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Newsline - January 11, 2007

The pipeline monopoly Transneft resumed shipments of oil to Belarus and beyond late on January 10, reported. The move came as a result of a deal that President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka reached in a "lengthy" telephone conversation earlier that day, during which Lukashenka agreed to drop the export duties Minsk recently imposed on Russian oil shipments as part of their ongoing tit-for-tat energy dispute (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 9, and 10, 2007, and Part II). Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski is slated to discuss several related issues with his Russian counterpart Mikhail Fradkov in Moscow on January 11. Following the conclusion of the Putin-Lukashenka agreement on January 10, Russian officials cancelled meetings aimed at cutting back on oil output. Several Russian commentators suggested, however, that Moscow will nonetheless continue with its plans to look for alternative means of shipping oil to Europe, rather than continue to rely on the pipeline route across Belarus. Already on January 10, the state-run "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote that "the big question at the moment is whether there's any alternative to transporting oil across Belarus. Russian officials don't deny that the situation is difficult, but they still say confidently that such prospects do exist in the medium-term future. Transneft CEO Semyon Vainshtok was the first to say that Russia is making efforts to find a way of 'bypassing Belarus.' Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko elaborated on this: 'In the medium-term future, replacing the Belarusian route for Russian oil transit is possible. In the long term, it is absolutely certain.' Hopes are focused on expanding the Baltic pipeline system. Khristenko noted that a few years ago it was pumping only 12 million tons of oil per year, but now it's up to 75 million tons, and will carry 110 million tons two or three years from now." The paper noted that other alternatives involve shipping oil "along the Black Sea route" or sending more oil to China and the Far East via the recently launched East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline. PM

State Duma Deputy Nikolai Kharitonov (Communist Party) said in the parliament on January 10 that Russia has mishandled its relations with Belarus, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 11. Kharitonov argued that "we failed our brother. We are selling out Belarus." He charged that Gazprom in particular behaved in a heavy-handed way. Other opposition deputies suggested that President Putin showed in the course of the crisis that he no longer cares about the Russia-Belarus Union State. On January 9, however, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov suggested that it was Minsk that undermined the union, news agencies reported. Deputy Trade and Economic Development Minister Andrei Sharonov said in an interview with the state-run "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on January 10 that "unless you provide a timely indication that proprieties must be observed, your partner may assume that you'll agree to forgive their 'little pranks' indefinitely. And the size of such pranks always tends to increase. Apparently, our failure to provide a timely indication that we are prepared to defend the interests of Russian companies was precisely what led our partners to assume that they could use Union State rhetoric as a cover for cheating us, while raising an outcry about 'discrimination' against any [Russian] attempt to shift our relationship into a normal, civilized framework." The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on January 11 of relations between Moscow and Minsk that "the current trade war has changed the political arrangement between our countries -- drastically, and apparently irreversibly.... Identifying exactly where the oil disappeared isn't really the issue. The most important point here is that 'acts of war' have started on both sides, and quite deliberately. There are now two options: either Lukashenka manages to survive in an entirely isolated state, without Russia's political support, or Belarus, with support from close and distant neighbors, comes to the conclusion that it's time to get rid of Lukashenka." "The Moscow Times" wrote on January 11 that another possible outcome of the crisis could be that Lukashenka might decide to end his dependency on Russia. "And that would truly be ironic. Putin and Lukashenka could emerge as the unwitting initiators of much-needed economic reforms in Belarus," the paper added. PM

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement on January 11 that he "welcomes that our appeals for a rapid, constructive resolution of the oil dispute did not go unheard in Moscow. With this in mind, we would now like to enter into a dialogue with Russia with the goal of putting our energy relations on a reliable, long-term basis." Germany currently holds the rotating EU Presidency and chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries. Deutsche Welle reported on January 11 that German public opinion is virtually united in the belief that the latest energy crisis between Russia and an immediate neighbor serves as a warning to Germany and the EU that they must reduce their dependency on Russia as a supplier. On January 10, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, and Environment Commissioner Stavro Dimas unveiled a program in Brussels aimed at reducing the EU's dependence on fossil fuels. Barroso repeated his previous position that "the cut in oil supplies from Russia is unacceptable.... It is unacceptable that supply or transit countries interrupt the flow of energy to the countries that are consuming the energy without prior consultation. This raises a problem, a real problem, of credibility." The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" noted on January 10 that the Europeans will "survive [the crisis], but won't forget it." PM

