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Newsline - January 10, 2008

RUSSIA WARNS POLAND OVER MISSILE DEFENSE
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on January 9 that Russia hopes to convince Poland in talks slated for January 10 in Warsaw not to participate in the proposed U.S. missile-defense system, which would involve placing 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17 and 19, 2007, and January 8, 2008). The ministry said that it hopes to "help our Polish partners recognize the strategic dangers with regard to U.S. plans to build the third leg of a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe." Moscow expects a "favorable reception" and "constructive dialogue" from Warsaw, the statement added. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk will discuss missile defense with Czech officials in Prague on January 10. He told reporters in Warsaw on January 9 that he will visit Moscow on February 9. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski recently said Poland will not make a decision on missile defense until after the 2008 U.S. presidential election lest it irk Russia by agreeing to the project now, only to find that a new U.S. administration is no longer interested in it. Britain's "The Times" wrote on January 10 that "the new message from Poland is that it is going to extract a high price for agreeing to host the controversial U.S. missile shield.... But the bracing new talk from Warsaw points to the bigger problem of Russia, quickly becoming the common factor in apparently separate problems for [Washington] abroad." PM

RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES SENDING PAINTINGS TO BRITAIN
A spokeswoman for Roskultura, the federal agency for culture and cinematography, said in Moscow on January 9 that the government has given consent for an exhibition of paintings currently in Duesseldorf to be transferred to Britain in January as planned, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20 and 21, 2007, and January 2, 2008). The show, entitled "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings, 1870-1925," will open in London as scheduled on January 26. The Russian authorities threatened to bar the transfer of the exhibition to London until Britain in late December provided "immunity from seizure" to protect the works from being confiscated in connection with possible legal disputes against the Russian government. Bilateral relations are at a low point in the continuing row over the 2006 murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko in London, and a more recent dispute involving the legal status of the British Council in Russia. PM

NATIONALIST POLITICIAN NAMED AMBASSADOR TO NATO
On January 10, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree naming veteran nationalist politician and former leader of the Rodina (Motherland) party Dmitry Rogozin ambassador to NATO, replacing Konstantin Totsky, newsru.com reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25 and November 9 and 15, 2007). Rogozin said on January 10 that he looks forward to a "very important, responsible, and interesting job," adding that he is ready to begin work immediately, Interfax reported. In recent years, Rogozin served as chairman of the State Duma's committee on foreign relations and as deputy chairman of its security committee. He also acted as Putin's negotiator with the EU over Russia's access to Kaliningrad Oblast after Lithuania and Poland joined the EU in 2004. Newsru.com observed on January 10 that Rogozin is well-known for his strongly anti-Western rhetoric, particularly against two relatively new NATO members, Estonia and Latvia. The daily "Gazeta" wrote on January 10 that "endorsed by both houses of the Russian parliament, Rogozin's nomination encountered certain resistance in Europe itself. Not every NATO country seemed to be happy with the new representative of the Russian Federation." AP suggested on January 10 that "the appointment of the controversial figure is the latest reflection of Putin's assertive stance toward the West, which he accuses of meddling in Russia's affairs and says must treat Moscow as an equal. Rogozin's appointment, however, may have been motivated more by domestic political considerations, providing a prestigious job to a populist politician who has been pushed from the political playing field." PM

POLAR ADVENTURERS BECOME 'HEROES OF RUSSIA'
President Putin issued a decree on January 10 awarding the Hero of Russia medal to three people at the center of a 2007 maritime expedition to the North Pole, newsru.com and Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26 and August 3, 6, 7, and 8, 2007). The three are Artur Chilingarov, who is a polar explorer, Hero of the Soviet Union, and deputy State Duma speaker; and oceanographers Anatoly Sagalevich and Yevgeny Chernyayev. The mission employed a mini-submarine to place a titanium Russian flag on the sea bed beneath the sea ice at the North Pole. The expedition also brought back soil samples in an effort to prove that the area at the North Pole is an extension of Russia's continental shelf. The project met with criticism and derision from several Western countries, including those with claims in the region. Interfax noted on January 10 that the huge contested area could contain 4.9 billion tons of hydrocarbons. PM

RUSSIA SLAMS UKRAINIAN RULING ON FILM DUBBING
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement on January 9 criticizing a recent decision by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court requiring all foreign-language films shown in Ukraine either to be dubbed into Ukrainian or to have Ukrainian subtitles, mid.ru reported. Russia maintains that the court's ruling violates "Clause 4 of Article 11 of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which prescribes that the authorities encourage the dissemination of films in minority languages." The statement suggested that the ruling is directed against Russian-language films, and that this is not the only recent case of what Moscow regards as official discrimination by the Ukrainian authorities against the use of the Russian language. PM

EXPERTS TAKE CLOSER LOOK AT ROSY ECONOMIC STATISTICS...
The Economic Development and Trade Ministry has painted a rosy picture of the state of the economy, but many experts qualify the ministry's views, "Izvestia" reported on January 10. Although gross domestic product grew at a rate of 7.7 percent, the daily noted that growth declined slightly in the second half of 2007 and that productivity in the manufacturing sector fell by 19 percent in November. Growth in worker productivity fell from 6.5 percent in 2006 to 5.8 percent last year. The daily noted that investment was up more than 20 percent in 2007, but that the construction and retail sectors were by far the most attractive, with just 9.4 percent of investment going to the manufacturing sector. Experts questioned by the daily expressed concerns about inflation. "The problem of inequality exists and the government is beginning to deal with it through increasing pensions and wages for state-sector workers," former Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin said. "And inflation will grow even more rapidly. If we now begin to actively spend state money, even on modernization, inflation will be higher than it is currently by several times." Economist Ruslan Grinberg told the daily that the current economic prosperity is not the result of government programs. "It was achieved primarily because of high oil prices," he said. RC

...AS INFLATION, DEBT FIGURES CAUSE CONCERN
The Federal Statistics Service (Rosstat) has reported that inflation in 2007 was 11.9 percent, "Vedomosti" reported on January 10. According to the daily, the poor were hit even harder by inflation, since the rate for foodstuffs was 15.6 percent. The Economic Development and Trade Ministry continues to forecast inflation this year at 7.5 to 8.5 percent, which analysts consulted by the daily consider unrealistic. Meanwhile, the daily reported that, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, direct foreign investment in Russia reached $49 billion in 2007, an increase of 70 percent over 2006. The figures indicate that Russia is one of the most attractive developing countries in the world for investment. The daily also reported on January 10 that Russian firms have a total foreign debt of $440 billion, compared to the state's foreign debt of just $37 billion. The daily said that accumulated debt by state-controlled companies like Gazprom, Rosneft, and Vneshtorgbank totals $120 billion, which is nearly the value of the Stabilization Fund. These companies will have to spend some $200 billion over the next 10 years servicing these loans. RC

