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Newsline

Newsline - January 18, 2008

BRITAIN CALLS RUSSIAN BEHAVIOR 'UNWORTHY OF A GREAT COUNTRY'
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in the House of Commons on January 17 that Russian harassment of Russian citizens working for the British Council in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg is "not worthy of a great country," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 15, 16, and 17, 2008). He noted that in recent days "the Russian security services summoned over 20 locally engaged members of [British Council] staff in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, one by one, for interview. Ten members of staff were interviewed late at night, in their homes, after calls by the Russian tax police. Questioning ranged from the institutional status of the British Council to personal questions about the health and welfare of family pets." Miliband stressed that the staff "have been the subject of blatant intimidation from their own government.... Such actions are reprehensible, not worthy of a great country, and contrary to the letter and spirit of the legal framework under which the British Council operates." He rejected Russian charges that the council is operating illegally in Russia, or avoids paying taxes. Miliband argued that "Russia's actions therefore raise serious questions about her observance of international law, as well as about the standards of behavior she is prepared to adopt towards her own citizens." The chief executive of the British Council, Martin Davidson, told reporters in London on January 17 that "our paramount concern is for the safety and well-being of our staff, and the Russian authorities have made it impossible for us to continue our work in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, and I have, therefore, decided that we will suspend our operations in both cities." PM

RUSSIAN 'SOURCE' SAYS BRITAIN MUST TAKE FIRST STEPS TO END IMPASSE
On January 18, a "diplomatic source" told Interfax that work can begin on a new cultural agreement between London and Moscow if Britain resumes talks with Russia on visa liberalization and resumes antiterrorism cooperation with the Federal Security Service (FSB). The source said there is "no other way" to provide a new legal basis for the British Council to operate in Russia. Britain's "The Guardian" reported on January 18 that London is seeking ways to express its disapproval of what unnamed British officials called "classic KGB-style tactics" against British Council staff in Russia. Among the options reportedly being considered are joining Lithuania and Poland in holding up a new EU-Russia agreement, opposing Russian membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and calling for a revision of EU support for Russian membership in the World Trade Organization. Britain's "Financial Times" suggested on January 18 that Russian President Vladimir "Putin's bullying may backfire." PM

U.S., EU 'REGRET' RUSSIAN ACTIONS AGAINST BRITISH COUNCIL
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on January 17 that "we regret reports of an escalation of actions taken by Russian authorities against the staff and activities of the British Council in St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg," news agencies reported. He added that "we hope this matter will be resolved fairly and expeditiously and in a manner that will allow the British Council to continue its good work in Russia." In Ljubljana on January 17, the EU's Slovenian presidency said in a statement that "the EU deeply regrets in particular the harassment of British Council staff, as well as the administrative and other measures announced by the Russian authorities." PM

PUTIN WOOS BULGARIA OVER PIPELINE PROJECT...
President Putin arrived in Sofia on January 17 for a two-day visit, during which an agreement will be signed under which Russia's Atomstroieksport will construct a nuclear power station at Belene on the Danube River, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2007). Putin is also expected to lobby top Bulgarian officials for the possible construction of a major gas pipeline. There are concerns in Bulgaria and elsewhere that the proposed $10 billion South Stream pipeline, which would carry gas under the Black Sea to Europe via Bulgaria, will increase the EU's dependency on Russian energy resources and rival the EU's Nabucco project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26 and December 19, 2007, and January 2 and 16, 2008). Putin said in an article published in the Bulgarian media on January 17 that South Stream and the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipeline, together with the Russian-German Nord Stream gas pipeline project, "fully meet long-term national interests of both Russia and our European partners, including Bulgaria," Interfax reported. "They serve to improve Europe's energy security, encourage business activity, and create new jobs," he added. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ivaylo Kalfin was quoted by the Bulgarian news agency BTA on January 17 as saying that no agreement on South Stream will be signed during Putin's visit (see "Putin's Bulgarian Visit To Test EU Energy Resolve," rferl.org, January 17, 2008). PM

...AND WARNS BULGARIA ABOUT ITS 'NEW ALLIANCES'
President Putin wrote in his article published in the Bulgarian media on January 17 that he hopes that Bulgaria's "new alliance commitments," by which he presumably means the EU and NATO, will not become an obstacle to the development of close ties between Moscow and Sofia, Interfax reported. He affirmed that "we remain realists and respect the motives your country was guided by when it chose [its present] security system. The main thing for us is that Bulgaria will not try to protect its interests at the expense of the security interests of other countries," which is presumably an allusion to the possible establishment of U.S. or NATO bases in Bulgaria. Putin added that "together we can achieve peace and prosperity only by respecting each other's positions and rejecting past stereotypes" that could lead to new divisions in Europe. On January 17, Interfax quoted an unnamed "Kremlin source" as saying that the United States is interfering in Russian-Bulgarian relations. He charged that "as soon as we make real progress on bilateral issues, various State Department bureaucrats come forward and buttonhole the Bulgarians and say, 'why did you do that?'" The source noted that Putin "has repeatedly spoken about this to both U.S. President George W. Bush and [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice in a straightforward and unequivocal way, not only in relation to Bulgaria, but also in relation to other countries." The source noted that the Bulgarians "are tough negotiators on many important issues, both on the construction of the Belene nuclear power plant and on the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline. They also defend their interests in the South Stream issue. We see this pragmatism on the part of the Bulgarians -- in view of domestic political realities -- as normal." He said that Putin has "good and trusting" relations with Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov and Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev of the Socialist-led government. Bulgarian subservience to the Soviet Union was proverbial to the point that it was jokingly known as "the 16th republic of the USSR." PM

ISRAEL CAUTIONS RUSSIA OVER NUCLEAR FUEL SHIPMENTS TO IRAN
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in Moscow on January 17 that nuclear fuel being supplied by Russia to the Bushehr nuclear power plant it is building in Iran could be used for military purposes "from the start," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 17, and 20, 2007). She argued that the Iranian leadership has a "dangerous ideology, bordering on madness." Livni said that "the international community cannot allow Iran to create nuclear weapons, and we should work together -- not only Israel and the United States -- on preventing Iran from doing it. And in order to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, we need to use all means, from United Nations sanctions to other measures. Israel is ready to do so together with the international community. This was one of the issues we discussed during my meeting here in Russia with Russian diplomats." Her host, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, said that "it is extremely important to do everything possible to broaden, not limit, the opportunities for the International Atomic Energy Agency to continue working in Iran." Iran received the first two shipments of Russian nuclear fuel in December 2007. A third delivery arrived on January 18, AP reported. PM

