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Newsline - February 10, 2006

Finance ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized countries are set to begin two days of talks in Moscow on 10 February, with energy-related issues expected to dominate their discussions, Russian and international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). Two days earlier, Spanish King Juan Carlos told visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin in Madrid that Russia's "extraordinary wealth in energy resources also carries great responsibility. Much of continental Europe's political and economic stability rests on how you manage these resources." Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz wrote in the "Financial Times" of 10 February that "political ambitions, terrorism, and even climatic conditions are now threatening the energy-security outlook for most European Union member states." Echoing the concerns of France and some other EU member countries, he argued that a treaty is needed that "contains a clearly and firmly stated guarantee clause based on the musketeer principle: all for one -- one for all." Elsewhere, Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin addressed some EU concerns over Gazprom's monopoly of Russian pipelines by saying that the authorities are "working in the direction" of developing infrastructure to enable independent producers to use pipelines. PM

Unified Energy Systems (EES) head Anatoly Chubais told the "Financial Times" of 10 February that he will soon call on President Putin to liberalize the power sector in order to bring in much-needed cash. "We are ready to start floating generation companies [on foreign stock exchanges] this year and could raise $3 billion in the next two years." Chubais stressed that the power sector has received little investment money in recent years and must be reformed if it is to avoid an energy crisis. "The system physically cannot cope with growing demand. Even if we invest today, we are not going to see the result for the next three years," he added. The London-based daily noted that Chubais's plans for reform have "faltered in recent years as the Kremlin has extended its control over strategic assets, particularly the energy sector." PM

President Putin said in Madrid on 9 February that he will invite the leaders of Hamas, which won the Palestinian Authority's recent elections, to Moscow for talks, Russian and international news agencies reported. "One must accept that Hamas came to power through democratic elections, one should respect the choice of the Palestinians," he argued. He added that "while respecting the choice of the Palestinian people, we should seek such steps and solutions that would be acceptable to the political forces that have assumed leadership of the Palestinian [Authority] as well as to the whole international community and Israel." Later, Russian Middle East envoy Aleksandr Kalugin said that Russia will try to persuade Hamas to shun its radical program and join in the peace process. In Taormina, Sicily, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on 10 February that it is necessary for governments to have contacts with Hamas if the peace process is to continue. PM

Hamas official Ismail Hania told ITAR-TASS in Gaza on 9 February that "if we've been officially invited to visit Russia, we'll accept it." The next day, Abu Marzuq, a high-ranking Hamas official, told Al-Jazeera television that Russia could replace the United States as the most important mediator in the Middle East, RIA Novosti reported. "The failure of U.S. policies in the region has left a vacuum, and this vacuum should be filled by other states. We believe that Russia can do this," he argued. PM

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on 9 February that Washington wants Moscow to clarify its plans to invite Hamas leaders for talks, international news agencies reported. He stressed that Russia is obliged to pressure Hamas to abandon violence and recognize Israel. "Hamas has some decisions to make. They must recognize the state of Israel, renounce terror, and live up to the international obligations that the Palestinian Authority has signed up to. As a member of the Quartet [with Russia, the EU, and the UN], we would expect that Russia would deliver that same message," he added. PM

Israeli Education Minister Meir Sheetrit told Israel Radio in Jerusalem on 10 February that Putin's invitation gives legitimacy to a terrorist group and must be opposed, dpa reported. Sheetrit called the invitation an "international scandal," adding that "it is something that is not done and [amounts to] stabbing Israel in the back." Several Israeli politicians from across the political spectrum also slammed Putin's move and called on the government to summon their ambassador home from Russia for consultations. Avigdor Lieberman of the ultranationalist National Union asked how Russia "would feel if the state of Israel recognized the heads of the Chechen rebels and invited them?" An unnamed "government source" told the daily "Yediot Ahronot" that "President Putin is spitting in Israel's face. It is the height of hypocrisy." PM

Russian Ambassador to the UN Andrei Denisov called on unnamed governments on 9 February to provide "strong evidence" that Iran has nuclear-weapon capability so that the Security Council can take measures to protect nuclear nonproliferation, international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). He stressed that no action should be taken against Iran until the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) submits its report, which is expected by 6 March. Meanwhile in Moscow, Vladimir Kuchinov, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency's foreign-relations section, noted that "the latest steps taken by...the government of Iran -- including announcements and hidden threats -- cause us a certain disappointment.... The problem must be resolved calmly, by achieving certain compromises." Elsewhere, Middle East envoy Kalugin told Ekho Moskvy radio that "certain forces" in the Tehran government might be using the controversy over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad "to show the world community what could happen if Iran is ostracized." PM

