITION MEMBERS
The White House released the names of additional states that have publicly jointed the "coalition of the willing" to disarm and oust President Hussein, according to a 20 March statement on the White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/). Newly listed states include: Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Kuwait, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Mongolia, Palau, Portugal, Rwanda, Singapore, Solomon Islands, and Uganda. The U.S. State Department released a list of 30 countries it considered part of the coalition on 18 March, including a number of postcommunist states, Spain, Italy, Japan, Turkey, and the Netherlands, among others (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). KR

IRAN-BACKED OPPOSITION GROUP CLAIMS MILITARY ACTIVITIES
Muhammad Hadi al-Asadi, spokesman for the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), told ISNA on 20 March that the Badr Corps (the SCIRI's military unit) is continuing activities aimed at overthrowing the Iraqi regime. Another SCIRI associate, Seyyed Muhsin al-Hakim, said on 20 March that the Iraqi opposition's leadership would meet in Iraqi Kurdistan in the coming days, ISNA reported. Al-Hakim also said, "The Badr Corps will continue its activities in northern and central Iraq, as well as in Baghdad and important southern cities." SCIRI leader Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim was quoted in the 19 March "Financial Times" as saying the Badr Corps has been militarily active "for the past few days" and has attacked security and command facilities in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Nevertheless, Iranian government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh on 20 March reiterated his country's neutrality and said Tehran would not extend any assistance to the Iraqi opposition, IRNA reported. BS

ISRAEL SAYS BAGHDAD HAS NOT DEPLOYED MISSILES IN WESTERN IRAQ...
Israel's intelligence community, contradicting U.S. assessments, asserted on 20 March that Iraq had not deployed medium-range missile launchers near the Jordanian border, Middle East Newsline (MENL) reported from Tel Aviv. Israeli intelligence officials said they had seen no evidence that Saddam Hussein managed to bring Al-Hussein launchers into the H-2 and H-3 military zones of western Iraq. Those areas were used as launching pads for missile attacks against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. Iraqi forces had transported missiles in trucks to areas west of Baghdad, Israeli officials added. But Israeli military intelligence did not have any evidence that these missiles were deployed in H-2 and H-3, according to the report. "The missile movements seemed to be a question of concealment and deception rather than any true military redeployment," an unidentified official is quoted as saying. On 19 March, military intelligence chief Major General Aharon Zeevi-Farkash told the cabinet that Hussein had not brought his missiles within striking range of Israel. The Al-Hussein has a range of 650 kilometers, and Iraq is said to possess anywhere from 20 to 90 such missiles, MENL added. Israeli officials reportedly concluded that the prospect of an Iraqi missile attack on Israel was extremely low. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon placed the chances at "1 percent," however, he added that: "If the chance of us [Israel] being hit is 1 percent, the preparations that we have made provide the answer to 100 percent of the dangers," MENL reported. AT

...AND U.S. FORCES REPORTEDLY IN CONTROL OF WESTERN IRAQ AIRFIELDS
Iraqi airfields in the H-2 and H-3 military zones are under the control of U.S. forces, Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" reported on 21 March. If accurate, the move virtually eliminates the potential for Iraq to launch any medium-range ballistic missiles against Israeli targets. A defense official called the control of the airfields, "tentative," "Ha'aretz" reported. AT

IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER, PRESIDENT CONDEMN ATTACK ON IRAQ
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a 21 March Noruz speech broadcast by state radio described the U.S.-led attack on Iraq as an "unjust war...that is based on high-handedness and bullying." Khamenei dismissed stated U.S. and British motives, saying, "Their aim is to occupy Iraq, dominate the Middle East region, and gain total control of this precious treasure, namely oil.... They want to protect and safeguard the existence of the illegitimate Zionist government." Khamenei said that Iran supports the Iraqi people, not Saddam Hussein or the Ba'ath Party regime. Khamenei called on the Iranian people to be vigilant, to know the United States and United Kingdom, and to "prepare themselves for possible confrontations." President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami in a Noruz speech broadcast by state television accused the United States of undermining international regulations, insulting world opinion, and weakening the United Nations. Khatami condemned the military action, and he said the United States is isolated and its action illegitimate. BS

