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Newsline - March 25, 2003


BUSH COMPLAINS TO PUTIN ABOUT ALLEGED MILITARY TRANSFERS TO IRAQ...
U.S. President George W. Bush on 24 March telephoned President Vladimir Putin to express his concern about alleged transfers of high-technology military equipment by Russian companies to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, U.S. media reported. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told journalists that the equipment -- alleged to be night-vision goggles, antitank guided missiles, and technology for jamming global-positioning systems -- is capable of jeopardizing troops in the U.S.-led anti-Hussein coalition. Putin, however, denied the accusations, RIA-Novosti reported on 25 March, citing presidential press spokesman Aleksei Gromov. "Such unsubstantiated and public accusations might harm bilateral relations," Gromov quoted Putin as saying. Putin reminded Bush that Russia has made similar inquiries about alleged U.S. equipment sales to Iraq, but has received no official response from the U.S. administration. VY

...AS IRAQI MINISTER DENIES RUSSIA PROVIDED MILITARY EQUIPMENT...
Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf on 25 March rejected U.S. claims that Russia provided Baghdad with military hardware in violation of UN sanctions, Reuters and RFE/RL reported. RFE/RL quoted al-Sahhaf as saying: "What the enemy has mentioned about the story that Russia has provided Iraq with some so-and-so technology or something like that, we inform you frankly that this is completely baseless. We don't have Russian experts in Iraq. We didn't ask, and we received nothing." AH

...AND RUSSIA LEVELS ITS OWN ACCUSATIONS AGAINST U.S.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 24 March that Russia has been strictly complying with the sanctions regime imposed against Iraq by the UN Security Council and that Moscow has supplied no military equipment to Iraq since the early 1980s, RTR and other Russian media reported. Appearing together with former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, Ivanov also said the Russian government is ready to investigate any evidence the United States can produce to back up its allegations, and that any Russian companies found to be in violation of sanctions would face serious consequences. Primakov, who is currently the head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, quoted a statement that he attributed to former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who said the United Kingdom and the United States supplied sophisticated military equipment to Hussein's regime. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Kremlin's response to the U.S. charges "has not been satisfactory." The issue was also raised during a telephone consultation between Ivanov and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 24 March, Reuters reported the next day. VY

BUSINESS, GOVERNMENT ANNOUNCE PACT
Foreign Minister Ivanov announced that his ministry and the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry have signed an accord on joint efforts to promote Russia's economic interests abroad, RIA-Novosti reported on 25 March. The document is first of all directed toward Iraq, Ivanov said, noting that Russia "came onto world markets after they were already divvied up, so it has been very difficult to find an appropriate niche." Primakov applauded the Foreign Ministry for its efforts in recent years to provide increased political and economic support for Russian business abroad. He added, however, that the chamber is unhappy with current regulations giving the Interior Ministry responsibility for issuing business visas to foreigners, and that it will ask the government to transfer this function to the Foreign Ministry. VY

MILITARY EXPERTS WARN AGAINST UNDERESTIMATING IRAQ...
The air supremacy and the high-tech, precision-guided weaponry of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq do not mean that it will prevail in close combat, Duma Defense Committee Chairman and Army General Andrei Nikolaev (People's Deputy) told RosBalt on 24 March. In fact, he said, Iraqi tactics are effectively countering the coalition's technological advantage. Of course, Nikolaev said, U.S. technological superiority will eventually determine the outcome of the conflict, but he warned that coalition forces could find themselves confronted by Iraqis who throw flowers during the day and grenades at night. Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, said that the first few days of the military campaign did not go according to the coalition's plans because wars are always unpredictable, RosBalt reported on 24 March. He argued that the United States lost the information war before the military campaign even began. "They failed to convince the world they were right, but 'hooked' themselves," Karaganov said. "Propaganda has the ability to make those who propagate it believe it." VY

...AS OTHERS LAUNCH PREEMPTIVE INFORMATION STRIKE AGAINST U.S.
The United States might "fabricate the discovery" of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or create "evidence" that Baghdad has been operating prohibited weapons programs, an unidentified Russian military expert was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying on 24 March. Academician Yevgenii Velikhov, director of the Kurchatov Nuclear Center, told strana.ru on 24 March that "if the United States finds no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is possible they will drum up proof of their existence." Velikhov noted that it is very difficult to determine the origin of some nuclear-weapons components such as uranium-235, particularly because they are prepared "under the supervision of the security services." VY

PROSECUTORS LAUNCH INVESTIGATION OF FORMER YELTSIN CHIEF OF STAFF
The Prosecutor-General's Office on 22 March interrogated Yurii Petrov, who was former President Boris Yeltsin's chief of staff from 1991-93 and who is now head of the State Investment Company (Gosinkor), and his son, Aleksandr Petrov, who is board chairman of Guta Bank, RTR reported. Prosecutors suspect the Petrovs of misappropriating 300 tons of silver that were allegedly transferred to Gosinkor by the state treasury for investments in 1996. Investigators believe Gosinkor illegally used the services of Guta Bank in carrying out the transaction. They told journalists that a search of Guta Bank's Moscow offices turned up evidence the silver was embezzled. Former Finance Minister and former Central Bank Chairman Sergei Dubinin and other former senior officials are also being questioned in connection with the probe, investigators said. VY

PUTIN FACING TOUGHER SITUATION NOW THAN IN FIRST YEAR...
As the third anniversary of President Putin's election nears, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" asked leading political analysts whether Putin faced an easier situation in running the country in 2000 or now. Andrei Piontkovskii of the Strategic Research Center argued that the situation was easier in 2000 because then the president had just been elected "as a myth" and this mythical image as a national hero "gave Putin a great deal of freedom to act, since he was regarded uncritically by the public and some very diverse groups in society saw in Putin what they wanted to see." Piontkovskii continued that the period of euphoria "has passed." He also said: "[Putin] has increased the number of people who are loyal to him, but the skills these people have are not enough. We can see that many of his appointees to important positions have not produced any impressive achievements so far." JAC

...AS EASIER PROBLEMS WERE SOLVED FIRST
In the same "Nezavisimaya gazeta" article, Gleb Pavlovskii of the Foundation for Effective Politics noted that Putin was very "confidant" in 2000 and "had not yet grasped the scale of what would face him." Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, noted that although there were many more problems to solve in 2000, finding solutions to the first layer of problems was relatively easy. "Solving even one problem -- for example, regular pension payments and wage payments for state-sector workers -- already counted as a major achievement," Bunin said. Now each new task demands great effort, and "the cost of each solution is much higher." JAC

MUFTIS WANT VIOLENT FILMS OFF AIRWAVES...
The Council of Muftis of Russia has appealed to federal and regional authorities and shareholders in media companies to stop showing U.S. and other films that "depict cruelty, the cult of force and pleasure, vices, erotica, pornography, depravity, and violence," RosBalt reported on 24 March. The appeal was adopted by an extraordinary plenum of Muslims in Moscow on 22 March. At the same time, plenum participants, representing 29 regional spiritual administrations, spoke out against conducting protests against the war in Iraq. According to the agency, the religious leaders believe such activities "only destabilize the situation in the government." JAC

...AS LEGISLATORS WANT VIOLENCE OFF NEWS SHOWS
State Duma Deputy Valerii Galchenko (People's Deputy) has announced that in the fall the Duma will examine a bill that bans the showing of violence against people or animals during television news programs, Ekho Moskvy reported on 24 March. Galchenko is one of the authors of the bill. In an interview with the station, Russian Academy of Television President Vladimir Pozner spoke out against the bill. "It is a great misfortune when people who understand nothing about television start to push forward legislation on television," Pozner said. "Doctors, not auto mechanics, should perform operations. It is necessary that the television community itself struggle with violence on the air and work out its own rules. [Broadcasters] do not need some State Duma deputies interfering in the process." JAC

MAN TO WATCH AT THE TAX MINISTRY?
President Putin's recent reform of the Tax Police might not be the "gift to the oligarchs" that it at first appeared to be, Ekspert, No. 10, reported. According to the weekly, a rather important appointment took place in the Tax Ministry in February when Igor Golikov was named to head the department that controls tax collections from Russia's largest companies such as Gazprom, United Energy Systems, and the oil majors. Golikov is a graduate of the St. Petersburg Financial-Economic Institute, which Finance Minister Andrei Kudrin also attended. The weekly concludes that Golikov's appointment could be an effort to rein in the financial-industrial groups. The weekly also reported that Golikov is being discussed as a likely replacement for current Tax Minister Gennadii Bukaev. JAC

GOVERNMENT SUBMITS BILL ON COMMERCIAL SECRETS
The government on 24 March introduced in the State Duma draft legislation on commercial secrets, polit.ru reported. The legislation is designed to improve the climate for entrepreneurial activity in Russia and to put a stop to the illegal leaks of valuable commercial information. The bill's authors explained that it is necessary to have a special law on this subject because currently questions of commercial secrets are determined by a great number of conflicting laws and regulations. The bill was developed by the Industry and Science Ministry together with the Atomic Energy Ministry, the State Technical Commission, and the Patents and Trademarks Agency. JAC

ACTING MAYOR WINS 'ELECTION' IN IMPORTANT PORT CITY
Acting Mayor Vladimir Sinyagovskii was elected mayor of Novorossiisk on 23 March, RIA-Novosti reported the next day. Sinyagovskii received more than 72 percent of the votes, compared with 24 percent cast against all candidates. Sinyagovskii's two competitors, Ivan Nudnoi and Petr Kashirin, both whom are pensioners, each received less than one percent of the vote. Prior to the race, the city election commission refused to register three other candidates who might have given Sinyagovskii stiffer competition, including State Duma Deputy Sergei Shishkarev (People's Deputy), "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 6 March. Shishkarev said on 5 March that the participation of Nudnoi and Kashirin in the race "provides the appearance of a competitive election and an easy victory for Sinyagovskii, who the governor of Krasnodar Krai has already once referred to as the future mayor." On 18 February, city police announced they had foiled an assassination attempt against Sinyagovskii and that investigators believe the plot was linked to the forthcoming election, ITAR-TASS reported. JAC

SIBERIAN STUDENTS HARASS NATO OFFICIAL
Members of the National Bolshevik Party of Russia tried to interrupt a lecture by Rolf Welberts, director of the NATO Information Bureau in Moscow, at Novosibirsk State University on 24 March by throwing tomatoes at him, regions.ru reported. Some students also wielded signs saying "Turn Bush off," "Shame on the USA!" and "Yankee, go home!" Welberts told that the agency that although he is German, as a representative of NATO, he has no nationality, because there are 19 NATO members. He also noted that NATO and Iraq are not officially at war. JAC