Defense Minister Ivanov told an informal meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Taormina on 10 February that his country and the Atlantic alliance should make their armed forces operationally compatible in order to make joint missions more effective, RIA Novosti reported. "Operational compatibility is becoming particularly relevant following the decision by the president of our country to commit a Russian military contingent of up to 200 troops, complete with armaments and military hardware, to a peacekeeping operation being carried out under the aegis of the UN in southern Sudan," he argued. PM

Mikhail Dmitriyev, who heads the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service, said in Moscow on 9 February that Russia is willing to sell MiG fighters to Venezuela, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). "Should Venezuela want MiG jet fighters, we will continue cooperating in that area," he noted. Dmitriyev added that plans for military cooperation with the oil-rich South American country have not been completed. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been seeking in recent months to purchase aircraft abroad as part of a massive expansion of his country's military that he says is necessary to deter an invasion by U.S. forces. PM

Perm Civil Chamber Chairman Igor Averkiyev said on 9 February that an unauthorized protest earlier that day against Perm Krai Governor Oleg Chirkunov by the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi was the work of uninformed outsiders, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). Averkiyev noted that "boys and girls from Kursk, Veliky Novgorod, Ivanov, and Kovrov are standing in the center of Perm and demanding the dismissal of the governor. They claim that they are 'nashi' [ours], but they know nothing about us, our city, and our attitude to the governor." Roman Yushkov, who is a local leader of the green Ecological Club Eikumena, said that the protesters' "accusations of fascism against Chirkunov are simply ridiculous." Yushkov maintained that "Chirkunov was simply being tolerant of another's opinion" by allowing neo-Nazis to speak at a recent youth forum. PM

Nikolai Gerasimenko, who heads the Russian State Duma's Health and Sports Committee, said on 9 February that between 300,000 to 500,000 people die from smoking-related diseases in Russia each year, RIA Novosti reported. He noted that about half of the population smokes, including 63 percent of adults and about 50 percent of adolescents. He called for higher cigarette taxes to help reduce smoking and for Russia to ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control within the World Health Organization (WHO), signed by 168 countries in May 2003. "On the Russian wholesale market, some Russian cigarettes cost [$0.14] a pack, cheaper than bread or milk, whereas in Germany and Norway, for example, a pack of cigarettes costs [about $13]. That is because we [Russia] have the world's lowest excise duty." PM

Following a trial that lasted almost nine months, on 9 February Russian Deputy Prosecutor Nikolai Shepel demanded the death penalty for Nur-Pasha Kulayev, whom the Russian authorities say is the only one of the Beslan hostage takers to survive the storm of the school on 3 September 2004, Interfax reported. Kulayev was charged with banditry, terrorism, hostage taking, and murder, and pleaded not guilty to the latter charge. Kulayev told the court when his trial got under way last May that he was a member of the band that seized the school, but that he was not aware beforehand of the target, and that he never opened fire at the hostages. Moscow Helsinki Group head Luyudmila Alekseyeva told Interfax on 9 February that Russia should not set a precedent by suspending the moratorium on the death penalty that it imposed at the urging of the Council of Europe. In a televised address in late August to mark the first anniversary of the Beslan siege, North Ossetian President Teymuraz Mamsurov asked President Putin to reinstate the death penalty for terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 September 2005).LF

FSB and Prosecutor-General's Office personnel apprehended Israpil Khaykhoroyev, whom they identified as the leader of a band of militants who planned to seize a school in the village of Nestorovskaya, Ingushetia, if the Beslan attack failed, on 8 February, reported. Four members of Khaykhoroyev's band were captured in Chechnya in May. LF

Russian special forces launched special operations late on 9 February in the towns of Stavropol and Georgiyevsk and the village of Tukuy-Mekteb in the Neftekumsk district of Stavropol Krai, Russian media reported. In Stavropol, two people suspected of involvement in the murder of police in Karachayevo-Cherkessia were apprehended. In Tukui-Mekteb, police stormed a house where militants were hiding on 10 February after evacuating nearby homes. Initial reports that those militants had seized civilian hostages proved untrue. Between four and eight militants were killed, reported. An FSB official is Stavropol identified the Tukui-Mekteb gunmen as belonging to the Shelkovsky djamaat. At least one member of the Russian special forces is reported to have died in the storm, two were wounded, and one is reported missing. The situation in Georgiyevsk remains unclear. LF

Issa Kostoyev, who is Ingushetia's representative to the Federation Council, has written to presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak with a request that Kozak ask President Putin to establish a state commission to determine Ingushetia's borders, reported on 8 February. In that letter, dated 12 January, Kostoyev noted that the 1992 law formalizing the separation of Chechnya and Ingushetia obliged the Russian authorities to delineate Ingushetia's borders, taking into account the requirements of the 1991 Law on the Rehabilitation of Oppressed Peoples. That law called for a return to the borders between North Caucasus republics that existed prior to the 1944 deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachais and others. In the wake of those deportations, Ingushetia's Prigorodny district was transferred to neighboring North Ossetia, which has suspended the implementation on its territory of the Law on the Rehabilitation of Oppressed Peoples in a bid to prevent the return to Prigorodny district of the region's former Ingush population. LF

