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Newsline - February 16, 2007

President Vladimir Putin carried out a major cabinet shakeup on February 15, promoting Sergei Ivanov to the post of first deputy prime minister, international media reported. Putin also named Federal Tax Service chief Anatoly Serdyukov to replace Ivanov as defense minister. "The Moscow Times" on February 16 described Serdyukov as having drawn up "the multibillion-dollar tax bills against Yukos that ultimately led to the oil giant's demise." Putin also promoted Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, to the post of deputy prime minister in charge of foreign trade. In this latest reshuffle, Putin has once again promoted men who are either from his native city of St. Petersburg or made their careers there. Ivanov is a St. Petersburg native who, according to biographical data reported by the daily "Kommersant" on February 16, served with Putin in the KGB there in the late 1970s. Naryshkin is a St. Petersburg native and Serdyukov is a former member of St. Petersburg University's law faculty. JB

In naming Sergei Ivanov to the post of first deputy prime minister, President Putin told ministers in comments broadcast on state television that he "signed a decree to widen the sphere of responsibility of Sergei Borisovich Ivanov in the government of the Russian Federation and put him in charge of coordinating a part of the civilian sector of the economy." The daily "Vremya novostei" reported on February 16 that Ivanov's new responsibilities have not yet been fully defined. But it quoted "informed sources" as saying those responsibilities will involve "infrastructure in the broad sense of the word -- not only the aviation industry and shipbuilding, but also transportation, pipelines, energy." As "The Moscow Times" reported on February 16, Ivanov also heads the Military-Industrial Commission, which was set up on 2005 essentially to oversee the military-industrial complex. This suggests his aggregate powers will be very impressive. Indeed, the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 16 that when it asked a high-ranking source in the presidential administration whether Ivanov's new job is a promotion or a demotion, the official answered: "It is not simply a promotion. It is an expansion of all horizons." At the same time, Ivanov's departure from the Defense Ministry will allow him to distance himself from a host of negatives. "Now the new civilian defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, will have to answer the unpleasant questions about mutilated conscripts, sunken submarines, or rockets that blow up," noted "Kommersant." "And Sergei Ivanov will be able to concentrate fully on creating his image in the minds of Russians as the creator of the Russian 'innovation economy.'" JB

It is not surprising, then, that many -- although not all -- observers are in agreement following Ivanov's new appointment that his chances to succeed President Putin in 2008 are now equal to those of the other first deputy prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Some suggested that Ivanov is now the front-runner. "The Moscow Times" on February 16 quoted Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who tracks Kremlin politics at the Center for the Study of the Elite at the Russian Academy of Sciences, as saying, "From a politician managing a single sector of the government, Ivanov has been elevated onto a broader level and, unlike Medvedev, he has always been a member of Putin's siloviki politburo." Even prior to Ivanov's appointment as a first deputy prime minister, one observer suggested he was pulling ahead of Medvedev in the contest to become Putin's anointed successor, essentially because he has personal attributes that Medvedev lacks. "Dmitry Medvedev is a striking representative of inanimate nature," Anton Orekh wrote in a piece posted on, the website of "Yezhednevny zhurnal," on February 9. "He speaks properly, clearly, logically. Witnesses assert that he explained everything to the foreigners at Davos just as brilliantly, logically, and intelligibly in English. But he is not an animated person! What country do we live in? We don't need a preacher; what we need is for someone occasionally to be thrashed unhesitatingly with a belt! For the dead to be raised from the trenches, for a shoe to be banged at the United Nations, for a tank to be climbed onto, for [someone to be] wasted in the outhouse." According to Orekh, Ivanov is a different story: "It is immediately obvious that he is an unkind person; that his smile is not funny, his speech is robotized. But all of this is simply a plus for him." What Ivanov has, Orekh concluded, is "charisma": "[It's] weak, but it's there," he wrote. "Medvedev doesn't have it at all." JB

