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Newsline - March 20, 2006

Andrei Illarionov, who recently served as economic adviser to President Vladimir Putin, told reporters in connection with the recent Moscow meeting of energy ministers from the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries that the Western democracies are "appeasing" Russia by accepting it as a member of that group, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 29, 2005, and January 23 and March 17, 2006). Illarionov stressed that the other seven countries will be endorsing Putin's policies of "nationalization of private property, destruction of the rule of law, violation of human rights, and liquidation of democracy" if they attend his July summit in St. Petersburg. The former aide added that Russia does not qualify for G-8 membership on either political or economic grounds. "The St. Petersburg summit will be a triumph for dictators around the world and a signal to them that what they do to their people and neighbors does not matter," he added. PM

Speaking to journalists after his Moscow meeting with President Putin on March 17, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called on the Russian leader to support democracy, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 20. "We would like to be sure that the transition in a transition to a democracy and not a transition to some sort of half-democracy," Barroso added. The Moscow daily noted, however, that at about the same time it came to light that Bill Browder, a U.S.-born U.K. citizen and chief executive of Hermitage Capital, which runs an equity fund with $4.1 billion under management in Russia, has been barred from entering Russia since November because of unspecified "national-security concerns." Browder, who is the largest foreign investor in the Russian stock market, has been a bullish advocate of foreign investments in that country, and one of his speeches to that effect has been distributed abroad by Russian embassies. He appears, however, to have made enemies at Gazprom and elsewhere by calling in recent months for improved corporate governance, the daily noted. PM

European Commission President Barroso told President Putin in Moscow on March 17 that the EU places great emphasis upon building up a "true partnership" in energy supplies in the wake of the recent Ukrainian gas crisis, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 20. The EU has long wanted Russia to sign its Energy Charter and open up Gazprom's monopoly of pipelines to private business (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2006). Putin's aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said that Russia also expects long-term commitments and security guarantees from its customers. He added that "the most sustained attention was devoted to securing global energy security [and] strengthening and diversifying relations in the energy field between Russia and the EU. The Russian side emphasized that in many spheres -- but above all in terms of energy -- the EU is a key, longtime, high-priority partner. Russia intends in the future to fulfill its obligations in supplying energy resources to EU countries." Russian officials are concerned that the EU will try to limit its energy supplies from Russia in response to the Ukrainian gas crisis, the daily added. PM

Colonel General Aleksei Maslov, who commands Russia's land forces, told state RTR television on March 19 that unnamed prosecutors are using the recent brutal hazing case involving Private Andrei Sychyov to discredit the military. He suggested that those prosecutors are urging unnamed individuals to give false testimony against the military. He said of Sychyov's battalion: "I can report today that there were no cases of mass drinking on New Year's Eve among [those] servicemen," when the beating allegedly took place. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov previously accused the media of playing up the incident to discredit the military (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 27 and February 15, 2006). PM

Judge Olga Solopova of Moscow's Basmany Raion Court signed an order on March 17 freezing the bank accounts of the Open Russia foundation, which was founded by the embattled head of the once-mighty Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russian media reported. This appears to be but the latest in a series of recent moves against him, his assets, and his associates. He is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the remote Chita Oblast for fraud and tax evasion after a trial that was widely viewed as politically motivated and engineered by the Kremlin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2005, and March 8, 13, and 16, 2006). PM

Gennady Onishchenko, who heads Russia's State Health Inspectorate, told Interfax on March 19 that 2,369,000 Russian citizens are officially diagnosed as alcoholics, which is a 14 percent increase over 2000. He cited several reasons for the problem. For example, he blamed the growth of alcoholism among teenagers as partly due to the official practice of classifying beer as a nonalcoholic drink. He added that poor-quality alcohol is also a problem and that 40,000 people died in 2004 alone from drinking bad-quality products. Alcohol is widely acknowledged as a key factor in the declining birth rate of the population, which now stands at 143 million and could well fall to 80 million by 2050. PM

Parliament deputies rejected on March 16 the 2006 draft Chechen budget on the grounds that the federal center failed to allocate adequate funds for reconstruction, Interfax and reported on March 17. The draft envisaged 19 billion rubles ($687 million) in federal subsidies, a sum that Chechen First Deputy Parliament Chairman Zambek Zaltsayev argued should be increased to 120-130 billion rubles. Federal subsidies account for more than 80 percent of Chechnya's budget, according to "Vedomosti," No. 43 of March 14. Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov told RIA Novosti that the situation in Chechnya is "unique" in terms of the extent of infrastructure destruction, and that reconstruction will take decades if the present rate of funding is not increased, reported on March 17. Kadyrov argued that large-scale investment is urgently needed to reduce unemployment by creating new jobs lest economic problems give rise to political unrest. On March 18, the Chechen parliament voted to request that the Russian government transfer to Chechen ownership an additional 2 percent stake in the oil company Grozneftegaz, Interfax reported. Russia's state-owned Rosneft currently owns a 51 percent stake in Grozneftegaz and the Chechen government the remaining 49 percent. LF