HAMAS THREATENS U.S., AMERICANS
Abd-al-Aziz al-Rantisi, a leading figure in the Iranian-supported Hamas terrorist organization, said in a 20 March interview with Al-Jazeera television, "The American should be pursued on every inch of this earth.... The United States is the one that is invading us in our homeland." Al-Rantisi called on Arabs and Muslims to "confront the United States." "The Palestinian people who suffer from the Zionist aggression against the Palestinian land and people are the best placed to feel the pain and bitterness felt by the fraternal Iraqi people," he said. The Hamas official added that Israeli forces are preparing to attack Palestinians, but "if the enemy steps into Gaza, he knows that it will be his grave." Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah told Al-Jazeera, "The United States is practicing what can be described as armed robbery against the Iraqi people and against territory and indeed against all our Arab and Muslims region." An official Hamas statement on the Palestinian Information Center website (http://www.palestine-info.net/) said the United States wants to occupy Iraq and control its resources, and it warned that U.S. "aggression" will go beyond Iraq's border. BS

ISLAMIC JIHAD CALLS FOR ATTACK ON U.S. INTERESTS
A statement issued by the Iranian-supported Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization on 20 March announced that "the alliance of evildoers" has launched "an all out war against everything Islamic" (www.abrarway.com). The Iraqi target will be followed by Syria, Iran, and Lebanon, the statement said, and after that will come Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Pro-American Islamic regimes will not be safe from "the American-Zionist project." The statement called on people to defend Iraq if they love Palestine. "You must declare war on the United States with all the resources at your disposal...[and] attack its economic interests and American-Zionist pillar regimes in the region." The PIJ statement concluded: "Your future depends on your jihad and resistance to the new imperialist aggressive plans." BS

BEIRUT CONDEMNS WAR IN IRAQ
Lebanese President Emil Lahud in a 20 March statement condemned the allied attack on Iraq and called on "peace-loving countries around the world" to stop the "rush to war," Al-Manar television reported. Lebanese Information Minister Ghazi al-Aridi said that during a 20 March cabinet meeting it was determined that the war is not justified and "aggression on Iraq is a breach of the UN Charter," Tele-Liban television reported. The cabinet condemned the United States for what al-Aridi described as a "unilateral decision" that is "part of imposing a unipolar system which will not guarantee peace and stability in the world." The Lebanese cabinet criticized the simultaneous U.S. provision of $10 million in aid to Israel "as if the U.S. tendency to liberate peoples and protect their rights is being carried out through backing Israeli terrorism...in addition to threatening Lebanon and Syria." The Lebanese cabinet called for "an immediate halt to the U.S. war against Iraq." Meanwhile, according to a report in the 20 March "The Daily Star," Lebanese security forces are protecting U.S. and European embassies, the embassies of Arab states such Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, diplomatic residences, as well as Western fast-food outlets. BS

LEBANESE HIZBALLAH REACTS TO IRAQ CONFLICT
Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on 20 March called on all "Lebanese and Palestinian nationalist and Islamic groups" to participate in an emergency meeting, IRNA reported, citing Hizballah's Al-Manar television. Beirut's "The Daily Star" newspaper reported the same day that Hizballah deployed additional 57-millimeter antiaircraft guns in southern Lebanon in anticipation of a possible Israeli attack that would begin after the assault on Iraq commenced. UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) sources could not confirm reports that Hizballah has deployed "Katyusha" Soviet-made multiple-rocket launchers, and UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel described "reasonable defensive preparations by both sides." Hizballah official Hassan Izz-al-Din said, "Hizballah is not fearful but cautious and ready for any Israeli attack." He said Hizballah's defensive posture would change only if Israel launched an attack." Jerusalem's Voice of Israel Network B, meanwhile, cited anonymous "political sources in Jerusalem" as saying that London informed Israel that it warned Damascus not to escalate tensions along the border with Hizballah help. BS