MEDVEDEV CAMPAIGN STAFF TO HOLD NATIONAL STRATEGY SESSION
First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's presidential campaign staff intends to hold a meeting with all regional representatives in Moscow on January 22, "Vedomosti" reported on January 18. Presidential-administration head Sergei Sobyanin, who is also the national head of the Medvedev campaign, intends to meet with some 170 regional officials, including many governors who have agreed to head regional campaign offices. An unidentified official from Perm told the daily that regional officials have been ordered to make sure that Medvedev receives more votes than the 64.3 percent that Unified Russia garnered in the December legislative elections. Medvedev is expected to unveil parts of his campaign platform in a major speech at the Kremlin-organized All-Russian Civic Forum, also on January 22. RC

RESEARCHERS ASK RUSSIANS WHAT KIND OF PRESIDENT THEY WANT
The All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) has released the results of study it conducted in the summer of 2007 that attempted to determine what qualities Russians want to see in their next president, "Kommersant" reported on January 18. According to the study, there is a sharp division between the "well-off" and the "less secure" sections of the electorate. The former, in general, are looking for a president who is "a modern, effective manager," while the latter seek "a wise politician, a real father of the nation." Overall, 42 percent of respondents are looking for a manager, while 48 percent want a father figure. Forty-seven percent said they hope the new president will form a team comprising "scholars, lawyers, and economists," while 22 percent said the team should include lawmakers, 19 percent named siloviki, 14 percent named businesspeople, and 10 percent mentioned artists and cultural figures. Just 2 percent said the new president should include "relatives and friends" among his ruling team. RC

STATE SETS AMBITIOUS NANOTECHNOLOGY GOAL
The government on January 17 set the goal of achieving $36 billion in nanotechnology-related sales by 2015, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 18. That would mean boosting the current figure by a factor of 130. The government has set aside nearly $10 billion to fund research and development at some 75 Russian firms working in the sector. Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov, however, told the cabinet session that he is concerned that the funding might not be spent effectively. "There is enough money," he said. "Unfortunately...there is more money than ideas." RC

KREMLIN EXPLAINS REASON FOR BARRING JOURNALIST
The Russian authorities have officially explained that Moldovan journalist Natalya Morar was not allowed to enter Russia in December for reasons of state security, gazeta.ru reported on January 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007). Morar was handed an official explanation by the Russian Embassy in Chisinau, saying that she was refused admission to Russia under a law that allows such a step "in order to protect the defense and security of the state, public order, or the health of the population." The statement said the government is not obligated to give a more specific explanation. Morar works for the magazine "Novoye vremya" and was the author of a major report on the personal finances of top government officials. She also wrote about a purported secret fund that the Kremlin uses to finance political parties and investigated the unsolved 2006 murder of Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 2006). Her editors and international press-freedom advocates believe the Russian government's action is an unjustifiable response to that investigation. "Novoye vremya" plans to contest the ban in court, naming the FSB as a defendant. RC

INTERIOR MINISTRY DENIES REPORTS OF INGUSHETIA ATTACK
The Republic of Ingushetia Interior Ministry rejected on January 17 as untrue reports by RIA Novosti quoting a source within the Southern Federal District law enforcement agencies as saying that the home in Nazran of Ingushetia's Prime Minister Ibragim Malsagov was subjected to automatic-rifle and mortar fire earlier that evening, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Interfax quoted a source in the Group of Russian Forces headquarters as similarly denying that any shooting took place. The independent website ingushetiya.ru, however, claimed the shooting lasted 10-15 minutes, but quoted Malsagov's relatives as denying his home was damaged; regnum.ru claimed the building was "destroyed." Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev and Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika attended a session of the Ingushetian counterterrorism commission in the Ingushetian capital, Magas, earlier on January 17, regnum.ru reported. LF

CHECHEN HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN DENIES EVICTION ALLEGATIONS
Nurdi Nukhadjiyev categorically rejected on January 17 claims by human rights activists that Chechen displaced persons are being systematically evicted from temporary accommodation in Grozny, regnum.ru reported. Some 800 people were reportedly evicted in late December from such accommodation in Grozny, and on January 15, Svetlana Gannushkina, who is a member of the Russian presidential council on civil society and human rights, told a Moscow press conference that Chechen displaced persons whose homes were destroyed during the fighting of the past 13 years are being summarily evicted from temporary accommodation not only in Chechnya but elsewhere in the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2 and 16, 2008). Nukhadjiyev said that all families who vacate temporary accommodation are provided with documentation that entitles them to alternative housing. Also on January 17, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported that a group of Chechens currently housed in temporary accommodation in Grozny's Zavod Raion have written to Nukhadjiyev complaining that they are in danger of being evicted by force. LF

DAGHESTAN DISTRICT HEADS DEMAND OPENING OF BLOCKED HIGHWAY
The heads of several mountain raions in central Daghestan have called for the opening of the Chirkat-Gimri Tunnel that is the most direct link between their districts and the outside world, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on January17. Police and security forces closed the tunnel one month ago at the start of a "counterterrorism" operation in the village of Gimri in Untsukul Raion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 18, and 28, 2007, and January 7 and 17, 2008). Magomed Kamilov, the head of Tsumadin Raion, southwest of Untsukul, told kavkaz-uzel.ru that the alternative highway adds 100 kilometers to the journey to Makhachkala and more than doubles the previous cost of traveling there. He said the transport difficulties have led to increases in the prices of food and other commodities in his district. LF

