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Newsline - February 20, 2007

Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov, who commands the Russian Strategic Missile Forces, told a February 19 Moscow news conference that Russia might target missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic if those countries agree to host U.S. missile-defense sites, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 9, and 12, 2007). Solovtsov said that "if a political decision [is made by the Kremlin] to withdraw from [the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty] between the United States and Russia, the Strategic Missile Forces will be capable of carrying out the task [of targeting sites in the Czech Republic and Poland]." He added that, under the 1987 pact, "intermediate-range missiles were dismantled as a class, but the [knowledge of how to make them] is still there.... So, if such a decision is made, it won't be difficult to resume their production." Solovtsov noted that the United States and its allies are discussing the missile-defense project but have not yet taken any concrete steps. Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov said on February 19 that there will not be any new "Cold War" in Europe, the daily "Vedomosti" reported on February 20. He added that Russia is nonetheless prepared to defend "its national interests" by making an unspecified "symmetrical response" to the stationing of a missile-defense system near its borders. On February 15, General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, said that Russia has "convincing evidence" that would enable it to abrogate the INF agreement under the terms of that pact, RIA Novosti reported. The state-run news agency described his remarks as "a strong warning" to Washington. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on February 16 that Baluyevsky was "simply stating the facts" and that Russia has made no decision on scrapping the treaty. The "International Herald Tribune" on February 20 quoted Moscow-based analyst Ivan Safranchuk as saying that Russia is threatening to abrogate the agreement in the hope that unspecified "Europeans" will "put pressure on the United States" not to go ahead with its missile-defense plans. "The Economist" of February 17 argued that Russia seeks recognition of its own "sphere of influence" in Europe. PM

In a statement in Brussels on February 19, NATO spokesman James Appathurai described the comments by Colonel General Solovtsov as unacceptable, news agencies reported. Appathurai stressed that "the days of talk of targeting NATO territory or vice versa are long past us. This kind of extreme language is out of date and uncalled for." On February 15, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that the missile-defense system "is no way directed at Russian strategic forces. This is in no way directed against Russia. As a matter of fact, we have offered to cooperate with Russia on missile defense." On February 19, State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said that "we have offered to cooperate with Russia on missile defense because we believe we face a common threat emanating from the Middle East as well as other areas." President Vladimir Putin and former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov have said repeatedly that they do not believe that the defense system is directed against Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 9, and 12, 2007). PM

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and his Polish counterpart Jaroslaw Kaczynski said in Warsaw on February 19 that they are likely to accept U.S. missile-defense sites on their respective territories, international media reported. Topolanek added that "both of our countries are now preparing a response to the U.S. proposal. We have agreed that both countries are likely to give a positive response, and then we will begin negotiations." Alluding to recent criticism of the missile-defense system by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Topolanek said that "saying that the United States did not consult with Russia is naive" (see below). Kaczynski noted that "the state of Polish-Russian relations is well-known, so seeking Russia's acceptance [of a U.S. missile-defense system] will be difficult. But we will try to convince the Russians of the obvious fact that this deployment is by no means aimed against them." He stressed that the system is not directed against "normal countries" but against those that do not abide by international norms. In a joint article published in the Polish daily "Rzeczpospolita" on February 19, Topolanek and Kaczynski said the system will serve as "passive protection from attacks" for all members of the Euro-Atlantic community. The project has aroused controversy in both countries, but many commentators there have noted that the harsh language coming from Moscow in recent weeks is likely to convince Czechs and Poles that they do indeed need a U.S. missile-defense system. Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra said on February 19 that Czechs have ample experience with Russian bullying and know that they will pay dearly if they give into it, the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported on February 20. Jiri Sedivy, who is a former head of the Czech General Staff, said on February 19 that Colonel General Solovtsov's remarks were "unnecessarily tough" because the U.S.-Czech alliance is no threat to Russia, CTK reported. Sedivy suggested that Solovtsov was "just flexing his muscles." PM

German Foreign Minister Steinmeier of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) said in a recent interview that "because the sites for stationing [the missile-defense system] are quite near Russia, one should have talked with Russia about it beforehand," Deutsche Welle reported on February 19. Later on February 19 in Baku, he qualified his criticism of the United States, Poland, and the Czech Republic by noting that the U.S. and Russian defense ministers have already begun discussions. Eckart von Klaeden, who is foreign-policy spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), was quoted in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of February 20 as saying that "the thrust of any [German] criticism [over the missile-defense controversy] must not be directed against America." He suggested that Germany should rather concentrate on warning President Putin that he is sending the wrong message to Iran by criticizing the U.S. missile-defense plans, since those plans are not directed against Russia but against Iran. Von Klaeden added that Russia is wrong to threaten to scrap its 1987 agreement with the United States. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who is a CSU member of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, also stressed that the United States seeks to defend its own territory against a "plausible" threat from Iran. But Rolf Muetzenich, who is a disarmament spokesman for the SPD, praised Steinmeier's comments. Muetzenich added that he has "basic doubts" about the missile-defense project, and he stressed that a "new arms race" should be avoided. He said that Russia's threat to scrap the 1987 pact "shows how serious the situation is." The CDU/CSU and SPD officials alike agreed on the need to discuss the missile-defense project within NATO and the NATO-Russia Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006, and January 18 and 23, 2007). PM

Sergei Novikov, who is a spokesman for the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), told reporters in Moscow on February 20 that Iran has been behind in its payments for the Bushehr nuclear power plant since the fourth quarter of 2006, Interfax reported. He noted that Iran paid Russia only 25 percent of what it owed for January and nothing at all in February, adding that the "underfinancing" will lead to a delay in construction work and eventual fuel deliveries. Iran previously accused Russia of deliberately delaying construction work, a charge that Russia has hitherto denied (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and 27, 2006). Iran rejects Russian claims that it is behind in payments, the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 20 (see Part 3 below). PM

Russian health officials said on February 20 that the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which is potentially lethal to humans, has been detected at eight different locations in Moscow Oblast, reported. Quarantines have been imposed and the main bird market in Moscow closed. The region's prosecutor said in a statement that a criminal investigation is under way to determine if there were lapses in enforcing veterinary regulations at the market, where at least some of the infected birds were bought. PM