RUSSIAN DUMA ADVOCATES UN GENERAL ASSEMBLY EMERGENCY SESSION ON IRAQ...
Russia's State Duma on 20 March adopted a nonbinding resolution condemning the U.S.-led military "aggression" against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and urging the government to call for an emergency session of the UN General Assembly, Russian media reported. Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin (People's Deputy), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, presented the resolution. Deputies rejected, however, a tougher resolution proposed by the Communist and Agrarian factions that called for a boycott of U.S. goods, a ban on U.S.-made programming on Russian television, and the severance of parliamentary and cultural contacts between the United States and Russia. Commenting on the two resolutions, Rogozin said the Duma should restrict itself to "condemning the anti-Iraq coalition and extending its united support to President [Vladimir] Putin." Defense Committee Deputy Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Fatherland-All Russia) dismissed the Communist resolution as counterproductive. VY

...AS DEBATE SPILLS OVER ONTO NATIONAL TELEVISION
The heated discussion of Iraq continued on NTV on 20 March when Deputy Aleksei Mitrofanov (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) accused Rogozin of being a "soft, pro-American liberal." Mitrofanov said Russia should abandon the UN-imposed sanctions regime against Iraq and supply it with advanced air-defense systems. He also criticized President Putin's response to the onset of war as "full of words, but lacking deeds." For his part, Rogozin said Russia is too weak and its military too disorganized to implement Mitrofanov's suggestions. Analyst Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika think tank, said that Mitrofanov's policy would be suicidal for Russia, since it would lead to a military confrontation with the United States. VY

RUSSIAN GENERALS ANALYZE IRAQ CAMPAIGN...
Duma Deputy Nikolai Kovalev (Fatherland-All Russia), deputy chairman of the Duma Defense Committee and a former director of the Federal Security Service, said on 20 March that the United States opted against a massive air attack against Iraq because the military operation is viewed so negatively by world public opinion, ORT reported. Therefore, U.S. planners chose limited and precisely targeted attacks. Kovalev said that he is not persuaded by U.S. claims that tactics were changed at the last moment because the CIA allegedly received precise information about the whereabouts of Iraqi President Hussein. Such information, he said, would have had to have been checked and rechecked, and there simply was no time to do so. VY

...AND PREDICT 'CONTACTLESS' WAR
Major General Vladimir Slipchenko, a noted military analyst, commented that the U.S. military is a full technological generation ahead of the rest of the world, including Russia, ORT reported on 20 March. Slipchenko said this advantage should enable the United States to conduct a "contactless" war, meaning that it will be able to destroy the Iraqi military at considerable distances and largely avoid direct engagements. Slipchenko also said that the Iraqi military's greatest weakness is its senior commanders. Under any totalitarian regime, he said, there is a lack of people who are able to think independently and creatively. Major General Aleksandr Vladimirov, vice president of the government's Collegium of Military Experts, said the United States demonstrated its overwhelming military superiority during its campaigns in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and, now, Iraq. These demonstrations have "frightened many countries," which are now making intense efforts to boost their military strength. Russia, Vladimirov said, has one unique advantage in that it can still destroy the United States within 20 minutes with a massive nuclear strike, ORT reported on 20 March. VY

MOSCOW TO UPHOLD UN SANCTIONS REGIME AGAINST IRAQ
Responding to calls by some Duma deputies that Russia renounce the UN-imposed economic sanctions against Iraq, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said categorically that the sanctions were put in place by the UN Security Council and may only be lifted by that body, RIA-Novosti reported on 20 March. The main condition for lifting the sanctions is Iraq's disarmament, which must be verified by international inspectors, Ivanov said. VY

FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA REMAINS 'PARTNER' TO U.S...
. Foreign Minister Ivanov said that Russia "has no intention of taking anti-American steps in connection with the onset of the military operation in Iraq," ORT reported on 20 March. "We are not adversaries, but partners of the United States, and our activities are directed only at restoring peace," Ivanov added. "If we find a way to resolve the Iraq problem, that would help resolve the problems of international terrorism and [the] proliferation of [weapons of mass destruction]." VY

...AND U.S. AMBASSADOR SAYS U.S., RUSSIA WILL OVERCOME THEIR DIFFERENCES
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told Ekho Moskvy on 20 March that he disagrees with President Putin, who has said that the military operation against Iraq is unjustified and that there are no links between Iraqi President Hussein and international terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). "Hussein provides aid to the families of suicide bombers who kill Israeli citizens and have ties with the extremist groups Hizballah and Hamas," Vershbow said. He emphasized that although Moscow and Washington currently have serious disagreements, they managed to overcome equally serious disputes in the past and will do so again. Vershbow said that he hopes U.S. President George W. Bush will meet with Putin as scheduled this summer in St. Petersburg. VY

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT REAFFIRMS SUPPORT FOR U.S. ON IRAQ
Eduard Shevardnadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 20 March that Georgia supports the U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. He said that no one in any country of the world can sleep peacefully as long as President Hussein has weapons of mass destruction. Shevardnadze said Georgia has not received any U.S. requests for assistance, but that it is ready to make available both its airspace and its military bases. Following the 20 March Turkish parliament vote to grant the United States overflight rights, but not the use of ground facilities, Georgian Minister of State Avtandil Djorbenadze held an unscheduled meeting behind closed doors with Foreign Minister Irakli Menagharishvili and his deputies, Transport and Communication Minister Merab Adeishvili and Fuel and Energy Minister David Mirtskhulava, Caucasus Press reported. LF

BELARUS CRITICIZES U.S.-LED ATTACK ON IRAQ
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement posted on its website (http://www.mfa.gov.by) on 20 March that "The use of military force against a sovereign state without sanction of the UN Security Council violates the fundamental principles of the UN Charter and international law." Valery Lipkin, head of the Belarusian legislature's Human Rights Committee, said on 20 March that "it is unacceptable to impose democracy through the use of a military force," Belapan reported. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on 18 March that the imminent U.S.-led war against Iraq would be "an act of cynical aggression in violation of international law," Belarusian television reported. "Everybody understands that this is not a war for the salvation of humanity, but for oil," Lukashenka added. AM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES SENDING NBC BATTALION TO KUWAIT...
The Verkhovna Rada on 20 March approved sending a Ukrainian anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) battalion to Kuwait, Reuters reported. The decision was backed by 253 lawmakers in the 450-seat parliament. National Security and Defense Council head Yevhen Marchuk said the battalion could arrive in Kuwait in 15 days. "Ukrayinska pravda" reported that the United States is expected to finance the deployment, paying $5.8 million to ship the Ukrainian troops and equipment to Kuwait, $50,000 for feeding them while in transit, and $700,000 to support the battalion for every month it spends in the Persian Gulf. AM

...AS IT CONDEMNS U.S.-LED ATTACK ON IRAQ
The Verkhovna Rada on 20 March adopted by a vote of 229 to five a resolution condemning the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, Interfax reported. "The Verkhovna Rada demands that the military actions of the United States, Great Britain, and other countries on the territory of Iraq be immediately halted and all the foreign military formations be withdrawn from this country," the resolution states. AM

ESTONIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES POSITION ON IRAQ WAR
An emergency session of the cabinet on 20 March discussed the situation in Iraq and adopted a formal position on the war, BNS reported. It announced that the need to disarm Iraq is clear and stated: "It's a great pity that Iraq didn't take advantage of the opportunity to resolve the problem peacefully. We hope that only minimal and short-term use of force will be necessary." The government called for giving the United Nations the central role in the reconstruction of postwar Iraq and expressed Estonia's willingness to contribute to the regulation of the postconflict situation and the reconstruction of Iraq. SG

