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Newsline - July 31, 2006

Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said in Moscow on July 31 that Israel bears "full responsibility" for the spread of violence in the Middle East, RIA Novosti reported. Referring to the July 30 Israeli attack on Qana in southern Lebanon, Kosachyov argued that "the tragedy is unprecedented in its scale even for the Middle East, where violence is a common phenomenon." He stressed that the incident illustrates once again that military solutions are counterproductive in the fight against terrorism. "Such indiscriminate use of force not only leads to mass deaths among the civilian population but also strengthens the ranks of the terrorists." Russia does not recognize Hizballah as a terrorist organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 21, 26, 27, and 28, 2006). Meanwhile, the Russian media have contained much speculation recently as to what is "really" going on in the Middle East. The discussion includes a wide variety of conspiracy theories as well as more plausible political analysis. Some writers believe that a vast Islamic conspiracy is unfolding, which Russia ignores at its peril. Others argue that the U.S. government is pushing for some sort of new foreign policy success in the run-up to the 2006 congressional elections, while yet others believe that a war between Washington and Tehran is in the making, as noted. Some writers join Kosachyov in identifying Israel as the source of the crisis. PM

Middle East expert and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov was quoted by "Izvestia" on July 31 as saying that the conflict in the Middle East might expand to include Syria and Iran, Interfax reported. "This situation is fraught with [the possibility for] direct clashes," and if Syria comes under attack, Iran will not stay aside, he added. He criticized Washington for not calling for an immediate cease-fire, and suggested that the U.S. administration might want to see Syria and Iran dragged into the conflict. Primakov believes that this would include "an Israeli strike on Iran.... I do not think [the Americans] believe that the destruction of Lebanon will put an end to Hizballah." He said that "there is a way out if the mediating quartet of Russia, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations designs a reasonable plan for a peace compromise, which must naturally take into account the interests of Israel and the Arab countries." He added that the plan "should be imposed on the conflicting sides." PM

President Vladimir Putin signed legislation on July 28 aimed at combating extremism, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8 and 26, and July 13, 2006). Supporters say that the new law is necessary to combat the racism and xenophobia that have contributed to a rise in hate crimes in recent years. Critics charge that it is aimed at stifling the opposition and is part of a Kremlin campaign to that effect in the run-up to the 2007 elections for the State Duma and the presidential vote in 2008. Ekho Moskvy radio noted on July 28 that among the provisions of the new legislation are prohibitions on slandering high officials, which could be used to silence criticism of ministers or legislators, or to discourage bringing corruption charges against them. The radio quoted legal expert Mikhail Fedotov as saying that the law serves no role in dealing with real extremism but instead is geared to fighting the opponents of the current authorities. Other media outlets note that the law contains some vague provisions that would enable the authorities to ban people from political activity on the basis of dubious, Soviet-style charges. On April 4, the Moscow-based daily "Novye izvestia" commented that an official campaign against "fascism" and hate crimes is under way in order to channel political protests so that they do not focus on the authorities and to portray the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in a favorable light. PM

Maksim Medvedkov, who heads the Russian delegation to admission talks with the World Trade Organization (WTO), said in Tyumen on July 31 that "Russia's admission to the WTO will not occur this year," Interfax reported. He added: "nor will it take place next year, by all accounts. So, we have time to prepare ourselves for membership....and weigh all the pluses and minuses we'll get." Russia must still complete WTO entry talks with the United States, Costa Rica, Georgia, and Moldova, the news agency noted. Medvedkov said recently that all of the bilateral negotiations could be finished by the fall of 2006. The Russian media have been speculating for months as to when WTO membership might be finalized. Some officials expressed hope for an imminent deal in the run-up to the July summit of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries in St. Petersburg. President Putin has stressed, however, that Russia will not accept terms that are not to its advantage, and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has openly questioned the wisdom of joining at all (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006, and "Russia: WTO Becomes Long-Term Issue For Relations With U.S.,", July 24, 2006). PM