Parliamentarians began a new debate on 9 February on the respective merits of candidates nominated by the government and the parliamentary opposition for the post of ombudsman, but concluded their four-session without voting on either candidate, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The parliament majority again proposed President Robert Kocharian's candidate, lawyer Armen Harutiunian, who failed on 8 February to win the 79 votes required for his endorsement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). The Artarutiun opposition faction proposed parliament deputy Hrant Khachatrian, chairman of the small Union of Constitutional Rights, who assessed his chances of being elected as "slim but realistic." LF

A study co-funded by the OSCE's Yerevan Office and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office of out-migration from Armenia in search of employment estimated the number of people who have left Armenia over the past three years in search of employment at approximately 147,000, or 4.6 percent of the total population, Noyan Tapan reported. Of that number, some 90 percent sought work in other CIS states and the remainder in the EU and the United States. Some 85 percent of those job-seekers are men aged between 21-50 with secondary or vocational education. Between 2002-2005 they sent almost $300 million in remittances to their families at home. Over the same time period, some 95,000 Armenians who had left the country earlier in search of work returned, the study found. LF

Following the decision by its leading council on 5 February to participate in the work of the new parliament elected on 6 November and field candidates in the repeat voting on 13 May in 10 constituencies where the outcome of the 6 November vote was annulled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006), the opposition Musavat party announced on 9 February its withdrawal from the Azadliq election bloc, and reported on 10 February. A statement issued by Musavat's press office attributed that move to the "campaign of slander and lies" unleashed against Musavat by the remaining members of Azadliq, the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, both of which announced in late November that they will boycott the new legislature and refrain from fielding candidates in the 13 May repeat vote (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 January 2006). On 9 February, Musavat party chairman Isa Qambar was quoted by as saying that he is prepared to continue cooperation with those two parties. Qambar also implied that Musavat will seek to reanimate and officially register the Our Azerbaijan bloc of which Musavat is the informal leader. Most of its other members, however, are not formally registered with the Justice Ministry. LF

A spokesman for Azerbaijan's Health Ministry announced on 10 February that tests conducted in London on wild birds found dead on Azerbaijan's Caspian Sea coast showed that some of them died from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza that can also kill humans, Reuters reported. No cases of bird flu among humans have yet been reported, the spokesman added. LF

Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, told journalists in Moscow on 9 February that the Georgian authorities are trying to fuel tensions in the South Ossetian conflict zone to distract the Georgian population from burgeoning social problems, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, the South Ossetian Foreign Ministry released a statement on 9 February condemning as "provocative and illegal" the detention by Georgian military police the previous day of three Russian officers who entered the conflict zone without valid visas, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). Major General Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of the Joint Peacekeeping Force deployed in the conflict zone, likewise condemned the detentions as illegal. In Tbilisi, Kote Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, told journalists on 9 February that Russia has illegally deployed additional troops to the conflict zone, thereby fuelling Georgia's arguments that the Russian peacekeepers' presence poses a threat and they should be withdrawn, Caucasus Press reported. The Georgian parliament is to debate next week whether to formally demand the peacekeepers' withdrawal. LF

The so-called Union of Russian Citizens of South Ossetia has addressed an appeal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, copying State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov and OSCE Chairman in Office Karel de Gucht, reported on 9 February. The statement praised the Russian peacekeepers' role in response to the Georgian incursion of August 2004 and termed them the sole guarantee of peace and a nonresumption of hostilities. At the same time, it expressed concern over the anticipated decision by the Georgian parliament to insist on the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal from the conflict zone which, it suggests, will be followed by a new Georgian aggression. Virtually the entire Ossetian population of the unrecognized republic has acquired Russian citizenship over the past decade. LF

Anatoly Belonog, deputy minister of health, said on 9 February that Kazakhstan needs a national action plan to prevent an avian flu epidemic, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Belonog said that recent bird flu cases in Turkey and World Health Organization forecasts underscore the need for a national plan that will involve "all appropriate ministries and departments under the direction of a coordinating council in the Emergency Situations Ministry." He also noted that Kazakhstan has arranged the purchase of 15,000 doses of Tamiflu in order to treat potential bird flu victims. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev told Kyrgyzstan's Security Council on 9 February that he supports a presidential system of government, Kabar reported. He said, "Recent events with parliament have further convinced me that we need to move in the direction of a system of government with an executive head of state." Relations between the president and the parliament have deteriorated since Bakiev sharply criticized the legislature in a 3 February address (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). DK