Between 250-300 members of the so-called "kadyrovtsy," the presidential guard subordinate to pro-Moscow Chechen Prime Minister Kadyrov, were flown in early May 2005 to Uzbekistan, where they reportedly participated in the crackdown on demonstrators in Andijon on May 13-15, according to the Chechen resistance website The March 18 report was based on information provided by members of the "kadyrovtsy" who defected earlier this month to the Chechen resistance. Those defectors alleged that Russian military intelligence and Federal Security Service (FSB) detachments also participated in the Andijon crackdown. According to, some of the defectors have already left Chechnya; the others are being debriefed by members of the National Information Service subordinate to the resistance government. LF

President Putin issued a decree on March 17 dismissing Lieutenant General Khachim Shogenov from the post of interior minister of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic and appointing Colonel Yury Tomchak, a former deputy interior minister of the Republic of Adygeya, to replace him, reported. Shogenov has been named a special adviser on law-enforcement issues to Kabardino-Balkaria President Arsen Kanokov, reported on March 18. The same agency quoted Russian human rights activists as hailing the dismissal of Shogenov as a move to rein in the so-called power ministries that have reportedly emerged as an independent political force in Kabardino-Balkaria. The republican Interior Ministry under Shogenov was reportedly the main force behind last year's crackdown on suspected Islamic militants in Kabardino-Balkaria. LF

Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov has retained his post as interior minister in the new Daghestan cabinet, according to on March 16. Magomedtagirov was quoted as rejecting as misplaced rumors of his imminent dismissal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2006). He also told journalists in Makhachkala on March 16 that a number of suspects have been identified in the murders on March 10 and 12 of two police officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). LF

The Armenian government's State Property Management Department has offered office space on Yerevan's Buzand Street to the Meltex Company, founder of the independent A1+ television channel and its website successor, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 17. Meltex faces eviction from the premises it has occupied for the past decade in a building belonging to the National Academy of Sciences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 15, July 21, and August 2, 2005). Meltex head Mesrop Movsisian said the alternative premises are less than half the size of those Meltex currently rents; he added that Meltex may sue the Academy of Sciences for compensation for investments the company made in its offices. A1+ was forced to discontinue broadcasting in 2002; all its efforts to acquire a new frequency have ended in failure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2 and 3, 2002; and June 12, July 15 and 18, October 14, and December 30, 2003). LF

Senior officials of the coffee importer Royal Armenia have written to President Robert Kocharian to protest what they term "criminal terror" exerted on the company in the course of the investigation opened into its activities one year ago, Noyan Tapan reported on March 17. Royal Armenia's co-owner and deputy director were arrested last fall after accusing customs officials of penalizing the company for having rejected an offer to underestimate the values of the company's imports in return for a bribe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2004; and January 11, June 28, and October 14, 2005). LF

Iranian Ambassador to Azerbaijan Afshar Soleymani handed a protest note on March 17 to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry in connection with a statement made the previous day at the Second World Congress of Azerbaijanis in Baku by the chairman of that body, Djavad Derekhti, and RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported. Derekhti condemned Iran's policy toward its sizeable Azeri minority and said the Azerbaijan Republic and so-called Southern Azerbaijan, meaning predominantly Azeri-populated regions of Iran, constitute a single country with a population of 50 million. Solyemani said it was inappropriate to make such a statement at a gathering attended by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. The protest note further made the point that Derekhti's statement violated Azerbaijan's obligations stemming from the bilateral Treaty on Friendly Relations and Cooperation signed in May 2002. On March 18, the conservative wing of the divided Azerbaijan Popular Front Party convened a demonstration outside the Iranian Embassy in Baku to demand that Soleymani be declared persona non grata and that Iran provide its Azerbaijani minority with education at all levels in the Azeri language, reported. LF

Georgian residents of Azerbaijan's Saingilo district have staged a protest against the closure of the Azerbaijani border with Georgia, Caucasus Press reported on March 17. Azerbaijani border guards are now demanding they use an alternative, more distant crossing. The Georgians pointed out that the restrictions prevent them from crossing into neighboring Georgia to visit relatives. LF

A group of nine Georgian parliament deputies who were detained at Minsk airport by the Belarusian authorities upon their arrival in Belarus on March 16 to monitor the March 19 presidential election were released on March 18 and returned to Tbilisi, Caucasus Press reported. The Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on March 17 deploring the detention and what it termed "libelous" allegations by the Belarusian KGB that Belarusian citizens are trained in "terrorist camps" in Georgia. LF

Georgian presidential administration head Giorgi Arveladze told journalists in Tbilisi on March 17 that the opposition has tried but failed to destabilize the situation in Georgia, Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported. Arveladze further accused the opposition of serving the interests of unnamed "oligarchs," and of collaborating with unnamed criminal interests. Also on March 17, Inga Grigolia, who hosts a talk show on the independent Imedi television channel, said Georgian officials refused join three opposition party leaders on her program that day that was to focus on the January killing of United Georgian Bank official Sandro Girgvliani. LF