OLIGARCHS' UNION OFFICIAL COMMENTS ON 'STATE CAPITALISM'
Igor Yurgens, vice president of the Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists (RSPP), wrote in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on January 10 that he does not believe Russia is moving toward a "state-capitalist" system. Yurgens noted President Putin's recent statement that the huge state corporations that have been created in recent years will be privatized after they have become competitive on the world stage. Yurgens wrote that during Putin's first term, the country's economic policy was largely determined by the liberals in government, particularly former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref. Putin's second term, however, saw a freezing of reform and development and, Yurgens argues, the turning point was the assault on oil giant Yukos. "There arose considerable pressure from the population against the oligarchs and major property owners," Yurgens wrote. "And the state, which was flexing its muscles, needed to even its chances vis a vis big business. Most likely, at that moment, this was really necessary. But we got distracted." He added that now the state has not only "evened its chances," but has become business's "big brother." "The illusion has developed that it can decide everything and dictate to everyone, can create new corporations one after another, can take more and more into its own hands. This is dangerous," Yurgens wrote. RC

A JUST RUSSIA PROPOSES CREATION OF PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARIES
Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov and a group of Duma deputies from the A Just Russia party have introduced a bill on the creation of presidential historical centers devoted to the preservation and study of the documents and artifacts of former presidents, "Vedomosti" and other Russian media reported on January 10. Under the bill, each center will be granted 1.225 billion rubles ($50 million) for start-up costs and an annual subsidy of 122.5 million rubles. The centers, which will be located in the home region of the former president in question and will have a branch in Moscow, will have the right to engage in both charitable and commercial activity. Duma Deputy Mikhail Yemelyanov (A Just Russia) told "Gazeta" on January 10 that the bill will be discussed in committee within the next week. RC

CHECHEN REPUBLIC HEAD ANNOUNCES CRACKDOWN ON NON-ISLAMIC TV PROGRAMMING
Ramzan Kadyrov met on January 9 with Chechen Nationality Policy, Press and Information Minister Shamsail Saraliyev and with the heads of republican media outlets, regnum.ru and the Chechen government website chechnya.gov.ru reported. Kadyrov stressed the importance of "objective" news coverage of developments in Chechnya and the important role of journalism in instilling a sense of patriotism in the younger generation. He also stressed the need for religious broadcasting that would clarify the basic tenets of Islam and thus help prevent young people from falling under the "pernicious influence" of wahhabism and other sects. Kadyrov called for closer cooperation between the media and the Muslim clergy in order to preclude the broadcasting 24 hours a day of Western films and music clips that violate Chechen norms of ethics and morality, and warned that any television company that fails to comply with that requirement will be closed. There are currently 54 television companies registered in Chechnya, of which only 19 actually broadcast. LF

MILITANTS CORNERED, KILLED IN SOUTHERN DAGHESTAN
Local police in Dahghestan's southeastern Tabasaran Raion said early on January 10 that law-enforcement personnel surrounded a house in the village of Gelim-Batan late on January 9 where between two and four armed militants were holed up, and destroyed the building with mortar fire, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). The North Caucasus resistance website kavkazcenter.com noted on January 10 that this is the first time that the republican media have reported the presence of armed Islamic militants in Tabasaran, which is close to the border with Azerbaijan. Meanwhile on January 9, Gadji Makhachev, whom President Mukhu Aliyev named on December 24 as Daghestan's permanent representative to the Russian president, visited the village of Gimri in the mountainous Untsukul Raion, accompanied by Khizri Shikhsaidov, one of Daghestan's nine deputies to the Russian State Duma, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. An operation purportedly directed against armed militants has been under way in Gimri for almost one month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 18, and 28, 2007 and January 7, 2008), and village residents complained to Makhachev and Shikhsaidov about the inconsiderate actions of the Interior Ministry troops involved. LF

PROSECUTOR PROBES POWER OUTAGES IN DAGHESTAN
The republican prosecutor's office has opened a criminal investigation into the power cuts over the past month in Makhachkala, the republic's capital, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Residents have blocked traffic intersections on at least two occasions to protest the outages, for which the Daghestan Electricity Distribution Company has disclaimed any responsibility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2 and 8, 2008). LF

ATTEMPT BY NALCHIK RELATIVES TO BRING LEGAL ACTION AGAINST PROSECUTOR-GENERAL'S OFFICE FAILS
The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office has rejected an appeal sent last month to Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika and other senior officials by 31 relatives of the young men killed during the fighting in Nalchik on October 13, 2005, between armed militants and police and security forces, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on January 9. The relatives demanded that the prosecutor-general bring criminal charges against one of its investigators for the Southern Federal District, Aleksei Savrulin, and former Deputy Prosecutor for the Southern Federal District Nikolai Shepel, who reportedly took the allegedly illegal decision in 2006 to order the cremation, in accordance with Russian terrorism legislation, of the bodies of the young men killed in the fighting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7 and December 6, 2007). The relatives argue that the ruling was unfounded insofar as the slain men had not been found guilty of terrorism by a court; some of those killed and cremated are believed to have been innocent passers-by caught in cross-fire. LF

EVER MORE INGUSH FORMALLY DENY VOTING IN STATE DUMA ELECTION
The number of Ingush voters who have filed formal statements denying having cast ballots in the December 2 Russian State Duma elections has risen to 87,340, or 54.4 percent of the republic's total electorate, the independent website ingushetiya.ru reported on January 10. The republican authorities claimed voter turnout of 98 percent, of whom 98.9 percent allegedly voted for Unified Russia; ingushetiya.ru appealed to persons who did not vote to lodge formal statements to that effect (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 4, 11 and 28, 2007). LF

KALMYKIA SCHEDULES ELECTIONS TO NEW PARLIAMENT
Elections for a new republican parliament will take place on March 2, concurrently with the Russian presidential ballot, republican Election Commission officials announced on January 9, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. From January 15-February 4, regional branches of Russian political parties will draft lists of candidates for the ballot. On December 20, 14 of the 26 Kalmyk parliament deputies voted to surrender their mandates in the wake of a statement by President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov that the parliament was in urgent need of "new blood" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 28, 2007). LF

FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS PRESIDENTIAL BALLOT WILL IMPACT ON ARMENIA'S INTERNATIONAL REPUTATION
In his first press conference in 2008, Vartan Oskanian summarized the achievements of Armenia's foreign policy in 2007 and outlined challenges for the coming year, according to a press release circulated by the ministry the following day. Oskanian stressed that the conduct of the presidential ballot on February 19 will be crucial in determining foreign perceptions of the level of democracy in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He expressed the hope that the ballot will be free and fair and concern lest political forces he declined to identify resort to violence to protest the election outcome. Oskanian also said on January 9 that no firm date has yet been agreed for the January visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan by the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, regnum.ru reported. The Azerbaijani online daily echo-az.com on January 9 quoted APA as saying the co-chairmen will arrive in Azerbaijan on January 13 and then proceed to Yerevan. The online daily further quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim as saying that Azerbaijani officials will discuss with the co-chairs the written draft proposals for resolving the conflict they submitted to the conflict sides at the OSCE Foreign Ministers' meeting in Madrid in late November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2007). But day.az on January 9 quoted Ali Ahmedov, executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, as describing the draft proposals as flawed. He argued that a solution to the conflict does not depend only on the Azerbaijani side, but is contingent on the withdrawal of Armenian forces from seven districts of Azerbaijani bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION CONTINUES TO DEMAND ACCESS TO MEDIA
Supporters of defeated Georgian presidential candidate Levan Gachechiladze again congregated on January 9 outside the headquarters in Tbilisi of Georgia's public broadcaster to demand that Gachechiladze be granted air time to inform the population about the alleged falsification of the outcome of the January 5 pre-term presidential ballot in favor of incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). The broadcaster's director general, Tamar Kintsurashvili, told opposition leaders that the station is prepared to air, without editing it, a pre-recorded statement by Gachechiladze, provided that statement does not contain any "anti-constitutional appeals," civil.ge and media.ge reported. Gachechiladze, however, continues to insist that he be permitted to make a live broadcast. Several of his supporters including his brother, a well-known singer, have said they will begin a hunger-strike to press that demand. Also on January 9, Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili announced that the election results will be annulled in four districts due to irregularities, Caucasus Press reported. He added that the annulment will not impact on the overall results of the ballot, in which Saakashvili purportedly received 52.21 percent of the vote and Gachechiladze 25.26 percent. Tarkhnishvili also said that while a recount of the votes, as demanded by the opposition National Council that backed Gachechiladze's candidacy, is highly unlikely, he cannot exclude it totally, Caucasus Pres reported. LF

EXILED GEORGIAN BUSINESSMAN FORMALLY CHARGED WITH TERRORISM, PLOTTING COUP
The Georgian Prosecutor General's office has formally charged businessman and defeated presidential candidate Badri Patarkatsishvili with conspiring to overthrow the government and plotting a terrorist act against Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, civil.ge reported on January 10. On December 24, the Prosecutor General's office released video and audio tapes implicating Patarkatsishvili in plans to fuel disorder in the wake of the January 5 presidential ballot. Patarkatsishvili finished in third place with 6.99 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27 and 28, 2007). LF

FORMER GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER TRANSFERRED TO FRENCH CUSTODY
The authorities in Germany, where former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili was taken into custody in November on the basis of a request by the Georgian government for his extradition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14 and 29, 2007), have handed him over to France, where the government will decide on whether to grant him political asylum, Caucasus Press reported on January 9 quoting Okruashvili's lawyer, Eka Beselia. Okruashvili was arrested in Tbilisi in late September, days after publicly implicating President Saakashvili in corruption, but was released on bail two weeks later after he retracted those allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and October 2 and 9, 2007). He left Georgia for Germany in late October. LF

KAZAKHSTAN RATIFIES MILITARY TRANSIT AGREEMENT WITH GERMANY...
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed into law on January 9 an intergovernmental agreement with Germany on the transit of military cargo and personnel through Kazakh territory and airspace, Interfax reported. The agreement, first reached in February 2007, offers specific rights of passage for the transit of German military equipment and personnel by "railway or air" through Kazakh territory as part of Germany's operations in stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan. The two houses of the Kazakh parliament ratified the bilateral accord in separate votes in October and December 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1 and December 11, 2007). President Nazarbaev on January 9 also ratified an agreement on the operations of a Collective Rapid Reaction Force under the control of the Collective Security Treat Organization (CSTO), Interfax reported. The decision to form the Collective Rapid Reaction Force was concluded during a CSTO summit meeting in Moscow in June 2006. The Kazakh ratification of the agreement includes several measures governing the deployment, mission, and legal basis for the force in Central Asia. The CSTO consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. RG

SENIOR KAZAKH POLICE OFFICIALS ARRESTED IN BRIBERY PROBE
Speaking to journalists in the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent, Daniyar Isaev, the deputy head of economic crime and corruption investigations for the South Kazakhstan region, announced on January 10 that several senior police officials have been arrested in a bribery probe, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The arrested officials include the head of the criminal investigation department in the Kentau district, his deputy, and a senior investigator of the internal affairs department within the district police force. Isaev added that the detained police officials face criminal charges related to their alleged solicitation of a 150,000-tenge bribe ($1,250) from a local resident. RG

KYRGYZ CUSTOMS POLICE SEIZE 'RADIOACTIVE MATERIAL' ON TAJIK TRAIN BOUND FOR IRAN
In Bishkek, Kyrgyz customs officials on January 9 confirmed the seizure of "radioactive material" aboard a train from Tajikistan bound for Iran, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Tajik services reported. The seizure of the material, which occurred on December 31, occurred after railway and border guards detected an abnormally high level of radioactivity emanating from the train, the 24.kg website reported. Kyrgyz officials briefly impounded the train until personnel from the Emergency Situations Ministry arrived at the railway station near the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. The train was transporting a large shipment of scrap metal and, following the removal of the radioactive material, was sent on to its destination in Iran. Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Ministry personnel sealed the material in a cement container and immediately transported it to a uranium waste dump in the Sokuluk district of the northern Chuy region and buried it under a heavy layer of concrete. RG

BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES REFUSE TO INVESTIGATE BEATING OF ACTIVIST
The district prosecutor's office in Minsk has refused to open an investigation into the beating of Zmitser Fedaruk, an activist of the unregistered organization Youth Front, Belapan reported on January 9. Fedaruk said he received a response to his complaint that "specifies neither the grounds for the refusal nor any additional information." Fedaruk was hospitalized after he was knocked unconscious during a clash with riot police on December 12, which followed a demonstration in Minsk's central square ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to Belarus. Fedaruk announced that he will file one more complaint, but he doubts that the officer who beat him will face punishment. "Perhaps the fear of punishment would have some impact on other officers of the special unit," Fedaruk said. AM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENTIAL ADMINISTRATION REJECTS DIALOGUE WITH OPPOSITION
Anatol Lyabedzka, the leader of Belarus's United Civic Party and the co-chairman of the Political Council of United Pro-Democratic Forces, has said that the presidential administration has rejected the opposition's proposal to hold talks on the 2008 parliamentary elections, Belapan reported on January 9. The Belarusian opposition in early December proposed that the presidential administration consider joint proposals on conducting parliamentary elections in accordance with democratic standards. Natallya Pyatkevich, the administration's deputy head, replied earlier this month that the presidency does not deal with election issues. Lyabedzka described such a response as "very weird," because "a great many, if not most, bills submitted to the House of Representatives [the lower chamber of the Belarusian legislature] come from the presidential administration." AM

UKRAINIANS TO RECEIVE COMPENSATION FOR DEPRECIATED SAVINGS
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on January 9 that starting on January 11, Ukrainians will begin receiving compensation for citizens' private funds in the savings banks of the former Soviet Union, which have depreciated dramatically, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The Ukrainian government allocated 20 billion hryvnyas ($3.9 billion) for compensation payments in 2008, 6 billion of which will be paid out in cash. The rest of the sum will be transferred to individuals in the form of property, or as payments for housing and utility bills. Finance Minister Viktor Pynzenyk said the government has not yet adopted a procedure for the non-cash payments. Compensation for depreciated deposits was among the leading points of Tymoshenko's election campaign. She recently said she will resign from the post of prime minister unless the government pays the compensation within two years. AM

UKRAINE CREATES COMMISSION TO CHECK GAS COMPANY OPERATIONS
Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan announced on January 9 that the government has created a commission to oversee the operations of Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Ukraine's largest gas production and storage company, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on January 8 issued a decree instructing the government "to prevent or neutralize the threat to national security" posed by instability in the energy sector. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Tymoshenko said that Naftohaz Ukrayiny was on the brink of bankruptcy. Naftohaz Ukrayiny conducts 97 percent of gas and oil extraction operations in Ukraine and has a monopoly on gas transit and storage. AM

NEW KOSOVAR GOVERNMENT NAMED...
Kosova's new prime minister, Hashim Thaci, on January 9 unveiled his new cabinet, two days after agreeing on a grand coalition with his party's largest rivals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). Among the seven other ministers from Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK) is Fatmir Limaj, a veteran of the separatist war in 1998-99 who was subsequently indicted and then cleared of war crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). Thaci was the political leader of the separatist Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). Limaj, who is the PDK's deputy leader, will handle the Transportation portfolio. Among the five members chosen by the PDK's coalition partner, the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK), the best-known name is that of Skender Hyseni, a spokesman for late President Ibrahim Rugova and for the team that has been negotiating Kosova's future status. That team is expected to be disbanded soon, as Kosova turns from negotiations to preparations for a declaration of independence. Thaci insisted that LDK ministers in the previous government should not return to the cabinet. The cabinet also includes three representatives of ethnic minorities, rather than the two required by the constitution. Two are ethnic Serbs -- Boban Stankovic (Returns and Communities) and Nenad Ristic (Labor and Social Welfare) -- and one is an ethnic Turk, Mahir Yagcilar (Environment). There are two women in the cabinet. At least 30 percent of each party's deputies must by law be women. Parliament approved the government on January 9, local media reported. AG

...BUT TRIGGERS PROTEST FROM WAR VETERANS
Prime Minister Thaci's decision to give the Labor and Social Welfare Ministry to an ethnic Serb has triggered protests from Kosovar Albanian veterans of the 1998-99 war. The daily "Koha ditore" reported on January 9 that the largest veterans association said it is concerned at a Serb being responsible for a portfolio that includes social-welfare programs for veterans of the war. "We will take to the streets, no doubt about that," the newspaper quoted a veteran as saying. It also reported that Thaci has promised to set up a special unit within his office specifically to address issues concerning veterans. AG

KOSOVAR PRESIDENT REELECTED
Kosova's parliament on January 8 reelected Fatmir Sejdiu as president, a position that he will now occupy until 2013. Sejdiu's reelection was part of the deal that saw the disputed region's two major parties, including Sejdiu's LDK, agree to form a government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). The two parties command a two-vote majority in the 120-member parliament, but it was only in the third and final round that Sejdiu secured the two-thirds majority he needed. At one stage, Sejdiu had the backing of fewer than the 62 delegates that belong to the PDK and the LDK. To ensure the government-forming deal went through, the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, had to amend a law extending the president's term. Local and international media reported that Ruecker's move extended the term from three to five years. However, UNMIK spokesman Russell Geekie told the press on January 9 that the presidential term has been four years "since October 2007." Sejdiu, who is 55, has occupied the largely ceremonial post since January 2006. AG

UNMIK'S NEW DEPUTY CHIEF NAMED...
The new deputy head of the UNMIK was on January 9 named as Larry Rossin, local media reported. Rossin is a former career diplomat, and served as the U.S. chief of mission in Kosova in 1999-2000 and as ambassador to Croatia from 2001 to 2003. He subsequently served, between 2004 and 2006, in the same position that he holds now, as the UN's principal deputy special representative with the UNMIK. Rossin replaces Steven Schook, a career officer in the U.S. Army. Schook's contract was not renewed in December 2007 for reasons that the UN has not clarified. He claimed at the time to be the subject of an internal UN investigation primarily interested in his relationship with local Kosovar Albanian politicians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, and December 19, 2007). UNMIK spokesman Geekie told the press on January 9 that "the only knowledge of any investigation that I have came from him," but noted that the UN's internal investigation team "would not inform us if they were investigating." AG