PUTIN SAYS CHECHEN REFERENDUM HAS REMOVED THREAT TO RUSSIA'S TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY
Meeting on 24 March with Russian government ministers, President Putin said the previous day's referendum in Chechnya "resolved the last serious problem relating to Russia's territorial integrity," Russian media reported. According to official data, Chechen voters overwhelmingly endorsed a new draft constitution that defines Chechnya as an integral part of the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2003). Putin instructed ministers to speed up work connected with reconstruction in Chechnya. Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii told Ekho Moskvy on 24 March that Putin will continue to monitor developments in Chechnya closely, ITAR-TASS reported. Yastrzhembskii also said the personal responsibility of individual government ministers for improving the situation in Chechnya will only increase following the referendum. Also on 24 March, Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo said the referendum was "an important political event not only for Chechnya as a part of Russia, but for the whole of Russia," ITAR-TASS reported. LF

ARMENIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT REJECTS ELECTION APPEAL
The Armenian Constitutional Court rejected on 24 March an appeal by defeated presidential candidate and National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian to invalidate the 19 February vote on the grounds of widespread falsifications, and to annul the Central Election Commission (CEC) decision to schedule a runoff vote for 5 March, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). According to official returns, Geghamian placed third of nine candidates in the first round with 17.7 percent of the vote. The Constitutional Court ordered the CEC to recount ballots cast at 11 polling stations where opposition activists and international observers alleged fraud. But on the basis of the recount, the court ruled that the infractions could not have affected the outcome of the first round. The court did, however, criticize the CEC for decisions that ran counter to election legislation and thus contributed to "an atmosphere of mistrust." LF

ARMENIAN AUTHORITIES DEFY COUNCIL OF EUROPE OVER ARRESTS
In a written statement, a copy of which was made available to RFE/RL, the Armenian Justice Ministry said the authorities will not comply with a request from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) to abolish the provision of the Soviet-era Criminal Code that allows for the arrest and short-term detention of individuals believed to have disrupted public order, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 24 March. Justice Ministry official Nikolai Arustamian argued that only the Council of Europe's Council of Ministers, but not the PACE, is empowered to make such a request. Over the past four weeks Armenian courts have sentenced more than 100 participants in demonstrations to protest election fraud to short terms of imprisonment under the provision in question. LF

AZERBAIJAN CONSIDERS PARTICIPATION IN POSTWAR RECONSTRUCTION IN IRAQ...
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev told journalists in Baku on 25 March that Azerbaijani oil industry specialists and medical personnel could be sent to Iraq once the war is over, and Azerbaijani personnel could also help "to protect Islamic shrines," Turan reported. Guliev said coalition troops should take care not to damage such religious sites, which "belong not just to the Islamic world but to the whole of mankind." Guliev also mentioned the possibility that Azerbaijani forces might participate in peacekeeping operations in Iraq. He said that to date coalition aircraft have not used Azerbaijani airspace, as there has been "no need" for them to do so. LF

...EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER TURKISH MESSAGE TO ARMENIAN PRESIDENT
Foreign Minister Guliev also told journalists on 25 March that the message sent by Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer congratulating his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian on Kocharian's re-election for a second term gives rise to "perplexity," Turan reported. Guliev said Kocharian not only holds "anti-Turkish" views, but was involved in the occupation of Azerbaijani lands and the "massacre" of thousands of civilians. Turkish Ambassador to Baku Ahmet Unal Cevikgoz, for his part, told journalists the same day that Sezer's letter was a normal diplomatic formality and does not signal any change in Ankara's policy toward Armenia, Turan reported. He reaffirmed that Turkey will not establish formal diplomatic relations with Armenia as long as Armenian forces occupy Azerbaijani territory. LF

WAS GEORGIAN VETERANS' PROTEST SPONTANEOUS...
Ramaz Bidzinashvili, who is chairman of the Council of Veterans of Georgia, told Caucasus Press on 24 March that the occupation the previous night by National Guard veterans of the Isani military base in Tbilisi was undertaken spontaneously. According to ITAR-TASS, a group of homeless veterans decided at the funeral of a colleague earlier on 23 March to occupy the Isani military base to protest the authorities' neglect of their welfare. Former Defense Minister and National Guard commander Tengiz Kitovani likewise told Caucasus Press on 24 March that the protest was prompted solely by anger at the former guardsmen's living conditions. But at the same time Kitovani denied any role in its organization. Several hundred Georgian National guardsmen and army troops barricaded themselves in a barracks in May 2001 to protest poor conditions, while some 60 Interior Ministry forces staged a similar protest in May 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 and 29 May 2001 and 28 May 2002.) In July 2002, some 100 young army officers resigned their commissions to protest inadequate financing for the military and incompetence among senior officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 22 March 2003). LF

...OR PLANNED?
Georgian Interior Minister Koba Narchemashvili told journalists in Tbilisi that his ministry knew on 10 March that the guardsmen's "mutiny" had been planned, Caucasus Press reported. Narchemashvili said there are grounds to assume that "it was either a conspiracy or an attempted coup." It is not clear whether he explained to journalists how 50 men could stage a coup while remaining a sitting target at a military base. Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze, for his part, was quoted by ITAR-TASS as telling journalists that his ministry was informed on 21 March that a "provocation" at a military base was planned for 23 March, but that it was not known which base would be targeted. No official explanation has been provided for the Interior Ministry's apparent delay in informing the Defense Ministry that such an incident was imminent. Also on 24 March, Parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Batiashvili said he personally believes "the action was well planned and organized, and experienced soldiers participated in it," Caucasus Press reported. He said that if not quashed, the protest "could have developed into a serious armed incident." LF

GEORGIAN, RUSSIAN OFFICIALS CONTINUE TALKS ON ABKHAZIA
Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze met in Moscow on 24 March with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Rushailo and with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin to discuss the joint implementation of the agreements reached during talks in Sochi earlier this month between the presidents of Russia and Georgia on economic and confidence-building measures intended to expedite a solution of the Abkhaz conflict, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. The war in Iraq was also discussed at both meetings. LF

SOUTH OSSETIAN PRESIDENT WANTS MORE RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPERS
Eduard Kokoyty, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, said in Moscow on 24 March that he intends to ask the Russian leadership to augment the Russian peacekeeping contingent currently deployed in South Ossetia, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. Visiting Georgia earlier this month, Colonel General Yevgenii Yevnevich, who is commander in chief of Russian peacekeeping operations, noted that theoretically Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia are each obliged to contribute 500 men to a mixed peacekeeping force, but that neither Georgia nor South Ossetia can afford to do so, according to Caucasus Press on 4 March. Kokoyty also said South Ossetia still aspires to the status of an associate member of the Russian Federation and is prepared to host one of the Russian military bases that are to be withdrawn from Georgia. LF

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT CALLS FOR END TO IRAQ WAR
Kyrgyzstan's parliament appealed to U.S. President George W. Bush and to the U.S. Congress on 24 March to stop the war against Iraq and to resolve the crisis in the UN Security Council, Interfax reported, citing parliamentary International Affairs Committee Chairman Alisher Abdimomunov. Abdimomunov told Interfax that parliament also called for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. He added that it is the view of the Kyrgyz parliament that the United States violated international law by launching military operations against Iraq. He also expressed concern that Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies cannot track warplanes leaving the military airbase at Bishkek's Manas Airport, and so, theoretically, there could be flights from Manas to Iraq. The base commander has repeatedly denied this possibility, saying the base is being used exclusively to support the international antiterrorism coalition in Afghanistan. BB

KYRGYZ GOVERNMENT CONCERNED ABOUT ECONOMIC EFFECTS OF WAR
Kyrgyzstan's government met on 20 March to discuss the situation in the country and around the world after the start of hostilities in Iraq, akipress.org reported on 24 March. Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev instructed the relevant ministries and departments to track developments in world financial and oil markets to minimize any possible negative effects on the Kyrgyz economy that could result from a weakened U.S. dollar or sharp swings in oil prices. Kazakhstan has also expressed concern over the potential effects on its economy of instability in world commodities markets, and Tajikistan has worried about negative effects to its fragile economic recovery if the economies of its major trading partners -- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia -- suffer as a result of the war. BB

UZBEK TV ACCUSES FOREIGN MEDIA OF DISTORTED REPORTING ON UZBEK PRISONS
In its Sunday review of the week's events on 23 March, Uzbek state television complained that foreign news agencies have recently been putting out "distorted" reports that religious and political prisoners are being tortured in Uzbek prisons. The broadcast specifically mentioned an RFE/RL report on conditions at the notorious Jaslyk prison camp in the desert in a remote part of Karakalpakistan. Since it was opened in the late 1990s, the Jaslyk camp has been noted for poor conditions and a high death rate among prisoners. Many people convicted of religious extremism have been sent to Jaslyk. A recent report prepared for the UN Commission on Human Rights called for the Jaslyk camp to be closed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). In response to the UN report, Uzbek authorities have acknowledged that isolated cases of torture occur in detention facilities in Uzbekistan, but have denied torture is used routinely (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). The 23 March broadcast painted a rosy picture of conditions at the Jaslyk camp, claiming that inmates are allowed to read Islamic religious literature and to pray five times a day. It also asserted that international human rights organizations were always welcome to visit Uzbek prisons. BB

INCREASING NUMBER OF CHILDREN ABANDONED IN UZBEKISTAN
An increasing number of children are being abandoned in Uzbekistan's Samarkand Oblast, uzland.uz reported on 24 March, quoting a report issued by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 18 March. Nine abandoned children were found in February, and the oblast education department was quoted as saying that the number of abandoned children in Samarkand increased by 80 percent in 2002. Of the 3,000 children now being raised in orphanages in the oblast, 12 percent are orphans and the rest are from poor families who cannot afford to support them, the report said. Most are from rural areas where unemployment is higher than in cities. Agricultural work is poorly paid, and many men are leaving their families to look for work in Russia. According to the report, the women left behind often cannot earn enough to support their families. Reportedly, women have been seen in city markets trying to sell their children. BB

RUSSIA WILLING TO GIVE WATER TO CENTRAL ASIA
In the wake of the World Water Forum that ended in Kyoto, Japan, on 23 March, First Deputy Natural Resources Minister Nikolai Tarasov told journalists that Russia is willing to provide water to Central Asia, but no Central Asian countries have made formal requests for such assistance, centrasia.ru reported on 24 March and uzreport.com reported on 25 March. One session of the international water conference was devoted to the Aral Sea. Uzbekistan's Rim Giniyatullin of the International Fund to Save the Aral said diverting just 5 percent of the water from Siberian rivers to the sea would prevent its complete disappearance. BB