The Spanish daily "El Pais" on February 20 quoted Vyacheslav Ismaylov, a former army major who now writes for the weekly "Novaya gazeta," as saying that three independent sources suggest that someone within Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov's entourage gave the orders for the murder last October of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, renowned for her hard-hitting coverage of developments in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. Ismaylov, who is a member of the "Novaya gazeta" team conducting an independent investigation into Politkovskaya's murder, said that "we don't know whether Kadyrov ordered the killing, but we do know that he is aware who was responsible." Kadyrov denied any connection with the murder days after it took place (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10 and 11, 2006). LF

State Duma Deputy Sergei Ivanov (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) expressed concern on February 16 over reports of attacks during the night of 14 February on immigrants from Armenia and Georgia in the Stavropol Krai town of Novoaleksandrovsk, and reported. Andrei Khanin, an ataman of the Terek Cossacks, was shot and seriously injured in Novoaleksandrovsk the previous night (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). Ivanov claimed that shops in the town owned by Armenians and Georgians were torched, and an unspecified number of people were injured, but Interior Ministry officials and Cossack representatives denied this. On February 14, an unspecified number of Cossacks assembled in Novoaleksandrovsk and demanded that Stavropol Krai Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov dismiss the mayor of Novoaleksandrosk and launch an investigation into suspected environmental pollution by a Georgian-owned plant that Khanin reportedly sought to curtail. An unemployed Russian man who previously publicly quarreled on two occasions with Khanin was arrested later on February 14 as a suspect in the attack on the basis of testimony by witnesses to the shooting. On February 16, two public organizations that oppose illegal immigration posted an appeal on the Internet to attend a meeting outside the Stavropol Krai prosecutor's office on February 17 to protest "killings on ethnic grounds," reported. Cossack leaders, however, stated on February 17 that there are no grounds to attribute the attack on Khanin to either interethnic enmity or to his activities as an environmentalist. (Cossacks were listed as a separate ethnic group for the first time in the 2002 Russian Federation census; some 140,000 people identified themselves as members of that ethnic group, according to ITAR-TASS on November 10, 2003.) Khanin died of his injuries on February 17. An estimated 2,000 people, including 800 Cossacks from the Don, Kuban, and Terek Cossack armies, attended his funeral in Novoaleksandrovsk on February 19 amid tight security precautions. LF

Armenia's Constitutional Court ruled on February 16 on the basis of an appeal filed by President Robert Kocharian that provisions of the law on the National Assembly that require Armenian Public Television to broadcast during prime time special sessions devoted to deputies' statements and questions to government ministers contravene articles of the constitution guaranteeing freedom of the press, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on February 19. Opposition leaders on February 19 deplored the court's ruling. Vazgen Manukian of the National Democratic Union told RFE/RL's Armenian Service he believes it is unconstitutional, while People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian said it is "clearly aimed at limiting the opposition's campaigning possibilities in the run-up" to the May 12 parliamentary elections and the presidential ballot due in 2008. LF

Hayk Babukhanian, editor of the newspaper "Iravunk" owned by the Union of Constitutional Rights (SIM), announced on February 19 that he has suspended publication indefinitely due to threats by unidentified persons, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Babukhanian succeeded in forcing the ouster last September of SIM's longtime chairman, Hrant Khachatrian, but the Appeals Court recently ruled that Babukhanian's election as Khachatrian's successor was illegal. An attempt earlier this month by Khachatrian's supporters to force their way into SIM's headquarters in Yerevan and confront Babukhanian failed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 9, 2007). LF

Vartan Oskanian met in Paris on February 15 with the French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group to discuss the ongoing negotiations aimed at reaching a solution of the Karabakh conflict, Armenian and Azerbaijani media reported on February 16. The Azerbaijani online daily on February 17 quoted the co-chairs as warning the conflict sides against taking any action that could torpedo the progress reached in those talks in recent months, including raising the Karabakh issue with the UN General Assembly. The GUAM group of countries of which Azerbaijan is a member tabled a draft resolution on so-called frozen conflicts at the UN General Assembly last fall, but subsequently called for debate on it to be postponed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22 and December 7, 2006). On February 20, Russian co-chairman Yury Merzlyakov was quoted by as describing the Paris talks as "very productive," and as expressing regret that Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov did not attend. Merzlyakov said Oskanian and Mammadyarov will "probably" meet in early March to continue their talks, reported on February 20 (see also End Note). LF

Novruzali Mamedov, who is head of the Institute of Philology of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan and chief editor of the Talysh-language newspaper "Tolyshi sado," has been charged with espionage on behalf of Iran, and reported on February 19 and 20, respectively, quoting the National Security Ministry. Mamedov was detained in Baku on February 3 and sentenced to 15 days' detention on charges of obstructing the police. A second employee of Mamedov's institute, Elman Quliyev, was arrested on charges of espionage on February 16. On February 18, Iran's state-run satellite television channel Sahar, which broadcasts in Azeri to Azerbaijan, called on Azerbaijan's Talysh minority, whose language is related to Persian, to engage in civil disobedience. According to the official results of the 2003 census, Azerbaijan's Talysh minority numbers 80,000 people; members of the unofficial Talysh National Movement claim the true figure is closer to 1.5 million, reported on March 10, 2006. LF

Panah Huseynov, an opposition parliament deputy who served as prime minister under the late President Abulfaz Elchibey, called on February 16 for Defense Ministry representatives to brief the legislature on the hazing and other abuses within the armed forces that have impelled eight conscripts to leave their units on the Line of Contact in recent months and risk capture by the Armenian side, reported. Speaker Oktay Asadov rejected that proposal, leading to a heated exchange between the two men. Agajan Abiyev, who heads the parliament's disciplinary commission, told on February 17 that Huseynov risks a formal reprimand if he continues to challenge the speaker's rulings. LF