...AS SENIOR UN FIGURE CALLS FOR OPEN-ENDED INTERNATIONAL SUPERVISION OF KOSOVA
The deputy to Martti Ahtisaari, the UN's former special envoy to the Kosova status talks, called on January 8 for the international community not to set any deadline for pulling out of Kosova, the Hungarian news agency MTI reported. Albert Rohan suggested that any decision to end international supervision of Kosova should be made by the same group of countries, the Contact Group, that is heading diplomatic efforts to resolve Kosova's final status: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States. In March 2007, Ahtisaari recommended that Kosova should be granted independence, but under the supervision of the international community. Ahtisaari also suggested that responsibility should be transferred to the EU from the UN, which has administered Kosova since NATO's intervention in 1999. Serbia and Russia rejected the plan, but its provisions remain the basis of plans being drawn up by the EU, UNMIK, and the Kosovar authorities. The EU is expected soon to take over responsibility for supervising Kosova, but no date has yet been set, and Serbia and Russia are insisting that the mission requires a mandate from the UN Security Council before it can be deployed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Kosova's leaders are expected to declare independence within months, acting in concert with the United States and most EU states. Russia insists that only the UN Security Council, in which it has a veto, has the right to recognize Kosova as a state. AG

JOURNALISTS ATTACKED IN KOSOVA
A television crew working for Kosova Television was attacked by a group of local Serbs in Gracanica while filming celebrations of the Orthodox Christmas on January 6. No one was injured, the station reported, and no arrests have been made. The journalists contend that the attack was unprovoked. Separately, Kosovar dailies reported on January 9 that four ethnic Serbs have been charged for their role in a brawl that marred a December visit to the town of Gorazdevac by UNMIK chief Ruecker and Xavier de Marnhac, the commander of NATO-led troops in the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 10, 2007). AG

FRANCE CHAMPIONS EU ENLARGEMENT IN BALKANS
France will push for the European Union to enlarge to include the western Balkans, France's minister for Europe, Jean-Pierre Jouyet, has told Britain's "Financial Times." In the interview, which was published on January 7, Jouyet said that, as part of a broader vision of a stronger EU role in the world, President Nicholas Sarkozy rejects the stance of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, about the expansion of the EU. Chirac was highly skeptical of the EU's enlargement into Central Europe in May 2004 and was anxious about the new members' potential influence on EU policies, famously urging Central European governments in favor of the invasion of Iraq to "shut up." Jouyet told the "Financial Times" that "we used to believe that a federal Europe was necessary for a more deeply integrated union and that enlargement would counter this and prevent Europe from working effectively. We have now overcome this contradiction." France, which rejected the draft EU constitution in a referendum in 2005, will hold the EU's rotating presidency for six months starting in July, a period that could be critical to the future of the western Balkans. "The thing that has most struck me since I took up this job seven months ago is precisely the capacity of an EU of 27 members, and more one day, to take decisions," Jouyet said. He also described Serbia as a "pole of stability" in the region and argued for its eventual membership of the EU. AG

IRAQI AWAKENING COUNCILS FACE POLITICAL, TERRORIST PRESSURE
The so-called awakening councils that have been formed in Iraq to fight terrorists are finding themselves under increasing threat from rival political and security groups and terrorists keen on curbing their power. Popular support for the councils, which have been formed in nine of the country's 18 governorates to defend the local population against insurgent attacks launched mainly by Al-Qaeda, remains strong. But, weak institutional support hinders the ability of the councils to integrate their mostly Sunni Arab security forces into the army and police.

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in Iraq launched a campaign last month to crush the councils, which have obstructed the terrorist group's movements on the ground. At least 60 awakening council members have been assassinated since Al-Qaeda's campaign was announced on December 4.

Indeed, Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for the majority of attacks on awakening councils since December. But the councils are not short on domestic enemies. Politicians, clerics, political party leaders, and appointed officials have tried to curb the rising power of the councils. Critics fear the councils, credited with helping stabilize the most volatile areas of Iraq, could eventually become rogue militias.

The U.S. military currently arms and pays the salaries of some 70,000 so-called concerned local citizen groups (CLCs), which are composed of tribesmen loyal to awakening councils. The military has said that some of the CLCs, which are mostly made up of Sunni Arabs, should be merged into the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi security forces. Shi'ite politicians have not greeted the proposal with enthusiasm, as they say that the CLC recruits could be former Ba'athists and terrorists in disguise.

Sunni Arab politicians from the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq) are also opposed to the Sunni councils. The awakening councils, which are rooted in age-old tribal alliances that come with a built-in constituency, pose a major threat to Al-Tawafuq's viability. The six Al-Tawafuq ministers in the government have been boycotting it since August, though its 44 representatives in parliament continue to perform their duties.

In November, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki threatened to replace the ministers with representatives of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, at which point Al-Tawafuq balked, claiming their representatives were elected and as such, could not be replaced. Al-Tawafuq also contended that awakening councils were not the true representatives of the Sunni Arab population.

Another Sunni foe, Harith al-Dari, the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, has claimed the awakening councils are traitors to the Iraqi nationalist cause, because of their alliance with the U.S. military and the Iraqi government. Moreover, it appears the awakening councils, particularly in western Al-Anbar Governorate, have damaged the ability of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which is sponsored by the Muslim Scholars Association, to operate. A spokesman for the insurgent group recently told an Arab satellite news channel that the group has been damaged as much as Al-Qaeda by the establishment of awakening councils across Iraq.

The most vocal Shi'ite critics of the awakening councils are Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Fighters from the SIIC's former armed group, the Badr Corps, have filled the ranks of the police and army since 2003, and Al-Hakim fears any large-scale infiltration of Sunni Arabs to the security services will pose a threat to Shi'ite power in Iraq. Al-Sadr, who commands the loyalty of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army militia and has a long-standing rivalry with the al-Hakim family, likewise fears Sunni ascendancy, and has argued that Iraq has no place for militias.

A number of Shi'ite clerics have also called into question the role of the awakening councils, on the grounds that the Sunni-led councils may be insurgents in disguise. Al-Najaf-based cleric Sheikh Sadr al-Din al-Qubbanji said in a Friday Prayer sermon on January 4 that awakening councils should be praised for their work as popular committees. But, he cautioned, "To turn awakening councils into militias and into an armed entity that is not under the control of the state and the law is dangerous.

A more moderate Shi'ite cleric, Jalal al-Din al-Saghir, told followers: "The awakening of Al-Anbar [whose chieftains established the first awakening council] is unmatched by any other awakening. What some people said to the effect that some politicians are trying to confiscate the efforts made in Al-Anbar is very accurate. The awakening of Al-Anbar was an uprising by the sons of the tribes themselves, and from inside Al-Anbar away from any political interests."