Other observers suggested that Ivanov's appointment as first deputy prime minister and removal as defense minister was in fact a demotion. Aleksandr Konovalov, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Estimates, told the Rosbalt news agency on February 15 that it is impossible to predict what Ivanov will do, given that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev is already in charge of national projects. "So that if Ivanov is charged with devoting himself to these [national projects], it will more likely be a banishment, not a promotion," Konovalov said. Still, "the words about untroubled presidential elections are now nonsense," he said. "Both the Duma and presidential elections will be tense and difficult." on February 15 quoted Mikhail Delyagin, director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization, as telling Ekho Moskvy radio that Ivanov's appointment as first deputy prime minister was a "formal promotion," but "into a void," and "a demotion from the point of view of real influence." JB

The well-known political scientist Andranik Migranyan told Interfax on February 15 that President Putin's cabinet reshuffle represented a strengthening of the "military-political" component of Russian policy. "These [appointees] are not new figures, and [it is] more of an internal reformatting of his own team, with the accentuation and determination of new priorities," he said. "Thus, the military-political component of Russian policy is getting an even higher priority. This is very much in the spirit of the Russian president's speeches in Munich and the Middle East." Migranyan also told Interfax that Ivanov's appointment as first deputy prime minister "is a serious and important signal that Russia is returning to international relations as an important player in world politics for years ahead." He added that Ivanov's raised status "confirms that he is one of the president's closest comrades-in-arms and the possible successor." But Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and opposition figure, played down the significance of Ivanov's appointment. "It is absolutely not important," the daily "Kommersant" on February 16 quoted him as saying. "Everything that is happening now, all of these appointments and promotions, will have nothing to do with the final outcome. Putin's latest speeches show that he is worried about the future after 2008. And Ivanov's promotion is yet another attempt to find footholds in a changing world. They don't feel any support in the places where they keep their capital -- the principles of democracy operate there. And now they will be speaking from a position of strength." JB

President Putin met in the Kremlin late on February 15 with Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov and granted Alkhanov's request to be relieved of that post, Russian media reported. Putin simultaneously named Alkhanov a deputy justice minister, replacing Oleg Khlupin, who recently reached retirement age, the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 16. Under Article 76 of the Chechen Republic Constitution, the duties of republic head now devolve onto the prime minister, Alkhanov's longtime rival Ramzan Kadyrov. Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak is scheduled to begin consultations in Grozny on February 16 on selecting Alkhanov's successor (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 16, 2007). LF

Daghestan's Deputy Interior Minister Magomed Gazimagomedov denied on February 15 that some members of the republic's traffic police staged an "insurrection" earlier that day, reported. The Chechen resistance website published a report on the alleged standoff on February 15 accompanied by a photograph of two apparently dead policemen lying in the street. According to, some 250 policemen sought to protest long working hours, wage delays, and corruption within the Interior Ministry, and a confrontation with ministry officials deteriorated into a mass brawl that was subsequently suppressed. LF

The Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) party (BHK) established in late 2005 by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian held its third congress in Yerevan on February 15, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Addressing the estimated 600 delegates, Tsarukian said his party has every chance of winning the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12 and securing "a serious presence" in the next government, with the aim of expanding Armenia's economic and political success in recent years. At the same time, he sought to allay opposition parties' fears that BHK is out to buy en masse the votes of the poorer strata of the population. "We...are ready to cooperate in securing free and transparent elections. Free and just elections. There is no other way," Noyan Tapan quoted him as saying. Attending the congress were Prime Minister and Republican Party of Armenian Chairman Andranik Markarian, President Robert Kocharian's chief of staff Armen Gevorgian, a number of deputy government ministers, and representatives of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun and United Labor Party (the two junior coalition members) and of the opposition National Accord and Orinats Yerkir parties. LF

The trial of former Health Minister Ali Insanov and 10 other former ministry personnel opened in Baku on February 15 at the Court for Serious Crimes, and reported on February 15 and 16, respectively. They face charges, of which Insanov insists he is innocent, of large-scale misappropriation and embezzlement, abuse of his official position, and deliberately ignoring a court ruling. Insanov was dismissed in October 2005 and implicated in an abortive plot by self-exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to return to Baku and overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20 and 21, 2005). Insanov said in court on February 15 he has been informed that he will face trial on separate charges related to that purported conspiracy only after Quliyev, who has permanent residence in the United States, is arrested and extradited to Azerbaijan, reported. LF