Police prevented some 15-20 activists of the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) from staging an unauthorized picket on February 16 outside the Iranian Embassy in Baku, Interfax and reported on February 16 and 17, respectively. The activists intended to protest the treatment of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran. On February 18, between 300 and 600 people braved bitter cold to attend a rally in Baku, for which the municipal authorities had granted permission, convened by the opposition Musavat party to protest the steep increases in electricity and gas tariffs and gasoline prices announced in early January, Interfax and reported on February 18 and 20, respectively. LF

The Georgian parliament adopted unanimously on February 16 with 150 votes in favor a resolution based on conclusions reached by its interim commission on territorial integrity condemning as a violation of international human rights conventions the deportation of hundreds of Georgian citizens from the Russian Federation, RFE/RL's Georgian Service, the daily "Kommersant," and the website reported on February 16, 17 and 18, respectively. The resolution notes that four people collapsed and died during the deportation process, and it urges the Justice Ministry to file suit against Russia with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). LF

Most members of the majority National Movement-Democrats parliament faction rejected on February 16 a proposal by opposition deputies to establish a special commission to investigate the circumstances of the murders in 2004 and 2006 respectively of Amiran Robakidze and Sandro Girgvliani, Caucasus Press reported. The only exceptions, according to the daily "Rezonansi" on February 19 as quoted by Caucasus Press, were deputies close to speaker Nino Burdjanadze. On February 13, Burdjanadze implicitly condemned the Court of Appeal's December 8 rejection of an appeal by Girgvliani's family to review evidence that they say was ignored during the trial of four Interior Ministry officials sentenced for his murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006). The families of both victims are convinced that the persons tried and sentenced for the two killings were not in fact responsible, and that "the killers are at liberty and driving around in expensive cars," Caucasus Press reported on February 15. Nika Gvaramia (National Movement) argued on February 15 that the creation of a new commission to probe the killings would be tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in the Prosecutor General's Office and the judiciary. LF

The pro-government parliament majority also rejected on February 16 a bill on lustration drafted by the opposition Democratic Front faction that, if passed, would have banned former officials of and collaborators with the Soviet-era KGB from holding government positions, Caucasus Press reported. In late December, the majority decided to postpone debate on the bill (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007), and on February 16 Giga Bokeria hinted that it is the subject of disagreements within his National Movement- Democrats faction, Civil Georgia reported. "The Messenger" on February 19 quoted Giorgi Tsagareishvili of the opposition Industrialists faction as saying that the majority favors a law on lustration and rejected the draft bill only because it was the opposition that proposed it. Also on February 16, deputies voted against a proposal by the opposition New Rightists to extend for a further two years the tax privileges for the Georgian print media that expired on December 31, 2006, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006). LF

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg told journalists in Tbilisi on February 18 that despite the construction of several new prisons, living conditions in Georgia's prisons are still "unbearable" and fail to meet elementary humanitarian norms, Caucasus Press reported. One week earlier, Georgian human rights ombudsman Sozar Subar similarly concluded that a new prison in Rustavi was opened before it was ready to admit new inmates. Hammarberg also commented on human rights violations in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones, and urged the Georgian parliament to expedite passage of a draft law permitting the Meskhetians deported from southern Georgia in 1944 and their descendants to return to Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. In the course of a weeklong visit to Georgia, Hammarberg met with representatives of the governments of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Abkhaz government in exile, and with Dmitry Sanakoev, who was elected "president" by the Georgian population of South Ossetia in a ballot last November not recognized by the international community as legal and valid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). LF

Rakhat Aliev, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Austria and the son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, told Reuters that allegations of his involvement in pressure tactics against managers at Nurbank (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7 and 12, 2007) are part of a "defamatory campaign" against him, "Karavan" reported on February 16. Aliev said the people behind the allegations committed financial improprieties and have "problems with the law." Queried about his reported media holdings in Kazakhstan, Aliev confirmed that he and his wife, Darigha Nazarbaeva, hold shares in the Khabar and KTK television channels, "Karavan" newspaper, and Kazakhstan Today news agency. Aliev said that the shares are currently being held in a trust. DK

Nursultan Nazarbaev told a meeting of the country's democratization commission in Astana on February 19 that he supports changes to the constitution to give the country's parliament broader powers, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. He said, "I support the proposals to increase the role of parliament by giving it a number of functions currently performed by the president, such as forming the Constitutional Council, Central Election Commission, and Accounting Committee." But Nazarbaev stressed that the expansion of parliament's powers should not weaken the presidency. Noting that "it's not worth delaying changes to the constitution," Nazarbaev said that he will create a task force to develop proposals for changes to the country's basic law to speed political modernization, Khabar reported. DK

Anatolii Belonog, Kazakhstan's chief epidemiologist, told a meeting of health officials in Astana on February 16 that the spread of HIV/AIDS could soon threaten the country's national security, Interfax reported. The number of new HIV cases officially registered in Kazakhstan in 2006 -- 1,745 -- reflected an 80-percent year-on-year increase, Interfax reported on February 19. Belonog stressed that blood transfusion procedures and overall medical controls need to be tightened to hinder the spread of the disease. He stated, "We have to regard this problem through the prism of the country's national security." According to official data, there are more than 7,000 HIV-positive persons in Kazakhstan. DK

The newly formed United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan issued a statement on February 19 calling for early presidential elections and constitutional reform, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Charging President Kurmanbek Bakiev with "torpedoing" constitutional reform, the group stated that Bakiev has "discredited himself by wrecking constitutional reform and has, for all practical purposes, lost his legitimacy by reneging on the obligations he signed on to, including those relating to the tandem." The "tandem" is a reference to Bakiev's pact with former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006), who recently joined the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). Kulov took part in the February 19 announcement on the establishment of the United Front, along with former speaker of parliament Omurbek Tekebaev and a number of the leaders of the For Reforms opposition movement. Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, a leader in For Reforms, told that For Reforms will remain a separate movement pursuing long-term reform goals, although some members of For Reforms, including Abdrakhmanov, will participate in the United Front. But one For Reforms leader, opposition parliamentary deputy Azimbek Beknazarov, said the United Front's goals are too radical and could lead to a violent confrontation. DK