Bakiev stressed several times in his 9 February remarks that allegations of the criminalization of Kyrgyz society in the wake of the 24 March 2005 fall of President Askar Akaev are a "myth," Kabar reported. He said that this "myth" is "nothing more than an attempt to create a sense of instability in the country, discredit the new authorities, and discredit once and for all law enforcement organs." In a recent address to parliament, Prime Minister Feliks Kulov warned that criminal elements have penetrated the country's power structure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2006). Nevertheless, Bakiev said that the "time has come for a cardinal rejuvenation and reorganization of all elements in the system of law and order: from the police to the courts." Bakiev proposed the creation of a group headed by deputy Kubatbek Baibolov to devise a law enforcement reform program in a month's time. DK

Parliamentary speaker Omurbek Tekebaev left the Security Council meeting after Usen Sydykov, head of the presidential administration, insisted that President Bakiev would not attend the session if Tekebaev were present, reported on 9 February. Tekebaev, who reportedly made disparaging comments about Bakiev on 7 February, recently announced that he is planning to resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). Asiya Sasykbaeva, director of the Interbilim civil society support center, told on 9 February that Tekebaev said he will resign if the authorities guarantee his security for the next 1 1/2 years and do not harass his supporters. DK

Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev said on 9 February that Tekebaev's disparaging comments about President Bakiev violated the law, and he warned that the current political crisis could lead to the dissolution of parliament, reported. Kongantiev said that Tekebaev's comments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006) violated laws on libel and defamation of the head of state. Kongantiev stated that the current situation "gives grounds to speak of a crisis caused by irreconcilable differences between parliament and the other branches of government." Kongantiev said that under the constitution, the crisis could serve as justification for the dissolution of parliament, although he stressed that his comments should not be taken as a formal warning. DK

Murataly Ajy Jumanov, mufti of Kyrgyzstan, said on 9 February that those who drew and published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad are the "enemies of Muslims," Kabar reported. Nevertheless, Jumanov counseled against holding demonstrations over the issue in Kyrgyzstan because of the unstable political situation in the country. Kabar reported on 9 February, however, that a peaceful demonstration of 600 people took place in Jalal-Abad Province, with protestors decrying the publication of caricatures of the Prophet. DK

Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry has condemned the publication of the Prophet caricatures in media outlets, reported on 9 February. A ministry statement read, "Turkmenistan considers unacceptable any publications, materials, or actions that insult the national or religious sentiments of people. Such acts contradict generally accepted norms of morality and ethics and in no way correspond to the interests of peoples and the dialogue of cultures and civilizations." DK

The Turkmen opposition site Dogry Yol ( reported on 8 February that protests over pension reductions have taken place in northern Turkmenistan. The report said that the protests occurred in Krasnovodsk (Turkmenbashi) Province, Yilanly (Gurbansoltan Eje) District and in Koneurgench. It did not provide any additional information about the protests, which could not be independently confirmed. Recent reports have indicated that new legislation has significantly curtailed pensions in Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2006). DK

United opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich is not going to pull out from the ongoing presidential campaign or call for an election boycott, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 9 February, quoting Milinkevich's campaign team manager, Alyaksandr Bukhvostau. Bukhvostau was commenting on the recent proposal from the Council of Belarusian Intelligentsia that Milinkevich and another independent candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, withdraw from the presidential race. According to the council, the participation of both candidates will only create "the illusion of a democratic vote," Belapan reported on 8 February. JM

The Belarusian government has made a list of areas and facilities that foreign citizens may visit only with a special pass, Interfax reported on 9 February, quoting an unidentified source at the Belarusian Interior Ministry. "The list includes the premises of all military units, border zones, the frontier line, administrative buildings of military units, and restricted areas of the Chornobyl zone," the source said. Foreigners will also need permission to visit institutions and organizations that hold state secrets. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 9 February voted to include the Nikopol Ferroalloys Plant on a list of enterprises that cannot be privatized, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported. The measure was supported by 287 deputies. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that the 2003 sale of a 25 percent stake in Nikopol for some $80 million to Viktor Pinchuk, the son-in-law of former President Leonid Kuchma, was illegal and returned it to the state. The government intended to sell a 50 percent stake plus one share in Nikopol at an open auction later this year. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on 9 February rejected President Viktor Yushchenko's motion to allow foreign troops to practice on military training grounds in Ukraine in 2006, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Only 215 deputies voted in support of the measure, which required 226 votes to pass. Under Ukrainian law, parliament must review each year whether to allow foreign troops on Ukrainian soil. "It is advantageous for Ukraine because the matter concerns creating combat-like conditions [for our troops]," Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko commented on military exercises in Ukraine with the participation of foreign troops. "It is economically advantageous for us because the lion's share of expenses on holding such exercises is covered by other states." JM