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili condemned on February 15 as "cynical" and "immoral" a statement circulated the previous day by the Russian Foreign Ministry on the February 11 local elections in Georgia's breakaway unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. Describing the ballot as a "dress rehearsal" for the Abkhaz parliamentary election scheduled for March 4, the Russian statement expressed satisfaction that the poll "on the whole corresponded to international and democratic standards," and it cited the estimate by Abkhaz Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua that some 60 percent of voters in the predominantly Georgian-populated Gail Raion cast their ballots. Georgian officials dispute that figure, claiming that Gali Georgians boycotted the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). Both opposition and pro-government Georgian parliament deputies likewise slammed the Russian statement on February 15, Caucasus Press reported. Nika Gvaramia of the ruling National Movement-Democrats faction termed it "disgraceful," while Gia Tsagareishvili of the opposition Industrialists described it as "inadmissible." LF

A court in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi sentenced Abkhaz local official Fridon Chakaberia to 10 years' imprisonment on February 16 on charges of drug dealing and stealing gravestones from a Georgian cemetery, Caucasus Press reported. Chakaberia was arrested and charged two months ago, and insists the drugs police found on him were deliberately planted. The Abkhaz authorities earlier this week released from prison a Georgian sentenced four years ago on charges of terrorism, hoping that Tbilisi would reciprocate by releasing Chakaberia and a second Abkhaz official, David Sigua, who was arrested earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006 and February 7 and 15, 2007). LF

Former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev told a news conference in Moscow on February 14 that unless "emergency measures" are taken, a new round of political crises in Kyrgyzstan will be "difficult to avoid" now that former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov has joined the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007), Interfax reported. Akaev also stated that he has left politics for good and is focusing on his work as a professor at Moscow State University, news agency reported. In an interview with on February 14, Akaev blasted both the current authorities in Kyrgyzstan led by President Kurmanbek Bakiev and the opposition. Nevertheless, Akaev said that he feels that Kyrgyzstan can emerge from crisis "if the destructive processes are stopped completely." He added, "But only a new, young generation of politicians is capable of doing this." DK

Police in the southern city of Osh announced on February 15 that they have captured an Uyghur extremist, identified as Muhammadali Tursun Talip, who was planning terror attacks in Kyrgyzstan, reported. Talip is a 29-year-old Chinese citizen and member of the East Turkestan Liberation Organization who escaped from prison in Kyrgyzstan last year, AP reported. Talip, who arrived in Kyrgyzstan from China several years ago, was allegedly attempting to set up a terrorist organization to carry out attacks in Kyrgyzstan when he was arrested, news agency reported. DK

Newly elected Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a decree on February 15 rolling back his predecessor's curtailment of the country's educational system, reported. The decree will increase grade-school education from nine to 10 years, and university education from two years of study and two years of work to five years of study. The decree sets up a task force with representatives from various ministries to draw up plans for the reform within three months. The reforms will go into effect for the school year starting in September. Education reform figured among Berdymukhammedov's presidential election-campaign promises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007). DK

At a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and Aleksei Miller, who heads the state-controlled Russian gas company Gazprom, President Berdymukhammedov affirmed that Turkmenistan will honor its April 2003 agreement to ship increasing quantities of natural gas to Russia through 2028, RIA-Novosti reported. "I think that in the future, Russian-Turkmen relations will grow stronger in all areas, including energy, oil and gas, and humanitarian ties," Berdymukhammedov commented. DK

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told a briefing in Washington on February 15 that Turkmenistan's February 11 presidential election represented "a modest step forward," AP reported. "Democracy takes time to establish," McCormack said. "We encourage the government of Turkmenistan to take the first essential steps toward establishing a more transparent and open society and to be steadfast throughout the transition process." Also on February 15, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher met with Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat, reported. Boucher reportedly told Berdymukhammedov that the United States "pays great attention to the development of relations with Turkmenistan." Boucher also said that Washington is ready to help the newly elected president implement the reforms he outlined in his inauguration address (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). DK