Imomali Rakhmonov has signed a decree appointing Qodir Qosimov head of the Mountainous Badakhshon Autonomous Region, Tajik television reported on February 19. Rakhmonov also appointed a number of new district heads in the region. DK

In a February 16 interview with the Russian-language magazine "Turkmenistan," newly elected Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said that democracy is a "tender substance" that cannot be implanted "using ready-made imported models," reported. Berdymukhammedov continued, "It has to be grown carefully, using the wisdom of national experience and the traditions of preceding generations." Berdymukhammedov said that his government's main priorities are "supporting a high level of social protections for the population and perfecting the system of health care and education." DK

Two Internet cafes have opened in Ashgabat, reported on February 16. Fifteen more such cafes will soon appear in the capital, with more to come in other parts of Turkmenistan. Greater access to the Internet featured among President Berdymukhammedov's campaign promises in the February 11 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007). Despite the apparent easing of restrictions on the Internet, Deutsche Welle reported on February 19, citing an unidentified source in Turkmenistan's National Security Ministry, that Chinese specialists will assist the Turkmen security services in controlling the Internet to ensure that Turkmen citizens cannot access pornography, opposition websites, and media critical of Turkmen authorities. DK

Berdymukhammedov signed decrees on February 16-18 appointing a new education minister, head of national gas company Turkmengaz, and presidential property manager, agencies reported. On February 16, Hydyr Saparliev was appointed education minister, Altyn Asyr television reported. Saparliev was education minister until being dismissed in October 2005 and appointed ambassador to Austria. Tachberdy Tagiev was appointed head of Turkmengaz, a post with ministerial rank, and relieved of his position as head of the Turkmenbashi refinery complex, reported on February 18. Tagiev had occupied the post of minister of oil and gas industry and mineral resources from November 2002 to October 2003. And Mukhammetberdi Bashiev was dismissed as presidential property manager and Yusup Ishanguliev appointed to replace him, reported on February 18. DK

Uzbekistan's National Security Service (SNB) has described an increase in the smuggling of Afghan-produced narcotics from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan as "alarming," Regnum reported on February 16. reported on February 19 that the SNB's press service stated, "The number of attempts to smuggle Afghan drugs from Tajikistan to Uzbekistan via Bekabad, a locality in the Tashkent region bordering Tajikistan, has increased manifold of late." DK

Sudanese National Assembly Speaker Ahmed Ibrahim Al-Tahir on February 19 held talks in Minsk with the heads of Belarus's two houses, Chamber of Representatives Chairman Uladzimir Kanaplyou and Council of the Republic Chairman Henadz Navitski, Belapan reported. "We've agreed on the establishment of working groups on cooperation in the Belarusian and Sudanese legislatures," Kanaplyou said after the talks, adding that Belarus and Sudan "have common ground on all international issues." Belarus's exports to Sudan, mainly trucks and tractors, amounted to $2.5 million last year. Belarus's Belarusnafta oil company made an unsuccessful bid for a contract to develop a Sudanese oil field in 2005. "On one hand, we hear declarations that it is necessary [for Belarus] to make friends with Europe and to develop relations with the international organizations on the principles of democracy and respect for human rights. But on the other, [Minsk] continues ties with dangerous countries, such as Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea. We do not see any considered changes in the policy that has led to the [current] crisis," former Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Sannikau commented to RFE/RL's Belarus Service on the Sudanese visit. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on February 19 submitted a draft bill to the Verkhovna Rada, proposing to increase the minimum monthly wage to 420 hryvnyas ($83) as of May and to 430 hryvnyas ($85) as of August from the current 400 hryvnyas, Ukrainian media reported. The legislature came to a standstill at its morning sitting on February 20, after opposition deputies demanded that Yushchenko's bill and another one, which imposes limits on utility-tariff hikes, be considered as urgent. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said on February 19 that the cabinet will consider increases in wages and pensions only after taking into account the economic results of the first quarter of 2007. JM

Three UN vehicles were damaged when a bomb exploded in Kosova's capital, Prishtina, on February 19. One other vehicle was damaged, but media reports say police suspect the explosion was targeted at the UN. Tensions are currently running high in the UN-administered Serbian province, with a final set of consultations on the final status of the predominantly Albanian-populated region due to begin on February 21, and following the deaths of two protesters on February 10 when UN police fired rubber bullets at ethnic Albanian demonstrators rallying against the UN envoy's blueprint for Kosova. The bloodshed has already resulted in the resignations of the province's interior minister and the UN's police chief (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13 and 15, 2007). An investigation is focusing on the decision to use rubber bullets. Kosovar Justice Minister Jonuz Salihaj has already criticized the decision, with KosovaLive quoting him on February 15 as saying the use of rubber bullets is evidence of a lack of professionalism. AG

Fazli Veliu, a member of parliament for an ethnic Albanian party in Macedonia, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), has confirmed earlier reports that foreigners took part in the February 10 demonstration in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). Veliu, who was at the rally himself, said an association of veterans of a six-month conflict with the Macedonian government in 2001 arranged for several hundred of its members to attend the demonstration, the Skopje-based Albanian-language newspaper "Lajm ekskluzive" reported on February 15. Veliu, who heads the veterans association, added that "in Prishtina we were joined by many compatriots who work in Switzerland, Germany, and other European countries." Veliu, who said, "I confronted the police with my two bare hands," accused the police of using "unprecedented force" against the protesters. Veliu denied he and other Macedonian Albanians were invited by Daut Haradinaj, the brother of Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovar prime minister indicted for war crimes. AG