German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, said on July 31 that he has drafted a decree on the "consolidation of regional airlines," RIA Novosti reported. "A decision on consolidation has been adopted and approved by the president. A corresponding draft of the decree has already been prepared," he added. The holding will be established on the basis of the AirUnion alliance, which was created in 2005, and includes Siberia's KrasAir, Omskavia, and Sibaviatrans; Moscow's Domodedovo Airlines; and Samara, which is based in the Volga area. He added that private shareholders will hold more than a 50 percent stake in the new holding. The government currently holds 51 percent of KrasAir, 50 percent of Domodedovo, and 46.5 percent of Samara, while Omskavia and Sibaviatrans are private companies, the news agency added. The moves are in keeping with the trend under President Putin for key branches of the economy to be concentrated in large state-run corporations, which Andrei Illarionov, who is a former Putin economics adviser, and the "Financial Times" have described as a "corporate state." Aeroflot has already moved to take over some regional carriers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, March 7, June 19, and July 10, 2006). PM

The last remaining four of the 12 Ingush men who began a hunger strike on July 5 have ended their fast, reported on July 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 17, 18, 25, and 26, 2006). The men had been demanding the right to return to the homes in North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion from which they fled during fighting in October-November 1992. On July 29, North Ossetian officials issued the four with internal passports containing an official stamp (propiska) giving those addresses in the village of Chernorechenskoye as their place of residence. The authorities have not, however, yet made arrangements to enable the displaced persons to take up residence in their abandoned homes. Nor is it clear whether the eight men who abandoned the hunger strike earlier have also received a "propiska" for their former family homes. On July 28, some 20 Ingushetian NGOs addressed an appeal on behalf of the hunger strikers to President Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, the speakers of both chambers of the Russian parliament, presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak, and North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov, reported. LF

Artyom Movsisian, who heads the Armenian Civil Aviation Department, told journalists on July 28 that the Armenian government accepts the conclusions of a Russian investigation that an unidentified "human factor" caused the May 3 crash of an Armenian passenger aircraft into the Black Sea while trying to land at Sochi airport, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Movsisian added, however, that it remains unclear "whether the pilot had health problems, an air-traffic controller made him nervous, or he lost orientation" in the 17-20 seconds before the crash. Officials from Armenia's Armavia Airlines rejected the Russian investigation conclusions on July 26 and pointed to other possible causes, including reports of conflicting instructions conveyed to the A-320 crew by Russian traffic controllers and bad weather conditions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28, 2006). LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who is the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, met on July 29 in Yerevan with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian to discuss the Karabakh peace process, Interfax and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Bryza subsequently told RFE/RL that he was encouraged by Kocharian's "constructive, candid attitude." Bryza added that Kocharian assured him that the most recent draft outline for resolving the Karabakh conflict is acceptable to Yerevan. But Bryza said it is "never clear" whether the two sides will demonstrate enough political will to eliminate the remaining points of disagreement between them. Bryza professed nonetheless to be optimistic that even if it does not prove possible to reach a solution to the conflict in 2006, it may be possible to do so in 2007 or 2008 despite the elections due in both countries. He termed those elections "a complicating factor" but not "an obstacle." LF

Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili said on July 29 that following the successful completion of the operation to bring the Kodori Gorge under Tbilisi's control, the withdrawal of Georgian Interior Ministry forces was under way, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 27, and 28, 2006). But Major General Sergei Chaban, commander of the Russia peacekeepers deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone, claimed on July 29 that more than 90 percent of the Georgian troops sent to the gorge remain there, and Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Garri Kupalba told on July 31 that Tbilisi is rotating troops to bring to the gorge specialized engineering units and antiaircraft units. Ruslan Kishmaria, presidential administrator in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, accused Tbilisi on July 31 of preparing to launch an offensive against Abkhazia from the upper reaches of the Kodori gorge, reported. Georgian police established eight patrol posts on July 31 along the border in the Kodori Gorge between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia, reported. LF

Georgian Interior Minister Merabishvili told President Mikheil Saakashvili on July 29 that former Kodori Governor Emzar Kvitsiani, who evaded capture during the Georgian police operation to detain him, is currently somewhere in Russia, Rustavi-2 television reported. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili said that footage of Kvitsiani broadcast on Russian television suggests that he is either in Sukhum or somewhere in Russia. LF

The opposition Forum of National Unity of Abkhazia released a statement on July 29 affirming its support for the measures undertaken by President Sergei Bagapsh to protect Abkhazia's sovereignty and security in the face of the Georgian incursion into Kodori, reported. The Abkhaz leadership condemned on July 28 both the Georgian incursion and President Saakashvili's stated intention to transfer the Abkhaz government in exile -- which consists exclusively of Georgians -- from Tbilisi to Kodori. Bagapsh warned that Abkhazia would break off peace talks with Tbilisi in response to that stated move. On July 29, the Abkhaz parliament adopted an appeal to the UN, the OSCE, and Russia to pressure Georgia to comply with international pledges it has made regarding a peaceful solution to the Abkhaz conflict, reported. LF