The argument that insurgents may infiltrate the security services as council members in disguise has been advanced through a series of articles in Shi'ite newspapers that claim the awakening councils have been infiltrated by members of the Ba'ath Party and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Prime Minister al-Maliki told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on January 5 that intelligence suggests such infiltration. He denied his administration is trying to prevent the councils from being merged into the Iraqi security services, and said the councils have played a significant role in defeating Al-Qaeda in Iraq. "It is a deliberate misunderstanding to claim that the government is against the awakening councils. The government is in favor of the awakening councils, but it wants to protect them from infiltration," he said.

"We, as a government, have intelligence information: the Ba'ath Party has ordered its members to join the awakening councils, and Al-Qaeda has ordered its members to infiltrate the awakening councils," he claimed. Al-Maliki said the government's scrutiny of awakening council members "is for their protection from infiltration."

Al-Maliki said the infiltration "has been proved, and even those who denied that such infiltration existed are now convinced by the evidence and indications. Under the title of the 'Awakening' they started to kill policemen, commit crimes, kidnap citizens, and stir up sectarian problems. Here, we ought to distinguish between the members of the real 'Awakening,' which we support and stand by and which we will incorporate in the army and the police, and those who exploit this title, and act under the umbrella of the 'Awakening' to practice the same criminal deeds stemming from the policies of the Ba'ath Party or Al-Qaeda."

Mustafa al-Juburi, the commander of the southern Baghdad awakening forces, responded to the allegation by telling Al-Arabiyah television on January 5 that the government's evidence is weak and unsubstantiated.

Two weeks earlier, Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi said at a December 22 press conference that there is a danger the awakening councils will become "a third security entity in Iraq." In response, Al-Anbar Awakening Council member Ali al-Hatim told Al-Arabiyah television the same day that the tribes are governed by their sense of honor and commitment to the state. "There is no need for [al-Ubaydi] to fear us or to use words like 'we will not allow,' for we are tribes, and our weapons are in our hands, and if we see the people of Iraq being wronged or harmed, then we will come to their rescue," al-Hatim said. "We previously announced...that we [formed awakening councils] out of chivalry and came only to help. You cannot turn me into a militia or order me to do something that I feel is wrong.... I am a supporter of the state and the law, and I do not aspire to become a third force like the defense minister said."

Meanwhile, the pro-Ba'athist Sunni website "Quds Press" and the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party's website (the party is a member of the Al-Tawafuq bloc) published reports this week, citing unidentified intelligence sources, that Iran's Qods Force has formed special brigades to assassinate awakening council members. The source said the brigades are composed of rogue Al-Mahdi Army militiamen.

For Sunnis who have been struggling to work their way into the post-Hussein political system, the news is distressing. The perceived lack of government support, particularly from the prime minister, for the integration of Sunnis into the security services, coupled with delays in al-Maliki's proclaimed national reconciliation initiative, only reinforces Sunni perceptions that there is no place for them in the Shi'ite-led government.

Should the government continue down this path, the security gains of the past year are at risk of being undermined by renewed sectarian violence once the U.S. military pulls out of Iraq and ends its support of the awakening councils.

FORMER TALIBAN COMMANDER APPOINTED CHIEF OF AFGHAN DISTRICT
Mullah Abdul Salaam, a former Taliban governor of Oruzgan Province and a senior Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan, was appointed on January 7 as the new chief of Musa Qala district in Helmand Province, Afghan and international media reported. Salaam left the Taliban and switched sides in December 2007 just before a key battle to secure the town of Musa Qala. Presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said in Kabul that Salaam's appointment is "consistent with Afghan government policies." "The president has said before that all those former Taliban who come and accept the constitution and who want to participate in the political process through non-violent means...are welcome," Hamidzada said. Mullah Salaam told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that people in Musa Qala did not trust their leaders before, but that they now trust him. "People didn't know who to contact. Now they are talking with me. They give me assurance and I give them assurances. There were many problems before," he said. Salaam told Reuters that there has been division among the Taliban ranks in Musa Qala for some time, but that the majority supports him. "There are two groups of Taliban fighters in Musa Qala, and I have the backing of the major one. The Taliban who are against peace and prosperity in Afghanistan -- I will fight them," he said. MM

NEGOTIATIONS WITH TALIBAN REMAIN CONTROVERSIAL
The Afghan government's efforts to attract moderate Taliban elements is weakening the influence of hard-liners within the group, but steps toward a political dialogue with former Taliban militants are also meeting with opposition, RFE/RL and international media reported on January 9. Among those who object to the negotiations are former members of the Northern Alliance, who are leading members of the main opposition party, the United National Front, which dominates the Afghan parliament and the security apparatus in Kabul. Proponents of negotiations with the Taliban argue that securing stability in Afghanistan is contingent on the Taliban's participation in national politics and isolating hard-liners, while opponents see the talks as compromising with extremists. The appointment of Mullah Abdul Salaam as Musa Qala district chief is being touted as a successful move in the government's policy of winning over disaffected Taliban commanders who are unhappy about ties between Taliban hard-liners and foreign Al-Qaeda fighters. MM

TALIBAN COMMANDER DADULLAH ALLEGEDLY PARTICIPATED IN NEGOTIATIONS
Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" reported on January 9 that Mansur Dadullah, the Taliban southern zone commander and the brother of the late commander Mullah Dadullah, allegedly participated in negotiations with Afghan and British intelligence in Helmand Province, leading to his dismissal by Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar. Influential Taliban commanders and British intelligence officers reportedly held a series of meetings starting in the summer of 2007 and culminating in a meeting with Mansur Dadullah, whose forces are accused of using Al-Qaeda style tactics in Afghanistan. The administration of President Hamid Karzai expelled two senior British diplomats involved in the meeting, Michael Semple and Mervyn Patterson, causing a diplomatic uproar. From the Afghan government's perspective, Mansur's ideological ties with Al-Qaeda and his involvement in training suicide bombers automatically disqualified him from negotiations. A Taliban-affiliated website published a decree by Mullah Omar announcing Dadullah's removal from his command post for insubordination and violating the rules of the Islamic Emirate. In an interview with AP on January 9, Dadullah continued to deny the news of his dismissal, and accused the newly appointed government chief in Musa Qala, Abdul Salaam, of switching sides "for money and power." MM