Serbian Minister for Local Government Zoran Loncar predicted on February 17 that the UN Security Council will not accept the plan for the future of Kosova drawn up by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, AP reported on February 17. "Not only Russia and China, but a great number of other countries are against the taking away of 15 percent of the territory of a sovereign state and a member state of the United Nations," he said. Loncar's statement underscores a widespread belief in Serbia that Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, will not approve the plan. Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 10 issued a strong warning against the international community "playing God" in Kosova, saying that Russia will not support the Ahtisaari plan "if we see that one of the parties is not happy with the solution" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). Serbian confidence will have been boosted by comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 16, in which he warned that independence for Kosova would have the "most negative consequences for the region and for Europe as a whole." On February 16, the governments of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia reiterated that they will push for independence from Georgia if Kosova is granted independence, according to news agency reports. Two days earlier, on February 14, Russia's representative in Kosova, Andrei Dronov, appeared to downplay talk of a veto. In an interview published by the Kosovar Albanian newspaper "Kosova sot" on February 14, Dronov said, "it is too soon to talk about" the use of a veto, which he described as "the most undesirable solution." Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku on February 16 said that the United States "and others within the Contact Group" -- a group of countries, including Russia, involved in the search for a solution for Kosova -- "will not allow the process to fail," Radio Television Kosova reported on February 16. Similarly, the head of the UN Mission in Kosovo, Joachim Ruecker, on February 17 told the Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera that "Russia is an active Contact Group member in the Kosovo negotiations, and it will not use its veto." AG

In an interview published by Berlin's "Tageszeitung" newspaper on February 17, an adviser to Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Vladeta Jankovic, said that Serbia is prepared to accept any solution for Kosova except one that would give Kosova a seat in the United Nations and its own armed forces. Kostunica has in the past struck a particularly hard-line note on talks, warning of "serious consequences" for countries that support independence for Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). However, this apparent sign of a softer stance was swiftly dismissed by Leon Kojen, a member of Belgrade's negotiating team. Kojen told the broadcaster B92 on February 17 that "I am sure that the statement was taken out of context; Serbia has a much more detailed and developed position and is much less prepared to make concessions than that statement, which was surely taken out of context, suggests." Kojen said that Belgrade "has no intention of consenting" to a whole range of proposals in the Ahtisaari plan. A similar note was struck by Vuk Jeremic, an adviser to President Boris Tadic, whom the Belgrade newspaper "Vecernje novosti" quoted on February 17 as saying that "naturally, there will be no compromises when it comes to preserving our national interests in Kosovo" when negotiators meet with Ahtisaari on February 21 to discuss his plan. Ahtisaari on February 16 repeated his skepticism that the meeting will produce a compromise, saying, "I don't believe in miracles," international media reported the same day. The UN envoy warned Belgrade and Prishtina not to present "totally opposing ideas" and said the consultative process, which is expected to last several weeks, "cannot be an eternal process." Ahtisaari has previously said he wants to present a proposal to the UN Security Council by the end of March. AG

Senior figures in both the Muslim and Catholic communities in Kosova have criticized the Ahtisaari plan for granting privileges to the Serbian Orthodox Church. The head of the Islamic Community of Kosova, Naim Ternava, told the news agency KosovaLive on February 19 that Muslim religious leaders object to the tax privileges accorded to the Orthodox Church in the plan and to parts of the plan on cultural and religious heritage, which, he said, are devoted to the protection of the Orthodox Church to the exclusion of Islam. He also objected to its failure to mention Islam or mosques. The same report quoted a Catholic leader, Bishop Dode Gjergji, as saying that the Catholic Church of Kosova must not be ignored. In a February 14 statement, the Islamic Community of Kosova called for the plan to place "Islamic sites in the areas with a majority Serbian population" within protection zones, adding that "the same status should be afforded to other Islamic monuments throughout Kosova." It also called for the reconstruction of a mosque destroyed in 1999 in the ethnically diverse town of Mitrovica and for non-Orthodox religious communities to enjoy the right, like the Orthodox Church, to a return of property. AP quoted a spokesman for the Kosovar Albanian negotiating team, Skender Hyseni, as saying on February 16 that Prishtina wants clarification about clauses relating to local government and minority representation. He did not mention cultural and religious issues. AG

A court in Belgrade on February 16 handed down a 15-year prison term to Milorad Lukovica, who is believed to have masterminded the assassination attempt in October 1999 on controversial politician Vuk Draskovic, who is now Serbian foreign minister, local and international media reported. At the time of the assassination attempt, Lukovic, also commonly known as Milorad "Legija" Ulemek, was the head of the Red Berets, a special police unit set up by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Draskovic was then one of Serbia's leading opposition figures. Another close associate of Milosevic, secret service chief Rade Markovic, was also found guilty and was given an eight-year sentence. Five members of the Red Berets were sentenced to 14 or 15 years each for their role in the attack, in which an armored truck rammed into a car carrying Draskovic. Draskovic's brother-in-law and three others died in the crash. Draskovic expressed anger at the sentence, with AP quoting him as saying, "I will never accept this verdict" and vowing to take the case to European courts. Draskovic believes Lukovic should have been sentenced to 40 years, the maximum sentence. He has previously asked for the judge in the case to be replaced, accusing him of having served with the paramilitary group. The Red Berets gained notoriety for their role as a paramilitary force in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, but it is their subsequent role in domestic politics that has come into the spotlight since Milosevic's ouster in October 2000. Lukovic has already been sentenced to 40 years for his role in the murder in May 2000 of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and for another attempt on Draskovic's life, in June 2000. He is also on trial for his alleged role in the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. AG

The Bosnian State Court on February 17 jailed a former Bosnian Serb militia leader, Gojko Jankovic, to 34 years in prison for killing, torturing, raping, and expelling Muslims and Croats from the eastern town of Foca at the start of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, international and local media report. Jankovic was found guilty of killing seven people and raping six, including a 12-year-old girl. Jankovic's sentence is the severest passed down by the court. Jankovic, who is now 52, surrendered to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague in 2005 after hiding for more than five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2005). The tribunal transferred the case to the Bosnian State Court. On a related note, the head of Bosnia's highest court, Meddzida Kreso, on February 17 threw her support behind a call by the country's chief prosecutor, Marinko Jurcevic, for the creation of a regional court to try war crimes when the ICTY closes down, the Croatian news agency Hina reported the same day. The ICTY is due to deliver its final verdicts in 2008, and to hear the last appeals in 2010. Kreso suggested the court could be based in Bosnia, Croatia, or Serbia, with judges from any of these three countries and Macedonia. Kreso also said a regional court would facilitate the prosecution of people with dual citizenship. AG