Former security chief Irakli Batiashvili, who is one of the leaders of the opposition movement Forward, Georgia! was summoned on July 29 to the Prosecutor-General's Office, charged with conniving with Kvitsiani at "illegal actions" aimed at overthrowing the Georgian leadership, and remanded for two months in pretrial custody, Georgian media reported. Deputy Prosecutor-General Kakha Koberidze told journalists on July 29 that Batiashvili "gave recommendations and instructions to Kvitsiani" on plotting a coup. Former Kutaisi Governor Temur Shashiashvili, also a leading member of Forward, Georgia! said on July 31 that Batiashvili is the victim of political persecution, and demanded that his eventual trial be televised live, Caucasus Press reported. In Sukhum, Kristian Bzhania, who is a spokesman for Abkhaz President Bagapsh, dismissed Batiashvili's arrest as "another tragic farce" staged by the Georgian government, reported on July 30. LF

Eduard Kokoity met in Moscow on July 28 with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov to discuss the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone and the prospects for a peaceful solution of that conflict, according to a statement posted the same day on the Russian Foreign Ministry's website ( Also on July 28, Kokoity told Interfax that in the event that Abkhazia suspends talks with Georgia in retaliation for the Georgian incursion three days earlier into the Kodori Gorge, South Ossetia will follow suit. Meanwhile, Belgian Ambassador to the OSCE Bertrand de Crombrugghe appealed on July 28 to both the Georgian and South Ossetian leaderships to resume a "constructive dialogue" with the aim of resolving the conflict peacefully, Caucasus Press reported. De Crombrugghe was visiting Tbilisi at the head of a delegation of OSCE ambassadors. LF

Wreckage from the Dnepr rocket that crashed after liftoff from Baikonur on July 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2006) has been located approximately 150 kilometers from the launch site, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on July 28. Under a government commission set up by Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov on July 27, Kazakh and Russian experts examined the debris and took soil samples, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Preliminary results showed contamination above acceptable levels in a 1-kilometer radius of the crash site, which is located in an uninhabited section of Kyzylorda Province, Russia's Ekho Moskvy radio station reported on July 29. The report said that the nearest populated areas are "dozens" of kilometers away. DK

Kubanychbek Isabekov, deputy speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, told a news conference on July 29 that he and other deputies will lobby for the retention of official status for the Russian language despite a planned constitutional reform, reported. Three proposed drafts recently submitted by a constitutional reform task force would change the status of Russian from an official language to a language of interethnic communication (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2006). Also present at the news conference was Vladimir Zhirinovsky, deputy speaker of Russia's State Duma and head of the Liberal-Democratic Party, who stressed that Russian remains the CIS lingua franca, adding, "Georgians are not going to study Lithuanian, and Ukrainians are not going to study Tajik." DK

Fourteen Uzbek citizens in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh have recently applied for refugee status, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on July 28, citing the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The Uzbeks fled to Kyrgyzstan after unrest in Andijon, Uzbekistan, in May 2005. Mulusew Mamo, head of the UNHCR office in Osh, said that the number of applicants for refugee status is rising, a phenomenon local civil society activists attributed to heightened security checks and recent arrests of Uzbeks in Osh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20 and 21, 2006). DK

Tajikistan and the World Bank signed three agreements on July 27 for the bank to provide $20 million to fund three grant projects, Avesta and RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported the next day. One $10 million project will support poverty-reduction reforms, a $5 million project will focus on state-sector reform, and a $5 million project will seek to prevent avian-flu outbreaks. DK

Safarali Sayfulloev, first deputy chairman of Tajikistan's State Border Protection Committee, told a news conference in Dushanbe on July 28 that Afghanistan will set up a force of 300 border guards to work together with Tajik guards in the Shuroobod region, Asia Plus-Blitz and RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Dovud told journalists that the Shuroobod section of the border is the most difficult to guard. DK