State Duma Speaker Gryzlov said on January 11 that the plans that U.S. President George W. Bush announced for Iraq the previous day are counterproductive, RIA Novosti reported. Gryzlov argued that "Russia has never supported a [foreign] military presence in Iraq and does not welcome plans to increase the [U.S.] military contingent.... It is important to ensure that Iraqis themselves provide security and build a viable state." He stressed that Iraq is far from being a sovereign state, despite U.S. claims to the contrary. PM

Former and current shareholders of the once-mighty Yukos oil major said in London on January 10 that Yury Golubev, who was one of the founders of the company, died in his flat there on January 7, "The Moscow Times" and reported. Police are investigating the death. Several of Golubev's friends said there is "no immediate cause to think [his death] was suspicious." PM

A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office said on January 11 that police detained an unnamed man the previous night in connection with the September murder of Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov, who led efforts against money laundering, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 15, and 18, and October 13, 2006). Police believe that the suspect ordered the killing. Six other people have already been detained in connection with the case. PM

Some 200 police cordoned off a highrise apartment building on Makhachkala's Gamidov Prospect where several militants, including Shariat jamaat leader Shamil Gasanov, were believed to be ensconced, Russian media reported. Police opened fire on the 10th story apartment in question early on January 11 and later stormed it. Media reports differ as to the number of militants -- three, four, or five -- killed in the operation. Police stormed a second apartment in Makhachkala, on Shamil Prospect, earlier on January 11 and found quantities of arms and explosives but no militants, regnum ru reported on January 11. LF

The Council of Chechen Refugees in Azerbaijan released on January 9 the text of a formal appeal to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres, the text of which was posted on the Chechen website The refugees complain that they are not provided with adequate living conditions, and that they encounter problems in obtaining documentation that would facilitate their resettlement in a third country. Consequently, many families have been constrained to return to Chechnya, where they have been subjected to reprisals. Some refugees have vanished and are believed to have been abducted, according to the appeal, but it does not specify who is believed to be responsible for those abductions. The council appeals for help -- both from the UNHCR and the international community -- in enabling the refugees to leave Azerbaijan, where they claim their lives are in danger and resettle elsewhere, in particular the Scandinavian and Baltic states. LF

Addressing a cabinet session on January 10, Robert Kocharian delivered yet another warning to tax and customs officials to intensify their efforts to crack down on tax evasion, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kocharian conceded that the work of those services improved over the past two-three years, but said they still do not demonstrate adequate energy in combating the shadow economy, and that tax revenues still do not exceed the equivalent of 16 percent of GDP, a far lower ratio than in Russia, Ukraine, and some Eastern European countries. He further warned both agencies not to involve themselves in politics in the run-up to the parliamentary elections due in May. Kocharian delivered similar warnings to the tax authorities in early 2005 and 2006, and in December last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2005 and January 12, 2006). LF

Up to 12 Azerbaijani newspapers have announced price increases in the wake of the recent steep prices hikes for gas, electricity, gasoline, and communal services, reported on January 11. The price of daily papers is to rise from 20 to 30 gyapiks, and that of weekly publications from 40 to 60 gyapiks (100 gyapiks = 1 manat, which is the equivalent of $1.13). Also on January 11, the Azerbaijan publishing house, which prints some 150 newspapers and 30 journals and also provides office space, announced that it plans to raise printing charges by an unspecified amount and rents by 50 percent, reported. That website also reported on January 10 that access in Azerbaijan to the Netherlands-based website, which has launched a campaign to collect signatures to a petition to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev asking him to rescind the price hikes, has been blocked. The Azeri-language site, and the Russian-language petition, were accessible from Prague as of 11:30 CET on January 11. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili affirmed on January 10 in a televised address the importance of opening an "exchange of opinions and dialogue" with opposition parties, "even minor groups," Civil Georgia reported. He said that all factions that wish to do so will be invited to discuss "major issues," including foreign-policy priorities, Georgia's territorial integrity, and ongoing reforms, during sessions of the National Security Council. Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze expressed support for that initiative, Caucasus Press reported on January 10. But opposition politicians responded initially with skepticism, reported on January 10. Republican party leader Davit Berdzenishvili stressed that the opposition wants "real dialogue," not just "an imitation." Opposition parliament deputy and Democratic Front faction member Kakha Kukava told on January 11 that dialogue is contingent on the adoption of a new constitution before the 2008 elections. He listed as a further condition the formation of a special body to investigate high-profile, apparently politically motivated, killings. LF