Visa-free travel for a period of up to 60 days began along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border on February 15, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Baktybek Yusupov, a Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry representative in the country's south, confirmed that the agreement on visa-free travel between the two countries is now being implemented, reported. The agreement, which was signed in October, allows Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens to cross the border without a visa and remain for up to 60 days, although they must still undergo registration procedures upon arrival. DK

The Justice Ministry has refused registration to the Union of Leftist Parties, which consists of the Belarusian Women's Party Hope, the Belarusian Party of Communists, and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on February 15. The ministry said the main reason behind the registration denial was that the union held its founding congress abroad, which according to the ministry "runs counter to the legislation of the Republic of Belarus and the charters of political parties." The three Belarusian parties founded their union in Chernihiv, Ukraine, in December, after failing to lease a venue for the congress in Minsk. JM

Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych said in a television interview on February 15 that in early March the Constitutional Court will examine a cabinet petition regarding what he sees as President Viktor Yushchenko's failure to perform his constitutional duties, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. Lavrynovych explained that Yushchenko failed to dismiss an unspecified number of the heads of district administrations in whom local councilors passed no-confidence motions by a two-thirds majority. Under the constitution, a no-confidence vote supported by two-thirds of local lawmakers is sufficient to oblige the president to dismiss the head of a district or oblast administration. JM

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has urged Serbia to adopt a constructive position in talks over the future of Serbia's UN-administered, Albanian-populated province of Kosova. De Hoop Scheffer told local and international media that a Serbian resolution on February 14 condemning the UN proposal "will only strengthen my call to all parties, including Serbia, to work on the basis of the Ahtisaari proposals in a constructive way, because there really is no alternative." He added that "I do not think endless negotiations will improve the situation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). He urged Belgrade to adopt a "constructive" approach to resolving the province's future. De Hoop Scheffer was speaking in Mitrovica, scene in 2004 of the bloodiest clashes since the UN and NATO assumed control of Kosova in 1999 and five days after violence in Prishtina left two protesters dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). De Hoop Scheffer's visit to the 16,500-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force is seen as an attempt to reassure Kosova's Serbs that NATO is in control of the situation. In another intended signal of reassurance from the international community, the head of the UN police force resigned under pressure on February 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). The U.S. representative to Kosova, Tina Kaidanow, warned in a February 13 interview with Radio Television Kosovo that violence could have serious political implications, saying that "people have to clearly understand that violence...damages the status process and could in fact ultimately destroy the status process if it continues or escalates." The security situation appears to have calmed down in recent days, with the organizer of the February 10 rally, Albin Kurti, leader of the Self-Determination movement, currently in detention and no further Self-Determination rallies currently scheduled. Officials from Belgrade and Prishtina are due on February 21 to meet in Vienna with the author of the UN plan, Martti Ahtisaari. AG

The speaker of the Montenegrin parliament, Ranko Krivokapic, said on February 15 that he does not believe Croatia will file a case with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the involvement of Montenegrins in the bombing in 1991-92 of the UNESCO-listed city of Dubrovnik, Radio Montenegro reported on February 15. Krivokapic recently called on Podgorica to pay reparations to Croatia for damage inflicted on Dubrovnik by Montenegrins serving in the Yugoslav army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2007). "There is an understanding on both sides, with Croatia not wanting to open any more issues of conflict with Montenegro, while Montenegro wants to offer moral and material compensation for the Dubrovnik area, thereby closing an ugly chapter in our relations," Krivokapic said. He added that he hopes a memorandum will now be signed "so that this issue is permanently taken off the agenda." Krivokapic's suggestion to pay reparations has prompted criticism, with Radio Montenegro on February 15 quoting the spokesman of the opposition People's Party, Slavisa Guberinic, as saying that Krivokapic is endangering the vital interests of Montenegrin citizens and that in any other country he would be dismissed from his post for his comments. Relations between the Adriatic neighbors have been boosted by a range of symbolic gestures this year, including the first visit by a Croatian prime minister to Podgorica since 1992 and, most recently, a February 10 proposal by the mayor of the Montenegrin capital to make Croatian President Stjepan Mesic the first honorary citizen of Podgorica. Krivokapic also said that he believes the ICJ will reject a case filed by Bosnia-Herzegovina alleging that Serbia committed genocide during the 1992-95 war. The ICJ is due to rule on February 26. The case was filed in March 1993 by the then-mainly Bosnian Muslim government, less than a year into the war. The hearings concluded in May 2006. AG