POLES PROTEST U.S. ATTACK ON IRAQ
More than 600 antiwar protesters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw on 20 March, Polish Radio reported. Protesters held banners reading "Down with U.S. Imperialist Terror" and shouted antiwar slogans. The U.S. attack on Iraq and Poland's participation in the conflict were condemned the same day by the National Trade Union Accord, Pre-Election Women's Coalition, lawmakers from the League of Polish Families, and Self-Defense. Self-Defense leader Andrzej Lepper described the decision to send Polish troops to the Persian Gulf as the "fruit" of President Aleksander Kwasniewski's and Prime Minister Leszek Miller's thoughtlessness and political irresponsibility. The Polish Foreign Ministry stated on 20 March that diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis peacefully have failed and that the use of force, which the ministry had always considered a last resort, has become a necessity. AM

PRESIDENT SAYS CZECH REPUBLIC IS NOT AMONG THE WILLING...
President Vaclav Klaus said on 20 March that "the Czech Republic is not part of the coalition that launched a military operation against Iraq," CTK and dpa reported. Klaus also said he "regrets that the Iraqi crisis was not resolved by diplomatic means," according to dpa. CTK quoted presidential spokesman Tomas Klvana as saying that Klaus hopes the goals of the military operations will be achieved "effectively and quickly, and that no big loss of life and suffering will be inflicted on the [Iraqi] civilian population." According to dpa, the statement was made in reaction to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's statement earlier this week in which he listed the Czech Republic among the "coalition of the willing." MS

...AND DISAGREES WITH CHANGING DICTATORIAL REGIMES BY USING FOREIGN MILITARY FORCE
In an interview with the daily "Hospodarske noviny" on 21 March, President Klaus said he does share the opinion of U.S. President George W. Bush and British Premier Tony Blair that the inhumane and undemocratic regime in Iraq is sufficient grounds for justifying its overthrow, CTK reported. "There are many inhumane and undemocratic regimes in the world. After all, we also lived under one of them," he said. Klaus said it is naive to believe the reconstruction of Iraq after the war will be an easy task. "The institutional transformation of a country is a task measured in decades, not in years -- as everyone who has tried to radically transform communism [after its downfall] well knows," he remarked. MS

CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER STANDS BY HIS WORDS
Klaus met on 20 March with Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda and raised the issue of a statement Svoboda made the previous day in which he said the Czech Republic would be on the side of the coalition in the event of a war in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). Svoboda told journalists before the meeting that he saw no reason to retract his statement. "When I say I side with the position of the [opposition] Civic Democratic Party [or ODS, regarding the Iraq conflict], I do not necessarily have to be an ODS member," he said. "When I say the Czech Republic sides with the coalition, that, too, does not mean the Czech Republic is a member" of that coalition. MS

CZECH PREMIER SAYS PRAGUE'S POSITION ON IRAQ WAR 'HALFWAY' BETWEEN U.S. AND EU
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said on Czech Television on 20 March that the Czech government's position on the Iraq war is "precisely halfway" between the position of the United States and that of the European Union, CTK reported. Spidla said the government views the military operations launched against Iraq as the last possible means to impose the implementation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions on Iraq, but regrets that the U.S.-led coalition did not succeed in achieving a new mandate from the UN for the operation. He also said the attack on Iraq must not affect Trans-Atlantic relations, saying it is in the Czech Republic's interest to have "the best possible allied and political relations with both its European neighbors and the United States." MS