Also on January 10, President Saakashvili signed into law amendments to the Georgian Constitution approved last month by parliament, Caucasus Press reported. He termed those changes, which among other things will allow for the simultaneous holding in late 2008 of parliamentary and presidential elections and elections to a new parliament in Ajara, "a major step towards achieving constitutional stability," the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported. At the same time, Saakashvili said Georgia needs a new constitution that would conform to European standards, and he proposed establishing a special commission to draft a new basic law. LF

A joint session of Kazakhstan's parliament on January 10 confirmed Karim Masimov as prime minister after his candidacy was presented by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, news agencies reported. A 41-year-old economist who previously occupied the post of deputy prime minister, Masimov described himself as Nazarbaev's "faithful assistant" and stated, "Continuity in the principles of government is one of the most important conditions of sustained economic and social development," Reuters reported. The news agency noted that Masimov, who speaks Arabic, Chinese, English, Kazakh, and Russian, is considered close to Timur Kulibaev, who is Nazarbaev's son-in-law and has considerable influence over Kazakhstan's lucrative energy sector. DK

Nazarbaev issued decrees on January 10 appointing a new deputy prime minister and ministers of economics and budget planning, defense, industry and trade, and education and science, Kazinform reported. Aslan Musin will be deputy prime minister and economics and budget-planning minister; Daniyar Akhmetov, who recently resigned as prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007), will be defense minister; Galym Orazbekov will be industry and trade minister; and Zhanseit Tuimebaev will be education and science minister. Outgoing Defense Minister Colonel General Mukhtar Altynbaev called the appointment of Akhmetov, a civilian, to the top defense post a logical result of reforms that have "divided the functions of the Defense Ministry, which mostly deals with political and economic issues and with defense firms, and those of the General Staff, which is in charge of the troops," Interfax-AVN reported. Nazarbaev gave Akhmetov one month to draft proposals on the continued modernization of Kazakhstan's armed forces, Khabar reported. DK

Chinese border officials informed their Kyrgyz colleagues at a January 9 meeting at the Irkeshtam border checkpoint that they have tightened security along the frontier after liquidating a 35-member "terrorist" group, Kabar reported the next day. Chinese officials said that they killed 18 members and detained 17 others in a January 4-8 operation in Tashkorgon, located in China's Xinjuan Uyghur Autonomous Region. Chinese officials described the group as belonging to the Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan. DK

The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case against opposition lawmaker Temir Sariev for allegedly attempting to smuggle $100,000 out of the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2007), news agency reported on January 10. A spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office said that Sariev is not protected by parliamentary immunity because the case "is not related to his official duties," Interfax reported. Sariev, who has called the incident a "provocation," commented, "If they want to blacken my name, let them do it." If convicted, Sariev faces up to five years in prison with confiscation of property, reported. DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov signed a decree on January 10 establishing a new agency to fight corruption, Tajik television reported. The Agency for State Financial Control and Combating Corruption will have a staff of 500. It will perform functions previously carried out by the State Financial Control Committee, Main Tax Police Directorate, Directorate for Combating Corruption, and other agencies. Rakhmonov has appointed Sherkhon Salimov director of the new entity. DK

Following a telephone conversation on January 10 between Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Belarusian government lifted its duties on Russian oil transiting Belarusian territory during an emergency meeting, paving the way for the agreement that resumed supplies, Belapan reported. Belarus imposed the duty on January 3 in order to compensate the country's losses due to the introduction by Russia of an export duty on oil supplied to Belarusian refineries. Alyaksey Kastsyuchenka, director of the Druzhba pipeline operator, said on January 10 that Belarus had restarted the flow of Russian crude oil destined for European customers, Belapan reported on January 11. Ukrainian and Polish pipeline operators confirmed that oil supplies had resumed. Belarus also acceded to Russia's demand that it pump westward 79,000 tons of crude oil that it had earlier siphoned off, prompting Russia to halt oil deliveries to the Druzhba pipeline. AM

Belarusian President Lukashenka issued an edict on January 5 appointing his son Viktar Lukashenka as a member of Belarus's Security Council, Belapan reported on January 10. The Security Council is headed by the president and consists of several senior state officials, including the prime minister and speakers of the two legislative chambers. Viktar Lukashenka, 31, was appointed as presidential aide in charge of national security in early 2005. Prior to that appointment, Viktar Lukashenka served with the Border Troops, the Foreign Ministry, and in the defense industry. Belarusian Civil Service Law bans anyone from being appointed to a government position if that position is directly subordinated to an immediate relative. AM