A Danish court on February 15 convicted a 17-year-old man and cleared three other men of terrorism charges in a case linked to a plot uncovered in Bosnia in October 2005, AP reported the same day. The men, who were arrested on a tip-off from Bosnian police, were accused of planning to blow up an unspecified target in Europe. The jury said they believed there was sufficient evidence to prove that all four men were involved in the plot, but they were overruled in three of the four cases by a three-judge panel. Among those acquitted was a Bosnian, Adnan Avdic. Two men arrested in October 2005 in Bosnia in the case -- Mirsad Bektasevic, a Swedish Muslim originally from Serbia, and Turkish-born Dane Abdulkadir Cesur -- were sentenced to 15 and 13 years, respectively, by a Bosnian court on January 10. AG

Albania's leading opposition politician, Edi Rama, narrowly avoided an explosion at a restaurant he visited on February 14, local media reported. Initial reports indicated that the explosion occurred at the headquarters of his Socialist Party minutes after he left. Details about the cause of the explosion and the incident remain scant, but Deputy Interior Minister Gjergj Lezhja told a news conference on February 15 that the explosion occurred shortly after midnight on February 15, an hour and a quarter after Rama left the restaurant. Lezhja linked the explosion to a dispute between the owner of the restaurant and a business partner. Lezhja said the business partner provided details of the dispute, but it is unclear from an Albanian Television report whether he confessed to the attack or whether he was arrested. The political situation in the country is becoming increasingly fractious ahead of local elections scheduled for February 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). It also comes in the midst of a controversy centering on the publication on February 11 of photos of Rama in the nude. Rama has accused the governing Democratic Party of being behind the publication of the pictures, a charge it denies. The pictures were reportedly first published in Bosnian and Croatian publications before being reprinted by an Albanian newspaper on February 11. Rama, who says the photos were taken in southern France in 1995 or 1996, said on national television on February 12 that "I did what anybody else might have done at that time, under those conditions and at my age," the daily "Korrieri" reported on February 13. The Socialists are Albania's leading opposition party and Rama, who is running for reelection as the mayor of Tirana, has won considerable popularity for his efforts to clean up and bring order to the capital. The impact of the controversy on his popularity is hard to gauge at present. The leader of the Democratic Party, Prime Minister Sali Berisha, on February 14 predicted that Rama will boycott the elections, the daily "Albania" reported on February 15. AG

Syrian and Jordanian officials have asked for international help in dealing with the growing numbers of Iraqi refugees seeking refuge inside their borders. While exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that there are up to 1 million Iraqis now living in Syria, and nearly the same amount in Jordan. The United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Egypt, and Lebanon also host large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Observers have called the crisis the largest Arab exodus in the Middle East since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The Iraq refugee crisis, highlighted by the regional tour of UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres last week, received wide press coverage in the region both in print media and satellite television. Much of the focus was on the enormous financial and social burdens caused by the influx of refugees and debate over who will bear the costs of supporting them.

The Amman-based "Jordan Times" noted on February 12 that Jordan, which has historically hosted thousands of Palestinian refugees, did so with financial support from the international community. "For some reason, Jordan is now left to cope alone with the heavy burden of accommodating tens of thousands of Iraqis. This happens at a time [when] Jordan has to adjust for losing the Iraqi market for exports [Iraq was Jordan's biggest trade partner] and the Iraqi oil, which, for 12 years, was flowing at favorable terms," the daily reported.

Wealthy Iraqis have also disrupted the real-estate market, making it more difficult for average Jordanians to afford housing. "The extra demand on consumer products, especially fruit and vegetables, raised their prices sharply," it noted, not to mention the strain on the country's security services.