At a cabinet meeting on July 27, President Imomali Rakhmonov charged Tajikistan's Committee on Television and Radio Broadcasting and its Communications Ministry with organizing satellite broadcasts of Tajik television to Afghanistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2006). The broadcasts are reportedly being organized at the request of the Afghan government. DK

The World Bank announced in a July 28 press release that it will pursue an interim strategy of "continued engagement" with Uzbekistan over the next 12-15 months. The strategy "reflects the need to strengthen the poverty orientation of public policy, deepen structural reforms, and ensure broader civil society participation." It will involve "technical and advisory engage the authorities on the need for greater openness and accountability and faster market-oriented reforms," as well as "limited new lending for global public goods and basic social services." The World Bank suspended new loans to Uzbekistan in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2006). DK

An opposition activist in Vitsyebsk was fined on July 29 for participating in an unauthorized demonstration to mark Belarus's former Independence Day on July 27, Belapan reported. Alena Zaleskaya, leader of local United Civic Party branch, was ordered to pay a fine of 620,000 rubles ($290). Two others charged along with Zaleskaya were found guilty of violating Article 167 of the Administrative Offenses Code, but were given warnings. All three were detained by police after distributing flyers and newspapers promoting the former holiday during the rally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28, 2006). RK

Yevhen Kushnaryov, a leader of the Party of Regions, told Ukrainian ICTV on July 30 that any attempt by President Viktor Yushchenko to disband the Verkhovna Rada would "receive an adequate response from parliament and will not bring peace to our country," UNIAN press agency reported. Kushnaryov also said that talks with the pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc have been characterized by pressure and blackmail. Kushnaryov claimed that, by threatening to disband parliament, Yushchenko and his supporters are attempting to force the Party of Regions to endorse the president's platform instead of seeking a compromise solution that could lead to cooperation. RK

The presidium of the Party of Regions issued a statement on July 31 in which it reminds President Yushchenko that by law he has only three days left to decide whether to endorse its candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, for the post of prime minister, Interfax Ukraine reported on July 31. The presidium said the party had entered into talks with the pro-presidential Our Ukraine to "stabilize the political situation" in the country, but instead found that "a political force that managed to get less than 14 percent of the vote during the trying to force others to adopt their ideology and to rule over the majority." RK

The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia's (ICTY) chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said Serbia is demonstrating a true willingness to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, Reuters reported on July 29, citing the Serbian newspaper "Vecernje novosti." "I personally think that Serbian authorities were not searching for Mladic to arrest him but to have him surrender," she told the Belgrade daily. "They were trying to disable his helpers and send him the message he should surrender." But del Ponte said Belgrade's attitude has changed since the European Union froze talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). The change was most evident, she said, when Serbia presented an action plan to capture Mladic earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 2006). "Since the action plan was adopted, I think the political will to arrest Mladic exists for the first time," Del Ponte said. "I would like to see the operational plan and be involved." BW

Speaking on July 30, Del Ponte's spokesman Anton Nikiforov said she has appealed a two-year sentence imposed on Bosnian Muslim military commander Naser Oric, arguing that it was too short, Reuters reported the same day. In June, the ICTY found Oric guilty of failing to prevent the murder of Serbs near the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica early in the 1992-95 conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2006). Since he had already spent three years in custody, he was released for time served. Nikiforov said Del Ponte was disappointed with the verdict, and had sought an18-year sentence for Oric. "She signed a notice of appeal with the court's appeal chamber on [July 28].... We don't agree with the sentence," he said. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica at the time denounced the sentence as proof that the ICTY is biased against Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2006). BW

Four Bosnian Serbs pleaded not guilty on July 28 to killing, beating, and raping Muslims and Croats during Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1992-95 war, Reuters reported the same day. The four -- Zeljko Mejakic, Momcilo Gruban, Dusan Knezevic and Dragan Fustar -- are being tried by Bosnia's War Crimes Chamber for atrocities committed at the Omarska and Keraterm camps in western Bosnia. The four are charged with detaining approximately 7,000 non-Serbs, many of whom were tortured and killed, in the area around the town of Prijedor. The four were transferred from ICTY custody to stand trial in Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2006). BW