BELARUSIAN POLICE DISPERSE OPPOSITION RALLY, 10 JAILED
Police forces dispersed several hundred opposition activists who gathered in downtown Minsk on 23 March for an unauthorized demonstration to mark the 85th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian Democratic Republic, Belapan reported. Police arrested 40 protesters, of whom 10 were sentenced on 24 March to jail terms of three to 15 days, and 13 others were fined or given warnings. "The trials were just a formality and [they were] accompanied by gross violations of law," said Vyacheslau Siuchyk, who was sentenced to 15 days. Jail sentences were also handed down to Dzmitry Filipovich (15 days), Valyantsin Baranau (10), Pavel Sevyarynets (10), Aleh Myadzvedzeu (10), Pavel Znavets (10), Yury Fabisheuski (10), Uladzimir Yukha (seven), Valyantsin Malashka (five), and Dzyanis Dashkevich (three). JM

PRESIDENT TOUTS ROLE BELARUS COULD PLAY BETWEEN U.S., IRAQ
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 24 March met with newly appointed Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau and newly appointed Ambassador to the United States Mikhail Khvastou, Belarusian Television reported. "I think that the United States and Great Britain need today to look for an honorable way out of the existing situation [in Iraq] before it's too late. I am convinced, Syarhey Mikalayevich [Martynau] and Mikhail Mikhaylavich [Khvastou], that we can play a principal and significant role in steering them out of the existing situation," Lukashenka said. Asked what role Belarus could play to this end, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh told an RFE/RL Belarusian Service correspondent that the ministry is working on some proposals, but refused to elaborate. "I think it is nothing more than [Lukashenka's] political morbidity," opposition leader Anatol Lyabedzka commented. "Lukashenka has no possibility to influence regional policy, let alone global [policy]." JM

UKRAINE-NATO TARGET PLAN FOR 2003 REVEALED
The official website of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry (http://www.mfa.gov.ua/) on 24 March published the Ukraine-NATO Target Plan for 2003. The document, which follows the Ukraine-NATO Action Plan adopted at the November 2002 NATO summit in Prague and published in January 2003 (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 28 January 2003), maps out specific measures pertaining to political, economic, military, human rights, and other areas to be taken by Ukraine in 2003 in its pursuit of NATO membership. JM

UKRAINE URGES BELARUS TO RATIFY BORDER TREATY
Alyaksandr Vaytovich, head of the Council of Republic of Belarus's National Assembly, visited Kyiv on 24 March and met with President Leonid Kuchma, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, and parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, Ukrainian media reported. Vaytovich and Lytvyn reportedly spoke in favor of the ratification by Minsk of a Belarusian-Ukrainian border treaty. Kyiv ratified this treaty in 1997, while Minsk has made ratification dependent on the repayment of Ukrainian debts to Belarus. Belarus believes Ukraine should pay it more than $100 million, while Ukraine admits to owing no more than $50 million. Lytvyn told his Belarusian guest that the border-treaty ratification should be separated from economic issues in Ukrainian-Belarusian relations, UNIAN reported. JM

FIRST SESSION OF NEW ESTONIAN PARLIAMENT SET FOR 31 MARCH
President Arnold Ruutel signed on 24 March a resolution scheduling the first session of the newly elected parliament for 31 March, BNS reported. Of the 101 elected deputies, 57 will be newcomers to the parliament, but this number could increase as former parliament deputy Tartu Mayor Andrus Ansip has declared that he will not accept his mandate, and four other elected deputies, including Tallinn Mayor Edgar Savisaar, have not yet announced their acceptance. Res Publica board member Tonis Palts told reporters that the text of the coalition agreement of Res Publica, the Reform Party, and People's Union should be released on 26 March, but People's Union Chairman Villu Reiljan said that this might be delayed by a day. At the session, Prime Minister Siim Kallas will announce the resignation of his cabinet, and Ruutel will have 14 days to nominate a candidate for prime minister. SG

NATO SECRETARY-GENERAL VISITS ESTONIA
Continuing his visits to the seven countries invited to join NATO, Lord George Robertson paid a short visit to Tallinn on 24 March, BNS reported. He held talks with President Ruutel, Prime Minister Kallas, Foreign Minister Kristiina Ojuland, and Defense Minister Sven Mikser. Speaking to the Estonian NATO Association, he said there was no reason why the ongoing military campaign in Iraq should delay the ratification of the accession of new members to NATO. Robertson explained at a press conference that it is the democratic right of NATO members to hold different views on the Iraq war. He said French and German opposition to U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq was made possible because NATO is not the Warsaw Pact, and differences are acceptable. He rejected suggestions that some NATO members, particularly France, might oppose the accession of candidate countries because of their support for Washington's policy on Iraq, noting that the only accession criteria are that the candidate countries meet NATO's military and democratic requirements. SG

LATVIA PLANNING TO INCREASE AUTHORITY OF MINISTERS
A government committee meeting on 24 March discussed a proposal prepared by the Justice Ministry that would increase the responsibility and expand the authority of ministers, LETA reported. The proposal would allow individual ministers to make some decisions concerning their fields that currently require the cabinet's approval. The issue arose when Agriculture Minister Martins Roze proposed that his ministry, and not the government, should approve requirements on tractors. Lawyers from the State Chancellery objected to the proposal, arguing that the minister can only issue orders to institutions under his authority. Roze noted that requirements on tractors are technical specifications, and it would not be suitable for the government to approve them because the government would not be in the best position to determine what specifications are needed. The Transport Ministry pointed out that regulations in the aviation and navigation sectors often include documents consisting of thousands of pages that are frequently upgraded. Prime Minister Einars Repse said it would be useful to expand the authority of ministers by giving them the authority to approve such specific documents. SG

LITHUANIAN NONGOVERNMENTAL INSTITUTIONS TO RECEIVE MORE AID
Representatives of the Small Projects Program of the Global Environment Fund under the UN Development Program (UNDP), the Baltic-American Partnership Program under the Open Lithuania Fund, and the Small-Scale Projects Program of the World Bank signed a cooperation agreement on 24 March that will provide $573,000 for projects by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Lithuania, ELTA reported. This is the first official agreement among donor programs, and is meant to boost cooperation when financing joint projects of nongovernmental organizations and communities. In the past the World Bank would finance up to 30 percent, and the UNDP up to 80 percent of a project's cost but, with the addition of the Baltic-American Partnership Program, NGOs now have the possibility of receiving full financing for projects dealing with social, environmental, and community problems. SG

POLAND ADMITS COMBAT ROLE IN IRAQ WAR
Premier Leszek Miller and Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski on 24 March admitted that Poland's GROM commando unit has taken part in several successful operations in the Iraq campaign with no casualties suffered, PAP reported. Szmajdzinski also said divers from Poland's Formoza elite corps are also in the Iraq area, adding that a Polish chemical unit currently training with U.S. experts is ready to enter Iraq. Warsaw earlier confirmed only that it had sent 200 troops to the Persian Gulf in a supporting, noncombat role. The 24 March admission came after the media published Reuters photographs showing masked GROM soldiers taking prisoners, scrawling graffiti on a portrait of Saddam Hussein, and posing with U.S. Navy Seals holding up a U.S. flag. "These photos shouldn't have happened," Szmajdzinski said, "The next time it will definitely be with the Polish flag." U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns reportedly praised Polish troops for their performance in the Iraq conflict. Meanwhile, League of Polish Families lawmaker Zygmunt Wrzodak said the same day that the Polish president and premier violated the constitution by "de facto declaring war on Iraq" without parliamentary approval. JM

POLISH PREMIER UNWILLING TO RESIGN
Prime Minister Leszek Miller on 24 March told Polish Radio that his government "continues to foster good, constructive cooperation with the president," adding that "he does not intend to submit the government's resignation." Miller's pronouncement apparently came in response to President Aleksander Kwasniewski's interview in the 22 March issue of "Rzeczpospolita," in which Kwasniewski said Miller must now answer the question whether he is capable of "ruling the state in this crucial moment for Poland" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2003). Meanwhile, opposition Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said he believes that Kwasniewski's interview was an explicit suggestion that Miller should step down, PAP reported. Kaczynski termed the relations between Kwasniewski and Miller as a "conflict," and one that could negatively affect the outcome of Poland's EU referendum. JM

CZECH REPUBLIC EXPELS ANOTHER IRAQI DIPLOMAT
The Czech Republic on 24 March declared the head of the Iraqi diplomatic mission in Prague persona non grata and gave Iraqi Charge d'Affaires Malik Muhammad Ani 48 hours to leave the country, CTK and international news agencies reported. The Czech Republic last week expelled four other Iraqi diplomats. They left the country on 21 March. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar told CTK that the ministry is still considering a U.S. request that the entire Iraqi diplomatic mission be closed down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 23 March 2003). MS

CZECH REPUBLIC SENDS FAULTY GAS MASKS TO KUWAIT
The Czech Republic has sent some 5,000 faulty gas masks to Kuwait that are unusable in the event of a chemical attack, CTK and Reuters reported on 25 March, citing the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes." The daily reported that the masks were shipped by the Czech firm Gumarny Zubri as part of a sample order that was to lead to larger shipments. Members of the Czech anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) warfare unit stationed in Kuwait have been barred from using the masks. "Mlada fronta Dnes" cited Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik as saying that the masks "are a cause for shame," adding, "I am extremely angry." Company officials said they did not have enough masks to fill the 5,000-piece order and therefore borrowed gas masks from the Interior Ministry. MS

CZECH PRESIDENT AGAIN CRITICIZES IRAQ WAR
President Vaclav Klaus, in an article in the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" of 25 March, said the dictatorship in Iraq "is unacceptable and dangerous for the Euro-Atlantic civilization, but the idea that democracy can be installed by military force comes from another universe," CTK reported. Klaus said it is "ridiculous and naive" to claim that the United States is waging war in Iraq for oil, because the United States is not dependent on oil from that country. Furthermore, he said, "trade in oil calls for stability in the region where most oil deposits are." Klaus said the real reasons for the war stem from " a combination of American idealism, new fears after the 11 September [2001 terrorist attacks on the United States], and the new international situation in which a bipolar world has been replaced by one in which the U.S. is the only real great power." Klaus added that when the war ends, the international community as a whole will encounter big problems. "Democracy can be supported and encouraged, but cannot be dictated, least of all by military force," he said. "Furthermore, if this model of democracy by export becomes the norm, who will be next in line? Who will approve that list?" MS