While the daily and many others said they would not advocate closing the borders to Iraqi refugees, they stressed the need for their countries to be compensated for the burden of supporting the influx.

There was also criticism in the media about a U.S. announcement last week that it would grant asylum to some 20,000 Iraqis, in that the figure was considered too low. However, there was little discussion of the February 5 announcement by the State Department's Iraq Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Task Force.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said last week that an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 Iraqis are leaving their homes monthly, prompting the UNHCR to issue an emergency appeal for $60 million in international aid. The UNHCR also called for the convening of an international donor conference for refugees in April. Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani issued a similar appeal on February 11, saying a conference should be organized to address funding for states that take in refugees.

Al-Mashhadani also said a parliamentary commission will be formed to discuss the issue with Arab and European states. He also recommended the Iraqi government allocate a portion of its emergency budget to aid refugees and displaced persons. There are an estimated 1.7 million Iraqis displaced from their homes inside the country.

Iraqis have been fleeing the country in growing numbers since 2003. Until now, many of those displaced outside Iraq's borders had not registered with the UN. Families with the financial means were some of the first to take up residence in neighboring states, buying homes, opening businesses, or joining the workforce.

The less fortunate ended up in slums, with many begging on the streets. While the influx of Iraqis in many ways benefited the economies of countries like Jordan and Syria, it also placed an enormous burden on them, with negative impacts on their infrastructure and society.

The UNHCR on February 9 quoted Syrian authorities as saying the influx of refugees, many of whom are in Damascus, has led to a huge strain on schools, medical facilities, and other social services, and has driven up rents and other prices in the capital. The effect is much the same in neighboring Jordan.

A decision by the Syrian government last month to regulate the number of Iraqis entering the country prompted demonstrations by scores of refugees, and garnered the attention of international organizations.

That decision has reportedly been reversed, at least for the time being, following a visit by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Guterres to the region. The threat of deportation, however, has prompted thousands of refugees to seek official status. Over a two-day period this week, UNHCR staff provided applications to more than 5,000 people in Damascus, the agency reported.

Sweden's EU Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstroem has already called on EU states to share the burden of refugees who make it to Europe more equally; Sweden currently takes in more than half of all Iraqi asylum seekers that come to Europe -- 9,065 in 2006, according to

It is a generally accepted figure that some 2 million Iraqis have left Iraq since 2003, though the exact numbers could be far higher. Once refugees are registered, the UNHCR will have a better idea of the number of displaced they are dealing with. However, a true number may still be difficult to come by, as it will not include the number of Iraqis living outside the country who have not sought assistance.

In a speech primarily devoted to Afghanistan at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute for Pubic Policy and Research, President George W. Bush said on February 15 that "there is going to be a new offensive in Afghanistan" in the coming spring, adding that "it's going to be a NATO offensive," according to the text of the speech posted at the institute's website ( Bush said it is in the interest of NATO member states to provide training for Afghan military and police forces. Bush said that, as a first priority, the United States and its NATO allies are going to increase the size of the Afghan National Police from 61,000 to 82,000 and the Afghan National Army from 32,000 to 70,000 by 2008. "The second part of our strategy is to work with our allies to strengthen the NATO force in Afghanistan," Bush said. "Today, Afghanistan is NATO's most important military operation." He called on NATO member states to "fill the security gaps" by providing additional troops and also lifting restrictions on their forces assigned to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) so that the commanders on the ground "have the flexibility they need to defeat the enemy wherever the enemy may make a stand." Alluding to Article 5 of the NATO charter, Bush said the alliance is based on the principle of an "attack on one is an attack on all." He then said that this "principle holds true whether the attack is on the home soil of a NATO nation, or on allied forces deployed on a NATO mission abroad." AT

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said an air strike in the Musa Qala district of southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province on February 14 led to the death of "senior Taliban extremist commander, Mullah Manan," according to an ISAF press statement on February 15. ISAF initially claimed to have killed a "senior" Taliban commander (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007) without identifying him. The statement restated ISAF's earlier claim that no civilians were killed in the attack, as some media outlets reported and neo-Taliban sources claimed. AT