Approximately 3,000 retired and active Montenegrin military personnel have filed lawsuits against the former army of Serbia and Montenegro for allegedly underpaying them, B92 reported on July 28. The plaintiffs claim that the army, which was split up following Montenegrin independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2006), owes each of them 15,000 euros (about $18,750). "We received our retirement papers with a note that the payments would take place later, when funds are available, but that never happened," Dragan Todorovi, the chairman of the Montenegrin association of retired military personnel, said. Serbian Defense Minister Zoran Stankovic said Montenegro's military pension fund owes its Serbian counterpart approximately 20 million euros. Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic said it "is very interesting that this citizens' initiative with the lawsuits surfaces now that we have raised the question of Montenegro paying that money to Serbia." He added that the matter should be resolved in international courts. BW

To circumvent an import ban, Moldova has been supplying tobacco to the Russian market through third countries, RBC reported on July 28, citing an unidentified source in the Moldova-Tutun tobacco company. The source did not name the countries, but said Moldova plans to supply 3,000 tons of tobacco to Russia in 2006. Meanwhile, Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said on July 27 that Chisinau has lost $21 million due to a Russian ban on wine imports, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Tarlev added that Moldova is working to diversify its wine exports to make them less dependent on Russia. Russia banned the import of Moldovan and Georgian wines in late March, citing health and safety concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). In May 2005, Moscow imposed a ban on Moldovan agricultural products (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2005). BW

After weathering a prolonged period of confrontation with Russia, Georgia launched an assertive, but prudently limited, three-day military campaign on July 25 with the twin aims of restoring both central authority over at least part of the Kodori Gorge and a degree of hope and pride in Georgia.

The campaign entailed a 1,000-strong Georgian force comprising troops from the Interior and Defense ministries moving to retake direct control of the remote Kodori Gorge, thereby reasserting central Georgian authority over the one part of Abkhazia still under Georgian control. The move into the gorge, which is divided between the Georgian-administered upper area and the Abkhaz-controlled lower part, was also a bold display of military might in the face of some 1,600 Russian peacekeepers deployed in close proximity.

Ironically, the only resistance to the deployment of the Georgian forces came from neither the Abkhaz nor the Russians troops, but from a small paramilitary band led by Emzar Kvitsiani, the area's former Georgian governor. Kvitsiani, chosen to administer the upper Kodori Gorge by former President Eduard Shevardnadze in 1999, refused an April 2005 order by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili to disband and disarm his Monadire (Hunter) militia. Perhaps sensing the futility of the mismatch of forces, Kvitsiani chose flight over fight and eluded either capture or defeat. Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili -- who personally oversaw the Kodori operation -- said on July 28 that Kvitsiani is believed to be either in Sukhum or somewhere in Russia.

By July 27, a triumphant President Mikheil Saakashvili declared the "successful completion" of the "police operation" in a nationally televised address that heralded the relocation of the Abkhaz government-in-exile from Tbilisi to the Kodori Gorge. Saakashvili was also quick to announce plans to reconstruct the local airport and restore the road linking the gorge to the regional administrative center in Upper Svaneti. More significant than simple aid, such targeted assistance is aimed at extending the strategic links between the Kodori Gorge and Georgia proper.

The seeming success of the Kodori operation meets two specific Georgian goals. The first is the need to both reverse the devolution of power from the central authorities and step up the demonstration of power in the face of challenges to Tbilisi. In this respect, the move to retake the upper Kodori Gorge and restrain autonomous paramilitary groups is further designed to send a strong message to both breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The second goal is much broader, and stems from a need to demonstrate a greater resolve and commitment to strengthening Georgian statehood and sovereignty. Within this context, the Kodori operation also relates to Georgia's confrontation with Russia and its aspirations for closer ties to the West.

Since Saaakashvili's election as president in January 2004, Georgia has intensified its efforts for integration with Western security institutions, with a strategic drive for NATO membership and for a deeper engagement with the European Union. This Westward strategic orientation was further bolstered by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

But from this strategic perspective, Georgia appears to have misread the Western response to its overtures. Despite the outward appearance of success, the recent Kodori Gorge operation actually reveals the shortcomings of the Georgian bid for NATO membership. And perhaps most interestingly, it also reveals a mutual misreading of motives by both Georgia and the NATO alliance.

There are two core issues comprising this dilemma. First, Georgian satisfaction with the effectiveness of its limited campaign in the Kodori does little to allay growing concerns within the NATO alliance over Georgian motives and motivations. Specifically, the Kodori operation only underscores the danger of a shift by Tbilisi away from a political to a military approach to the unresolved Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. For Georgia, the Kodori operation affirms its readiness for an intensified dialogue with NATO, representing a graduation in relations and a step closer toward outright membership.