Georgian oppositionists and students staged a protest on March 17 outside the Interior Ministry and State Chancellery in Tbilisi to demand the resignation of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, whom they accused of protecting ministry employees implicated in Girgvliani's killing, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 13, and 14, 2006). Merabishvili again responded that he has no intention of resigning, and he accused the opposition of seeking to damage the image of the police and the country as a whole, Interfax reported. LF

Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, assured the French, German, British, Russian, and U.S. ambassadors to Georgia at a meeting in Tskhinvali on March 16 that he considers his republic a full-fledged subject of international law, Caucasus Press reported. Kokoity also said he remains committed to resolving South Ossetia's conflict with the central Georgian government by exclusively peaceful means. On March 17, Georgian Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze submitted to the Council of Europe's Venice Commission a draft law on restitution for residents of the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Employees of Georgian Public Television called at a press conference on March 18 for the resignation of the broadcaster's general director, Tamar Kintsurashvili, Caucasus Press reported. They alleged that Kintsurashvili is a bad manager, and called for an assessment of her work over the past six months. The Georgian parliament has expressed concern over the recent dismissal by Kintsurashvili of several of the broadcaster's staff (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). Kintsurashvili rejected that statement of concern as misplaced, and European Broadcasting Union Secretary-General Jean Reveillon has written to her describing as "disturbing" reports of the Georgian parliament's "attempts at interfering" in the channel's operations, Caucasus Press reported on March 16. LF

Lado Pataridze, head of the Imereti School Management Department, was seriously injured by a bomb that exploded outside the education department in Kutaisi late on March 16, Caucasus Press reported. Education Minister Kakha Lomaya told journalists in Tbilisi on March 17 that the bomb was the work of "terrorists" who oppose the ongoing reform of the education system. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev arrived in Uzbekistan on March 19 for a two-day visit intended to foster greater cooperation between the two countries, UzA and Kazinform reported. Nazarbaev will meet with Uzbek President Islam Karimov on March 20, when the two are expected to sign a number of bilateral agreements. In the lead-up to the visit, the Uzbek presidential press service noted that the two countries have delimited their 2,300-kilometer border and that Kazakh and Uzbek security services cooperated to unmask an underground extremist group in southern Kazakhstan in 2004, ITAR-TASS reported. Accompanying Nazarbaev on his visit are Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev, Agriculture Minister Akhmetzhan Esimov, and Transportation and Communications Minister Askar Mamin, Kazinform reported. DK

Kyrgyz legislators voted on March 17 to ask a parliamentary committee to prepare the legal justification for a vote of no confidence in the government, reported. Deputy Iskhak Masaliev initially proposed a no-confidence vote on March 7, but newly elected parliamentary speaker Murat Sultanov called the proposal "reasonable" but untimely (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2006). Prime Minister Feliks Kulov brushed off the latest preparations for a no-confidence vote, telling cabinet members, "Don't react to this," Interfax reported on March 17. In an apparent reference to legislators, Kulov explained, "They are like children and need to be treated tenderly and with love," reported. DK

Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev has announced that an agreement has been reached for Aidar Akaev, son of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, to testify in Moscow on criminal cases against him, Kabar reported on March 17. Kongantiev said the ex-president's son faces five criminal cases in Kyrgyzstan. Aidar Akaev, who currently resides in Moscow, has expressed willingness to cooperate with the investigation but fears for his safety if he should return to Kyrgyzstan. Kongantiev said the investigation of crimes allegedly committed by the former president, his family, and entourage has proceeded slowly because a large number of offshore jurisdictions are involved. DK

Jan Kubis, EU special representative for Central Asia, met with Said Abdullo Nuri, head of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party, in Dushanbe on March 16, Avesta reported the next day. Nuri commented on the party's development, saying, "Having passed a number of stages of its formation, the party is now concentrating on switching its activities from party-orientated interests to the ones at the national level." Kubis also met with Rahmatullo Valiev, deputy head of the Democratic Party. The two discussed the case of Democratic Party head Muhammadruzi Iskandarov, who was recently sentenced to a 23-year prison term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2005). "Jan Kubis said that Iskandarov's case was under the EU's constant observation," Valiev said. DK

Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry has issued a press release criticizing Ukraine for delaying talks to settle the $158.9 million debt Turkmenistan says Ukraine owes for previous gas shipments, NewsCentralAsia reported on March 18. The ministry said that "the delay by the Ukrainian side in carrying out its debt obligations puts in doubt bilateral cooperation in the fuel and energy sphere," reported. The ministry said that a planned visit to Ashgabat by a Ukraine delegation on March 15-16 has been "postponed indefinitely." The ministry noted that the two sides signed a debt-settlement protocol when a Ukrainian delegation visited Turkmenistan on March 10-11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). Meanwhile, Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov announced that Turkmenistan has not lived up to its supply obligations, reported on March 19. Plachkov said that Ukraine received no Turkmen gas in January-February, adding that Ukraine has paid Turkmenistan a total of $88 million in back payments for 2005 shipments and prepayment for 2006 shipments. Plachkov said that a Ukrainian delegation will travel to Turkmenistan at the end of the week to continue talks. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov told a cabinet meeting on March 16 that he will visit China on April 2-7, reported the next day. Niyazov stressed that Turkmenistan places great importance on expanding ties with China. The visit is expected to focus on energy-sector cooperation, including plans to construct a natural-gas pipeline for exports of Turkmen gas to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2006). DK