Afghan Defense Minister General Rahim Wardak said in Kabul on February 15 that Afghan National Army (ANA) and ISAF units are ready to retake the town of Musa Qala from Taliban militants who captured it in early February, but are giving diplomacy a chance so as to avoid civilian casualties, AFP reported. "From day one, the ANA was ready [to] launch operations together with ISAF forces," Wardak said, "but because of political complications -- negotiations that were suggested by the governor [Helmand Governor Asadullah Wafa] -- we have waited." Wardak described as a "complication" the Taliban's refusal to enter into negotiations with the Afghan government. The Taliban seizure of Musa Qala came four months after U.K. forces serving with ISAF struck a deal with local elders and left the town. The Taliban initially appeared willing to negotiate a deal of their own but then reversed that position and accused ISAF and the Afghan government of flouting agreements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006, and February 5 and 7, 2007). AT

Saleh Mohammad Khaleq, the head of the Balkh Province Information and Culture Department, told owners of cable-television providers in the provincial capital Mazar-e Sharif on February 15 that they must transmit local, state-run television channels on their networks or lose their licenses, Balkh Television reported. Khaleq, chairing a meeting of local media officials and cable-company owners, also said operators should exercise restraint when broadcasting foreign programs. Cable networks that fail to broadcast Balkh Television 24 hours a day will be banned, Khaleq warned. AT

Iranian security forces have arrested 65 suspects following a February 14 bombing in Zahedan in the southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province that is being attributed to a Sunni extremist group, AFP and IRNA reported on February 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). Mohammad Ghaffari, the head of the Fath police and security base in Sistan va Baluchistan, told IRNA on February 15 that three suspected bombers -- believed to be members of a Sunni extremist group called Jundullah -- were arrested and interrogated on February 14, yielding information that led to the arrest of another suspected bomber later that day, and to the arrests of 65 suspected collaborators since then. Ghaffari said that "evidence, documents, and films" found by police indicated that "these people and their little group had close relations with foreign agents and enemies of the system, to create discord among various Shi'a and Sunni groups." He said "the attachment of the little terrorist group known as [Jundullah] to American and British intelligence and espionage services has been established." Ghaffari said the bombing killed 11 personnel of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), and injured 31 others, IRNA reported. Initial reports put the death toll at 18. VS

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) asked Iran on February 15 to halt scheduled executions of ethnic Arab Iranians convicted of "armed activity against the state," one day after Iran hanged three ethnic Arabs convicted over bombings in Ahvaz, the capital of the southwestern Khuzestan Province. The last executions for related charges were on January 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007). On February 14, Iran hanged Majid Abd Albuqbish, Abdulreza Sanawati, and Ghassem Salamat, bringing to 12 the total number of executions carried out in Khuzestan since March 2006 in connection with Ahvaz bombings of October 2005 and January 2006, and Radio Farda reported on February 15. HRW urged that the death sentences given to 13 ethnic Arab Iranians, apparently for these bombings or related local unrest, be commuted. HRW's director for the Middle East and North Africa observed in a February 15 statement that people sentenced so far over the bombings have had secret trials "that deny the defendants the most basic legal rights." The bombings referred to happened in Ahvaz and Tehran in June 2005, and in Ahvaz in October 2005 and January 2006, killing more than 20 people in all, Radio Farda reported on February 15. VS

Emadeddin Baqi, the head of the Association in Defense of Prisoners Rights, recently wrote to Iranian judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi and Intelligence Minister Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei, pointing out legal irregularities in the prosecutions of some of the suspected bombers, Radio Farda reported on February 15. Baqi claimed defendants have been denied access to lawyers, leading to lawyers not recognizing their clients in court, as they had never met; spent long periods in solitary confinement; and one defendant was reportedly arrested two months before the bombings for which he was charged, Radio Farda reported. Farda noted that the bombings are part of local unrest that followed reports of a letter allegedly written in April 15, 2005, by then-Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi indicating state plans to bring Persians into the Khuzestan Province to reduce the proportional number of Arabs there. Rights activist Sadeq Naqqash-Kar told Radio Farda on February 15 that Iran has ignored calls by rights and international bodies in recent months to show clemency or greater respect for due process in the bombing cases. Naqqash-Kar alleged a deteriorating rights situation in Iran, and more so for "activists" in provinces like Kurdistan and Khuzestan, "as news of those areas does not even go outside," Radio Farda reported. VS