ANTIWAR PROTEST IN PRAGUE'S CENTRAL SQUARE
Some 500 people gathered in Prague's central Wenceslas Square on 20 March to protest the U.S.-led military action against Iraq, CTK reported. The protesters later marched to the U.S. Embassy, carrying lit candles and antiwar banners and chanting antiwar slogans. Earlier on 20 March, antiwar activists hung a banner reading "No to War" from one of Prague's bridges over the Vltava River. Two recent public-opinion polls show that a majority of Czechs are opposed to the war in Iraq, CTK reported. According to a survey conducted by the SC&C polling agency and published by the daily "Lidove noviny" on 21 March, 70 percent are opposed to the war. A poll conducted by STEM and released on 20 March showed that 55 percent of respondents are opposed to it. MS

PRIME MINISTER SAYS SLOVAKIA IS NOT A BELLIGERENT IN IRAQ CONFLICT...
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda told journalists after a meeting of the Slovak Security Council on 20 March that Slovakia is not a direct participant in the war on Iraq, TASR reported. Dzurinda said the deployment to Kuwait of a Slovak/Czech anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit and Slovakia's decision to grant the United States overflight and transit rights all stem from UN Security Council resolutions, up to and including Resolution 1441. "This represents the legal framework and the limits within which we move," he said. Dzurinda also said the NBC unit's mandate received from the parliament allows for the possibility of entering Iraqi territory for the purpose of rendering humanitarian help. "Our soldiers will make no difference between citizens of Kuwait and Iraq, nor between soldiers and civilians" if they are called upon to provide such help, he said. MS

...AND DEFENDS SUPPORT OF U.S. POSITION IN CONFLICT
Speaking on Slovak Television on 20 March, Dzurinda appealed to his fellow citizens to show greater support for the U.S.-led military action against Iraq, CTK reported. He said the United States bears the greatest share of the responsibility for defending democratic development in the world, and is therefore also the first target of fanatics and terrorists. "The question is whether we leave them alone with this problem," he said. "We have the right to be afraid, but not that of being cowards. We have the right to foreign investments, to the NATO security umbrella, but we do not have the rights to slyness," he said. "That is why the government stood, stands, and will stand on the side of the United States." Dzurinda added, "The democratic world must not await for evil and terror to assume unmanageable proportions before it acts against them.... I know very well that it is often more comfortable to wait in a sheltered place until the storm recedes and to rely on others doing away with the unpleasant things, but that would be dishonest and dishonorable." MS

HUNGARY'S FIDESZ INTENSIFIES ANTIWAR STANCE
FIDESZ Deputy Chairman Zsolt Nemeth, chairman of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, on 20 March said that in the legal and political sense Hungary is a member of the war coalition and the government has done nothing to remove Hungary from the list of states supporting the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq, "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Declaring that the time has come to engage in straight talk, Nemeth said the United States does not have international authorization for a war in Iraq. The same day, former Prime Minister Viktor Orban told reporters in Brussels that Hungary has no obligations whatsoever to become involved in the war, the daily reported. He said it is regrettable that the Hungarian government's international prestige has plummeted in recent weeks because Hungary is not on the side of peace. "Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to say that a new world order is unfolding before our eyes, in which certain groups are attempting to firmly and aggressively obtain global economic positions and increase their global weight by displaying military strength," Orban commented. MSZ

CROATIAN PRESIDENT SAYS WAR ON IRAQ ILLEGITIMATE
President Stipe Mesic said in a televised address on 20 March that the war on Iraq lacks legitimacy, as it is not based on a UN Security Council resolution, Hina reported. "We cannot accept the establishment of a model of behavior in international relations that would allow, to put it simply, those who possess force to decide to take military action against the regime of any country," Mesic said. "For if we accept that in the case of one country, with what moral right could we turn it down in the case of another?" He added that "as far as Croatia is concerned we have been and will remain friends of the United States. But it is precisely on behalf of those democratic values, the values of the free world that America promoted in the past, that we have opted for peace to the utmost limit and not for war." UB