The Communist Party caucus in the Verkhovna Rada said in a January 10 statement that the policies followed by President Viktor Yushchenko are grounds for initiating impeachment proceedings against him, Interfax reported the same day. The caucus accused Yushchenko of waging "an actual war" against parliament by vetoing a number of bills. "Serious attempts to disturb the social and political situation in Ukraine and to provoke early parliamentary elections are eroding what is left of the people's trust in the president's power and are raising the issue of impeaching the president," the statement reads. AM

Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko said on January 10 that prior to the resolution of Belarus and Russia's oil dispute, Ukraine was losing $330,000 a day, Interfax reported. "We have lost around 50 percent of our export [of Russian oil] and the operation of the Odesa-Brody oil pipeline has stalled in addition," Boyko said. Belarusian ambassador to Ukraine Valyantsin Vyalichka suggested on January 10 that the closure of the Druzhba pipeline should not affect relations between Belarus and Ukraine, Belapan reported. "Ukraine did not consume the oil that is now shut off," Vyalichka was quoted as saying. AM

Bosnia-Herzegovina's state court on January 10 sentenced three men to jail terms ranging from eight to over 15 years for planning a suicide attack in Europe, Reuters reported the same day. Mirsad Bektasevic, a Serbian-born Swedish citizen, Denmark-based Turkish citizen Abdulkadir Cesur, and Bosnian citizen Bajro Ikanovic wanted to pressure Bosnia and European governments to withdraw their respective forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, Judge Mehmed Sator said. Bektasevic was sentenced to 15 years and four months in prison and Cesur to 13 years and four months. "Bektasevic and Cesur are sentenced because...they traveled to Sarajevo to carry out a terrorist attack on the territory of Bosnia or another European country," Sator said. Ikanovic was sentenced to eight years for supplying Bektasevic with explosives to be used in a suicide belt. The three were arrested in October 2005 in Sarajevo. They were indicted in May 2006 and their trial began in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 21, 25, and November 7, 2005, and April 19, May 25, and July 21, 2006). BW

Defendants at Bosnia-Herzegovina's war crimes court have begun a hunger strike to demand that they be tried under former Yugoslavia's more lenient Criminal Code, Reuters and UPI reported on January 10. The hunger strike was started on January 8 by 16 defendants who are being tried or are awaiting trial. Four suspects refused to appear in court on January 9 and another did not appear on January 10. They said they do not want to be tried under Bosnia's 2003 Criminal Code, which provides for a maximum prison term of 40 years. Instead, they said they should be tried under the old Yugoslav code, which provides a maximum 15-year sentence, and which was in force when the alleged offenses took place. Six people already sentenced to prison terms of between five and 40 years for crimes in Bosnia's 1992-95 war, and who are seeking retrials, also joined the hunger strike. BW

The foreign ministers of Norway and Serbia announced on January 10 that Norway will help remove cluster bombs and other munitions remaining from NATO's 1999 bombing, AP and dpa reported the same day. "Norway will help Serbia remove those explosive devices," AP quoted Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere as saying after talks in Belgrade with his Serbian counterpart, Vuk Draskovic. The assistance is part of the increased military cooperation with NATO since Serbia joined the alliance's Partnership for Peace program in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2006). "NATO knows exactly where the ammunition is, and the Norwegian government is prepared to help us," dpa quoted Draskovic as saying. BW

A member of Belgrade's negotiating team in the Kosova status talks has said that releasing UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari's proposal for the province too soon could radicalize Serbian politics, B92 reported on January 10. Marko Jaksic warned against releasing the report before a new Serbian government is formed after the January 21 elections. "Unfavorable proposals will certainly radicalize the political scene in the country," he said. Serbian President Boris Tadic has already appealed to Ahtisaari to delay the proposal, but was rebuffed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007). Ahtisaari was originally scheduled to present his report by the end of 2006, but delayed it until after the elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). BW

German Ambassador to Belgrade Andreas Zobel has said that the European Union will not restart talks with Serbia for a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) until all war crimes suspects are arrested, B92 and Beta reported on January 10. Some Serbian politicians have suggested that a victory for democratic parties in the January 21 elections could lead to an early resumption of the negotiations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007). The EU suspended SAA negotiations with Belgrade in May over Serbia's failure to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). "The key is in the hands of the Serbian government, and in the cooperation with the Hague tribunal," Zobel said. Asked whether SAA talks might continue before all war crimes suspects were arrested, Zobel answered, "No." Germany took over the EU Presidency on January 1. BW