Kosova's parliament on 10 February elected Fatmir Sejdiu as Kosova's new president, Reuters reported. The 120-seat parliament voted 80-12 in favor of Sejdiu, just enough to meet the two-thirds majority necessary. Sejdiu, who is widely considered a political moderate, was a longtime ally of Kosova's deceased President Ibrahim Rugova and a senior member of the Democratic League of Kosova. The election was originally scheduled for 13 February but parliament decided on 9 February to move the date forward. BW

Martti Ahtisaari, the UN envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, has announced that direct negotiations between Prishtina and Belgrade will begin on 20 February in Vienna, B92 reported on 9 February. The talks, originally scheduled for late January, were postponed due to the death of Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2006). The first round of talks will focus on the issue of decentralization in Kosova, Ahtisaari said. "The key is in the question of minority circumstances, of Serbs and other minorities in Kosovo. In any other event, discussing the final status is useless," he said. The Belgrade delegation met with EU official Stefan Lene on 9 February. In that meeting, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said comments by British diplomat John Sawers that the Contact Group has already decided in favor of an independent Kosova are making a final solution more difficult, B92 reported. BW

Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic on 9 February called on Kostunica and President Boris Tadic to address the public together regarding the Kosova status discussion, Beta, FoNet, and B92 reported the same day. In light of British official Sawers' comments, Nikolic said Tadic and Kostunica must go on television together and tell the public how Serbia plans to stop Kosova becoming independent. "It is not a question of whether I will take to the streets if Kosovo is granted independence, nor what some government official will do, it's about what Serbia, as a nation, plans on doing," he said. BW

Hashim Thaci, president of the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), said on 9 February that "Serbia has started to accept...reality, the necessity of Kosova independence," B92 reported the same day. Thaci added that independence is the only realistic option for the province. "We must now be united, because we can only achieve our goal, the independence of Kosova, if we work together," he said. "We are prepared to guarantee all rights to the Serbian community, as well as decentralization and freedom of movement, but the international community must guarantee independence for us." BW

Australia's High Court has delayed the extradition of former Serbian military commander Dragan Vasiljkovic, wanted in Croatia on war crimes charges, AAP reported on 10 February. Zagreb has formally requested the extradition of Vasiljkovic, who also goes by the name Daniel Snedden and was arrested in Sydney three weeks ago by Australian police (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2006). Croatia accuses Vasiljkovic of torturing and killing Croatian soldiers and civilians in Serbian-held territories during Croatia's 1991-95 war, when he commanded a Serbian paramilitary unit. An extradition hearing was set for 10 February but the case was adjourned until 3 March so Australia's High Court can consider a writ of habeas filed by Vasiljkovic. BW

Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Deputy Secretary Serhiy Pyrozhkov said on 9 February that the delay in implementing new customs regulations on the Transdniester section of the Moldovan border will continue, ITAR-TASS reported the next day. "In the 21st century, confrontational methods yield no result," Pyrozhkov said after visiting Tiraspol with his Russian counterpart Yury Zubakov. "We consider it to be very important to remove all obstacles to a normal life for people in the Dniester region," he added. In December, Kyiv and Chisinau signed an agreement stipulating that goods imported and exported from Transdniester will be required to clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2006). The regulations were scheduled to go into effect on 25 January, but Ukraine has delayed their implementation. Stefan Secareanu, a lawmaker in Moldova's parliament from the Christian Democratic People's Party (PPCD), said Kyiv's decision can be "explained by certain interests, related particularly to the upcoming parliamentary elections in Ukraine," Flux reported on 9 February. BW

As the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia prepare for a summit meeting on 10-11 February that could yield a historic breakthrough in the Karabakh peace process, the challenge of securing any peace agreement will undoubtedly depend on the military situation on the ground. And with the necessary considerations of withdrawal, demilitarization, and peacekeeping, the American military presence in the region may hold the key to any hopes for durable and lasting security.

As the region has been subject to the post-11 September 2001 global shift in the geopolitical landscape, one of the most dynamic aspects of this shift has been the direct engagement, and presence, of the U.S. military. For the first time in history, the United States is now operationally active in each of the three countries of the South Caucasus. As with a number of other distant regions and countries, geographic isolation no longer meant strategic marginalization in terms of post-11 September U.S. military policy and planning.

Although the establishment of a cease-fire agreement in May 1994 effectively "fixed and froze" the conflict sides, the U.S. military presence may actually be a dynamic force of its own in "defrosting" the frozen conflict into an intensified jockeying for position by both sides. Yet there is a backdrop of undeclared war and the unresolved conflict remains the core obstacle to long-term development and integration due to longstanding regional trade, transport, and energy blockades and embargos. Even more disruptive, however, the Nagorno-Karabakh issue still serves to define and deform the political parameters in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Thus, the U.S. military and security mission in Azerbaijan may emerge as a pivotal starting point for lasting regional stabilization.