FRENCH EUROPEAN AFFAIRS MINISTER MEETS WITH CZECH LEADERS IN PRAGUE
Visiting French European Affairs Minister Noelle Lenoir and Czech Premier Vladimir Spidla said on 24 March that they agree that the European Union must become a political entity with a joint foreign policy and capable of implementing a joint defense policy, CTK reported. They said these plans must not be renounced, even if currently there are differences of opinion within the EU vis-a-vis the Iraq crisis. Lenoir emphasized that the recent EU summit in Brussels agreed that the UN must play a central role in the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. She also said EU enlargement will strengthen the union's institutions, and emphasized that it is paradoxical that in the struggle against crime, judges, prosecutors, and police are limited by national borders, while criminals enjoy freedom of movement. It is necessary to create a joint "area of justice" within the EU, she said. Lenoir also met with Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, with whom she discussed the Iraq crisis and ways to overcome divisions triggered by the crisis within the EU. MS

SLOVAK PRESIDENT PROMULGATES AMENDMENT TO LAW ON NATIONAL MEMORY
President Rudolf Schuster on 24 March signed into law an amendment approved by parliament in February to the law on national memory, TASR reported. The amendment extends access to secret-police files compiled from 1939-89 during the Nazi and communist eras. The extent to which greater access to those files is to be provided has yet to be established by the parliament's Committee on Human Rights and Minorities. The Institute of National Memory will begin examining applications for access to the files as of May. The committee is also to elect the institute's chairperson and members of its executive board. MS

REPUTED SLOVAK UNDERWORLD BOSS BELIEVED TO HAVE LEFT THE COUNTRY
Police spokesman Jaroslav Sahul told TASR on 24 March that reputed Slovak underworld boss Mikulas Cernak has apparently left the country and has gone into hiding, TASR reported. Sahul said police are preparing an international arrest warrant. Cernak was paroled on 29 November 2002 after serving five years of an 8 1/2 year prison sentence. On 19 March, the Supreme Court heeded an appeal by the Justice Ministry against the parole, ruling that the Penal Code allows for parole only after a person has served two-thirds of his or her term, and that Cernak would thus have to return to prison and serve at least another eight months to meet that stipulation. MS

SERBIAN DEPUTY PREMIER CRITICIZES HUNGARY FOR NOT PAYING DJINDJIC DUE RESPECT
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Jozsef Kasza, chairman of the Federation of Vojvodina Hungarians, on 24 March told the Budapest daily "Nepszabadsag" that the Hungarian cabinet failed to pay proper respects to assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. Kasza said that at Djindjic's 15 March funeral, Hungary was not represented at an appropriate level, as Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy canceled his visit and Interior Minister Monika Lamperth flew back to Budapest before the funeral began. Kasza said this was an act of disrespect toward Serbia, Djindjic, and ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina. Interior Ministry officials said Lamperth fully complied with the expectations of international protocol and paid tribute on behalf of the Hungarian government, the daily reported. MSZ

CROATIA SEEKS CLARIFICATION OF U.S. POLICY
Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan discussed Washington's policy toward his country with U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Lawrence Rossin in Zagreb on 24 March, "Vecernji list" reported. Racan asked for the meeting following recent comments by Rossin to the weekly "Globus" that Croatia's "low-profile" policy over the Iraq crisis has disappointed Washington (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). Racan and Rossin sought to stress positive aspects of bilateral relations in their "friendly and open discussion," in which Racan did not endorse the view of President Stipe Mesic that the U.S. military action is "illegitimate" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2003). "Vjesnik" reported that the Croatian political leadership is divided over the war in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February, 12 and 19 March 2003). Some observers have noted that Croatia is confident that relations with the United States will remain strong because Zagreb is one of Washington's few reliable partners in the region. Other observers stress that Zagreb's chief priority is joining the EU in 2007, and that it has accordingly tailored its policy on Iraq so as not to offend Paris or Berlin. PM

PROTEST IN CROATIA OVER SENTENCING OF GENERAL
Some 50 people blocked the Zagreb-Split highway in Sinj on 24 March to protest the sentencing of General Mirko Norac for war crimes, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 March 2003). Demonstrators also blocked the route from Sinj to the Bosnian frontier, saying that protests will continue "until Mirko Norac arrives in Sinj." Elsewhere, some Croatian observers hailed the sentencing of Norac as proof that the Croatian judicial system is capable of meting out justice to Croatian war criminals. Some other observers, however, argued that the sentencing is evidence of a regrettable tendency to place actions of "Croatian victims" on the same level as those of the "Serbian aggressors." Ivo Sanader of the opposition Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) said the sentencing is the result of the current government's policy of "criminalizing" the 1991-95 war of independence, which was led by President Franjo Tudjman. PM

SERBIAN POLITICIAN DENIES WAR CRIMES GUILT
Serbian Radical Party leader and indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj said before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague on 25 March that he considers himself innocent of all the charges against him, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 24 February 2003). PM

NATIONAL BANK OF SERBIA ISSUES ITS FIRST BANKNOTE
Mladjan Dinkic, governor of the National Bank of Serbia, officially put into circulation the new 1,000 dinar ($17) banknote on 24 March, "Vesti" reported. It is the first banknote with the inscription "National Bank of Serbia" following the recent dissolution of the former Yugoslav federation. All other currency currently in circulation bears the text "National Bank of Yugoslavia." Montenegro uses the euro as its currency. PM

KOSOVAR PRESIDENT HAILS ANNIVERSARY OF NATO AIR STRIKES
President Ibrahim Rugova said in Prishtina on the fourth anniversary of the start of NATO's air campaign against Serbia that 24 March is one of the most important days in the history of Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The bombardment ended Serbian repression and ethnic cleansing in the province and led to its occupation by NATO-led forces. In Serbia on 24 March 2003, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the army, and many government agencies marked the fourth anniversary of the bombardment with memorial services for Serbs killed in the air raids. The NATO air strikes remain a source of anger and bitterness for many Serbs, who see themselves and their country as innocent victims of "NATO aggression" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 October 2000). PM

LEADING MACEDONIAN OPPOSITION PARTY LOOKS FOR A NEW LEADER
The nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) is looking for a new leader because its founding father and current chairman, former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, is planning to resign, Macedonian media reported on 24 March. Former Finance Minister and Deputy Party Chairman Nikola Gruevski confirmed that Georgievski has asked him to take over the party leadership. "Dnevnik" of 25 March quoted Gruevski as saying: "I told him to rethink and reverse his decision, since he has all qualities necessary for the job.... I have no intention of becoming party leader." Former hard-line Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski said there is nobody to replace Georgievski, according to "Dnevnik." The party, which is internally divided into a pro-Georgievski wing and a group supporting moderate President Boris Trajkovski, will hold its congress on 24 May. UB

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS IRAQI EMBASSY IN BUCHAREST IS 'PRACTICALLY CLOSED'
President Ion Iliescu told journalists on 24 March that Romania is continuing to examine the implications of responding to the U.S. request to close down the Iraqi Embassy in Bucharest, adding that the Iraqi diplomatic representation is already "closed down for all practical purposes," Mediafax reported. Iliescu said that as a result of the expulsion of five Iraqi diplomats and the recall to Baghdad of Ambassador Saad Hamid Majid, "all those who served [at the embassy] have left" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 13, and 17 March 2003). Finance Minister Mihai Tanasescu said that, in line with the 17 March U.S. request that Iraqi accounts in foreign banks be frozen, the National Bank will "probably" examine how many Iraqi accounts are open in Romania and the authority will then make a decision. Tanasescu said that regardless, Iraqi accounts are "under the constant supervision of the Office Against Money Laundering." MS

ROMANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN GERMANY...
Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana met in Berlin on 24 March with his German counterpart Joschka Fischer and with German Defense Minister Peter Struck, Romanian Radio and Mediafax reported. The talks focused on the Iraq crisis and the conflict it has triggered within the EU, as well as on EU enlargement and bilateral military cooperation. Both Fischer and Geoana emphasized that existing differences among EU members over the Iraq crisis must not impede the process of EU enlargement and of forging a joint European foreign and defense policy. Fischer said that the differences between his country's position on the crisis and that of Bucharest will not influence the positive German attitude toward Romania as a future EU member, and that Berlin will continue to extend aid to Bucharest to facilitate this quest. Fischer said Germany is capable of understanding the pro-U.S. position of countries recently invited to join NATO, as East Germans also struggle with the legacy of communism and the difficulties posed by the transition to a market economy. Talks with Struck focused on bilateral cooperation in peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans. MS

...AND SAYS EU MUST TAKE OVER 'TOTAL LEADERSHIP' IN BALKAN STABILIZATION
In an interview with dpa on 24 March, Geoana said the EU must help rebuild Iraq and take over "total" leadership in stabilizing the situation in the Balkans. Geoana said Romania is opposed to any attempt to replace existing institutions, such as NATO, the UN, and the EU, with "ad hoc coalitions of the willing or the unwilling," no matter how tempting that option might look in a time of crisis. "In the long term, both sides of the Atlantic can only lose from such a stance," he said in a clear allusion to the U.S. position on the war in Iraq. He said the best way out of the split in the EU on the Iraq crisis is to forge a new EU role in postwar Iraq and in the Middle East. "The European Union, including future members like Romania,... have not only an opportunity, but also an obligation to play a role in the reconstruction of Iraq," he said. Geoana also said Romania is deeply concerned over the assassination earlier this month of Serbian Premier Zoran Djindjic and the instability this could trigger in the region. Romania, he said, has suffered from a "sort of strategic curse" throughout its history that has placed it close to areas of instability, which currently includes regions to the country's east (Moldova) and west (Serbia). MS

MOLDOVAN PREMIER WANTS 'EQUAL RELATIONSHIP' WITH ROMANIA
Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said on 24 March that his government wants to have good-neighborly relations with Romania, based on full equality and noninterference in each other's internal affairs, ITAR-TASS reported. "The attempt of certain politicians in Bucharest to treat Moldova as a 'younger brother' is unacceptable to us," the agency quoted Tarlev as saying. On 25 March, the Moldovan Foreign Ministry announced that Romanian Foreign Minister Geoana will pay a "working visit" to Chisinau on 31 March. MS

PRESIDENT SAYS MOLDOVA UNDERGOING 'VELVET STABILIZATION'...
President Vladimir Voronin on 24 March said Moldova is currently undergoing a period of "velvet stabilization" that will lead to "substantial improvements," Flux reported. Voronin was participating for the first time in the meetings of the Permanent Roundtable set up on the recommendations of the Parliamentary Assembly for the Council of Europe for a dialogue with the opposition. The Moldovan president said the authorities will "do everything to prevent Moldova from remaining at Europe's periphery." He said the year 2002 was one in which the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) managed to avoid attempts to push it into "bloody confrontations" or into taking "aggressive measures" against the opposition. "We passed the test of democracy, applied democracy in practice, and managed to overcome the crisis without any dramatic consequences," he said. "I sometimes found it difficult to refrain from applying some measures which some of my peers in other countries apply with perfect legal justification," he added. Teleradio Moldova will become the first public broadcasting company in the former Soviet states, according to Voronin, who added that his proposals for introducing "a modern course of history that would overcome the psychological inferiority complexes and [prevent] slipping back into the pathological [concept] of the Antonescu period" have been welcomed by the Council of Europe. MS