The governor of the southern Hormozegan Province, Abdulreza Sheikholeslami, has been appointed as President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's new chief secretary, taking over from Gholam Hussein Elham, who is now minister of justice (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007), Fars reported on February 14. The news agency added that Sheikholeslami was an adviser to and director-general of Ahmadinejad's office when the latter was mayor of Tehran before his presidential electoral victory in 2005. Fars confirmed separately that Judiciary chief Ayatollah Hashemi-Shahrudi "last week" appointed Alireza Jamshidi, the deputy head of the judiciary for legal affairs and judicial development, as the judiciary's new spokesman. Jamshidi will reportedly hold his first press conference as spokesman on February 20. VS

President Jalal Talabani told reporters at a February 15 press briefing in Baghdad that the security plan will yield successful results as the weeks progress, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on February 16. Talabani praised the work of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, saying al-Maliki "behaved as an Iraqi who rises above personal inclinations and tendencies." Asked about the whereabouts of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007), Talabani said he doesn't have definitive information. "But I think that several influential officials in the Al-Mahdi Army were ordered to leave Iraq. I think they were ordered to do so by [al-Sadr] himself in order to facilitate the government's mission of implementing the Baghdad security plan." Talabani later quoted al-Sadr's aides as saying the cleric is eager to see the security plan succeed, adding that al-Sadr "gave the government the go-ahead to arrest every violator who breaks the law.... Hence, I think that Muqtada al-Sadr's stand is positive and very good," Talabani said. KR

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi praised the Baghdad security operation in a February 15 interview with Al-Arabiyah television, saying the plan is "based on neutrality and professionalism." He added that if the plan's principles, outlined by the prime minister earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007), are implemented, then it "will proceed well." Al-Hashimi noted his disappointment, however, that details of the plan were leaked ahead of time, which gave insurgents, both Sunni and Shi'ite, the opportunity to flee or hide. "These criminals should have been targeted, arrested, and brought to justice," al-Hashimi said. "I regret to say these groups have now fled and disappeared." He also called on Prime Minister al-Maliki to develop a comprehensive plan to get all unauthorized weapons off the streets. "I think the government is in dire need of an integrated plan to tempt people to surrender their weapons to the government," he said. "I wish this step would have been taken before the implementation of the Baghdad security plan, but this did not happen." KR

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on February 15 that his government should take steps to forge better relations with Iraq's Kurdistan region government, Istanbul-based NTV reported the same day. He added that he will inform President Talabani of his proposal. Talabani's party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), issued a report on Erdogan's comments on its website, saying PUK media chief Azad Jundiyani welcomed the statement. "We consider Erdogan's statements a significant development in the relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey," Jundiyani said. "The courageous statements by Erdogan indicate the adoption of a new and realistic policy by the Turkish government. We are sure that this will have a [positive] impact on the future of the region," he added. KR

Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani reportedly objects to a U.S. offer to grant asylum to some 7,000 refugees, dpa reported on February 15. Speaking to reporters from Damascus, where he is on an official visit, al-Mashhadani said granting asylum is tantamount to a "migration of Iraqi minds out of their homeland" -- an apparent reference to the ongoing brain drain that has plagued Iraq since 2003, with university professors and educated professionals leaving the country in record numbers. Al-Mashhadani said he hopes that Iraqi refugees will be hosted in Arab states closer to home so that they can one day return to Iraq and help rebuild. At a press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Mahmud al-Abrash, on February 14, he thanked Syria for hosting thousands of Iraqi refugees, saying he recognizes the challenges that creates for the Syrian state, SANA reported the same day. KR