Early on February 20, members of the NATO-led international force in Bosnia-Herzegovina raided homes belonging to the son and daughter of indicted Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, local and international media reported. NATO spokesman Derek Chappell said the searches of houses in Pale, east of Sarajevo, were carried out "due to a belief that they are intimately involved in the support network that allows Radovan Karadzic to remain at large." Sonja and Sasa Karadzic are being questioned but have not been arrested. "We have been here before, and we'll come back again and again as the evidence suggests they are involved in this network," Chappell said. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader during the 1992-95 war, has been in hiding since he was indicted for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in 1995. The NATO action follows a raid on another suspected Karadzic supporter in Pale on February 10, and comes almost three weeks after a Bosnian newspaper on February 1 quoted an unnamed member of the Bosnian secret services as saying Karadzic is in hiding in Russia, a claim denied by Russian authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2 and 11, 2007). Chappell told the BBC on February 20 that NATO has carried out "25 such raids in the past 18 months" and said that, while most people believe Karadzic is outside the country, the raids are crucial to the effort to break up support networks and to gather evidence for future trials. Karadzic's military chief, Ratko Mladic, also remains on the run, a fact that prompted the EU to suspend preaccession talks with Serbia in May 2006. AG

Janez Jansa on February 19 became the first Slovenian prime minister to pay an official visit to Sarajevo since 1997, local media reported. A key aim of the visit was to strengthen business ties, and the Slovenian news agency STA reported that Jansa was accompanied by a 90-strong delegation of business executives from more than 70 Slovenian companies. Slovenia is Bosnia's second-largest trading partner, accounting for 12 percent of Bosnia's trade, STA reported on February 19. The visit also saw the signing of an agreement on social security after seven years of talks. The deal means 10,000 Bosnians will receive pension payments for the time they worked in Slovenia during the Yugoslav era. However, the future of the countries' trading relationship was in part overshadowed by a protest demanding that Slovenia compensate customers who lost deposits when a Slovenian bank closed down after the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Several hundred demonstrators protested that Ljubljanska Banka owed 165,000 customers the equivalent of 90 million euros ($118 million) when the accounts were transferred to the National Bank of Yugoslavia. The Slovenian government compensated deposit holders living in Slovenia, but the issue of guarantees for account holders elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia remains unresolved. The Slovenian and Bosnian prime ministers agreed on February 19 to reconsider the issue, agencies reported the same day. AG

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel said he believes Macedonia could in principle begin preaccession talks with the EU before mid-2008, Macedonian media reported on February 15 and 16. His comments carry particular weight because Slovenia will assume the six-month, rotating EU Presidency in January 2008. Rupel suggested talks could start in 2008 or 2009, but added that a start date during Slovenia's presidency is also a possibility. His comments will be welcome in Skopje, as the European Commission has struck a noncommittal note in a string of recent meetings with Macedonian leaders. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn -- as well as NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer -- have all expressed concern about political tensions in the country and a perceived slowdown in reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 9, and 15, 2007). AG

Undaunted by their failure to broker a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict last year, international mediators are making another push for an Armenian-Azerbaijani peace accord.

The U.S., French, and Russian mediators acting under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group hope that their prolonged efforts will at last yield fruit in the second half of 2007. They regard the months following the May 12 parliamentary elections in Armenia as another unique "window of opportunity" to end the 19-year-old conflict.

The Minsk Group's U.S. co-chair, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, sounded optimistic about the prospects for a Karabakh peace when he spoke to RFE/RL's Armenian Service on February 7. The conflicting parties, Bryza said, agree on most of the basic principles of the settlement plan proposed by the co-chairs. Those basic principles amount to holding a referendum on self-determination in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic years after the liberation of at least six of the seven Azerbaijani districts surrounding the disputed enclave that are currently occupied by Armenian forces. "They don't agree 100 percent on the basic principles, but they are close, very close," Bryza said, adding that Armenia and Azerbaijan disagree only on a number of unspecified "technical issues."

Bryza's comments add context to the cautiously upbeat statement issued by the three co-chairs on January 29 after their latest tour of the conflict zone. "The co-chairs urge all parties to sustain this momentum in the negotiations and to prepare their publics for the necessary compromises," that statement said, indicating their satisfaction with the results of their talks in Baku, Yerevan, and Stepanakert.

International hopes for a Karabakh peace accord were similarly high when Presidents Robert Kocharian of Armenia and Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan met near Paris one year ago. But those two-day negotiations and a follow-up Armenian-Azerbaijani summit in Bucharest in June 2006 did not produce an agreement, however.

Following the June summit, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said the two presidents failed during both rounds of talks to overcome one key sticking point that he declined to identify. But statements by Aliyev after another face-to-face meeting with Kocharian (in Minsk last November) gave ground for new optimism. Aliyev told Azerbaijan National Television on November 29 that since the so-called "Prague process" talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on approaches to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict began in 2004, the negotiating process has gone through several stages, and "we are approaching the final stage."

Aliyev said the Minsk talks "were held in a constructive way," and that "we managed to find a solution to a number of problems we could not agree on before." He added, however, that "divergences remain on crucial points," and that further progress "depends on us ourselves," presumably meaning the conflict sides, as opposed to the Minsk Group.

Bryza implied on February 7 that the mediators expect the two presidents to take the last decisive step to peace during the period between the Armenian parliamentary elections on May 12 and the start of campaigning for the presidential ballots due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan next year. Kocharian has publicly pledged not to cut an unpopular peace deal before the May ballot.

For observers accustomed to successive setbacks in the Karabakh peace process, these encouraging signs may appear too good to be true, especially considering the diametrically opposed positions taken by Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders in public. Aliyev in particular continues to insist that Baku will never recognize Karabakh's 1988 unilateral declaration of secession from the then Azerbaijan SSR, and can only grant the Armenian-controlled territory "the highest degree of autonomy." The Minsk Group plan would clearly enable Nagorno-Karabakh's overwhelmingly Armenian population to legitimize that secession in the proposed referendum.