...AND IS REBUKED BY OPPOSITION
Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca said that President Voronin's comments were a public admission that he considered using force during last year's protest demonstrations organized by the opposition, Flux reported. Rosca said Voronin continues to engage in propaganda-style political discourse and fails to make concrete proposals for overcoming the current crisis. Braghis Alliance Chairman and former Premier Dumitru Braghis proposed a moratorium on confronting issues that deeply divide Moldovan society. His proposal was rejected by PCM parliamentary group leader Victor Stepaniuc, who said the PCM received the absolute majority in the February 2000 parliamentary elections, and that parties that barely entered the legislature do not have the right to use street demonstrations as an alternative venue for airing their views. MS

MORE POLITICAL MERGERS ENVISAGED IN MOLDOVA
The Braghis Alliance, the Liberal Party, and the Alliance of Independents on 24 March said they are setting up a center-right electoral alliance that will run jointly in the 25 May local elections, and that the three parties intend to merge, Flux reported. The alliance is called Our Moldova. The three formations' chairmen, Braghis, Vyacheslav Untila, and Serafim Urechean, said the merger will either take place during the local-election campaign, or after that ballot. They agreed to back Unrechean's candidacy for a renewed mandate as Chisinau mayor. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT PROMULGATES LAW AGAINST EXTREMISM
President Voronin on 24 March signed into law the controversial bill on fighting extremism that was approved by parliament on 21 February, Flux reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 18 November 2002 and 24 February 2003). Flux quoted PPCD Deputy Chairman Vlad Cubreacov as saying the law is "itself extremist" and will "discredit Moldovan democracy." MS

BULGARIA REDUCES NBC UNIT TO BE DEPLOYED TO CRISIS REGION
The government on 24 March decided to reduce the anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) warfare unit that is to be deployed to an unspecified country neighboring Iraq, mediapool.bg reported. The decision to reduce the unit from the originally planned 150 troops to about 100 stems from the fact that the unit will be embedded with coalition forces, as opposed to working on its own, thus freeing troops that were tasked with guarding and logistics. UB

BULGARIAN-RUSSIAN DEAL INKED ON AIRCRAFT-REPAIR VENTURE
Representatives of the Bulgarian Defense Ministry and the Russian state-owned MiG aircraft manufacturer have signed an agreement in Moscow to set up a joint venture for the repair of MiG aircraft, BTA reported on 24 March. The Georgi Benkovski aircraft-maintenance factory in Plovdiv, which is a branch of the Terem ordnance company, will hold all licenses in Bulgaria for MiG aircraft repair. Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov threatened in January to cancel a contract with MiG for the modernization of Bulgaria's MiG-29 fighter aircraft after the Russian company insisted on renewing its subcontracting agreement with Terem. An unidentified U.S. lobbyist, however, reportedly warned that the deal could face U.S. opposition, as the Benkovski factory was slated for the upgrading of Bulgarian army equipment to NATO standards, according to the daily "Monitor" of 25 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 March 2002 and 16 January 2003). UB

WILL THE SECOND PHASE OF THE WAR ON TERRORISM REVERSE THE GAINS OF THE FIRST?
Shortly after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, it became clear that the Al-Qaeda terrorist network based in Afghanistan was responsible. The United States demanded that the Taliban regime, which at the time controlled most of Afghanistan, hand over the entire leadership of Al-Qaeda and close the estimated 28 training camps that the group operated throughout Afghanistan. But the Afghan regime, which had close links to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, chose to ignore the U.S. ultimatum.

Thus, it became clear from statements made by U.S. officials that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were both considered legitimate targets for military action, preparations for which had begun the day after the terrorist attacks. On the diplomatic front, the United States began securing international support for its impending response through the 12 September 2001 UN Security Council Resolution 1368, as well as through regional cooperation with allies. On 20 September 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush announced that the war on terrorism would not be limited to law enforcement measures alone, but would include a military response. Such actions, he stated, would not only be targeted against the terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda, but also at all terrorist groups with a "global reach" as well as against their sponsoring states.

This was a clear message that the war on terrorism would not be limited to Afghanistan, which, while hosting Al-Qaeda, was not necessarily its sponsor.

Inside Afghanistan, the main opposition to the Taliban, the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan -- popularly known as the Northern Alliance -- consisted of a loose alliance of guerrilla groups controlling about 15 percent of the country. Immediately after 11 September attacks, the United States established contact with various factions within the United Front, providing them with logistical support and fostering closer relations with some of the Afghan political movements and influential personalities residing outside Afghanistan.

On 7 October 2001, the United States began the combat phase of the war on global terrorism by launching aerial attacks on targets in Afghanistan. Originally the military campaign was to have been code-named Operation Infinite Justice, but due to the concern for the Muslim belief that such justice can only be dispensed by God, the name was changed to Operation Enduring Freedom. The military objective of Operation Enduring Freedom was to destroy Al-Qaeda's bases and leadership as well their Taliban hosts. Politically, the campaign was intended to ensure that Afghanistan does not, once again, become a heaven for terrorism.

The first objective of Operation Enduring Freedom gave the Afghans a change to rid their country of the Taliban and the menace of Al-Qaeda -- a task that had eluded them for years and was increasingly looking like an impossibility without direct military and political intervention by the United States. The result, while not without flaws, was the establishment of an interim and later a transitional administration in Afghanistan, with a roadmap calling for general elections in 2004. The second objective of Operation Enduring Freedom -- namely, to ensure that Afghanistan did not return to lawlessness or become a potential haven for international terrorist networks -- depended on the success of building a viable state in that country and gave the Afghans the hope that they would be the beneficiaries of a long-term commitment from the international community, led by the United States. Despite repeated claims by U.S. officials that the job of state building was for the Afghans themselves, the Afghans believed that their country was the brightest spot on U.S. radar screens and would be receiving due attention.

Then on 29 January 2002, Bush delivered his first State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress, in which he shifted the focus of America's war on terrorism from global terrorist organizations to preventing regimes from threatening the United States with weapons of mass destruction (WMD). He named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea specifically, labeling them an "axis of evil." In time, it became evident that, of the three countries, Iraq was deemed the most immediate threat and would become the first trial of what has become known as the policy of "anticipatory self-defense." With Operation Enduring Freedom in full swing, the United States began diplomatic efforts and contingency military planning to deal with the perceived Iraqi threat.

For those who advocated regime change rather than diplomacy, Afghanistan became a model of what the Iraqis might expect -- the world embracing the post-President Saddam Hussein Iraqi leadership as it did Afghanistan's post-Taliban government. In the words of Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" commentator Zvi Bar'el writing on 14 March, phrases such as "the liberation of Afghanistan," "the creation of representative national institutions," "human rights," and "women's rights" were initially used by some U.S. officials regarding Afghanistan, and the "the same phrases" are now being heard in connection with Iraq.

However, those advocating a multiethnic, viable state in Afghanistan increasingly became aware that the attention of the United States had clearly shifted toward Iraq, and that the overall commitment to Afghanistan had entered a crisis-management phase. They feared that the U.S. commitments to a sustained effort to build a state infrastructure in Afghanistan would lose momentum. In his latest trip to Washington, D.C., in February, Afghan Transitional Administration President Hamid Karzai asked the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee not to forget Afghanistan "if Iraq happens,'' adding that it would be "very, very unwise to reduce attention to Afghanistan'' in the event of war in Iraq. During that meeting, U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware) said, "Afghanistan has already dropped off the radar screen." "What level of commitment will the administration display once Afghanistan winds up behind Iraq, North Korea, and whatever comes next?" Biden asked.

Whatever the long-term effects of the war in Iraq on the state-building process in Afghanistan, in the short term, the war in Iraq might lead to increased terrorist activity in Afghanistan. This, in turn, might lead to the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which maintains peace and security in and around Kabul. Both Germany and the Netherlands, the current ISAF joint commanders, have threatened to pull their troops out of Kabul if the war in Iraq sparks strong anti-Western sentiment in Afghanistan. Such a departure, or even the threat of pullouts, will weaken Karzai's already fragile administration and could plunge Afghanistan into an internal conflict, regardless of what Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations do.

During their 16 March summit in the Azores, the leaders of Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States outlined a "vision for a better future for the Iraqi people" once Hussein is ousted from power. At the same time, the four leaders notably pledged to work together to "bring security to Afghanistan and to root out the terrorists who remain there."

ARAB LEAGUE ISSUES RESOLUTION CONDEMNING WAR ON IRAQ
A 24 March meeting of the Arab League Ministerial Council in Cairo produced a seven-point resolution condemning the U.S.-led war on Iraq, MENA news agency reported the same day. Council members, minus Kuwait, demanded an "immediate and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. and British troops from Iraqi territories" and held coalition forces accountable for the "moral, legal, and material repercussions" of the conflict. Calling the war "a violation of the UN Charter and the principles of international law and legitimacy, [and] a threat to world peace and security," members called upon the UN Security Council to hold an emergency meeting to address the issue. Seventeen of the 22 Arab League member states attended the meeting; all voted in favor of the resolution except Kuwait, which refused to endorse it. The meeting was also marked by a historical irony of sorts: Turkey, which ruled over much of the Arab world during the Ottoman era, attended the meeting for the first time as an observer, "Anatolia" reported on 24 March. KR

IRAQI GENERAL COMMAND ISSUES FIFTH COMMUNIQUE
The Iraqi Armed Forces General Command issued "military communique No. 5" detailing military activities on 23-24 March, Iraq Television reported on 24 March. The communique claims that Iraqi forces inflicted huge equipment and weapons losses on coalition forces in Al-Najaf, and that the Al-Miqdad forces of Iraq's 11th Division inflicted a "large number of casualties" and destroyed several tanks, weapons, and equipment in an undisclosed location. It reports that forces in Al-Faw caused so many coalition casualties that "the enemy was forced to summon a medical ship to evacuate the dead and wounded," adding, "God bless our valiant navy fighters." The communique also reports that Iraq's 5th Mechanized Division (Muhammad al-Qasim Forces) "lay in wait" for coalition forces west of the Sa'd Airport (Khan Bani Sa'd), where it destroyed four tanks and two armored vehicles and inflicted human losses on coalition troops. In the Al-Muthanna Governorate, the General Command claimed, the Al-Quds Army forced coalition troops to retreat, again inflicting "huge human and equipment" losses. The Saddam Fedayeen, a paramilitary force founded by Saddam's son, Uday, and deeply loyal to the regime, has inflicted the most damage and "caused panic," according to the communique, by destroying 11 tanks around Al-Basrah, capturing a U.S. corporal, and killing two U.S. soldiers, among other activities. The communique claimed 32 "lethal [Al-Tariq] missile attacks" and the downing of an Apache helicopter gunship in the Karbala Governorate and two "enemy drones" in an undisclosed location. The casualty figures provided in the communique in most cases have not been confirmed by U.S. or U.K. sources. KR