ARMENIAN AUTHORITIES SEEK TO BAN ELECTION CAMPAIGN MARCHES
The Yerevan municipal authorities announced on January 16 that in order to prevent the disruption of traffic, they will not issue permission for marches by supporters of presidential candidates in the run-up to the February 19 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 17. The election campaign staff of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, widely regarded as the front-runner in the ballot, expressed approval of that move on January 17, but Nikol Pashinian, a member of the campaign staff of Sarkisian's closest challenger, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, told RFE/RL that the ban is yet another obstacle to Ter-Petrossian's campaign, and that they will appeal it to the OSCE Election Observation Mission. Armen Rustamian, who heads the campaign staff of Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun presidential candidate Vahan Hovannisian, similarly told RFE/RL on January 17 that his party considers the ban "not right." Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on January 17, Rustamian proposed that all nine presidential candidates establish a joint oversight headquarters that would investigate complaints and reported violations of election procedure in order to ensure that the vote is free and fair, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARIANS REJECT OPPOSITION 'ULTIMATUM'
The nine-party opposition National Council issued a statement on January 17 saying it does not recognize Mikheil Saakashvili as Georgia's legitimately elected president and will not cooperate with him, civil.ge reported. The council simultaneously unveiled on January 17 a series of demands to the Georgian parliament. As enumerated by Georgia's Path party Chairwoman Salome Zourabichvili, they are: an end to political persecution, illegal eavesdropping and intimidation, and the release of all persons jailed in recent months for their political activities; equal representation for the opposition on election commissions at all levels, and a say in the selection of the Central Election Commission chairman; and equal access to airtime on Georgian Public Television, the appointment of whose director-general will require the consent of the opposition. But Levan Bezhashvili, chairman of the parliament committee on legal issues, rejected those demands later on January 17 as "unacceptable" and "the language of ultimatums," civil.ge reported. A second parliamentarian, Pavle Kublashvili, said the opposition has unfortunately construed the authorities' call for dialogue as "weakness." Acting President Nino Burjanadze told the television channel Rustavi-2 on January 17 that issues currently being discussed with the opposition include Georgian Public Television, the Central Election Commission, and strengthening the independence of the judiciary and the role of parliament. She said possible opposition representation in the cabinet is not being discussed. Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said on January 17 that over half the current cabinet ministers will be replaced, including Economy Minister Giorgi Arveladze, Caucasus Press reported on January 18. LF

OPPOSITION SELECTS ALTERNATIVE VENUE FOR PROTEST
Following the refusal of the Tbilisi municipal authorities to grant permission for an opposition demonstration in the city between January 19-21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2008), the National Council decided on January 17 to stage its planned mass protest on January 20, the day of Mikheil Saakashvili's inauguration for a second presidential term, at the Tbilisi race course, some 10 kilometers from the city center, civil.ge reported. Tbilisi Deputy Mayor Mamuka Akhlvediani was quoted by kavkaz-uzel.ru on January 17 as saying that any such demonstration constitutes a violation of the law, but the daily "Rezonansi" on January 18 quoted veteran legal expert Vakhtang Khmaladze as saying there is no legal ban on such rallies. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY BALLOT LIKELY IN MAY
Acting parliament speaker Mikheil Machavariani told fellow deputies on January 18 that the parliamentary elections will "probably" take place some time in May, civil.ge reported. He added that the necessary amendments to the constitution will have to be "rushed through" in February. In a nonbinding plebiscite held concurrently with the January 5 preterm presidential election, almost 80 percent of participants opted for holding the parliamentary ballot in the spring, not the fall of 2008. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT ADDRESSES RULING PARTY CONGRESS...
In an address to a senior membership meeting in Astana of the ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev called on January 17 for the party to take stronger measures against corruption, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazakh Television reported. Nazarbaev, who heads the party, said that "regional branches of the party must step up the purposeful fight against corruption" in the regions and that "the party should demand that corrupt officials should be removed from their posts and punished, which we have not been doing so far." In a sweeping address that was televised nationally, Nazarbaev argued that as the largest party in the country, Nur Otan should also become "involved" in strengthening "interethnic accord" and "ensuring stability" in Kazakhstan. But he did caution party members to always remember to "develop a dialogue-based mechanism and work with other parties, including the opposition," as well as with "a wide-range of public unions and nongovernmental organizations." Turning to internal party matters, Nazarbaev proposed the formulation of a new personnel strategy "to contribute to the career advancement of the most talented party members and increase the skills of party members, particularly of those in the regions," adding a specific recommendation that the party create a new youth wing, Zhas Otan, comprised of between 200 and 300 elite members. Nazarbaev assumed the leadership of Nur Otan in July 2007, removing his daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva, a member of parliament since 2004, from the party leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). Nur Otan, which claims an official membership of more than 700,000, was formally renamed in late 2006 after several smaller parties merged with its precursor, the Otan party. RG

...AND WARNS OF THREAT POSED BY 'FOREIGN MISSIONARIES'
Closing his address to the Nur Otan party congress in Astana, President Nazarbaev warned on January 17 of the threat from the "uncontrolled activities" of "foreign missionaries" operating in Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazakh Television reported. He called on party members to address the "threat" from "tens of thousands of missionary organizations" that he said are active in Kazakhstan, adding that "we do not know their goals and objectives and we must not allow these activities, which are not needed by our country, to be unauthorized and totally free." As the country's dominant political party, Nur Otan's power was only further consolidated when it secured some 88 percent of the vote in the August 2007 parliamentary elections, winning all 98 contested seats in the new 107-seat parliament, or Mazhilis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20, 2007). Those elections were moved up two years ahead of schedule after Nazarbaev dissolved the Mazhilis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007), but only after it adopted constitutional amendments that granted it more authority, including the power to appoint the prime minister, and abolished all presidential term limits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). RG

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT DISMISSES SUPREME COURT CHAIRMAN
Meeting in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz parliament voted on January 17 to dismiss the chairman of the Supreme Court, Kurmanbek Osmonov, after more than 50 local judges filed complaints against him, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The vote of 63 to five, with 14 abstentions, followed a call by President Kurmanbek Bakiev to fire the country's most senior judge. Former Foreign Minister and opposition Social Democratic Party lawmaker Roza Otunbaeva criticized the move as "political persecution" of Osmonov, likening it to Stalinist repression. Osmonov, too, argued that his dismissal was unwarranted and politically motivated, but denied rumors that he will join the opposition or oppose the government in any way, the 24.kg website reported. Osmonov previously served as a first deputy prime minister in the government of deposed President Askar Akaev. RG