In a March 17 press release, Deutsche Welle director Erik Bettermann criticized the Uzbek government's recent decision to strip a Deutsche Welle correspondent of accreditation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2006). "We regret this decision. Deutsche Welle works with a strong sense of responsibility in crisis regions, so we cannot understand the charges by the Uzbek Foreign Ministry," he said, and expressed the hope that the Uzbek authorities will review the decision. "People in Uzbekistan are committed to independent media and their reporting." The Uzbek ministry claimed that Deutsche Welle correspondents misreported a story about deaths on a bus in Bukhara. DK

Central Election Commission Chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna announced on March 20 that according to preliminary results, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was re-elected in the March 19 election for a third consecutive term with 82.6 percent of the vote, Belarusian media reported. Yarmoshyna added that Lukasenka's election rivals, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Syarhey Haydukevich, and Alyaksandr Kazulin obtained 6 percent, 3.5 percent, and 2.3 percent of the vote, respectively. Election turnout was 92.6 percent. JM

United opposition candidate Milinkevich on March 19 alleged massive electoral fraud and called for a repeat presidential election, RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported. "I believe this civil confrontation can be resolved by [holding repeat] elections, in which representatives of all candidates will be represented in election commissions," Milinkevich told journalists. Later the same day, Milinkevich took part in a rally of more than 20,000 opposition supporters on October Square in Minsk. "We have won and it does not matter what they announce," Milinkevich told the crowd, the largest opposition rally in the past 10 years. "They will announce a ridiculous percentage [for Lukashenka]. We have won because people believe they can stand up for freedom, truth, justice, and their own dignity. The authorities were threatening them, saying there were terrorists with plans, but despite this, people have come out. This is a victory over fear." Milinkevich called on his supporters to gather on the same square on March 20. JM

The Vilnius-based Baltic Surveys/Gallup Organization pollster, which conducted an exit poll during the 2004 constitutional referendum in Belarus, said in a press release on March 19 that it would be impossible to conduct an independent and reliable exit poll in Belarus during the presidential election. The pollster added that it decided to abandon its plans to hold such a poll due to activities of the Belarusian authorities. "It was clear from the outset of this project several month ago that the Belarusian security services were attempting to stop the exit polling, intimidating interviewers and supervisors, conducting an obvious disinformation [campaign] about those participating," said Baltic Surveys Director Rasa Alisauskiene. Two Belarusian government-sponsored pollsters reportedly conducted an exit poll during the presidential ballot, announcing just two hours after the opening of polling stations in March 19 that President Lukashenka was winning with more than 80 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), a Russian government-controlled sociological agency, has said that it found in the first half of March that 60 percent of Belarusian voters were planning to vote for Lukashenka and 11 percent for Milinkevich, Belapan reported on March 20. JM

Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said in a television interview on March 19 that it would be difficult for him to work in a government with former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych if such a scenario unfolds following the March 26 parliamentary elections, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "I am a disciplined man, I will work where the president will send me. But I'd rather go to the parliament," Yekhanurov said. Responding to a question about possible post-election cooperation with former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, Yekhanurov said: "I'd like people to understand her economic views. It is difficult for me as a professional economist to work with people who have no views." JM

Central Election Commission head Yaroslav Davydovych said on March 19 that 3,518 official international observers will monitor the March 26 parliamentary election in Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Among the organizations sending observers are the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the European Parliament, the Commonwealth of Independent States' Interparliamentary Assembly Council, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, the Ukrainian World Congress, and the International Union of Komsomol Organizations. JM

Former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was buried in his hometown of Pozarevac on March 18 following a memorial ceremony in Belgrade, international news agencies reported. "The best among us is gone," Milorad Vucelic, a leading member of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), said at the Belgrade memorial service. Approximately 80,000 people attended the service in which Milosevic's coffin was set on a stage in front of the federal parliament building, dpa reported. Approximately 20,000 waited in Pozarevac for the coffin to arrive. The actual burial was attended by a small group of loyalists. Neither Milosevic's widow, Mirjana Markovic, nor his son Marko attended the funeral. Markovic faces corruption charges in Serbia. Also absent was Milosevic's daughter Marija, who opposed the decision to bury her father in Pozarevac. She said that she will demand exhumation of her father's body for "a proper burial" in Montenegro, where she now lives and where Milosevic's parents are buried, B92 reported. BW