IRAQI OFFICIAL COMMENTS ON MILITARY DEVELOPMENTS
Al-Jazeera television broadcast a 24 March news conference by Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz in which he alleged the U.S. and Britain are trying to revive a colonialist past in Iraq, adding that statements by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.S. Congress about U.S. intentions of "reshaping the region" are proof of this intention. He stressed that Iraqi troops fighting in the south are not Republican Guard forces, as reported in the international media, but rather "ordinary army brigades." Aziz also addressed rumors that a speech given by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and aired on Iraq Television on 24 March was not in fact, the president, saying, "Imagine that the leader does not appear at a critical and dangerous time for the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government." Regarding media and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) reports that Iraqi forces are presenting small pockets of resistance, Aziz said this was the best way to "resist the invaders," adding, "You should not expect our officers, who are very efficient, experienced, and competent, to appear in front of the U.S. and British armies in long columns in broad daylight so as to be easily killed and hunted down by enemy aircraft and artillery. They fight in their own way." KR

OFFICIALS LAUD REPORTED BRAVERY OF ORDINARY IRAQIS
Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf told the 25 March briefing in Baghdad that the "shock and awe" strategy of coalition forces has backfired after being confronted by Iraqis receiving them with "bombs, shoes, and bullets." He added that an Iraqi woman destroyed an armored personnel carrier with a rocket-propelled grenade in Suq Al-Shuyukh on 24 March. The claims coincide with other Iraqi attempts to convince its people that all Iraqis are capable of confronting coalition forces. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz on 24 March praised a peasant farmer who Iraqi sources claimed was successful in shooting down a U.S. Apache attack helicopter using his Czech-made Brno rifle, Al-Jazeera television reported on the same day. CENTCOM commander General Tommy Franks commented on that incident, telling reporters during a 24 March briefing, "I know with some precision how many helicopters have been shot down, and I can assure you...those events did not occur as a result of farmers." KR

IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT BERATES JORDAN
Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan verbally attacked the Jordanian government in a Baghdad press briefing on 25 March that was broadcast on Al-Jazeera television. Ramadan criticized Iraq's western neighbor for not closing its waterways and overland routes to coalition forces, saying, "these routes are open to the aggressors' equipment but are closed to the commodities and foodstuffs that are bound for Iraq." He then responded to a statement made by Jordanian Ali Abu al-Ragheb on 23 March concerning a cessation of oil imports from Iraq due to the conflict, saying Jordan was responsible for the cessation since it did not send any tanker-trucks into Iraq to pick up the oil. "The Jordanian people know that in pumping or transporting oil to Jordan, in accordance with the protocol signed between the two countries, 50 percent of it is free as a reward from the leaser to the fraternal people of Jordan in appreciation for the positions of the Jordanian people," Ramadan said. Ramadan insinuated that Jordan has become a front for U.S. aggression against Iraq. He called on the Arab Workers Federation to ask all trade unions to "close all the waterways and not to cooperate in the ports with an enemy ships." Ramadan also accused unnamed Arab intelligence organizations of providing coalition forces with information about Iraqi sites and facilities that were recently bombed. KR

TURKEY-U.S. DISCUSSIONS DRAG ON
Talks between U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Turkish officials on the issue of a Turkish military deployment into northern Iraq ended on 24 March without an agreement, Ankara's TRT 2 Television reported the same day. The station then reported on 25 March that the talks between Khalilzad and Turkish officials appear to have been suspended temporarily. U.S. Secretary of State Powell told Fox Television on 24 March that there were no Turkish troops crossing the Iraq-Turkey border at the time, adding, "Turkey has assured the international community over the weekend -- they did it in NATO [on 24 March] and there have been other statements -- that they have no plans at the moment to send any troops across the border.... There is no need for Turkish troops to cross the border," the State Department website reported (http://www.state.gov). Meanwhile, Istanbul's NTV Television reported on 24 March that the United States has assured Turkey that Iraqi Kurds will not enter Kirkuk and Mosul during Operation Iraqi Freedom. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told a press briefing on 24 March that the U.S. position regarding the entry of Turkish troops remains unchanged, adding, "But it does remain a matter of ongoing discussion and concern." Senior U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, have repeatedly stated their opposition to such an incursion by Turkish forces. KR

U.S. DEFENSE OFFICIALS SAY IRAQ VIOLATING LAWS OF WAR
Assistant Secretary of Defense Victoria Clarke and Major General Stanley McChrystal, vice director for operations in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, briefed reporters at the Pentagon on 24 March, according to the U.S. Defense Department website (http://www.defenselink.mil), saying Iraqi forces are violating the laws of war. Calling the actions of military forces "deadly deceptions," Clarke told reporters, "They are sending forces out carrying white surrender flags or dressing them as liberated civilians to draw coalition forces into ambushes," adding, "Known as perfidy or treachery, such acts are strictly prohibited because they make it extraordinarily difficult for coalition forces to accept surrendering forces or protect civilians." KR

SYRIA ACCUSES U.S. OF BREACHING GENEVA CONVENTION IN BUS BOMBING...
Syria has accused the coalition forces of a "criminal act" and a breach of the Geneva Convention following the 23 March bombing in Iraq of a bus that was reportedly carrying 37 Syrian civilians home from Iraq, Reuters reported the next day. At least five Syrian nationals were killed and another 10 injured in the blast, according to Syria's SANA news agency, as cited by Reuters. "This act represents a breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention on protecting civilians during war...therefore the Syrian Arab Republic condemns this act and reserves the right to demand compensation in line with international law," Syrian said in a statement following news of the tragedy, Reuters reported on 24 March. The incident reportedly occurred about 160 kilometers inside Iraq's border with Syria, in an area called Al-Rutbeh. The bodies of the dead have since been transferred to a Damascus hospital, Reuters reported. Syria, the only Arab state on the UN Security Council, has been a staunch opponent of military action to disarm Iraq. AH

...AS U.S. OFFICIALS CONFIRM ACCIDENTAL SYRIAN DEATHS
Major General McChrystal confirmed Syrian press reports that coalition aircraft destroyed an Iraqi bridge about 100 miles from the Syrian border while a bus carrying Syrian nationals was crossing the bridge. "After the bombs were released, a bus came into the pilot's view but too late to recall the weapons. The bombs struck the bridge and the bus," he said, adding, "Unintended casualties like this are regrettable. We extend our sympathies to the families of those civilians who were accidentally killed." KR

ALLIED BOMBARDMENT OF ANSAR AL-ISLAM CONTINUES
A representative of the Islamic Movement in Kurdistan (IMK), Bahauddin Barzanji, said on 25 March that U.S. and U.K. aircraft are continuing to bomb Ansar al-Islam positions in northern Iraq, IRNA reported. According to a report in the 24 March issue of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan newspaper "Al-Ittihad," the bombings that began on 21-22 March have killed and wounded many Ansar al-Islam militants, while the remaining ones have fled into the mountains. Iranian authorities have turned back wounded Ansar personnel who are seeking medical attention, "The Washington Post" of 25 March cited Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party leader Muhammad Haji Mahmud as saying. Ansar al-Islam received Iranian support in the past, but Tehran apparently sees the writing on the wall now. BS

CORRECTION:
In the "RFE/RL Newsline" item "Kurds Say They Are Preparing To Attack Ansar Al-Islam" on 24 March, we incorrectly identified one of the Kurdish groups involved in that planning. The groups were the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Islamic Movement in Kurdistan (IMK).

POLAND ADMITS COMBAT ROLE IN IRAQ WAR
Premier Leszek Miller and Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski on 24 March admitted that Poland's GROM commando unit has taken part in several successful operations in the Iraq campaign with no casualties suffered, PAP reported. Szmajdzinski also said divers from Poland's Formoza elite corps are also in the Iraq area, adding that a Polish chemical unit currently training with U.S. experts is ready to enter Iraq. Warsaw earlier confirmed only that it had sent 200 troops to the Persian Gulf in a supporting, noncombat, role. The 24 March admission came after the media published Reuters photographs showing masked GROM soldiers taking prisoners, scrawling graffiti on a portrait of Saddam Hussein, and posing with U.S. Navy Seals holding up a U.S. flag. "These photos shouldn't have happened," Szmajdzinski said, "The next time it will definitely be with the Polish flag." U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns reportedly praised Polish troops for their performance in the Iraq conflict. Meanwhile, League of Polish Families lawmaker Zygmunt Wrzodak said the same day that the Polish president and premier violated the constitution by "de facto declaring war on Iraq" without parliamentary approval. JM

U.S. ASKS RUSSIA TO INVESTIGATE SALES OF PROSCRIBED ITEMS...
U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned Russian President Vladimir Putin on 24 March to express concern that at least one Russian company has been providing the Iraqi military with equipment and weapons deemed prohibited under UN sanctions, the White House website reported the same day (http://www.whitehouse.gov). "We are very concerned that there are reports of ongoing cooperation and support to Iraqi military forces being provided by a Russian company that produces GPS [Global Positioning System] jamming equipment," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in a 24 March briefing. "There are other causes of concern, as well, involving night-vision goggles and antitank guided missiles," he added. Fleischer told the press that President Putin assured Bush the matter will be investigated (also see Russia items in "RFE/RL Newsline Part I"). KR

...AS RUSSIA LEVELS ITS OWN ACCUSATIONS AGAINST U.S...
. Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said on 24 March that Russia has been strictly complying with the sanctions regime imposed against Iraq by the UN Security Council and that Moscow has supplied no military equipment to Iraq since the early 1980s, RTR and other Russian media reported. Appearing together with former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, Ivanov also said the Russian government is ready to investigate any evidence the United States can produce to back up its allegations, and that any Russian companies found to be in violation of sanctions would face serious consequences. Primakov, who is currently the head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, quoted a statement that he attributed to former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who said the United Kingdom and the United States supplied sophisticated military equipment to Hussein's regime. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Kremlin's response to the U.S. charges "has not been satisfactory." The issue was also raised during a telephone consultation between Ivanov and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on 24 March, Reuters reported the next day. VY