The date and practical modalities of such a vote are believed to be one of the most intractable remaining sticking points, with the Armenian side saying that it should be held as early as possible, and the Azerbaijanis reportedly demanding a 15- to 20-year delay. Armenian sources privy to the peace talks say the final version of the putative peace accord may not set any date for the referendum, and instead keep Karabakh under Armenian control for an indefinite interim period. Azerbaijan would presumably be able not to formally relinquish its claim to Karabakh in the foreseeable future.

Those same Armenian sources also say a peace settlement was also prevented in 2006 by another issue: the time frame for Armenian withdrawal from Kelbajar, one of the two Azerbaijani districts sandwiched between Karabakh and Armenia proper. At least until now, Armenia has said it will only relinquish control of Kelbajar after the holding of the referendum, a condition that Azerbaijani officials have publicly rejected.

The Trend news agency quoted Azerbaijan's Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov as saying on February 12 the parties are also divided on the return of Azerbaijani refugees to Karabakh and the status of the strategic Lachin corridor linking the enclave to Armenia. Yerevan and Karabakh's ethnic Armenian leadership insist that Lachin remain under full Armenian control. According to Azimov, during talks on January 23 in Moscow with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov, Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian rejected a proposal to use the Lachin corridor jointly with Azerbaijan. But while Azimov (playing bad cop to his boss's good cop?) accused Oskanian of adopting an "extremely tough" position on a number of points, Mammadyarov said on February 12 simply that he "expected more" from the Moscow talks. And while Azimov declared there is no point in continuing talks unless the Armenian side softens its stance, Mammadyarov held out the possibility that in the event of further progress, it will be possible to discuss a further meeting between the two presidents, reported.

Whether or not the governments in Baku and Yerevan are really committed to mutual compromise is another key unanswered question. Aliyev, for example, has repeatedly predicted that Armenia will be increasingly unable to compete with his oil-rich country, which is beginning to reap the benefits of its vast hydrocarbon reserves. Kocharian and his political allies, for their part, believe that the Karabakh status quo does not preclude Armenia's development, pointing to its double-digit economic growth registered in recent years.

Still, the two leaders have at least one strong incentive to forge ahead with a compromise settlement this year. The proposed peace deal envisages a gradual resolution of the Karabakh dispute that would require a policy continuity in Baku and Yerevan, suggesting that the West would prefer to avoid regime change in either country. Aliyev will be up for reelection in late 2008, while observers believe Kocharian plans to hand over power in 2008 to his likely successor, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and remain in government in another capacity.

(Emil Danielyan is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Yerevan.)

Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry "strongly" condemned on February 18 as "provocative and untrue" assertions made by Governor Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), in which he reportedly equated the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan with a liberation movement. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that by claiming that the Afghan people, particularly the Pashtuns, back the "Taliban terrorist group," Orakzai has "openly demonstrated his opposition to the United Nations Security Council resolutions and thus, his...practical ties with terrorism." Kabul demanded Islamabad clarify "its official position on these irresponsible and intrusive" statements. Tom Koenigs, the UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, said in Kabul on February 19 that he is "very astonished" by Orakzai's statement, AFP reported. Koenigs added that he "totally" disagrees with Orakzai's assertion that the Taliban are developing into some sort of a nationalist liberation movement. "I think the Pakistani government has to clarify whether this [Orakzai's statement] is its official position," Koenigs said. AT

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said in Islamabad on February 19 that Kabul's complaints about Orakzai's comments are based on a "distorted report," AFP reported. Orakzai "had [only] mentioned what militant Taliban were saying to win the sympathy of the Afghan population living in south and east Afghanistan," Aslam said, adding that some reports "wrongly presented" the statement "as the assessment of the views" of Orakzai. Meanwhile, the Islamabad daily "Pakistan Observer," in the editorial "Yes, It Is a Freedom Movement in Kabul," wrote on February 19 in support of Orakzai's assessment that the Taliban are winning ever-greater public support and that their struggle is shaping up as a "liberation war" against foreign troops. According to the editorial, "history bears testimony to the fact that Afghans never compromised their sovereignty" -- a fact that should have been "well-known to the United States" when it collaborated with the Afghan resistance to drive the Soviets out in 1989. AT

The headquarters of Bakwa district in Farah Province were reportedly retaken by Afghan and NATO forces from the Taliban on February 20, Reuters reported. The district had been captured by Taliban forces the previous day. Farah Governor Mohayuddin Baluch said that the Taliban took two police vehicles with them. No casualties were reported. According to the report, a group of 11 Taliban fighters managed to overcome the district police on February 19. Qari Mohammad Yusof, speaking for the Taliban, claimed that they captured 20 police officers in Bakwa during an initial attempt by government forces to recapture the district headquarters, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on February 19. In September, the Taliban similarly claimed to have captured Bakwa District (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2006). AT

Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani discussed bilateral ties in Tehran on February 19 with Mikhail Margelov, the head of the Russian Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, agencies reported. He reportedly criticized delays in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant, which Russia is building in southern Iran, and said Iran expects "friends" like Russia to thwart foreign powers that are trying to deprive Tehran of its nuclear rights. Agencies reported delays in the construction of the Bushehr plant on February 19, apparently due to late payment of debts by Iran. Reuters quoted an unnamed source from Rosatom, the Russian atomic energy agency, as saying that the timetable for completing the plant needs to be "corrected" as Iran has not paid money for ongoing work for one month. Russia was to start delivering fuel to the plant in March, and the reactor was due to start operating in September, Reuters reported. But Mohammad Saidi, the deputy head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization for international affairs, told IRNA on February 19 that Iran has made all payments due to the Russian contractor as scheduled and that construction work is proceeding "well." VS