POLAND SEEKS GREATER SECURITY ROLE IN AFGHANISTAN
Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said on January 9 that he hopes to reach an agreement with Poland's NATO partners that would raise Poland's military profile in Afghanistan, Afghan and international media reported. Klich is slated to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Washington next week, and said he hopes to finalize a proposal on Poland's role in Afghanistan during those talks. When the agreement is sealed, Poland is likely to take over the security command in Paktika Province, near the Afghan-Pakistani border. Klich told Reuters that "the Americans know we would like to boost our mission's visibility in Afghanistan by taking responsibility for a province under ISAF's jurisdiction." Poland currently has 1,200 troops deployed in Afghanistan as a part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). MM

IRANIANS DENOUNCE 'FORGED' FILM OF U.S. NAVAL INCIDENT
Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) on January 9 denounced as fake footage released by the Pentagon showing Iranian boats apparently provoking U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf on January 6, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8 and 9, 2008). Iran released its own video footage on January 10 with a recorded conversation between the IRGC and U.S. craft suggesting the encounter was part of a routine reconnaissance by Iranian sailors, as Iranian officials have claimed, AFP reported, citing Iran's English-language Press TV. The U.S. footage released on January 8 showed Iranian boats swarming around U.S. ships, with an audio recording of a man threatening an imminent collision with a U.S. ship, CNN reported. U.S. officials have qualified the incident as an unusual provocation by Iranian naval forces in the sea. An unnamed IRGC naval official has told Fars news agency that the U.S. video was made of archive footage and the sound was "made up"; he said there is no congruence between the sound and picture, Radio Farda reported on January 9. "Its artificial nature is entirely evident," he said. The official added that Western media reports of the incident were designed to stoke fear of Iran. Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar told state television on January 9 that Iranian boats followed normal procedures, which were to "identity vessels crossing" the Strait of Hormuz, Radio Farda reported. VS

...AS U.S. OFFICIALS WARN IRANIANS OF CONSEQUENCES
U.S. President George W. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told the press on January 9 that the Iranian boats were "very provocative" in the January 6 incident, and could have prompted an exchange of fire, Reuters reported. Speaking on his way to Israel with Bush, Hadley said the Iranians have to be "very careful about this because if it happens again, they are going to bear the consequences of that incident...the Iranians need to be on notice that they are fishing in troubled waters here." Bush on January 8 denounced the incident as an Iranian provocation, AFP reported. He said in Washington, "I don't know what their thinking was, but I'm telling you what I think it was: I think it was a provocative act." Bush said Iran will remain a threat if allowed to develop its nuclear program. He said an intelligence report downgrading the threat from Iran late last year sent "a mixed signal," but that "Iran was a threat, Iran is a threat, and Iran will continue to be a threat if they are allowed to learn how to enrich uranium," AFP reported. VS

IRANIAN POLITICIANS REGISTER FOR PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Some prominent reformists, including sitting members of parliament and former officials of the government of Mohammad Khatami, registered on January 8 for parliamentary elections set for mid-March, Iranian media reported on January 9. In Tehran, these included Majid Ansari, a leftist cleric and member of the moderately reformist Militant Clerics Assembly; reformist Tehran representative Soheila Jelodarzadeh; the former head of the state planning and budgeting agency, Farhad Rahbar; Mohammad Sadr, a deputy foreign minister in the Khatami government; and Ishaq Jahangiri, an industry minister under Khatami and member of the centrist Executives of Construction party, "Etemad" reported. Some reformists have urged prominent reformist politicians to register for the polls to encourage the public to vote in March. Aspiring candidates have to be approved first by the Guardians Council, a body of jurists that supervises the electoral process. VS

IRANIAN LEADER CALLS U.S. BACKING A 'DISGRACE'
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a crowd in Qom, north-central Iran, on January 9 that it is a "disgrace" for anyone in Iran to enjoy the support of U.S. officials, the Fars news agency reported. The agency reported that U.S. President Bush expressed his support "a few days ago" for some Iranian politicians, without giving details. U.S. officials have in the past expressed support for dissidents, government critics or students in Iran. "Both the people and that group for which the American president expressed his support must consider why America wants to support that group. What role did it play that America should think of supporting it?" Khamenei said. He urged factions competing in the March parliamentary elections to publicly distance themselves from the "enemy" and from "the paid agents" and "servants" of those enemies in Iran. He repeated an earlier appeal to politicians not to denigrate each other in campaigning before the polls. VS

DRUG TRAFFICKERS KILLED IN GUN BATTLE WITH IRANIAN POLICE
Combined police forces from the central and southern provinces of Yazd and Fars shot dead six drug traffickers in a recent operation, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on January 9, citing comments made the previous day by Fars police chief Ali Moayeddi. He said the traffickers initially evaded police but were forced to engage in a gunfight in the Abarkuh district north of Shiraz. Six traffickers were killed, four escaped, and a policeman was killed in the pursuit, Moayeddi said. He added that police captured arms, ammunition, and 4 tons of heroin and opium. VS

IRANIAN MINISTER COMMENTS ON GAS CUTS
Oil Minister Gholamhussein Nozari told the press in Tehran on January 9 that Iran will not discuss the price of natural gas with Turkmenistan until it restores the flow of gas to Iran, IRNA reported. Turkmenistan recently cut its gas exports to Iran amid freezing temperatures, and some Iranian politicians have speculated that Ashgabat is trying to force Iran to pay higher prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). Nozari said, "there will be no discussion between the parties on prices until Turkmenistan connects Iran's gas." He was speaking to the press on the sidelines of the signature of an oil-exploration and development deal with the Italian firm Edison. Nozari said Turkmenistan has blamed technical glitches for the interruption, but that "price may be an issue." He said in any case that Iranian users have given a fitting response by cutting consumption and saving 130 million-140 million cubic meters of gas, though he didn't say over how long a period. Nozari said Iran has immense natural-gas reserves, but its energy security has become questionable in recent days at a time of freezing temperatures and soaring demand for heating. Nozari said Iranians used 110 million cubic meters of gas more in recent days than in the same period last year; he described the recent cold spell as "unprecedented" and said shortages might have occurred in European countries in similar conditions, IRNA reported. VS