...AND IRAQI MINISTER DENIES RUSSIA PROVIDED MILITARY EQUIPMENT
Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf on 25 March rejected U.S. claims that Russia provided Baghdad with military hardware in contradiction of a UN arms embargo, Reuters and RFE/RL reported. Reuters quoted al-Sahhaf as saying, "Russia never gave us anything and we didn't ask for anything. Iraq has not received anything of what the U.S. and Britain say from Russia." RFE/RL meanwhile quoted al-Sahhaf as saying: "What the enemy has mentioned about the story that Russia has provided Iraq with some so-and-so technology or something like that, we inform you frankly that this is completely baseless. We don't have Russian experts in Iraq. We didn't ask and we received nothing." AH

ANTIWAR RALLY IN SOUTHWESTERN IRAN
More than 700 people staged an antiwar rally in Ahvaz on 24 March, IRNA reported. The demonstrators chanted "Death to America," "Death to Britain," and "Death to Israel," and Ahvaz interim Friday Prayer leader Hojatoleslam Mohsen Heidari told them that Iranians have a religious duty to sympathize with the Iraqi people. Heidari offered his view on why the allies have attacked Iraq: "The U.S. is merely seeking to force the Islamic Iran to surrender and to dominate the Iraqi oil reserves, the Islamic ummah [community], and the Persian Gulf region through its war on Iraq." The local Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, Reza Mirzadeh, told the demonstrators that the American flag has been burned in more than 160 countries, and this is a sign of the United States' pending collapse. BS

SCIRI GENERAL ASSEMBLY MEETING IN NORTHERN IRAQ
SCIRI associate Muhsin al-Hakim said in a 24 March telephone interview with IRNA that the Shia opposition organization's General Assembly would meet in Sulaymaniah on 25 March. Members of the SCIRI leadership council have held a series of meetings in recent days, he said, to discuss their role in current events and in Iraq's future. "An important meeting in Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday [24 March] was between the high-ranking commanders of the Badr Corps stationed in the region, with the head of the Jihadi Bureau of the SCIRI Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim," he added. SCIRI, in a 24 March message, called on the Iraqi armed forces to "help end [the Baathist] regime's domination," IRNA reported. The SCIRI blamed the regime for Iraq's current problems. BS

IRAQI SHIA OPPOSITION LEADERS DESCRIBED AS IRANIAN 'APPARATCHIKS'
Saddam Hussein has little to fear from senior Iraqi opposition figures because Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has turned many of them into "Iranian government apparatchiks," Alireza Nurizadeh writes in the 24 March issue of Beirut's "The Daily Star." Iranian judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, for example, used to be a leading figure in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and International Assembly of the Ahl al-Bayt Secretary-General Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi al-Asifi used to lead the pro-Iran faction of the Al-Da'wah al-Islamiyah (Islamic Call) party. SCIRI head Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim might soon be appointed to a similar post, according to "The Daily Star." "The yellowed Iranian birth certificates (issued by Iranian consulates in Karbala and other cities) of [the named individuals] bear witness to the fact that those Shia who dream of ruling Iraq are more Iranian than Iraqi," according to "The Daily Star." SCIRI's Abdul Aziz al-Hakim has been touted as a possible future Iraqi leader, but his close relationship with Tehran precludes the United States allowing such an occurrence, according to a commentary in the "Gilan-i Imruz" daily of Rasht on 10 February. BS

ISRAELI DAILY SAYS TEL AVIV WANTS IRAN TO BE NEXT
"After the war in Iraq, Israel will try to convince the U.S. to direct its war on terror at Iran, Damascus and Beirut," according to a piece in the 22 March issue of Israel's "Ha'aretz" daily. The paper went on to claim that "senior defense establishment officials" already are trying to win the United States over. If the United States goes after Iraq in the course of its war on terror and weapons of mass destruction, the paper asked, why is Iran being ignored? "Ha'aretz" reported on 18 March that Israeli intelligence had secured most of the details about the July 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, including an account of the August 1993 Supreme National Security Council meeting at which Supreme Leader Khamenei, then-President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, then-Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Fallahian, and then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati decided on the attack. The bombing was carried out with help from Hizballah official Imad Mughniyah, according to "Ha'aretz." Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom expressed the belief that Israeli information on the 1994 attack (and on a 1992 attack; see item below) coincides with a secret Argentinian report, the Telam news agency reported on 17 March. BS

AFGHAN LEADER BLAMES HUSSEIN FOR BRINGING 'DISASTER ON IRAQI NATION'
Afghan Transitional Administration President Hamid Karzai told a cabinet meeting on 24 March, "Afghanistan's stance with regard to the war against Iraq is obvious," Radio Afghanistan reported. Karzai added that the Afghan people love the Iraqi people and sympathize with them and with the "large Islamic country" of Iraq, but he said that Saddam Hussein, "with his tyrannical and anti-Islamic performances, such as the wars and violations against Iraq's neighboring Muslim countries, Iran and Kuwait, brought disaster on the Iraqi nation." Reflecting on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Karzai said that despite religious and historical ties between Afghanistan and Iraq, the Iraqi leader supported the Soviets and "the communist aggressors [Soviet-installed government in Kabul] at the time of jihad of the Muslim people of Afghanistan" instead of supporting Afghans who were fighting for their freedom. Karzai added that his administration hopes the Iraqi people achieve their "just desire for a perfect and democratic government very soon" and that Iraq's "territorial integrity, independence, and its national rule are preserved," the report added. AT

MAJORITY OF AFGHANS SAID TO BELIEVE WAR WILL BRING DEMOCRACY TO IRAQ
The Dari-language Kabul daily "Anis" commented on 24 March that whereas some countries and people are opposed to the war in Iraq -- and the Afghan people are concerned about the welfare of Iraqi civilians, particularly given their own bitter experience of war -- "the vast majority of the people of Afghanistan compare their situation with the people of Iraq" and "believe that peace and democracy will be provided for Iraq at the end of the day, and the Iraqis will witness a regime that will be in accordance with their will and desire." The paper added that some in Afghanistan are sympathetic to the position of Herat Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan, who it says "compared the invasion of Iraq with the Russian [Soviet] aggression against Afghanistan and denounced it." "Anis" added that, "as the people of Afghanistan have been rescued from a dictatorship regime, the Iraqis have the right to decide their fate, too." Ismail Khan was in a Kandahar prison under the Taliban, and came to power only after the U.S.-led military campaign that toppled that fundamentalist regime in later 2001. AT

RUSSIAN MILITARY EXPERTS WARN AGAINST UNDERESTIMATING IRAQ...
The air supremacy and the high-tech, precision-guided weaponry of the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq do not mean that it will prevail in close combat, Duma Defense Committee Chairman and Army General Andrei Nikolaev (People's Deputy) told RosBalt on 24 March. In fact, he said, Iraqi tactics are effectively countering the coalition's technological advantage. Of course, Nikolaev said, U.S. technological superiority will eventually determine the outcome of the conflict, but he warned that coalition forces could find themselves confronted by Iraqis who throw flowers during the day and grenades at night. Sergei Karaganov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, said that the first few days of the military campaign did not go according to the coalition's plans because wars are always unpredictable, RosBalt reported on 24 March. He argued that the United States lost the information war before the military campaign even began. "They failed to convince the world they were right, but 'hooked' themselves," Karaganov said. "Propaganda has the ability to make those who propagate it believe it." VY

...AS OTHERS LAUNCH PREEMPTIVE INFORMATION STRIKE AGAINST U.S.
The United States might "fabricate the discovery" of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq or create "evidence" that Baghdad has been operating prohibited weapons programs, an unidentified Russian military expert was quoted by RIA-Novosti as saying on 24 March. Academician Yevgenii Velikhov, director of the Kurchatov Nuclear Center, told strana.ru on 24 March that "if the United States finds no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it is possible they will drum up proof of their existence." Velikhov noted that it is very difficult to determine the origin of some nuclear-weapons components such as uranium-235, particularly because they are prepared "under the supervision of the security services." VY

PRESIDENT TOUTS ROLE BELARUS COULD PLAY BETWEEN U.S., IRAQ
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 24 March met with newly appointed Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau and newly appointed Ambassador to the United States Mikhail Khvastou, Belarusian Television reported. "I think that the United States and Great Britain need today to look for an honorable way out of the existing situation [in Iraq] before it's too late. I am convinced, Syarhey Mikalayevich [Martynau] and Mikhail Mikhaylavich [Khvastou], that we can play a principal and significant role in steering them out of the existing situation," Lukashenka said. Asked what role Belarus could play to this end, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh told an RFE/RL Belarusian Service correspondent that the ministry is working on some proposals, but refused to elaborate. "I think it is nothing more than [Lukashenka's] political morbidity," opposition leader Anatol Lyabedzka commented. "Lukashenka has no possibility to influence regional policy, let alone global [policy]." JM

CZECH REPUBLIC EXPELS ANOTHER IRAQI DIPLOMAT
The Czech Republic on 24 March declared the head of the Iraqi diplomatic mission in Prague persona non grata and gave Iraqi Charge d'Affaires Malik Muhammad Ani 48 hours to leave the country, CTK and international news agencies reported. The Czech Republic last week expelled four other Iraqi diplomats. They left the country on 21 March. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar told CTK that the ministry is still considering a U.S. request that the entire Iraqi diplomatic mission be closed down (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 23 March 2003). MS

CZECH REPUBLIC SENDS FAULTY GAS MASKS TO KUWAIT
The Czech Republic has sent some 5,000 faulty gas masks to Kuwait that are unusable in the event of a chemical attack, CTK and Reuters reported on 25 March, citing the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes." The daily reported that the masks were shipped by the Czech firm Gumarny Zubri as part of a sample order that was to lead to larger shipments. Members of the Czech anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) warfare unit stationed in Kuwait have been barred from using the masks. "Mlada fronta Dnes" cited Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik as saying that the masks "are a cause for shame," adding, "I am extremely angry." Company officials said they did not have enough masks to fill the 5,000-piece order and therefore borrowed gas masks from the Interior Ministry. MS

CZECH PRESIDENT AGAIN CRITICIZES IRAQ WAR
President Vaclav Klaus, in an article in the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" of 25 March, said the dictatorship in Iraq "is unacceptable and dangerous for the Euro-Atlantic civilization, but the idea that democracy can be installed by military force comes from another universe," CTK reported. Klaus said it is "ridiculous and naive" to claim that the United States is waging war in Iraq for oil, because the United States is not dependent on oil from that country. Furthermore, he said, "trade in oil calls for stability in the region where most oil deposits are." Klaus said the real reasons for the war stem from " a combination of American idealism, new fears after the 11 September [2001 terrorist attacks on the United States], and the new international situation in which a bipolar world has been replaced by one in which the U.S. is the only real great power." Klaus added that when the war ends, the international community as a whole will encounter big problems. "Democracy can be supported and encouraged, but cannot be dictated, least of all by military force," he said. "Furthermore, if this model of democracy by export becomes the norm, who will be next in line? Who will approve that list?" MS