KYRGYZ NATIONAL BANK ESTABLISHES NEW DEPOSIT PROTECTION
In a report to the Kyrgyz parliament's Economy, Budget and Finance Committee, National Bank Deputy Chairman Abdygan Suerkul confirmed on January 16 that a new system of deposit insurance has been created to help protect banking consumers, AKIpress reported. The National Bank set up a special "fund for the protection of bank deposits" in coordination with parliament that is comprised of an initial $97 million in financing and is to be supplemented by subsequent contributions by commercial banking institutions. Opposition deputy and committee member Osmon Artykbaev explained that the new fund will "enhance the credibility" of the banking sector and will offer consumers new security by guaranteeing their deposits in the event of a banking crisis or an institution's bankruptcy. RG

TAJIK JUSTICE MINISTER DEFENDS DETENTION OF FORMER INTERIOR MINISTER
Speaking at a Dushanbe press conference, Justice Minister Bakhtiyor Khudoyorov defended on January 16 the detention of former Interior Minister Yaqub Salimov in his ministry's detention facilities, Asia-Plus reported. Deputy Justice Minister Azizmat Imomov also defended the fact that Salimov was being held in the ministry's remand center, arguing that the location of his imprisonment is not relevant. Salimov was sentenced by the Supreme Court to 15 years in prison in April 2005 after his conviction for treason in a five-month trial, after being extradited from Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2005). RG

TURKMEN PRESIDENT DISCUSSES ENERGY COOPERATION WITH VISITING EU DELEGATION
Meeting in Ashgabat, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov welcomed on January 16 an EU delegation led by Pierre Morel, the EU special representative for Central Asia, Turkmen Television reported. Berdymukhammedov discussed energy cooperation with the delegation and agreed to start negotiations on a new memorandum of understanding on energy ties between Turkmenistan and the EU, promising to send an unspecified deputy minister to Brussels to begin the talks. He also welcomed the EU officials' agreement to hold a summit meeting between EU foreign ministers and their Central Asian counterparts in the Turkmen capital at an unspecified later date. The European officials also pledged to expand a training program for Turkmen students at several European universities and confirmed plans to establish a new "European Center" in Turkmenistan, according to the Russia-based Turkmen website gundogar.org. RG

BELARUSIAN JOURNALIST SENTENCED TO THREE YEARS FOR MUHAMMAD CARTOONS
A Minsk city court on January 18 sentenced journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou to three years in a high-security prison for publishing cartoons displaying the Prophet Muhammad in the independent newspaper "Zhoda" in 2006, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The court found Zdzvizhkou guilty of "inciting racial, national, or religious enmity or discord." The criminal proceedings against Zdzvizhkou, who was the newspaper's deputy editor in chief, were initiated by the KGB and later continued by prosecutors. Zdzvizhkou left Belarus in 2007, but returned in November to visit the grave of his father and was arrested. His trial started on January 11 and was held behind closed doors. The authorities closed "Zhoda" in March 2006 over the reprinting of controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. AM

BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES JAIL YOUTHS FOR DEMONSTRATING...
A Minsk district court on January 17 sentenced several youths detained while displaying solidarity with political prisoners in Belarus to terms from 10 to 20 days in jail, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. All of them were charged with petty hooliganism or participation in an unsanctioned demonstration. Police detained three members of the youth wing of the Belarusian Popular Front (BNF) -- Franak Vyachorka, Anton Kalinouski, and Yury Stankevich -- when they came to support Yulia Siutsova, who stood trial for participating in an unauthorized demonstration of small-business owners. Vyachorka and Stankevich received 15-day sentences, while Kalinouski was given 10 days. Two other members of the BNF's youth wing, Katsyaryna Halitskaya and Katsyaryna Krasnova, were sentenced to 15 days. Two members of the unregistered youth organization Jeans For Freedom, Maksim Vinyarski and Pavel Kuryanovich, received 10- and 20-day sentences, respectively. Most of the sentenced youths are students and their universities may use their arrests to expel them. After the trial, police arrested Mikita Shutsyankou, a member of Jeans For Freedom, and Zmitser Fedaruk, an activist of the Youth Front. During his arrest, police severely beat Fedaruk for the second time. Fedaruk was recently hospitalized after being beaten by riot police in December 2007. AM

...AND BAN ANOTHER ACTIVIST FROM TRAVELING ABROAD
Belarusian border guards on January 17 ordered youth activist Barys Haretski off the train he was taking to Kyiv to attend journalism training, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Officers claimed that Haretski is listed in a database of people prohibited from leaving Belarusian territory, providing no further details. Police have detained Haretski several times for heading the unregistered organization Youth Front; once he was fined, but he said he had paid it in full. Belarusian authorities annulled as of January 1 a requirement for Belarusian nationals to obtain a travel-permit stamp in their passports, introducing instead an electronic database of people who are barred from leaving the country because of their awareness of state secrets, criminal prosecution, or other reasons. Earlier this month, police notified Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, that he is listed in the database. AM

UKRAINE, EU TO SET UP COMMITTEE FOR MONITORING VISA FACILITATION
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry and the EU intend to set up a committee for monitoring the execution of the agreement on visa facilitation that was recently ratified by the Verkhovna Rada (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2008), RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Borys Bazylevskyy of the ministry's consular department said that the committee, comprising representatives of the EU and the ministry, is expected to meet in March or April. The agreement on visa facilitation for Ukrainians entering the Schengen zone sets the single charge for a visa at 35 euros ($51) and determines conditions for obtaining multientry or free-of-charge visas. AM

UN MISSION CHIEF SAYS KOSOVO 'READY' FOR STATEHOOD
"Kosovo's institutions are ready for the next step," the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) told the UN Security Council and the media on January 16. Joachim Ruecker did not say what the "next step" is, but he has previously backed a UN-commissioned report that recommended that Kosova be granted "supervised independence." Ruecker gave his assessment of progress between January and November 2007, the latest in regular reviews of progress in Kosova, behind closed doors, but in later comments to the press and in a statement issued by his office Ruecker stressed that Kosova is meeting standards set by the international community and that parliamentary elections held in November showed the "political maturity" of Kosova's politicians and population. The tenor of Ruecker's speech was generally positive, noting greater freedom of movement for the ethnic-Serbian minority, an increase in the number of refugees returning to their homes, a "calm" security situation, and the "success" of November's elections. However, Ruecker also stated that more needs to be done to help refugees, noted persistent demonstrations to protest against poor living standards, expressed concern at the lack of political involvement on the part of ethnic Serbs, and voiced concern at the "troubling emergence of radical fringe groups." Ruecker made similar comments to the Kosovar media in the days leading up to the UN meeting. AG