Minutes after Milosevic's memorial service ended in Belgrade on March 18, approximately 1,000 people rallied in the capital against the former Serbian leader, dpa reported the same day. The rally was organized through unsigned mobile-phone text messages. No speeches were made. Demonstrators chanted, "He's finished," waved balloons, and blew whistles. A heavy police presence kept the group away from Milosevic's supporters, and, according to dpa, averted several incidents. BW

Serbian representatives and ethnic Albanians completed the second round of talks on Kosova's status on March 17, international news agencies reported. The talks focused on local government issues. "I would be naive to say there was agreement on all these matters," Albert Rohan, the United Nations deputy envoy to the talks, was quoted by Reuters as saying. "But we tried to find common ground on a number of issues." Rohan said there was some agreement on how to reform local government and the need for financial support from Belgrade for the Serbian minority in Kosova. Rohan scheduled the next round of talks for April 3. The talks were overshadowed by Serbian complaints against the presence of Hashim Thaci, a former guerilla commander who heads the Kosovar Albanian negotiating team. Serbia considers Thaci a terrorist and sent a formal complaint to UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari. "We told Mr. Ahtisaari that this is not good for the future of the negotiations," Reuters quoted Serbian delegate Aleksander Simic as saying. BW

An estimated 10,000 demonstrators gathered on March 17 in Kosovska Mitrovica, a Serbian enclave in northern Kosova, to protest possible independence for the province, international news agencies reported. The demonstrations marked the second anniversary of an outbreak of violence against Serbs on March 17, 2004, in which 19 people were killed and hundreds of homes and dozens of churches were burned. "March 17 is simply a symbol of horror," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in a written statement. BW

Leaders from Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian communities agreed on March 18 to a constitutional reform that will strengthen the country's central government, international news agencies reported. "I am pleased to announce that we have reached an agreement on constitutional reform," U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia Douglas McElhane said, according to Reuters. The reform, which will help Bosnia's eventual accession to NATO and the European Union, replaces the current triple presidency with a single post and two vice presidents. The president and vice presidents will be elected by both houses of parliament. The parliament's lower house will more than double to 87 deputies. The upper house will have 21 deputies, seven from each group, instead of the current 15, but its powers will be greatly reduced. The seven parties that agreed to the changes said they plan to hold a vote on them in parliament within weeks so elections scheduled for October can be held under the new rules. BW

The U.S. Embassy in Chisinau has criticized leaders of breakaway Transdniester for banning foreign financing of nongovernmental organizations, AP reported on March 18. In a statement released late on March 17, the embassy expressed "deep concern over the decree" issued by Transdniestrian authorities on March 7 that bans NGOs from receiving foreign funding (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 2006). The embassy said that funding for NGOs "often addresses needs that other bodies are unable to meet." The embassy added that the decree "violates European and international norms and harms the people of the region," and called on Transdniester to reconsider it. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also criticized the ban on March 16. Transdniester's self-styled president, Igor Smirnov, has cited alleged foreign support through NGOs for uprisings in former Soviet republics as the reason for the ban. BW

Iraqis will mark another milestone in their long journey toward a democratic state on March 20 -- the third anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Over the past three years, progress has come in fits and starts, measured most notably on the political front. Economic progress has come much more slowly, stifled by a dilapidated infrastructure and raging insurgency.

The past year has seen significant progress on the political front. The transitional government got started in the late spring following months of political wrangling. Iraqi lawmakers soon afterward reached a compromise with Sunni Arab leaders, who had boycotted January's national election, to work together to draft a post-Hussein constitution. By the time Iraqi's marked one year of self-rule on 28 June, Sunnis, Kurds, and Shi'a were working side-by-side on the drafting committee.

While many Sunni Arab leaders were unhappy with the result, one leading party -- the Iraqi Islamic Party -- backed the document when it was put to a referendum in October, after securing a guarantee that some articles would be reviewed during a four-month, post-referendum period.

Despite a boycott by most Sunni Arab parties, 16 of Iraq's 18 governorates approved the document, and all Sunni parties quickly set their sights on the December legislative elections.

Three of the largest parties formed a coalition called the Iraqi Accordance Front. This act itself demonstrated a new amity among the parties, which had previously held diverse platforms. The tactic worked, and the front won 44 seats in the 275-member parliament.

At the same time, the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which comprised the two main Shi'ite political parties, grew more fractured during the transitional period, and several prominent party members left the alliance to form their own parties ahead of the elections. The alliance remained largely intact, however, despite increasing internal divisions.

The leadership -- or lack thereof -- of transitional Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari was at the core of the problem. Al-Ja'fari was widely criticized by Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and even some Shi'ite leaders for his mismanagement of ministries and government funds, his inability to negate the insurgency, and his inability to control Iraq's militia-dominated security forces.

Sunni and Shi'ite leaders clashed on a host of other issues, including the de-Ba'athification project, federalism, corruption, the role of neighboring states in the conflict, and rising religious fundamentalism.

Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani can be largely credited with keeping the political scene from degenerating into chaos. He played a key role in bringing Sunnis to the table and keeping them there -- through the constitution talks through the election and after.

As tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs rose following scores of suicide attacks and revenge killings, many of which were blamed on Shi'ite militiamen purportedly working under the cover of security forces, Talabani worked to keep up the dialogue between Sunni and Shi'ite leaders.

In the post-election political wrangling, Sunnis and Kurds presented a united front against the UIA, calling for the formation of a national unity government. The UIA countered with calls for a cabinet proportional to the election results.

Kurdish leaders faced a challenging year as well. President Talabani criticized al-Ja'fari's "monopolization of power" on several occasions, and claimed that the prime minister has sought to marginalize the role of the presidency in the new Iraq.

Kurds have also faced increased criticism over events in Kirkuk, a governorate located south of the Kurdistan region. Kurds claim a historic right to Kirkuk, while Turkomans and Arabs have said that the oil-rich governorate should remain outside the Kurdish region.

Kurds also clashed with the central government over drilling rights after it was revealed that the Kurdistan Regional Government had begun drilling in the Dahuk Governorate. Shi'ite leaders claimed that Kurds were in violation of the constitution for not seeking permission to drill, while Kurds argued that the Oil Ministry was aware of the project.

Iraqis took another step forward with the opening of the Al-Dujayl trial against former President Saddam Hussein and seven other high-level regime members for crimes against Shi'ite Arabs in the town of Al-Dujayl following a failed assassination attempt against Hussein in 1982. The trial opened in October, and has proceeded -- albeit not without controversy -- to the halfway mark.

As Iraqis struggled to advance their nation politically, the insurgency continued to rage throughout much of the country. Insurgent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, and population centers has taken its toll on public morale and has left Iraq's failing infrastructure nearly in ruins. Electricity output is at its lowest level in three years, with much of the country getting by on 10 hours a day. In Baghdad, insurgent attacks, outdated equipment, and increased demand have left the city functioning on three to five hours a day. Unemployment, however, has dropped from 50 percent in 2003 to between 30 and 40 percent today.

It remains difficult to gauge the strength of the insurgency, particularly in light of what appears to be an increase in reprisal attacks by Sunni and Shi'ite groups that may or may not be linked to insurgent groups.

Many of the insurgent attacks since mid-2003 have been blamed on pro-Hussein Ba'athist groups and Sunni Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. Neighboring Syria was openly criticized for failing to control the flow of foreign fighters across its border with Iraq.

In addition, there is increasing evidence that Iranian-backed forces are operating in Iraq. All groups share the goal of destabilizing the government and driving multinational forces out of the country. Iranian and Sunni Islamists also want to establish an Islamic state in Iraq.

However, U.S.-backed Iraqi forces defeated insurgent strongholds in the western Iraqi town of Tal Afar in September. In the subsequent months, it appears that locals and security forces have succeeded in keeping the insurgents out. Other operations were launched in the towns of Husaybah, Al-Karabilah, and Al-Ubaydi in November, and helped drive insurgents from those areas of western Iraq.

U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major operation in Al-Anbar in November, but the tide only began to change when locals committed to joining the effort. That moment appeared to come in January. At least 80 Sunni Arabs were killed and 61 wounded outside a police recruitment center in Al-Ramadi on January 5, when two suicide bombers detonated explosive vests among a line of 1,000 men lined up outside the building to apply for jobs.

Local residents blamed Al-Qaeda militants for the attack. The recruitment drive, organized with the help of several local tribal leaders, prompted the leaders to vow to drive out the insurgents they had until-then sheltered.

In a matter of weeks last summer, Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi declared war on the Shi'a and formed an assassination brigade to hunt and kill members of a Shi'ite political organization; threatened Sunnis on the constitution drafting committee; vowed to kill Sunnis who voted for the constitutional referendum; and verbally attacked his onetime spiritual mentor, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi when the latter "advised" al-Zarqawi against targeting Shi'a and civilians. He also clashed openly with Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri over operational and doctrinal issues.

By the end of 2005, it appeared al-Zarqawi was losing support in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi's Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers) announced in January that it had aligned with five other insurgent groups to form the Mujahedin Shura Council.

The announcement of the council signaled an attempt by the leader to purport an ongoing affiliation with nationalist resistance groups in an attempt to downplay increasing local opposition to his movement.

The formation of the council also sought to give religious legitimacy of his operations through the use of the name Shura, which is an Islamic principle that calls for the community to administer its affairs through mutual consultation. His Al-Qaeda group has issued nearly all of its statements since January through the council's name.

On March 16, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched the largest air assault in Iraq since 2003 on terrorist strongholds near Samarra. Iraqi officials have said that the operation, dubbed Operation Swarmer, targets Al-Qaeda militants based there, though some caution that the majority of those militants appear to be Iraqi nationals, not foreign fighters.

The small successes against the insurgency have been overshadowed, however, by the countless killings of civilians through car and suicide bomb attacks, gun battles, improvised explosive devices, and targeted assassinations. While most Western-press coverage is devoted to attacks targeting officials, security forces, and journalists, the majority of the victims continue to be ordinary civilians.