Although Georgia is in many ways the "center of gravity" for the U.S. military in the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan offers unique considerations for America's war on terrorism. Specifically, Azerbaijan's strategic security has been redefined, far surpassing Washington's earlier overemphasis on oil and gas pipelines to reflect a much more sophisticated agenda. It may also include greater American responsibility, however, as any progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh talks will most likely bring new demands and expectations by both sides.

The military architecture of the U.S. presence in Azerbaijan is also rooted in the new, post-11 September strategy of moving away from a large "footprint," relying on formal military bases, to smaller forward operating locations, or "lily pads."

In Azerbaijan, the U.S. military favored the establishment of even smaller and less visible "cooperative security locations," tactical facilities with pre-positioned stock that provide contingency access. By establishing these locations, U.S forces can leverage greater mobility and facilitate faster and, hence, more effective counterproliferation missions along Azerbaijan's southern border with Iran and northern borders with Georgia and Daghestan.

The U.S. military also expanded bilateral relations with Azerbaijan. However, this military-to-military relationship only blossomed after the U.S. Congress altered its prohibition on most U.S. government-to-government aid to Azerbaijan until it ends "blockades and other offensive use of force against Armenia." That prohibition, enacted into law in 1992 as Section 907 of the Freedom Support Act, was modified in 2002 to allow for an annual presidential waiver to allow for a significant expansion of U.S. military and security assistance.

Currently, there are four essential pillars of U.S. military interests in Azerbaijan, comprising broad areas of security driven by the new demands of waging a global war on terror. The first two focus on the general goals of fostering regional stability and security, and forging cooperative assistance in countering terrorism. The third and fourth pillars, more specific in nature, include countering the proliferation of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons, and maintaining access to the Caucasus air corridor (essential for projecting power into Central Asia and Afghanistan).

To accomplish these goals, the U.S. military's European Command (EUCOM) has launched several different initiatives, focusing both on the region as a whole and in Azerbaijan specifically. The regional-based initiative, the South Caucasus Clearinghouse, emulates the Baltic model of establishing a new forum "to serve as a multinational forum for interested countries to share information on their security assistance programs for Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan; to de-conflict those programs; and to determine areas in which to collaborate or cooperate."

A second initiative, tailored to reflect both Azerbaijan's unique security needs and its linkage to Central Asia, consists of a four-prong effort of counterproliferation, counterterrorism, and hydrocarbon security. This effort, the so-called Caspian Guard, was launched in 2003 and involves both Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and focuses on maritime and border security in the Caspian Sea.

The Caspian Guard incorporates integrated airspace and maritime surveillance and control, command and control, and encourages greater coordination and cooperation in crisis response efforts by the Azerbaijani and Kazakh naval forces. The effort was further bolstered in July 2004 by a $20 million program to provide training and equipment for Azerbaijan's Maritime Border Guard. Specialized tactical training and combined exercises are also provided by U.S. Special Operations Forces.

This U.S. Caspian initiative has also sparked a Russian reaction, demonstrated by Russian Defense Minster Sergei Ivanov's proposal last month for the creation of a Russian-centered Caspian naval force. This Russian initiative, although mimicking the well-established U.S. effort, seeks to outflank the Caspian Guard by inviting Iran and Turkmenistan. But the real significance of this Russian proposal is its clear challenge of U.S. military ties with Baku. And this challenge may yet prove effective, as the Azerbaijani response is still unclear, suggesting an attempt to pressure the Americans, please the Russians, or even a tactical play to exploit both.

But overall, in light of the opportunities inherent in these sophisticated initiatives, not to mention the assistance from membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, how has the Azerbaijani military benefited from the U.S. military engagement?

Ironically, the Azerbaijani armed forces have seen little in return, with a limited set of meager results. Despite a massive increase in defense spending and an even mightier chorus of bellicose threats by the Azerbaijani leadership, the military as a whole remains subject to serious neglect. Increased Western and U.S. training and military education for Azerbaijani officers is stymied by a system of promotion and assignment governed more by personal ties than by professional merit. Even impressive experience in overseas peacekeeping deployments in Kosova, Afghanistan, and Iraq go unrecognized upon return to Azerbaijan. And in terms of military policy, any deepening of ties with the United States or NATO is also seen as secondary to the more strategic need to expand military relations with Russia, both to respond to Armenia's position as a key Russian ally and to reinforce Azerbaijan's arsenal of Soviet-era weapons.

There are, moreover, two entrenched obstacles to harnessing military reform in Azerbaijan. First, the Azerbaijani armed forces have faced an unseen enemy: institutionalized corruption. With a combination of the Defense Ministry itself as a long-serving center of state corruption and the Defense Minster himself as the longest serving defense minister in all of the former Soviet Union, real reform has never been allowed to take hold. This is a legacy of President Ilham Aliyev's father, the cunning former KGB General and late President Heydar Aliyev, who saw the military as the only true threat to his power.