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in Tehran on February 19 that plans to privatize large-scale state enterprises are "a kind of jihad," and he urged greater efforts to ensure this program starts to show visible results in "two or three years," IRNA reported. He was speaking to officials charged with the implementation of the privatization program pursuant to Article 44 of the Iranian Constitution, which officials have said is a neglected section of the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline, January 3 and 23, 2007). Khamenei said that given the fact that he issued instructions to implement the article twice, on May 22, 2005, and on July 2, 2006, "measures taken to implement these policies" were not "satisfactory," IRNA reported. He said this might be due to losing sight of the role of this constitutional article in creating "an immense economic change in the country" or to "differing interpretations and the failure to reach a common understanding" of privatization. He said the three branches should work to "change certain structures, laws, and the roles of agencies" to implement the privatization drive, IRNA reported. The state sector, he said, is incapable of making the investments needed to meet Iran's mid-term economic development goals. VS

Ahmad Geranmayepur, a conservative parliamentarian representing Kashan, attributed confusion over the implementation of privatization policies on February 18 to the government's method of transferring state-firm shares to ordinary Iranians in the form of "justice shares." He told ISNA that this method of transfer is not in the initial instructions issued for the implementation of Article 44, and was added to those policies by the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Geranmayepur said that if the government transfers shares like this for 40 percent of state-sector firms without changing current managers, "it has merely sustained state control of the economy." He said the private sector would have to control 55 percent of business activities and the sector of cooperatives 25 percent in order to bring significant changes to the economy. "With the government's distribution of the transfer of state-sector firms and factories, the realization of the basic goals of Article 44 seems unlikely," he said. Geranmayepur said a failure to privatize will contribute to inflation, increase economic pressures on consumers, "and naturally lead to heightened social dissatisfaction, just as" sharply rising inflation in recent months "has caused a serious increase in general discontent." VS

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on February 19 that Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani has reached agreement with EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana to "soon" discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, Radio Farda and agencies reported. Iran has, however, apparently not yet made any formal request to Brussels for talks, nor has a date been set for another Larijani-Solana meeting, Radio Farda quoted Solana's spokeswoman as saying. Solana has been Iran's interlocutor over the nuclear dossier on behalf of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the 5+1. Mottaki said in Tehran that the two negotiators are to resume talks where they left them on the sidelines of the Munich security conference held on February 9-11, IRNA reported. Mottaki said talks could help ensure Iran's rights are safeguarded while reassuring the West about its nuclear program. Iran says it has a right to produce nuclear fuel, while Western states fear the potential military use of its growing capabilities. VS

Mottaki was speaking after meeting in Tehran on February 19 with Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi, ISNA reported. He said this was the first of two rounds of talks with Alawi to discuss regional issues and economic cooperation. The ministers discussed the formation of joint investment companies, ongoing efforts to agree on the price of gas Iran may sell to Oman, and broader economic cooperation between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), of which Oman is a member, ISNA reported. Alawi said Oman sees no evidence of Iran's nuclear program being anything but peaceful. He said the two countries have been cooperating on nuclear power for several months. "The point to consider is the creation of confidence," Alawi said, adding that "Islamic and Arab states need" nuclear science and technology, while "there is enough about confidence and guarantees in the" Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Iranian technology, he said, "can be placed at the disposal" of GCC members," ISNA reported. VS

The Iraqi government said a Sunni Arab woman who claims to have been raped by several Interior Ministry officers fabricated her story, international media reported on February 19. The woman, identified as Sabrin al-Janabi, claimed she was detained during a security sweep in Baghdad's Al-Amil district. Four officers in all raped her over a four-hour period, al-Janabi told Al-Jazeera television on February 19. She said the officers threatened to kill her if she talked of the attack, adding that they took her picture for their records. She was freed after U.S. forces arrived on the scene, she added. Iraqi government spokesman Yassin Majid told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television that an investigation determined al-Janabi's claims were fabricated, and he said the woman "was not subject to any sexual harassment at all." Majid added that there were three outstanding warrants against al-Janabi at the time of her detention. He surmised that the story was fabricated to paint the Baghdad security plan in a negative light and to tarnish the reputation of the security forces. The government will award the officers accused in the alleged incident, he noted, without giving details. It will also take action against Al-Jazeera for spreading fabricated information, Majid said. KR

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi has reportedly called for the Imam Al-Mahdi Army to be identified as a terrorist group, Reuters reported on February 18. "What is expected from the U.S. administration to avoid double standards, is to classify the Mahdi Army and the militias that work under its umbrella and banner as terrorist militias and to apply international standards against them," al-Hashimi told Al-Jazeera television on February 18. "I urge the U.S. administration to issue this classification so that the leaders of these militias would be pursued," he added. KR

Jordan is about to finalize an agreement with an unidentified Norwegian institution to survey the number of Iraqis living in the country, government spokesman Nasir Judah told reporters on February 19, the "Jordan Times" reported on February 20. "The objective is to categorize Iraqis into residents and those in transit," he said, adding that many Iraqis have taken up temporary residence in the kingdom while finalizing plans to reside in third countries. Some Iraqis are in Jordan on three- or six-month residency permits, while others have been in the kingdom since 2003, he added. Judah said that Jordan will not grant refugee status to those who have not asked for it. The "Jordan Times" cited UN figures showing that only 20,000 Iraqis out of an estimated 750,000 in the kingdom have formally asked for refugee status. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told U.S. President George W. Bush on February 16 that the Baghdad security plan is off to a good start, "The Washington Post" reported the following day. Al-Maliki told Bush the plan "has achieved fabulous success," the daily reported, citing the prime minister's office. He assured Bush that the Iraqi government will be firm in dealing with all sides to the conflict in Iraq. Meanwhile, a commentary posted to the website of Baghdad's "Al-Zaman" newspaper criticized the security plan on February 19. "Iraqis hoped that the cells of terror and violence will be dealt a heavy blow in the early days of the operation, but the course of events shows that most probably the opposite is happening," Awad Nasser wrote. "Iraq's problems are multifaceted and so complex that no military operation can solve [them]. Militias, insurgents, terrorists, or criminal gangs accused of spreading terror in Iraq know exactly how to utilize the operation for their benefit," he argued. Nasser contended that sectarian conflicts should have been calmed before the operation was launched. KR