KOSOVAR PREMIER ADDRESSES UN...
Hashim Thaci, Kosova's newly elected prime minister, was also given an opportunity to address the UN Security Council on January 16 despite attempts by Serbia to prevent him speaking, an argument that it based on Kosova's status as a province rather than a state, international media reported. Belgrade similarly -- and unsuccessfully -- tried to prevent Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu from addressing the UN in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6 and 18, 2007). Thaci used the opportunity to reiterate Kosova's consistently and often repeated message to the international community -- that Kosova is ready to become a state. "Independence of Kosovo will bring peace and stability to the whole region," he told journalists after emerging from the council's closed-door meeting. He also added that "it is clear" there is no "consensus" within the Security Council and that the UN should back "supervised independence" for Kosova, as the UN's special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, proposed in March. "Its implementation under European Union and NATO supervision is the best way forward," Thaci said, adding that Kosova's government "will guarantee such implementation." AG

...WHILE SERBIA WARNS OF ACTION TO PROTECT KOSOVAR SERBS
Earlier on January 16, in a hearing open to the public, Serbian President Boris Tadic warned the UN Security Council that "if any violence were to break out in Kosovo, and if KFOR [the NATO-led peacekeeping force] could not react and protect the Serbs in an appropriate way, we are ready, and I underline with the agreement of competent international institutions and exactly in respect for international law, to help and provide protection to the threatened population." Tadic's warning echoes comments made recently by his rival in Serbia's presidential election, the ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2007, and January 9 and 11, 2008). Both Tadic and Nikolic say, however, that they will not lead Serbia into war in order to keep Kosova. On the subject of Kosova's final status, Tadic disagreed with Ruecker's positive assessment of the situation in Kosova, called for a compromise solution, and urged Kosova not to push ahead unilaterally toward independence, warning -- as Serbia and its chief supporter, Russia, have done repeatedly -- that independence for Kosova could act as a dangerous precedent. He also called on the Security Council to order the resumption of direct talks on Kosova's future. The Security Council did not debate Ruecker's report or pass any resolution, but after the meeting U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad stated that "the Security Council no longer has any role in the issue." His Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, criticized Ruecker's report as flawed, threatened that Kosova would not be able to join the UN or "other political international institutions" if it declared independence, and reiterated that only the UN Security Council can legitimate a declaration of independence. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not attend the meeting. He has argued that the status quo in Kosova is unsustainable, a position that has earned him criticism from Serbian and Russian officials. AG

SERBIA MAINTAINS BAN ON U.S., BRITISH ELECTION MONITORS
Serbia's Central Election Commission voted on January 17 to ignore a ruling by the Supreme Court and continue to bar U.S. and British citizens from monitoring Serbia's presidential election, local media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, 2008). Nine of the commission's members reportedly wanted the ban to be reviewed, but they were defeated by the 14 members who opposed their motion and four who abstained. Those who wanted the decision to be reassessed included representatives of two of the three governing parties -- the Democratic Party (DS) and G17 Plus -- and the small Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The third governing party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, refused to consider complying with the ruling, and joined the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which was established by the late Slobodan Milosevic. The Supreme Court ordered the ban to be revoked on January 16, five days after it was imposed. AG

MONTENEGRO CALLS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
For the first time since independence, Montenegrins will go to the polls to vote for a new president on April 6, the speaker of parliament, Ranko Krivokapic, decided on January 17, the news service Balkan Insight reported the same day. President Filip Vujanovic, who was elected in May 2003 when Montenegro was still joined in a union with Serbia, has already said that he will run for reelection. Other candidates who have already announced their plan to run are Andrija Mandic of the Serbian List, the second-largest party in parliament, and Nebojsa Medojevic of the reformist Movement for Changes, one of the four biggest parliamentary parties. Krivokapic said he chose April 6 as the date because "Montenegrin citizens have the right to celebrate state and religious holidays without election procedures," referring to Labor Day on May 1 and Easter, which falls on April 27 for Orthodox Christians and March 23 for non-Orthodox communities. AG

FIRST MACEDONIAN PREMIER DIES
The first prime minister of an independent Macedonia, Nikola Kljusev, died on January 16 at the age of 80, local media reported. Kljusev formed a technocratic government between January 1991 and August 1992 after the first multiparty elections in Macedonia, which was then part of Yugoslavia, and in September 1991 he declared Macedonia an independent state. Kljusev, who spent most of his career as an academic, returned from retirement to serve as defense minister in 1998-2000. By that stage, he had joined a political party, the center-right Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), becoming a member of the party in 1997. AG

RUSSIA'S BALKAN POWER PLAY
Serbs go to the polls on January 20 to elect a new president in a hotly contested election. But a looming low-intensity struggle between Russia and the West for influence in the country is casting a long shadow over the vote.

Belgrade is barring observers from the United States and Britain from monitoring the poll. A leading presidential candidate is vowing to scuttle a key premembership agreement between Serbia and the European Union. And alarming, albeit unconfirmed, media reports allege that Russia is drawing up plans to eventually set up military bases in the country.

Serbia's incumbent president, Boris Tadic, has long sought to steer his country into Europe's mainstream. But mounting anger over the imminent prospect of an independent Kosova, lingering resentment from the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, and growing impatience about the slow pace of Serbia's EU bid have all converged into an anti-Western backlash.

The most visible result of the new national mood has been the dramatic rise of Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic, a blunt nationalist who is Tadic's main rival in the election. The two are widely expected to advance to a runoff on February 3.

But in a broader geopolitical sense, Russia is also turning out to be a major beneficiary. Moscow has long had a close cultural and religious bond with predominantly Orthodox Christian Serbia. It has also been a staunch opponent of Kosova's independence. And now the Kremlin is trying to parlay this into greater political and economic influence.