NATO on January 10 urged Albanian officials to settle a crisis over local elections, AP reported the same day, and warned Tirana that free and fair elections are essential for the country to join NATO. "NATO certainly sees the electoral process in the larger sense as a critical test for membership of the alliance," spokesman James Appathurai said. "NATO encourages all parties in Albania to work constructively towards free and fair elections. The democratic process must work properly to be a NATO member. That is quite clear." In December, opposition parties decided to boycott the January 20 elections, claiming that the governing coalition is preparing to engage in fraud (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). The opposition has accused the government of distributing fake birth certificates, which are used by voters as proof of identity, which the government denies. Both sides have agreed in principle to postpone the vote until February 18, but the decision has yet to be approved by the parliament and president. BW

Moldova reported a $193.2 million trade deficit with Russia for January-November 2006, RBC reported on January 10, citing Moldova's National Statistics Bureau. In the same period in 2005, Moldova had an $86 million trade surplus with Russia. According to the National Statistics Bureau, Moldova exported goods worth $168.4 million to Russia in the first 11 months of 2006, a 47.3 percent decrease from the same period of 2005. Moldova's imports of Russian products, meanwhile, grew by 50 percent to $361.6 million in the same period. Analysts attributed the change to a Russian ban on Moldovan wines, which was recently lifted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and November 30, 2006, and January 9, 2007). BW

On January 6, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki announced a new plan to bring security to Baghdad and wrest control of the capital from the armed groups blamed for much of the sectarian violence. Although details remain sketchy, the plan has been attacked as being risky and likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions.

In a speech marking the 86th anniversary of the formation of the Iraqi Army, al-Maliki said the new plan centers on the deployment of additional Iraqi forces, including Kurdish fighters, into Baghdad, to be supported by U.S.-led coalition troops. These forces would then conduct neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps to rid Baghdad of extremist groups.

In addition, al-Maliki said the plan "will deny all outlaws a safe haven, irrespective of their sectarian or political affiliation," suggesting that he may be ready to crack down on radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

Sunni Arab leaders were quick to reject the plan, describing it as "unconstitutional." Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani noted that al-Maliki never consulted with the Council of Representatives over the plan, and therefore deputies were not given an opportunity to vote on it, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 7.

"The Iraqi Constitution does not allow the prime minister to approve a security plan without referring it to the Council of Representatives, now that the Emergency Law -- which gave him extraordinary executive powers -- has expired. Consequently, this plan has no legal legitimacy," al-Mashhadani said.

Other Sunni politicians criticized the plan because they said it focuses mostly on the western, Sunni part of Baghdad and left out Shi'ite Al-Sadr City in the east, "Al-Zaman" reported on January 7. Sunni leaders warned that this perceived lack of fairness will worsen sectarian tensions.

Salih al-Mutlaq, the head of the Front for National Dialogue, went so far as to describe the plan as the Shi'ite-led government's latest effort to cleanse Baghdad of Sunni Arabs, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on January 7.

"The new plan will fail in the same manner as the previous security plans failed, but this time it seems that there are attempts to purge the city of Baghdad of certain segments of Iraqi society and thus deepen the sectarian rift in Iraq," al-Mutlaq said.

There have been conflicting reports as to whether several battalions of the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, will be sent to participate in the Baghdad security operation. An official in the Kurdish regional government, on condition of anonymity, told "The New Anatolian" on January 9 that Kurdish forces would only be deployed under a certain set of conditions.

"We will not deploy any peshmerga forces in Baghdad. The peshmerga forces are a special force that will only be used to protect the Kurdish region," the official said. "However, we may send troops as part of the Iraqi Army to be deployed in Baghdad only if the Iraqi parliament officially makes such a request and our Kurdish regional parliament approves it."

The issue of sending Kurdish forces into Baghdad is controversial. Since the fall of the Hussein regime, Kurdish forces have never been deployed in Baghdad, and several Kurdish officials have indicated that this move would be dangerous and risk inflaming ethnic divisions.

It could also draw the Kurds into the sectarian conflict that has been almost exclusively between the Shi'a and Sunni Arabs. Kurdish leaders have voiced concern over the perception that Iraqi Kurds, a majority of whom are Sunnis, would be fighting against their Sunni Arab brothers.