IRANIAN UNIVERSITIES PENALIZE UNRULY STUDENTS
Some 60 students from several prominent national universities have been disciplined or suspended from studies in the past 20 days, apparently for protesting or gathering without university permission, Radio Farda reported on January 8. The broadcaster stated the number may be greater and there is no precise figure yet for all the students disciplined. The students were from prominent institutions including Tehran's Amir Kabir, Allameh Tabatabai, and Elm-va-Sanaat (Science and Industry) universities; the universities of Isfahan and Shiraz in central and southern Iran; and the Bu Ali Sina University in Hamedan, western Iran. Amir Nazari, a student from Bu Ali Sina, told Radio Farda that the recent disciplinary moves violated the government's own directives on not punishing students during examination periods. He said he himself has been suspended from studies for a term on charges including participating in and organizing various gatherings and "acting to overthrow" the government. Nazari said the government probably wants peace and quiet in universities before the parliamentary elections in March. VS

WHO ESTIMATES MORE THAN 150,000 IRAQIS KILLED SINCE 2003
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on January 9 that a recent study it conducted in conjunction with the Iraqi government estimates that more than 151,000 Iraqis have been killed due to violence between March 2003-June 2006. The organization said the estimate was based on interviews conducted in 9,345 households in nearly 1,000 neighborhoods and villages throughout Iraq. The study indicated that on average, 128 Iraqis died of violent causes every day in the first year following the U.S.-led invasion. Approximately 115 people were killed daily in the second year and 126 in the third year. More than half of the violent deaths occurred in Baghdad. The WHO study is considered the most comprehensive since the beginning of the 2003 invasion, and exceeded the widely cited death toll of 80,000-87,000 by the Iraq Body Count project, which uses media reports and morgue records to calculate its figure. However, Muhammad Ali, a co-author of the study, stressed that the findings should be interpreted with caution since "assessments of death-toll estimates in conflict situations is extremely difficult." "In the absence of comprehensive death registration and hospital reporting, household surveys are the best we can do," Ali said. Iraqi Health Minister Salah al-Hasanawi said the study indicated "a massive death toll since the beginning of the conflict." SS

UN SAYS NUMBER OF FLEEING IRAQIS DECLINES DUE TO VISA RESTRICTIONS
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced on January 8 that the steep decline in recent months of the number of Iraqis fleeing the country is primarily due to visa restrictions imposed by neighboring countries, AP reported the same day. Chief UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond acknowledged that improvements in the security situation in certain areas in Iraq have definitely played a role, but the visa restrictions are the main reason why there has been a steep drop in the number of fleeing Iraqis. "The number of people fleeing Iraq has declined considerably because of the visa restrictions that have been imposed by governments around Iraq, particularly Syria and Jordan," Redmond said. "There used to be 3,000 people a day, but that's not possible now because they require visas," he added. In October, Syria imposed new visa restrictions on Iraqis seeking to enter, requiring Iraqis to apply for them at the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad, and granting them only for commercial, transport, scientific, or education reasons. SS

TWO CHURCHES ATTACKED IN NORTHERN IRAQ
Two car bombs exploded outside two churches in the northern city of Kirkuk on January 9, international media reported the same day. Brigadier General Burhan Habib Tayib, head of city police in Kirkuk, said that the first car bomb exploded outside the Chaldean Christian Cathedral in the center of Kirkuk. Then minutes later, the second attack took place outside the Assyrian Christian Ma'ar Afram Church a kilometer away. He added that three people were wounded in the bombings and the two churches suffered only minor damage. This was the latest in a string of recent attacks targeting Iraqi churches. On January 6, several churches and Catholic institutions in Iraq were targeted in bomb attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2008). On January 8, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met with the Vatican's ambassador to Iraq and Jordan, Monsignor Francis Assisi Chullikatt, and assured him that the Iraqi government is committed to protecting Christians in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2008). SS

KURDISTAN GOVERNMENT TO STRENGTHEN BANKING AND INSURANCE SECTORS
During a January 9 meeting with the Kurdistan Economic Council, Kurdistan regional government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said the government needs to focus on developing strong banking and insurance sectors in 2008, the KRG website reported the same day. Dr. Ezzat Isa, the secretary of the Economic Council, said strong banking and insurance sectors would facilitate economic growth in the region, as well as attract internationally reputable banks and insurance companies. "Barzani wants a new special committee to focus on attracting solid foreign banks and insurance companies to Kurdistan's market, which is still relatively undeveloped in these sectors, particularly insurance," Isa said. "The council members agreed that it was vital to increase consumer and business confidence in banking and insurance services, which in turn will stimulate more economic growth." The Economic Council oversees and advises the KRG on the region's economic policies. SS

JORDANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER IRAQ'S EFFECT OF REGIONAL STABILITY
At a meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari on January 9 in Amman, Jordanian Foreign Minister Salahudin al-Bashir expressed concern that violence in Iraq could threaten regional stability, the official Petra news agency reported the same day. "Jordan is deeply concerned by the current situation in Iraq, which threatens to destabilize the whole region," al-Bashir said. However, he reaffirmed that Jordan will continue to do whatever it can to support Iraq's efforts to establish stability, stressing that national reconciliation is crucial to ending the violence. For his part, Zebari lauded Jordan's efforts to reinforce stability in Iraq and thanked Jordan for taking in an estimated 750,000 Iraqi refugees who fled violence in Iraq. Zebari also held separate talks the same day with Jordanian Prime Minister Nadir al-Thahabi. Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abbawi, who was accompanying Zebari, said Zebari assured al-Thahabi that Iraq will continue oil shipments to the kingdom. Zebari's visit to Jordan is part of a regional tour in preparation for a meeting of Iraq's neighbors in Kuwait in April. SS

U.S. FORCES DISCOVER HUGE WEAPONS CACHE NEAR BAGHDAD
The U.S. military announced on January 9 that Iraqi forces discovered a large weapons cache and bomb-making facility on January 7 in Al-Baytara, Abu Ghurayb, just outside of Baghdad. Among the items seized were more than 5,000 rounds of machine-gun ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, mortar rounds, components to make improvised explosive devices (IEDs), more than 200 liters of liquid homemade explosives, and 60 kilograms of solid homemade explosives. The military indicated that the discovery underscores the increased development of the Iraqi military. "The discovery of this cache by the Iraqi Army demonstrates that Al-Qaeda in Iraq still poses a dangerous threat to the security of the Abu Ghurayb area, but it also highlights the increasing competence and effectiveness of the Iraqi Army," spokesman Major Jon Pendell said. SS

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