A deeper Russian footprint in Serbia would have major implications, particularly for European energy policy. Serbia is a key transit corridor and Russia is trying to gain a stranglehold over its energy infrastructure. If successful, this would frustrate Western plans to diversify its energy suppliers, leaving the continent even more dependent on Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom.

The inking of a Stabilization and Association Agreement between Belgrade and the EU has been perpetually delayed over Belgrade's failure to arrest key war crimes indictees like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Tensions between Serbia and the EU are also growing over the issue of Kosova's independence, which Brussels supports. Pristina is expected to make its announcement as early as February.

"I think that the Russian strategy is to let the West disappoint Serbia. And then, where else does Serbia have to go?" says Nicholas Gvosdev, a Russia expert at the Washington-based Nixon Center and editor of the journal "National Interest." "If you have strong control over the infrastructure of Serbia, you have control over one of the major corridors of European commerce and transport."

Two days before Serbs vote for a new president, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Bulgaria to prepare an agreement to build the South Stream gas pipeline. A joint project of Gazprom and Italy's Eni, the pipeline would stretch from Russia under the Black Sea to Bulgaria. It would then fork, with one branch going west to Greece and Italy, and another going north through Serbia to Central Europe.

Serbia, which suffers from chronic gas shortages, is keen to be part of the project -- but there are strings attached. Russia is insisting that, as part of the deal, Belgrade also sell a 51 percent stake in the Serbian oil company NIS -- which controls most of Serbia's distribution networks -- to Gazprom's oil subsidiary, Gazpromneft.

The European Union was pressing Serbia to hold a competitive international tender for shares in NIS; Serbia had been planning to privatize the company in 25 percent share packages. Among those planning to participate were some of the continent's leading energy companies: Austria's OMV, Poland's PKN Orlen, Hungary's MOL, and Romania's Rompetrol.

But Russia has reportedly informed Belgrade that if it wants the South Stream pipeline to run through Serbia, then selling NIS to Gazprom is part of the package. It has also indicated that other diplomatic favors -- like its firm opposition to Kosovar independence in talks at the UN Security Council -- could dry up if the energy deal falls through.

Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based energy politics analyst with the "Power and Interest News Report," says Moscow appears to be "linking their diplomatic support on the Kosovo question to guarantees for a future enhancement of Gazprom's interests and presence in Serbia's energy market."

NIS has a market value of approximately 2 billion euros ($2.9 billion), but Gazprom has offered a bargain-basement price of only 400 million euros in cash and 500 million euros in investment over five years. Belgrade is reportedly holding out for more and the two sides are still negotiating -- but Moscow is pressing for the deal to be closed by this week.

Moscow's plans in Serbia don't stop with NIS. As part of South Stream, Gazprom is pressing another state-owned company, Serbian Gas, to form a joint venture to build the pipeline and to grant Russia a 30-year supply and transit monopoly. Gazprom, which would hold a majority stake in the joint venture, is also demanding that it take over the transmission network of Serbian Gas. Gazprom is also seeking to form another joint venture with Serbian Gas to build underground natural-gas storage facilities in the country.

For Russia-watchers, it's a standard game of Kremlin hardball. "It would be strange if Russia, which is actively defending Serbia politically, wouldn't try to convert that political support into economic advantage," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based journal "Russia in Global Affairs."

If Russia is able to gain control of these energy assets in Serbia, it would severely hamper plans, pushed by the EU and the United States, to diversify the continent's energy supply. It would, for example, effectively block the EU-backed Nabucco project, which seeks to transport gas from the Caspian region to Europe via Turkey and the Balkans -- circumventing Russia.

Russia's foray into Serbia has become an issue in the presidential campaign. The nationalist Nikolic has, not surprisingly, played the Slavic unity card and offered Moscow the warmest embrace -- even offering to station Russian military bases in Serbia.

Poorly sourced newspaper reports have even claimed that plans were already in the works to put a Russian base on the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska. Analysts, however, are highly skeptical that Russia is aiming to create a military alliance with Belgrade.

"I don't see any objective possibility how Serbia -- given where it is located, and given that it is surrounded by countries that are going to be EU and NATO members -- could become part of some Russian bloc," Lukyanov says. "It isn't realistic. Sooner or later, Serbia will be in the European orbit."

Many observers say Moscow's strategy in Serbia -- and in Europe as a whole -- is best summed up by the phrase "banks not tanks." Russia is seeking to use its energy-fueled economic muscle to insinuate its way deep into Europe, first commercially, and then politically.

"I think it is part of a larger plan or strategy to redevelop a Russian sphere [of influence], not just simply in the Balkans, but in Europe as a whole," Gvosdev says. "And part of this strategy is predicated on having nodal points in various parts of Europe that are receptive to Russian business, economic, and political influence."

Gvosdev adds that Moscow wants to "embed itself in the European economy in such a way that it will be very difficult to dislodge," which would effectively make Russia an "honorary member" of the EU. "They would be connected in that you wouldn't be able to have this nice, neat dividing line where you can say this is European and that is Russian." That, says Gvosdev, is "the long-term goal."

Russia, for example, is seeking to build underground natural-gas storage facilities in Hungary and Belgium. Gazprom has also recently secured a license to operate in the Irish energy market -- and plans to begin supplying customers there by the end of this year.

Public opinion polls show that an overwhelming majority of Serbs -- approximately 70 percent -- favor eventual integration into the EU. At the same time, even staunchly pro-EU politicians like Tadic have not dared to speak out openly against Moscow's expanding influence.

According to media reports, Tadic reportedly is opposed to the NIS deal, but has been careful about saying so publicly before the elections. "Nowadays you cannot oppose Russia and win the election, because there is a sense, or feeling, that Russia is protecting Serbia from losing Kosovo," says Teofil Pancic, a political columnist with the weekly "Vreme." Pancic adds, however, that the Russia infatuation will turn out to be an "emotional reaction" that will not last -- provided Tadic eventually wins the election.

"I don't think that most of the Serbs care about it in such a way that they would want to become a sort of Russian 'guberniya' as we say here -- a part of Russia, or a Russian satellite," Tancic says. A Nikolic victory, on the other hand, would likely mean substantially greater Russian influence in the country's affairs.