Mahmud Uthman, a prominent leader in the Iraqi Kurdish Coalition, has come out against sending Kurdish forces to fight Arabs anywhere in Iraq, "Al-Zaman" reported on January 8. "There are fears that a fight like this, pitting Kurds against the Arabs, is bound to add an ethnic touch to the conflict," he said. "The deployment of Kurdish forces in Arab areas is wrong and will create sensitivities and accusations that the Kurds are killing the Arabs."

Prime Minister al-Maliki's initiative, despite its seemingly noble intentions, carries great risks. The plan for Iraqi forces to move from district to district to drive out insurgents and militia elements will almost certainly result in considerable casualties. If the operation is perceived to be excessively heavy-handed, then al-Maliki could face a severe backlash, not only from the Sunni Arab population, but from his own Shi'ite coalition as well.

A prolonged and bloody confrontation with al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army could also prove disastrous for al-Maliki. Al-Maliki's political position has been tenuous for months, and he has been under tremendous pressure to rein in al-Sadr's militia, which is widely regarded as one of the main instigators of sectarian violence. If the Baghdad security operation goes poorly and casualties mount, it may signal the end of al-Maliki's tenure as prime minister.

In addition, if it appears that al-Sadr's militia is being crushed by Iraqi forces backed by U.S. firepower, this may force Iraq's Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to intervene and call for an end to the operation, which would be highly embarrassing for al-Maliki. Indeed, the last time Iraqi and U.S. forces confronted al-Sadr's militia, in the holy city of Al-Najaf in August 2004, the fighting only ended when al-Sistani brokered a truce.

While sectarian tensions have been running high since the attack on the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006, the situation has been particularly tense since the execution of former President Saddam Hussein on December 30. The release of the unauthorized video of the execution incensed Sunni Arabs due to the exceptionally undignified manner in which the government carried out the hanging.

If Sunnis sense that their neighborhoods are being disproportionately targeted in the security operation, this will only exacerbate their distrust of the government. The armed Sunni groups thought to make up most of the insurgency would also be that much less inclined to disarm and enter the political process.

For this reason, U.S. Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno urged a balanced approach to the operation, which he said should target both Shi'ite militias and Sunni extremists, "The Washington Post" reported on January 7. Otherwise, al-Maliki's gamble on security in Baghdad may prove to be his last at the head of the Iraqi government.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan says a large number of militants were killed overnight after crossing the border from Pakistan, RFE/RL reported. NATO spokesman Major Dominic Whyte said two groups of militants were spotted by both NATO and Afghan government troops in the Bermel district of Paktika Province. He says the militants were attacked by both NATO warplanes and Afghan artillery. "Initial battle damage estimates indicate that as many as 150 insurgents were killed," he said. "The insurgents were observed congregating together in a large number in several trucks and they were armed. The insurgents had been observed gathering in Pakistan itself and, indeed, had actually crossed the border [into Afghanistan when they were attacked.]" The Afghan Defense Ministry estimates that about 80 militants were killed in the operation. PB

An Afghan-NATO report released on January 10 blames poor communication between NATO troops and Afghan authorities for several civilian deaths during a joint Afghan-NATO operation against the Taliban in October, AP reported. The report is the result of a joint Afghan-NATO investigation and was given to NATO ambassadors. It concluded that communication between international forces and local authorities did not work well enough and resulted in the "tragic event" involving the deaths of 30 civilians (although some Afghan officials put the figure around 80), the majority of whom were nomads. The operation was intended to target "significant numbers" of Taliban militants in the area, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said. "NATO takes every step to prevent civilian casualties," he said. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has acknowledged that too many civilians were killed by NATO troops in fighting last year against the resurgent Taliban militants. JC

In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta expressed "deep concern" about Pakistan's plan to plant land mines and erect a fence along their disputed border, Xinhua News Agency reported on January 10. The letter expressed the Afghan government's anxieties over Pakistan's decision to fence and mine along the Durand line, the disputed border drawn up in 1893 by British India, which Afghanistan claims cuts off part of its rightful territory. Afghan government spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen reiterated concerns voiced by President Hamid Karzi that fencing and mining the border will separate families living on opposite sides and is therefore "not practical." Afghanistan has suffered the highest number of casualties in the world from land mines, the letter stated. The Afghan government requested the letter be distributed among members of the UN Security Council. JC