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT, GOVERNMENT EXPLAIN POSITION ON IRAQ WAR
Presidential spokeswoman Corina Cretu on 20 March said that President Ion Iliescu believes that by backing the U.S.-led military action against Iraq, Romania is acknowledging the need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, which are endangering peace and security in a region already fraught with dangers, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Iliescu is persuaded that Romania has acted and continues to act responsibly and in accord with its international obligations, Cretu said. At the same time, Romania is persuaded that the UN and the European Union will have important roles to play in Iraq's reconstruction process. Bucharest hopes the differing opinions on Iraq will not be transformed into a "permanent rupture" within the Euro-Atlantic community, she said. In a separate declaration, Romania's cabinet said the use of force by the United States against Iraq was "the last resort" to achieve the disarmament of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime after repeated failures to do so by peaceful means. The cabinet expressed the hope that the military operations will be quick; produce as few victims as possible among Iraqi civilians, who have suffered much under dictatorship; and succeed in destroying Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. MS

U.S. AMBASSADOR APPRECIATES ROMANIA'S SUPPORT ON IRAQ
U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest, in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 20 March, said the United States is fully backed by the Romanian authorities because "Romanians understand the risks of living under dictators such as [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein." Guest said he is proud to represent a country that is defending democratic values by serving in one that stands up for the same principles. He said that, by acting as it has, the United States is exposed to risks far greater than those faced by Romania or the other countries that have joined the anti-Hussein coalition. He emphasized that the situation does not require that a state of emergency be declared in Romania, adding that the relevant U.S. and Romanian security agencies are working closely together. "There is no reason to panic; it is sufficient to be vigilant," Guest said. Defense Ministry State Secretary George Maior told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 20 March that no state of alert has been declared after the beginning of the U.S.-led attack, but some additional measures have been taken to ensure the security of sensitive locations that might be targeted by terrorists. MS

BULGARIAN PRIME MINISTER CALLS FOR MORATORIUM ON DISCUSSING IRAQ WAR...
Speaking before parliament, Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said on 20 March that Bulgaria's position on Iraq should be evaluated at a later stage, BTA reported. "I suggest that we discuss the present issue with all the concerns and fears it gives rise to in two months' time and see whether the situation has not changed radically in favor of Bulgaria's decision," Saxecoburggotski said. In response to criticism from President Georgi Parvanov and the Socialist Party (BSP), who criticized the fact the U.S.-led coalition went ahead with war without an explicit UN Security Council resolution, Saxecoburggotski repeated that Bulgaria -- which is currently a Security Council member -- supported such a resolution. "This failed, but not due to a lack of will on our part," he said. After the debate, Saxecoburggotski, Parvanov, and parliamentary speaker Ognyan Gerdzhikov appeared together before reporters. Gerdzhikov said that now war has begun, it is important for all Bulgaria's institutions to demonstrate unity in promoting national interests such as NATO and EU membership, Darik Radio reported. UB

...AS SOCIALISTS CRITICIZE INTERNATIONAL ANTITERRORISM COALITION
Threatening to call for a vote of no confidence, Socialist Party (BSP) Chairman Sergey Stanishev said on 20 March that the government is acting unconstitutionally because it joined the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq without seeking parliament's consent, BTA reported. Stanishev's comments echoed the position of former BSP Chairman President Parvanov. Stanishev also criticized the international antiterrorism coalition that was formed after 11 September 2001, saying it is undermining the authority of the UN Security Council and the EU's joint foreign and security policies. In Stanishev's view, the BSP-led Coalition in Bulgaria is the only political force in Bulgaria that respects the concerns of the Bulgarian people and that has supported the European position on Iraq. Conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova said that the 7 February parliamentary decision fully legitimized Bulgaria's support for the United States, dismissing Parvanov's criticism of the war as a "losing position" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 20 March 2003). UB

BULGARIAN NBC UNIT READY TO LEAVE SOON
Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov said on 20 March that the anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit promised by the government is ready to be deployed to a country neighboring Iraq by the end of this week, mediapool.bg reported. The unit will be put under U.S. command as soon as an agreement has been signed that regulates the unit's tasks, rights, and place of deployment. It is expected that the unit will be based in eastern Turkey. UB