According to Gvosdev, Russia is now "laying out its price" for its long-standing diplomatic support over the Kosova issue. "You want Russian support? Well, we don't want just simple declarations of cultural friendship and Slavic unity," Gvosdev says, describing Moscow's position. "We want, essentially, to be let into what in most countries would be seen as critical infrastructure. What would be seen as a national security issue. And the question will be now: What Serbian government might want to pay that price?"

(Brian Whitmore is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

TALIBAN WARNS AGAINST APPOINTMENT OF UN'S AFGHAN 'SUPER ENVOY'
Purported Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on January 17 strongly denounced the anticipated appointment of Britain's Lord Paddy Ashdown as the UN's special envoy in Afghanistan, Afghan and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2008). He claimed that Ashdown's appointment is meant to serve the interests of the United States and its allies, not to bring peace in the country. Mujahid accused the United Nations of not being impartial and able to play its political role. "We people don't trust them at all," he said. The appointment of a high-profile figure to the position is designed to address poor coordination among multinational agencies, the military, and the Afghan government that has jeopardized international efforts in the country. However, President Hamid Karzai and some members of the United Nations have expressed concern that a broader mandate for the "super envoy" may jeopardize the soveignty of Afghanistan ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year. MM

U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY'S COMMENTS TRIGGER CONTROVERSY AMONG SOME EUROPEAN OFFICIALS
The Bakhtar news agency reported on January 16 that U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has implied that some NATO forces in Afghanistan are ill-prepared and trained for conventional warfare in the Cold War-era style, citing an interview with the "Los Angeles Times" on January 16. Gates reportedly said during the interview, "I am worried we are deploying [militry advisers] who are not properly trained and I am worried we have some military forces that do not know how to do counterinsurgency operations." Separately, on January 17 Gates attempted to ease concern among some NATO allies over his remarks and praised the "valor and sacrifice" of NATO troops in Afghanistan, saying the deployment of U.S. Marines to southern Afghanistan does not reflect on NATO's performance. Some European officials reacted negatively to Gates's comments, especially the Netherlands. Gates issued an apology to his Dutch counterpart, Eimert Middelkoop, and said that his comments were taken out of context. MM

BUSINESS CONTINUES IN KABUL DESPITE RECENT BOMBING
In spite of the Taliban's proven ability to strike a hotel in the heart of Kabul on January 14, international and Afghan observers claim that the incident "may not ultimately significantly affect international efforts in Afghanistan," AFP reported on January 17. UN spokesman Aleem Siddique said that while the attack was a shock, "if we stop going out, if we retract our engagement with the country, then they have won." "We work in some of the most difficult conflict areas of the world -- this is what we do," he added. A Western aid worker was quoted as saying on condition of anonymity, "It could all blow over, or it could mark a new trend if all the expats cannot go out anymore." Afghan analyst and writer Waheed Muzhda said the Taliban chose the target to show "they can attack a place just outside the presidential place and a place where special guests of the president stay," aiming to spread fear among Kabul residents. Another Afghan analyst, former government minister Hamidullah Tarzi, said, "It was a tactical ploy with high media coverage." MM

AFGHAN ARMY POISED TO LEAD SECURITY OPERATIONS IN EASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Brigadier General Joseph Votel, deputy commanding general for operations for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said on January 17 that the U.S. military intends "for all 2008 operations" in eastern Afghanistan to be led by Afghan troops, with international forces serving in a support role, AP and Afghan media reported. Votel praised the improved capabilities of Afghan officers and soldiers in 2007 and observed, "It is very seldom that coalition forces do something by themselves without Afghan participation -- and the level that we are now at is Afghans leading and coalition force supporting...and performing operations that support the [Afghan] commander." The Afghan Defense Ministry plans to expand the Afghan Army from its current combined forces of 50,000 to 70,000 in 2008. MM

ISRAEL TEST-FIRES MISSILE, PROMPTING DEFIANCE IN IRAN
Following Israel's test of a ballistic missile on January 17, oil prices rose and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said that Israel "would not dare" strike Iran, Reuters reported. Israel has repeatedly voiced its alarm at Iran's continuing nuclear program, with officials suggesting that it might resort to unilateral action such as missile or air strikes to destroy a program it fears could be used to produce nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad told Al-Jazeera television that Israel would "regret" any attack on Iran. Israel tested a long-range ballistic missile from the Palmachin air base south of Tel Aviv on January 17, AFP reported, two days after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel is not restricting its options "in preventing Iran from nuclear capability." Israeli Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni was in Moscow on January 17, where she conveyed her country's desire for "firmness" on Russia's part over Iran's program, AFP reported (see Part 1). VS

IRANIAN, U.S. OFFICIALS IN CHINA FOR NUCLEAR TALKS
Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili held what he described as "constructive" talks on Iran's nuclear program and bilateral ties with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing on January 17, news agencies reported. Jalili said in Beijing after the talks that Iran has been cooperating well with the International Atomic Energy Agency to clarify its program and respects the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Iran's state broadcasting reported. Jalili's talks coincided with a visit by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who arrived in Beijing on January 16 ahead of regular talks on issues that may include China's approval of another round of UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, AP reported on January 17. Negroponte was to attend the fifth session of the semiannual U.S.-China Senior Dialogue in the southern Chinese city of Guiyang on January 17 and 18, news agencies reported. Negroponte told the press in Beijing on January 17 that the United States will argue that "there be an additional Security Council resolution because Iran is out of compliance with the previously passed resolutions," AFP reported. VS

WORLD BODY SAYS BIRD FLU FOUND IN NORTHERN IRAN
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) reported on January 17 that the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus was detected among domestic poultry in Iran in December, in an apparent recurrence of bird flu in the same area, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. Iranian officials have so far said Iran has worked well to block the spread of the virus across the country, and Iran presented the OIE with a report on December 1 that did not mention the spread of the virus, AP reported. But the OIE stated on January 17 that it was informed the previous day by Iran of a recurrent outbreak of bird flu among free-range chickens in Darzi Naghib, a village in the northern Mazandaran Province. The recurrence was confirmed in December during a "passive surveillance" program that included examination of the dead poultry, the OIE website has reported. Iranian authorities are now taking "active surveillance" measures in the area, including restricting movements and controlling wildlife reservoirs. Already 475 head of poultry have been destroyed following the deaths of 14 infected birds, the OIE announced on January 17. VS