While each year that has passed since the 2003 invasion has been deemed "crucial," the events of the coming year are sure to have a great impact on the long-term stability of Iraq. If Iraq is to continue down the path of democracy, political parties will need to overcome their history and the polarization that has developed as a result of the new balance of power in Iraq, to work toward the greater good. And it is likely that they will, but how long this will take remains to be seen. It took leaders nearly three months to form a transitional government in 2005. This time around, the challenges are greater. Iraq's political leadership can overcome the challenges, but as time passes and sectarian divisions deepen, the threat of heightened civil conflict will loom ever larger.

Officials in Kabul said on March 19 that President Hamid Karzai is likely to reorganize his cabinet, bringing in new figures for top posts, AFP reported. "Most likely the cabinet will be presented to the parliament either today or tomorrow," presidential adviser Dadfar Rangin said. Under Afghan law, parliament must approve each member of the president's cabinet. Another official in Karzai's office said the current 28-member cabinet will be "significantly" changed. Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah will be replaced, the official said. "A number of ministers have been replaced by new faces, Abdullah Abdullah is also dropped off the list," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. MR

An Afghan judge said on March 19 that a man charged with converting from Islam to Christianity could face the death penalty, AP reported the same day. Afghan police arrested Abdul Rahman last month after his family accused him of becoming a Christian, Judge Ansarullah Mawlavezada said. During subsequent hearings, Rahman allegedly acknowledged converting from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago while serving as a medical aid worker for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The Afghan Constitution, based on Islamic law, says Muslims who reject their faith face the death sentence. "We are not against any particular religion in the world. But in Afghanistan, this sort of thing is against the law," Mawlavezada said. "It is an attack on Islam.... The prosecutor is asking for the death penalty." MR

Neo-Taliban insurgents killed three Afghan policemen and injured another on March 18 in an attack on a police checkpoint in the southern Kandahar Province, Xinhua news agency reported on March 19, citing an Interior Ministry statement. The Interior Ministry said that "a group of Taliban militants" attacked a police post in Miwand district. Two militants' bodies were found afterward, the statement added. In a separate incident, the former governor of southern Ghazni Province, Qari Baba, died along with four bodyguards in an attack by suspected neo-Taliban guerillas. MR

A suicide car bomber attacked French forces in a coalition convoy on March 19 in southern Afghanistan but killed only himself, AFP reported the same day. The attacker rammed a vehicle into the coalition vehicles outside Kandahar, local officials and witnesses said. "No one but the attacker was killed in the explosion. It was a suicide car bomb," a local police official said. The U.S. military confirmed the attack but did not say whether it was a suicide strike. Abdul Wasey Alakozai, the police chief of the Spin Boldak district, said the attack happened when the French troops were heading back to their base after defusing a roadside bomb. Alakozai said the attacker's car was loaded with nine rockets rigged to explode, though only one went off. Purported neo-Taliban spokesman Yusuf Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the strike. "We carried out the attack. It was a suicide attack by one of our mujahedin," he said, though he refused to give the name of the attacker. MR

Tehran's willingness to discuss Iraqi developments with Washington bilaterally has the potential to cause great controversy domestically (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2006). The Iranian government's desire to forestall such controversy was demonstrated by the fact that Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki gave the presermon speech at the March 17 Tehran Friday prayers. Mottaki stressed that Iran is calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq, state radio reported, because their presence is being exploited by combatants in the country. Mottaki went on to say that Iran will have a dynamic foreign policy in the coming year, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's guidance calls for mass participation in Iran's international relations. Mottaki emphasized the need for unity. "We must speak with one voice and remain united at this juncture," he said. "Our officials, scholars, scientists, academics, students, political parties, and people, more than anytime before, must remain united on the nuclear policy which has been carefully thought through." BS

Akbar Ganji, an Iranian journalist who was imprisoned in 2000 after writing about the connection between top state officials and the murders of dissidents, was released on prison leave on March 17 and has gone home, Radio Farda reported. He was given leave for the Iranian new-year holiday, which lasts until April 3, and his sentence ends on March 30, so he is not expected to return to jail. In an interview with Radio Farda, Ganji's wife, Masumeh Shafii, said her husband's homecoming was unexpected because prison officials had added time to his sentence for unauthorized absences. Ganji went on a lengthy hunger strike, and Shafii said her spouse has lost a lot of weight and he now weighs only 49 kilograms. BS

More than 20 people were killed and another seven were injured when a motorcade traveling between the Sistan va Baluchistan Province cities of Zahedan and Zabol was ambushed late on March 16, Iranian news agencies reported on March 17. Another 12 people are missing. Zahedan parliamentary representative Peyman Foruzesh said the attackers were Afghan "bandits," and he added that they were trained by U.S. and other foreign forces, Mehr News Agency reported. National police chief Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam connected the attackers with the United States and Britain and said they are trying to cause Shi'ite-Sunni strife, state television reported. "The armed bandits filmed the scene of the killings...using a full video camera kit and this film will probably be broadcast by the foreign media in the next few days," Fars News Agency quoted Ahmadi-Moqaddam as saying the next day. He added that the attackers stopped the motorcade and separated the ethnic Baluchis from the ethnic "Fars" (Persians) before killing the Persians. Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr said the attackers have escaped to Pakistan and Afghanistan, IRNA reported on March 18. Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi said on March 18 that the people behind this attack are also behind unrest in southwestern Khuzestan Province, Mehr reported. Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hussein Elham said on March 18 that such incidents "have always been sponsored by foreigners," IRNA reported. BS

Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Musavi-Jazayeri, the Friday-prayer leader in Ahvaz, said in his March 17 sermon that the United States is behind efforts to cause ethnic unrest and political divisions in Iran, Khuzestan Province television reported on March 18. "Admitting that it has failed in confronting the Islamic system, the arrogance, including America, has begun a policy of creating division among the political elite and inciting ethnic groups." These U.S. efforts, he continued, will fail because "all ethnic groups in Iran enjoy equality and fraternity and there is no division among them." Referring to the U.S. allocation of funding for democracy promotion in Iran, he said, "The policies of America, which are designed by the Zionists, have always failed, because of our nation's iron will." BS

Security was tight in several Iraqi cities as the country marked three years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 20, international media reported. The day also marks the end of Arba'in, commemorating the 40th day of mourning of the death of Imam al-Husayn, marked by Shi'a. The Transportation Ministry announced that Baghdad International Airport will be closed to flights on March 20 and 21, AP reported. In Karbala, where about 170 people were killed during Arba'in in 2004, nearly 10,000 security forces were on hand. Some 2 million people are expected in the holy city on March 20. Meanwhile, four Iraqi security personnel were killed and three wounded in a roadside-bomb attack in Baghdad on March 20, Reuters reported. A string of attacks were also reported in the cities of Mosul, Ba'qubah, and Al-Dulu'iyah on March 19. In Samarra, Iraqi and U.S. security forces continued with Operation Swarmer; Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 19 that some 60 suspected terrorists have been detained and 11 weapons caches found. KR

Iraqi politicians announced the formation of a "political national security council" in a March 19 press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Veteran legislator Adnan Pachachi told reporters that the council will aid the government in running the country's affairs. The 19-member council will include the prime minister and his deputies, as well as the Presidency Council, and parties' membership will be proportional to their strength in parliament. The council's decisions will serve as "recommendations to constitutional bodies" such as the Presidency Council, Council of Representatives, and the Council of Ministers," Shi'ite leader Husayn al-Shahristani said. Responding to a question from RFI, President Jalal Talabani said that the powers of the council have been defined, and agreement was reached on major issues related to the formation of the council. "The agreement was reached among all parties." Few details were released about the council, however, pending the finalization of the agreement. Sunni Arab leaders Tariq al-Hashimi, Adnan al-Dulaymi, and Salih al-Mutlaq also attended the press briefing. KR

Iraqi Islamic Party head Tariq al-Hashimi told the same March 19 press briefing that the Iraqi Accordance Front, of which his party is a member, fully supports the establishment of a national security council. "We feel that Iraq's salvation, especially nowadays, requires a high degree of flexibility that allows for the establishment of new political authorities that can involve all sects of the Iraqi people so that they may truly contribute to decisions on security, economic, financial, and political issues," he said. Al-Hashimi added that all political groups supported the establishment of the council. KR

U.K. Defense Secretary John Reid praised the resolve of the Iraqi people in comments to reporters in a March 18 press briefing alongside President Talabani in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Saying that continued terrorist attacks are aimed at starting a civil war, Reid noted "the restraint shown in general by the whole of the Iraqi nation," calling it "a signal to the terrorists that [they] will not win." Asked about the British decision to reduce troop levels by 10 percent, Reid said that the Iraqi army has taken on more responsibilities from British forces, including the guarding of their own barracks and installations. Reid traveled to Al-Basrah on March 19 to visit British soldiers based there. KR

Iraqi leaders have expressed varying levels of concern in recent days over proposed talks between Iran and the United States regarding Iraq, according to international media. President Talabani praised the proposal, first made by Iraqi Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim last week. "If [these talks] serve Iraq and its sovereignty and independence, provided that there is no interference in its domestic affairs, and if it serves security and stability, prevents infiltrations, and ends terrorism...then this is welcome," Talabani told reporters in Baghdad on March 19. Talabani said that Sunni leader Tariq al-Hashimi does not approve of the talks. Al-Hashimi's fellow Sunni leader, Adnan al-Dulaymi, told reporters that he, too, is against the talks. Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmud Uthman told London's "Al-Hayat" that Kurds will object to any talks held without them. "The dialogue between Iran and the United States alone will be at the expense of Iraq's interests," the daily quoted him as saying on March 18. Shi'ite parliamentarian Qusay Abd al-Wahhab al-Suhail also rejected the proposed talks, telling the daily, "This will be a tacit recognition of Iranian interference through Shi'ite parties." KR