Yet the second obstacle, which has become increasingly visible in recent months, is perhaps the most challenging, namely the politization of the military. Despite its repeated threats of renewed war to retake Nagorno-Karabakh militarily, the Azerbaijani leadership, whose lack of legitimacy in the eyes of the population constitutes a dangerous vulnerability, still fears a strong military. This vulnerability has been exacerbated by the regime's fearful observation of political change in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. In this way, the Azerbaijani perspective sees the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as a political, not a military issue, and a source of nationalist credentials deemed essential as the most effective way to ensure regime survival.

Violence between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims in Herat city on 9 February left at least five people dead and close to 30 others injured, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. The clashes occurred at a temporary camp set up in Herat by Shi'a observing mourning rituals for the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura. "Unfortunately...a group of people" alleged that the Shi'a were insulting Omar bin al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam, who is revered by Sunnis and disliked by the Shi'a, Herat Province Governor Sayyed Hosayn Anwari told RFE/RL. Anwari dismissed the accusation as untrue and a "provocation." An unidentified Defense Ministry official told AFP in Kabul on 9 February that around 500 soldiers have been sent to Herat, adding that the situation in the city is "deteriorating." According to AFP, the riots left 52 people injured. Police in Herat have declared a state of emergency, Sheberghan-based Aina TV reported on 9 February. AT

Herat Governor Anwari told RFE/RL on 9 February that the Interior Ministry and Afghan intelligence agents are investigating whether the violence may have been instigated by foreigners from neighboring countries like Pakistan or Iran. "There may be foreign involvement" behind the riots, Anwari said. "Herat Province, unfortunately, has been witness for some time to activities by illegal groups -- groups that are still keeping their weapons...[and] are supported from outside Afghanistan," Ahmed Behzad, a member of Afghanistan's National Assembly from Herat, told RFE/RL on 9 February. Sectarian violence like the riots in Herat has been uncommon in Afghanistan, unlike neighboring Pakistan. AT

Continuing protests throughout Afghanistan against the publication by a Danish newspaper and other media of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad claimed the life of one protester and left four others wounded in Wardak Province, west of Kabul, on 9 February, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Around 1,500 residents of the Sayyed Abad District demonstrated against the publication of the cartoons, and up to 24 people were injured when police fired to disperse the crowd, a provincial official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Pajhwak Afghan News on 9 February. The protests over the cartoons, which began in Afghanistan in early February, have claimed 13 lives and have prompted Afghan officials to speculate that foreign influences may be at work in the ongoing violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 7, 8, and 9 February 2006). AT

Zabul Province gubernatorial spokesman Gulab Shah Alikhil has accused 41 Pakistani nationals and one Saudi Arabian national, all employees of a Pakistani company, of inciting violence among protesters, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 9 February. Four protesters were killed and up to 13 others were injured when security forces fired on a crowd that had become violent in Qalat, capital of Zabul Province, on 8 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). Zabul authorities said on 8 February that they arrested 40 people who had turned the otherwise peaceful protests violent. Alikhil told Pajhwak that the Saudi and Pakistanis work for a Pakistani company called Contract, which produces bricks for use by the Afghan National Army. Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have deteriorated to their lowest level since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001. Kabul accuses Islamabad of harboring and aiding the insurgency in Afghanistan, while Pakistan accuses its neighbor of inciting violence in Baluchistan Province and has objected to the presence of Indian security forces along the border on the Afghan side. AT

Mahmud Ahmadinejad said at a 9 February Ashura commemoration at the shrine of Abd al-Azim Hassani, south of Tehran, that enemies of Iran face "death and annihilation," state radio reported. Rather than surrender when confronted by overwhelming forces, Imam Hussein and his army of 72 men died in a 680 A.D. battle over Islamic succession. "The entire Iranian nation, young and old, are full of Hussein's fervor today," he said. "And our enemies are not much different from Yazid [the Muslim leader who killed Imam Hussein] and his ilk. Their destiny definitely will be death and annihilation. And we can see that the signs of their annihilation have appeared." BS

President Ahmadinejad on 9 February disparaged the individuals behind the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper in September, Al-Alam television reported. He said, "Insulting prophets is an act only perpetrated by ignorant, narrow-minded, reactionary, and primitive people." Ahmadinejad appeared to praise the riots and other acts of violence perpetrated by individuals angered by the cartoons, saying, "I think the most effective response to this insult is what you are now witnessing in the behavior of the Iranian people and the other peoples of the world, as well as the return to religious education." Ahmadinejad said "this insult" also calls for a political protest, so people's beliefs are not ridiculed. BS

Protests that began on 6 February continued for a fourth day, as groups outside the embassies of Denmark, Norway, and the United Kingdom demonstrated on 9 February against the publication of cartoons of Muhammad, Fars News agency reported. Abdullah Roshan, the deputy governor-general of Tehran for political affairs, said there were no major incidents and the protests were smaller than on previous days. Iranian state television described the protestors as "zealous Iranian youth and Muslim students." BS