LAWYERS IN IRAN COMPLAIN ABOUT POLICE
Four lawyers in Iran have complained to the parliamentary Article 90 Committee -- which deals with public complaints against state bodies -- about reported police treatment of women in an ongoing vice campaign, Radio Farda reported on January 16, without naming the lawyers. In the spring of 2007, the police began an ongoing campaign against street crime and "thuggish" elements, but also against indecent appearance and conduct in public. This includes women with loose head scarves or clothing deemed immodest. Two of the lawyers presented the letter of complaint to the committee on January 14; the signatories have stated therein that the police have in past months interpreted the law and thus imposed restrictions on citizens and carried out "unwritten punishments." The letter stated that the police have decided to consider indecent a variety of "often ordinary clothing accepted in society," and decided on that basis to penalize citizens. They reminded the committee that only courts of law can order punishments in line with written laws, and urged the committee to respond to what they termed police interference in the legislative process. Police have recently published a list of clothing items they consider unsuitable, including high boots and winter hats instead of head scarves for women, as well as "short anoraks" instead of the plain overalls or body-length black shawls women are supposed to wear over their clothes, Radio Farda reported on January 16. VS

SUICIDE BOMBER KILLS EIGHT NEAR SHI'ITE MOSQUE IN CENTRAL IRAQ
A suicide bomber on January 17 attacked a Shi'ite mosque in the city of Ba'qubah, the provincial capital of the Diyala Governorate, killing at least eight people and wounding more than 13, state-run Al-Iraqiyah reported the same day. Local police said the bomber struck as worshippers were leaving the mosque to partake in Ashura ceremonies along the city's streets. It was the second attack in the Diyala Governorate in as many days (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2008). The Diyala Governorate is one of the most violent regions in Iraq, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are waging a campaign against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Iraqi authorities have voiced concern that Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni militants might target Shi'ite worshippers and pilgrims during this year's Ahura ceremonies. To prevent any violence, the Iraqi government instituted a three-day vehicle ban in 10 governorates beginning on January 17, as well as several other security measures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2008). SS

IRAQI SUNNI GROUP MULLS RETURN TO GOVERNMENT
In a January 17 interview with the Voices of Iraq news agency, Adnan al-Dulaymi, head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, said the group has formed a committee to negotiate a possible return to the Iraqi government. "The front formed a committee of its parliamentarians to discuss disputed issues with the government and other political blocs. The committee has been assigned to negotiate the demands that were previously announced by the front," al-Dulaymi said. "The committee was formed after the government had expressed its readiness to meet our demands." Among the front's demands are a general pardon for all Sunni detainees in U.S. and Iraqi custody who have not been charged with any crimes, a firm commitment by the government to human rights, and genuine participation by the front in the decision-making process. The front is the third-largest political bloc, with 44 seats in the 275-seat Council of Representatives. Its ministers withdrew from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government in August 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). SS

IRAQI KURDISH LEADER MEETS U.S. CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION
Kurdistan regional government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani welcomed a six-member delegation from the U.S. House of Representatives on January 17 in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, the KRG's website reported the same day. He led the delegation on a tour of major construction sites around the capital and touted them as an example of the extraordinary growth and development in the region. "The progress being achieved today in the Kurdistan region is the fruit of sustained efforts by the KRG since 1991 to ensure lasting security and stability for its people," Barzani said. He stressed that the private sector is the engine for sustainable growth in the region, and outlined initiatives to encourage more foreign direct investment. Furthermore, Barzani said the KRG is actively pursuing efforts to pass a federal oil law that would benefit all Iraqis. "We are working hard to achieve a federal, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq. As part of these efforts we continue to be a force for progress concerning the national hydrocarbon and revenue-sharing laws. The passage of these laws is imperative for the development of the new Iraq," Barzani said. SS

REPORT SAYS IRAQ'S HEALTH CARE IN DISARRAY, BLAMES U.S., BRITAIN
A report issued by the human rights group Medact on January 16 described Iraq's health-care system as being "in disarray, owing to the lack of an institutional framework, intermittent electricity, unsafe water, and frequent violations of medical neutrality." It also blamed the United States and Britain for failing to protect the country's health infrastructure during and after the invasion of Iraq. The report said that "looting and violence undermined health services. The occupying powers mostly stood back and politicians attempted to give the looting a positive spin." It also said the occupying powers had an obligation under the Geneva Convention to protect the health services, even after the establishment of the interim Iraqi government in 2004. However, the report charges that "these rules and obligations have been routinely ignored." SS

U.S. BOMBS AL-QAEDA 'BUNKERS' NEAR IRAQI CAPITAL
The U.S. military announced in a statement on January 18 that it has launched a major air strike against suspected Al-Qaeda bunkers near Baghdad. The military said B1 bombers dropped more than 4,500 kilograms of munitions on what it called "Al-Qaeda training sites for new recruits" in the town of Arab Jabur, south of the Iraqi capital. Major James Wilburn of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, said the bombing would further weaken Al-Qaeda's capabilities. "This operation maintains the momentum of Operation Thunderbolt by denying enemy sanctuaries and enemy caches, ultimately downgrading their capabilities," he said. There was no immediate word on any casualties. This was the second U.S. air strike on Arab Jabur in little over a week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2008). SS

U.S. TO TRANSFER OVER 600 HUMVEES TO IRAQI GOVERNMENT
The U.S. military announced on January 17 that it will soon transfer 627 refurbished armor-plated Humvees to the Iraqi Defense and Interior ministries. The announcement was made during a ceremony in Baghdad attended by Iraqi Interior Minister Juwad Bulani, Iraqi Deputy Chief of Staff General Nasir al-Abadi, and U.S. General George Smith, director of the Security Assistance Office. The U.S. military said it expects to refurbish and transfer 4,224 Humvees to the Iraqi government by the end of 2008 and a complete transfer of more than 8,000 vehicles by the end of 2009. "These vehicles are very important to the Iraqi National Police as well as the Iraqi Army forces," al-Bulani said. "The people of Iraq will be proud to see the police and the military using these vehicles." Smith said that the vehicles "will provide protected mobility for the many Iraqi security forces who will receive them." SS

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