Police in the Andar district of the southern Ghazni Province have reportedly arrested five suspected Taliban fighters following a joint NATO-Afghan forces operation on January 8, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the following day. According to provincial police chief Abdul Ghafar Safi, police detained the five suspects in the early-morning operation. Police were tipped off to the impending resurgence of Taliban fighters in the region after the recent attack on a convoy carrying the head of the Giro district and the kidnapping of five government-employed engineers. Taliban commander Mullah Naseer Kakar rejected government claims that members of his group were arrested, asserting that all the detainees were common citizens with no connection to the Taliban. The Andar district has been home to militant insurgency since last spring. JC

Fakhredin Heidari, a legislator from Iran's western Kurdistan Province, has spoken of gas and bread shortages in the province -- a sensitive frontier region with a history of unrest -- but a local governor promptly dismissed those remarks, ILNA reported on January 10. Heidari, the representative for Saqqez and Baneh, told ILNA in Tehran on January 10 that while a recent natural-gas shortage is resolved for now, other domestic or car fuels are being supplied on a restricted basis. "Movement [of vehicles] is difficult in the province," he said, adding that poorer families are also facing bread restrictions. He said every household may buy a certain amount of bread at cheaper, state-subsidized prices, and must buy any more at unrestricted prices. Iran's government subsidizes some basic commodities, such as flour and sugar. Heidari said Kurdistan's people are allowed smaller quantities of subsidized goods like bread and milk than other areas in Iran, and his constituency even less than the rest of the province. The Saqqez district governor, Karim Afsharian, said the same day that there are no shortages, and any fuel restrictions are to prevent wastage or fuel smuggling into Iraq or Turkey, ILNA reported. "I am surprised a representative should have such weak information on his own constituency," he said. Afsharian denied there has been any unrest in the province over shortages, and stressed there is "security and peace" in Kurdistan. VS

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki met on January 10 for a second consecutive day with United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zaid al-Nuhayyan, this time to discuss Persian Gulf security and neighborly ties in Tehran, ISNA reported. He stressed the importance of regional security and said that "regional states can assure this security through cooperation," without outside involvement. "The presence of outsiders in the Persian Gulf after the fall of Saddam [Hussein]" merely has produced "instability and insecurity," he added. Mottaki said Iran and the U.A.E. enjoy "unique" ties; the two states currently dispute the ownership of several Persian Gulf islands. VS

Matin Meshkin, a doctoral student in electrical engineering who is active in student politics, has been expelled by Tehran's prestigious Amir Kabir University, his lawyer told news agencies and Radio Farda on January 9 and 10, adding that his expulsion is illegal. Meskhin was a former member of the university's Islamic Students Association and close to completing his doctoral studies, Radio Farda reported on January 10. He was studying at Amir Kabir with a grant from another university, the Shahid Chamran University in Ahwaz, which recently cut his grant. Lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah told Radio Farda that Amir Kabir authorities are breaking the law by depriving Meshkin of his constitutional right to pursue an education. He said the constitution's second and third articles forbid any "discrimination, separation, domination, or submission," adding, "You absolutely cannot expel...a student who has done his exams" and had but one more session to attend, to orally defend his thesis or research. "My client's expulsion gives the impression of disorder in higher education," Dadkhah told ILNA on January 9. He expects to file a lawsuit with the Administrative Justice Court (divan-i edalat-i edari), which deals with offenses in government agencies, Radio Farda reported. VS

Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr, the deputy interior minister for security affairs and a former senior officer of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corp (IRGC), said in Zanjan, northwestern Iran, on January 10 that the United States sees Iran's "firm, anti-American stance" as a cause of its failure in the Middle East and has resorted to outside pressures and subversion to bring about the Iranian regime's collapse, ILNA reported. He told a gathering of provincial administrators that the way to "resist America" is to "serve the people" and win public satisfaction. Public support for the system, he said, will make it irresistible and "we shall have no more worries about enemy plots." He said the Islamic world currently faces a "leadership vacuum" or absence of "religious leadership." This has resulted in "worthless elements affiliated to ethnic interests" taking power, he said, in a possible reference to sovereign states or regional leaders. He accused the United States of having started an "atomic war" with Iran, adding vaguely that while Iranians support their government, "no power can influence us [and] America will lose in an atomic war with Iran. Then it will have no dignity left, and will clear its baggage not just from the Middle East but from the world." VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini on January 11 condemned President George W. Bush's decision to send additional U.S. troops to Iraq, saying it is a move to consolidate the U.S. occupation of Iraq, ISNA reported. More troops in Iraq, Mottaki said, are an "unsuitable New Year's present" to Americans by their government, Husseini said, and he predicted that a troop increase will exacerbate "insecurity and tension" in Iraq. He urged a "responsible" exit of U.S. troops from Iraq "as soon as possible," and said President Bush was "shifting the blame" for his mistakes by accusing Iran and Syria of meddling in Iraq's affairs, ISNA reported. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on January 10 warned radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to disarm his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, or face an all-out assault by U.S. and Iraqi forces, international media reported the same day. Al-Maliki "has told everyone that there will be no escape from attack," a senior Shi'ite politician close to al-Maliki said. "The government has told the Al-Sadrists, 'If we want to build a state, we have no other choice but to attack armed groups.'" On January 6, al-Maliki unveiled a new security plan to drive Shi'ite militias and Sunni extremists out of Baghdad (see End Note and "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007). The plan calls for Iraqi forces backed by U.S. troops to conduct neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweeps of the Iraqi capital. Al-Sadr has been a key component of al-Maliki's political coalition and the prime minister has in the past refused to move against the Al-Mahdi Army. In 2004, al-Sadr's militia staged two uprisings in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City and the holy city of Al-Najaf. SS

Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i announced on January 10 that he met Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Al-Najaf and briefed him on Prime Minister al-Maliki's new Baghdad security plan, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. At a news conference, al-Rubay'i told reporters that al-Sistani stressed the need for weapons to be only in the hands of government forces and that the rule of law should be applied to all without exception. Asked by a reporter if he discussed with al-Sistani disbanding Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, al-Rubay'i declined to respond. Al-Rubay'i added that al-Sistani implored the government to assist people who have been displaced by the sectarian violence. SS

In a statement posted on the Internet on January 10, the Muslim Scholars Association accused the Iraqi government of using its new security plan as a cover to massacre Sunni Arabs in Baghdad. The group said that government forces have cordoned off several Sunni neighborhoods, allowing Shi'ite militias to enter and carry out attacks, and then coalition forces were called in to bomb the areas. "When these forces did not manage to storm these areas, the occupation air forces intervened and shelled the areas of Al-Mushahadah and Al-Sheikh Ali, resulting in the martyrdom of a number of people, including women and children, whose bodies have not been recovered until this moment," the statement said. On January 9, the secretary-general of the Front for National Dialogue, Khalaf al-Ulayyan, accused the United States of bombing sections of Haifa Street, leading to the deaths of dozens of women and children (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2007). SS

President Jalal Talabani on January 10 called for a delay in the executions of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad al-Bandar, two top aides of former President Saddam Hussein, international media reported the same day. "In my opinion, I think we have to wait or delay the other executions to see what the circumstances are," Talabani said. However, under the Iraqi Constitution, the president does not have the authority to reduce or block a death sentence. It is well-known that Talabani is opposed to capital punishment, but this is the first time he has spoken publicly about the executions of al-Tikriti and al-Bandar. Prime Minister al-Maliki has already signed the execution order, but the government has said that the executions have been held up by technical issues. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on January 6 urged the Iraqi government to grant a stay of execution for the two men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007). Al-Tikriti is Hussein's half-brother and former intelligence chief, and al-Bandar was the chief judge of the Iraqi Revolutionary Court. SS

Unknown gunmen on January 10 killed at least 10 Iraqi pilgrims and wounded 15 others who were returning from the hajj, KUNA reported the same day. A security source said that masked gunmen stopped a convoy of pilgrims in the town of Al-Nakib near Karbala and sprayed the vehicles with machine-gun fire. Karbala Governor Akil al-Khazali said the incident took place near the border of the restive Al-Anbar Governorate, implying that the attack was carried out by Sunni insurgents. This is the second attack on returning hajj pilgrims in as many days. On January 9, gunmen, reportedly wearing police uniforms, stopped a hajj convoy and abducted an unknown number of pilgrims (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2007). SS

The U.S. military issued a statement on January 10 saying that it arrested 21 suspected insurgents in simultaneous raids in southwest Baghdad the same day. One raid yielded nine suspects and a sizable quantity of material used to make roadside bombs. In the second raid, U.S. forces detained 12 suspected insurgents and seized a large cache of weapons, including three AK-47s, 12 magazines of ammunition, seven armored vests, $2,000 in cash, and $3,000 in Iraqi dinars. SS