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai discussed during a 7 February roundtable on Iranian state television the publication of Muhammad cartoons that is currently causing protests around the world. Rezai said their publication was a test in a bigger U.S. conspiracy: "This was a test. They wanted to know before embarking on their next adventure." He continued, "The Islamic world sent a good message." Rezai said there is possible Zionist involvement in the conspiracy and he referred to a "probable plan to spark a conflict between Christians and Muslims." This conflict, he explained, would divert Muslims from taking action against Israel. Rezai added, "the Zionists are planning something." BS

Iranian officials are continuing to discourage prospective Iranian pilgrims from traveling to Iraq during the Ashura period (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). Hussein Zolanvar, the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, said on 8 February, "The illegal entry of [Iranian] pilgrims into Iraq will be met with various difficulties and serious danger," IRNA reported. He said Iraqi police already have arrested 20 Iranians who want to participate in the Ashura processions, and many Iranians have contacted the embassy in an effort to find family members. Zolanvar described future plans in which Iranian pilgrims will be allowed to visit Al-Najaf and Karbala, but will not be allowed to visit Khazimiyah and Samara due to poor security. Those who visit the banned locations will be arrested, he said, and there are more than 100 Iranians in Iraqi jails already on a variety of charges. BS

The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) released certified results from the 15 December parliamentary elections on 10 February, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. IECI Director-General Adil al-Lami announced that the United Iraqi Alliance received 128 seats and the Kurdish Alliance 53, while Sunni Arab parties won 58 seats. According to the constitution, the Council of Representatives must now convene within 15 days. The Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance will have 15 days from the date of the first parliamentary session to nominate and approve a prime minister, who will then have 30 days to form a cabinet. KR

Relatives of a Sunni Arab imam said he was kidnapped from his Baghdad home on 10 February by a dozen Iraqi men wearing police uniforms, international media reported. Adil Khalil Dawud, imam of the Al-Nu'aimi Mosque, was taken from his home in Al-Karradah shortly after midnight, Lieutenant Muhammad Khayun told AP. Eyewitnesses said 12 men wearing Interior Ministry special-forces uniforms knocked on the imam's door, asked for proof of identity, and then drove him away in one of three vehicles. Interior Ministry officials had no immediate comment on whether police officials actually detained Dawud, AP reported. Sunni Arab leaders have claimed in recent months that dozens from their community have been taken into custody by men wearing Interior Ministry uniforms only to turn up dead on roadsides later. Gunmen assassinated Sheikh Kamal Shakir Nizal, imam of the Hajj Shakir Mosque in Al-Fallujah, on 7 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2006). KR

Kuwait-based Al-Ra'y television aired videotape footage of American journalist Jill Carroll on 9 February in which Carroll confirmed she was being held by Muslim mujahedin. Carroll said the video was being taped on 2 February, adding: "I have sent a letter which I wrote by my hand that you wanted more evidence so we're sending you this new letter now just to prove that I am with the Muslim mujahedin. I am here. I am fine. Please just do whatever they want. Give them what they want as quickly as possible. There is very short time [left]; please do it fast. That's all." Al-Ra'y confirmed that it possessed the letter mentioned by Carroll, but will pass it on to the "concerned authorities" without broadcasting it. Carroll was last seen on a videotape that aired on 30 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006). Her captors have demanded that all female detainees held in Iraq be released in exchange for her freedom. The United States released five female detainees on 26 January, while at least three others remain in custody (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2006). KR

Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani told Al-Arabiyah television in an interview that aired on 9 February that the incoming Iraqi government must meet its constitutional obligations regarding Kirkuk. Barzani said outgoing Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari failed to implement Article 58 of the constitution. "There is an agreement that this issue should be resolved by the end of 2007," he said. "We do not interfere with the [United Iraqi Alliance's] decision on the person who will assume the post of prime minister [in the incoming government]. However, our condition for the next government is to implement what we agreed upon in the constitution." Asked what he wants with regard to Kirkuk, Barzani said: "We want Article 58 to be implemented.... We want normalization, a census, and a referendum" on whether Kirkuk should join the Kurdistan region or remain outside it. KR

Kurdistan National Assembly deputy speaker Kamal Kirkuki told Kurdistan Satellite Television on 8 February that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has yet to nominate someone as deputy prime minister of the regional government, and the delay is affecting the unification process. "The KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party] has designated a prime minister and we are still waiting for his deputy to be nominated by the PUK. If we have the name of the candidate, we will call an extraordinary session, even in the absence of the candidate, then the Kurdistan president [Mas'ud Barzani] will ask them to form a cabinet. This delay damages the Kurdistan parliament and paralyzes its work," he said. KR