CROATIA SEEKS CLARIFICATION OF U.S. POLICY
Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan discussed Washington's policy toward his country with U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Lawrence Rossin in Zagreb on 24 March, "Vecernji list" reported. Racan asked for the meeting following recent comments by Rossin to the weekly "Globus" that Croatia's "low-profile" policy over the Iraq crisis has disappointed Washington (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). Racan and Rossin sought to stress positive aspects of bilateral relations in their "friendly and open discussion," in which Racan did not endorse the view of President Stipe Mesic that the U.S. military action is "illegitimate" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2003). "Vjesnik" reported that the Croatian political leadership is divided over the war in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February, 12 and 19 March 2003). Some observers have noted that Croatia is confident that relations with the United States will remain strong because Zagreb is one of Washington's few reliable partners in the region. Other observers stress that Zagreb's chief priority is joining the EU in 2007, and that it has accordingly tailored its policy on Iraq so as not to offend Paris or Berlin. PM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT SAYS IRAQI EMBASSY IN BUCHAREST IS 'PRACTICALLY CLOSED'
President Ion Iliescu told journalists on 24 March that Romania is continuing to examine the implications of responding to the U.S. request to close down the Iraqi Embassy in Bucharest, adding that the Iraqi diplomatic representation is already "closed down for all practical purposes," Mediafax reported. Iliescu said that as a result of the expulsion of five Iraqi diplomats and the recall to Baghdad of Ambassador Saad Hamid Majid, "all those who served [at the embassy] have left" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 13, and 17 March 2003). Finance Minister Mihai Tanasescu said that, in line with the 17 March U.S. request that Iraqi accounts in foreign banks be frozen, the National Bank will "probably" examine how many Iraqi accounts are open in Romania and the authority will then make a decision. Tanasescu said that regardless, Iraqi accounts are "under the constant supervision of the Office Against Money Laundering." MS

ROMANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN GERMANY
Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana met in Berlin on 24 March with his German counterpart Joschka Fischer and with German Defense Minister Peter Struck, Romanian Radio and Mediafax reported. The talks focused on the Iraq crisis and the conflict it has triggered within the EU, as well as on EU enlargement and bilateral military cooperation. Both Fischer and Geoana emphasized that existing differences among EU members over the Iraq crisis must not impede the process of EU enlargement and of forging a joint European foreign and defense policy. Fischer said that the differences between his country's position on the crisis and that of Bucharest will not influence the positive German attitude toward Romania as a future EU member, and that Berlin will continue to extend aid to Bucharest to facilitate this quest. Fischer said Germany is capable of understanding the pro-U.S. position of countries recently invited to join NATO, as East Germans also struggle with the legacy of communism and the difficulties posed by the transition to a market economy. Talks with Struck focused on bilateral cooperation in peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans. MS

BULGARIA REDUCES NBC UNIT TO BE DEPLOYED TO CRISIS REGION
The government on 24 March decided to reduce the anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit that is to be deployed to an unspecified country neighboring Iraq, mediapool.bg reported. The decision to reduce the unit from the originally planned 150 troops to about 100 stems from the fact that the unit will be embedded with coalition forces, as opposed to working on its own, thus freeing troops that were tasked with guarding and logistics. UB

AZERBAIJAN CONSIDERS PARTICIPATION IN POSTWAR RECONSTRUCTION IN IRAQ
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev told journalists in Baku on 25 March that Azerbaijani oil industry specialists and medical personnel could be sent to Iraq once the war is over, and Azerbaijani personnel could also help "to protect Islamic shrines," Turan reported. Guliev said coalition troops should take care not to damage such religious sites, which "belong not just to the Islamic world but to the whole of mankind." Guliev also mentioned the possibility that Azerbaijani forces might participate in peacekeeping operations in Iraq. He said that to date coalition aircraft have not used Azerbaijani airspace, as there has been "no need" for them to do so. LF

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT CALLS FOR END TO IRAQ WAR
Kyrgyzstan's parliament appealed to U.S. President George W. Bush and to the U.S. Congress on 24 March to stop the war against Iraq and to resolve the crisis in the UN Security Council, Interfax reported, citing parliamentary International Affairs Committee Chairman Alisher Abdimomunov. Abdimomunov told Interfax that parliament also called for the return of UN weapons inspectors to Iraq. He added that it is the view of the Kyrgyz parliament that the United States violated international law by launching military operations against Iraq. He also expressed concern that Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies cannot track warplanes leaving the military airbase at Bishkek's Manas Airport, and so, theoretically, there could be flights from Manas to Iraq. The base commander has repeatedly denied this possibility, saying the base is being used exclusively to support the international antiterrorism coalition in Afghanistan. BB

AFGHAN WARLORD'S SON KILLED IN CLASHES WITH U.S. FORCES
Khan Mohammad Yar, a spokesman for the renegade commander Pacha Khan Zadran, has said that Jalani Khan, the eldest son of Pacha Khan Zadran, and 10 other troops were killed on 23 March in fighting between U.S. forces and Zadran's supporters in Paktiya Province, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on 24 March. U.S. sources confirmed the fighting, but said only one rebel was killed, "The New York Times" reported on 24 March. U.S. forces clashed directly with Zadran's troops for the first time on 12 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003). Zadran was an ally of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States, as well as a signatory to the 2001 Bonn Agreement, but later took up armed opposition against the central government. Since November 2002, Zadran 's forces have been attempting to take control of Gardayz, the capital of Paktiya Province, where he was once governor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November and 19 December 2002). AT

COALITION COMMANDER IN AFGHANISTAN COMPLAINS OF POSTWAR EFFORTS AND DRAWS LESSONS FOR IRAQ
U.S. Army Lieutenant General Dan McNeill, commander of the antiterrorism coalition forces in Afghanistan, said on 23 March that he is "frustrated" that the international community, particularly Western countries, have not taken "more bold steps" to rebuild Afghanistan, London's "The Independent" reported. "What is needed now is an overstep by the international community towards reconstruction," McNeill said. As regards postwar Iraq, he said, "Clearly there is a lesson to be learnt for those who have responsibility for other conflicts and postconflict situations." AT

RFE/RL REPORTER ORDERED OUT OF HERAT
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Behzad, along with a group of journalists including Masud Hasanzada of Voice of America (VOA) as well as the BBC, on 24 announced that they will leave Herat Province for one week and abstain from covering the region to protest Governor Ismail Khan's recent crackdown on the media. The weekly "Takhasus" and the monthly "Shugufa," along with a number of journalists from newspapers in Herat, proclaimed they will also join the protest, citing Ismail Khan's arrest and beating Behzad on 19 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). Before the journalists left the province, Herat security chief Nasim Alawi told Behzad on 24 March that Ismail Khan demanded explicitly that Behzad was to leave Herat immediately. In an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan on 24 March, Behzad said that journalists and writers from most media outlets in Herat have signed an open letter to Karzai asking him to intervene to oppose Ismail Khan's efforts to stifle the press. AT

U.S. RELEASES AFGHANS IMPRISONED IN CUBA
A group of 18 Afghan prisoners held at the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on suspicion of being members of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda, were released on 21 March and flown to the U.S. air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, "The New York Times" reported on 24 March. Colonel Roger King, the U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, did not provide any information about the freed prisoners, but confirmed they were transferred to Afghan authorities, the report added. Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Hilaloddin Hilal said the United States told him "they could not find any evidence that [the 18 men] are guilty of anything." Hilal declined comment on the identities of the prisoners, saying only that one is a 20-year-old student "who is widely considered here to have been unjustly imprisoned." He said that in war "it is difficult to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent." Hilal added that Afghan authorities are "optimistic that after one year the Americans are managing to differentiate and they are releasing the innocent ones now." Another 30 Afghans were released from prison in Guantanamo on 23 March, according to international news agencies. AT

BRITISH MP COMPARES AFGHAN PRISONERS TO U.S. POWS IN IRAQ
Member of Parliament Oona King (Labour Party, East London) on 24 March questioned whether U.S. and British claims of Iraq's treatment of prisoners of war were being undermined by the detention in Guantanamo Bay of prisoners from the Afghan conflict, "The New York Times" reported. Blair responded, in the newspaper's words, that the "analogy was imperfect because the men held in Cuba were not combatants representing a country, but he agreed that their status should be resolved speedily once they had given over their information about terrorism." On 7 February, Human Rights Watch proposed that "unlike the Al-Qaeda fighters, detainees who fought for the Taliban probably should be accorded POW status because they fought for the armed forces of a party to the [Geneva] Convention, whether or not their government was recognized and whether or not their fighters respected the laws of war." It is not clear whether the releases of Afghan prisoners from Cuba are related to the war on Iraq. AT

DIFFERING VIEWS ON IRANIAN GOVERNMENT'S APPROACH TO UNEMPLOYMENT
Supreme Leader Khamenei said in a 21 March Norouz speech in Mashhad that the government is making a serious effort to create jobs, state television reported. In the previous year, according to Khamenei, the number of jobs created surpassed the number of people entering the job market by 100,000. Khamenei emphasized the importance of this effort because unemployment leads to corruption, and he promised to follow up on officials' job-creation efforts. Economic Affairs and Finance Minister Tahmasb Mazaheri said on 15 March that in the next five years, 8.2-9 million people will need jobs, IRNA reported. The annual growth rate must be 8 percent to meet that demand, Mazaheri told a group of taxation officials. Former presidential candidate Ahmad Tavakoli told a 4 March meeting at Hamedan University that the economic policies of President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's administration are "anti-employment," IRNA reported. Tavakoli accused the government of money laundering and providing smugglers with foreign currency in exchange for rials. Moreover, Tavakoli said, the public is traumatized by the contrast between its own living conditions and those of officials and clerics. BS

BUENOS AIRES EAGER TO PRESERVE RELATIONS WITH TEHRAN
Argentinian cabinet chief Alfredo Atanasof said on 18 March that the Iranian government has said it will shed light on questions relating to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Telam news agency reported. He added that the Iranian charge d'affaires will come to Argentina in the coming days to analyze the arrest warrants for Iranian officials. The same day, Argentinian presidential spokesman Luis Verdi said Buenos Aires has informed Tehran that the individual branches of government act independently, Telam reported. Verdi stated that the judge who issued the warrants is not accusing the Iranian government but rather Iranian citizens, so there should not be any tension in Iran-Argentina relations. BS

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