AGREEMENT REACHED ON INCREASING IRANIAN GUARDIANS COUNCIL'S BUDGET
The parliament and the Expediency Council (EC) on 19 March reached agreement on a controversial budget increase for the Guardians Council, according to IRNA. A parliamentary arbitration committee, whose membership apparently has not been disclosed, agreed with Expediency Council Chairman Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on the propriety of his 16 March decision to increase the conservative Guardians Council's budget to 100 billion rials ($12.5 million) rather than the government-proposed sum of 44 billion rials ($5.5 million). Parliamentary reformists earlier denounced the EC's 16 March decision as politically motivated, and one prominent deputy on 18 March said that "under no circumstances" would the legislature accept the budget increase for the Guardians. If newspaper publication remains halted for the traditional two-week Noruz holidays, the parliamentary reformists will have no public vehicle to protest the latest development. SF

U.S. PRESIDENT WISHES IRANIAN-AMERICANS A HAPPY NORUZ
George W. Bush and U.S. first lady Laura Bush in a 20 March statement from the White House sent greetings to Iranian-Americans on the occasion of Noruz, the Iranian new year, and expressed "best wishes for a joyous celebration to you, your families, and your relatives and friends in Iran." The statement noted that "America remains committed to peace, justice, and opportunity for all people" in these challenging times. In what could be interpreted in several ways, the statement expressed the U.S. commitment to "bringing hope and freedom to troubled regions around the world." BS

OPERATION VALIANT STRIKE CONTINUES IN KANDAHAR PROVINCE
Operation Valiant Strike, a major U.S. military operation in Kandahar Province involving around 1,000 paratroopers, was launched following the receipt of "intelligence reports that Islamist militants were regrouping in the Kandahar region" and that U.S. forces in Afghanistan "were expecting to come under attack when the war on Iraq began," "The Guardian" reported on 21 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). However, U.S. military spokesman Colonel Roger King said that "operations in Afghanistan are conducted completely independent of any operations in other sectors [i.e., Iraq]." AT

AFGHANISTAN SLOWS THE RELEASE OF PAKISTANI PRISONERS
Afghan authorities has announced that just 72 Pakistani prisoners will be released from custody, "not the hundreds originally reported," "The Guardian," reported on 21 March. The report added that those Pakistanis not being released from various prisons in Afghanistan are "said to be suspected of having links" with Al-Qaeda. On 16 March, the Afghan Transitional Administration decided to release "all of those Pakistani prisoners who had been captured fighting for the Taliban regime," (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). Thousands of Pakistanis fought alongside Taliban troops in Afghanistan while Islamabad was the primary political and military backer of the Taliban. However, after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Pakistan abandoned its former allies and sided with the United States. More than 1,000 Pakistanis remain in Afghan prisons. AT

U.S. REPORTEDLY ESTABLISHING NEW BASES IN AFGHANISTAN
Two new military bases are being established close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the Pakistani daily "Jang" reported on 20 March. The bases are reported to be established in Barikot in Konar Province and Nangaraj in Laghman Province, both in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S. military sources in Afghanistan have not commented on the establishment of the bases. AT

AIHRC SAYS HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSED IN MANY AFGHAN PROVINCES, NOT ONLY HERAT
Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), has said that human rights violations are being committed "not only in Herat, but in many provinces of Afghanistan," "The Kabul Times" reported on 20 March. Samar, who was in Herat for the inauguration of the first satellite office of the AIHRC, added that her commission is in "Herat to study and monitor the human rights issue more thoroughly and closely." Ahmad Behzad, a correspondent working for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, was assaulted and detained for six hours by security personnel on 19 March after asking a question during the opening ceremonies of the AIHRC office regarding the human rights situation in Herat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). AT

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