For NATO, however, the process of developing and increasing the professionalism of the Georgian armed forces was never aimed at endowing it with an offensive capability to tempt it to strike against the breakaway republics. In fact, even before the Kodori operation, there was concern over Georgian military spending, which spiked by some 135 percent in 2005, the largest percentage increase anywhere in the world. But the move into Kodori resembled a preliminary but pronounced move toward more ambitious, and more aggressive, incursions directed against the Abkhaz, and/or Ossetians.

The second element of the dilemma of Georgia's courtship of NATO concerns not Georgia, but the future of the NATO alliance itself. NATO has already surpassed, and survived, a significant structure redefinition, based on both a newly defined concept of security and a newly delineated area of responsibility. But Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has warned repeatedly in recent months that enlargement is "on hold," and that no further formal invitations to join the alliance will be forthcoming at the NATO summit in Latvia in November.

And with regard to Georgia in particular, de Hoop Scheffer said on July 26 after talks in Brussels with Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli that it remains unclear when Georgia will be ready to embark on an Intensified Dialogue -- the next stage after the Individual Partnership Action Plan, and the prelude to a Membership Action Plan.

Moreover, Georgian membership in NATO, given the country's division and unresolved conflicts, may actually weaken the alliance by incorporating insecurity rather than projecting security. Georgian ascension would also undoubtedly impact NATO's already tenuous relationship with Russia, heightening tension to an even greater degree than the two earlier rounds of NATO enlargement.

As the dilemma over Georgia's courtship of NATO is now centered on the level of engagement, the future course of Georgian-NATO relations will hinge on the lessons Tbilisi draws from last week's operation in Kodori, specifically, whether it decides to go one step further and restore its control over either the whole of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, or to abandon further military action and seek a negotiated setlement to the two conflicts.

The U.S. military on July 30 denied accusations that it killed family members of a member of parliament earlier in the month, AFP reported. Lawmaker Abdul Khaliq previously told reporters that U.S.-led troops mistakenly fired on a car carrying members of his family as it moved through southern Oruzgan Province. Khaliq said his brother-in-law died in the incident, which he said also injured his wife, a daughter, a son, and a nephew. A U.S. military statement said an "investigation found no evidence of coalition involvement in the reported attack on a parliament member's family July 5." The statement added, "The investigation determined that on that day, no coalition forces were operating in the area described by Khaliq." Khaliq dismissed the denial, saying that "foreign troops" were responsible for the incident. "No way," Khaliq said, talking to AFP about the U.S. statement. "It was foreign troops who fired on my family members -- whether Americans or others -- but I'm 100 percent sure it was coalition troops." MR

The U.S. military said on July 30 that coalition forces in Afghanistan killed 20 neo-Taliban insurgents and repelled an insurgent ambush in southern Afghanistan in a fight that began late on July 29, AFP reported. A U.S. military statement said U.S.-led coalition forces clashed with insurgents after a group of neo-Taliban fighters tried to attack them in the Shahidi Asas district of Oruzgan Province. "Afghan National Army and coalition forces killed 20 Taliban extremists...after they attempted an ambush from a compound," the U.S. statement said. Coalition forces struck back with artillery fire and called in air strikes. The clash came as NATO forces prepared to take over command of the volatile southern region of Afghanistan, which was the scene of intense fighting in recent weeks. MR

Afghan officials said on July 30 that they are holding six people suspected of involvement in two suicide attacks in the Kandahar area that killed two Canadian soldiers, AFP reported. Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the government of Kandahar Province, said the six suspected militants were arrested for allegedly aiding the attacks on July 23. Ahmadi said the suspects were arrested at a house in Kandahar and are still being interrogated. "We'd intelligence that they are facilitators of those suicide attackers," Ahmadi said. MR

Afghan officials said on July 30 that Afghan security forces killed six suspected neo-Taliban militants and captured eight others in fighting in eastern Afghanistan, AP reported. The clash occurred in the Waza Khwa district on July 30, according to Said Jamal, a spokesman for the governor of Paktika Province. MR

During a visit to Afghanistan on July 30, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie urged neighboring Pakistan to step up efforts against "Taliban fighters" who move back and forth across the Pakistani-Afghan border, AP reported. "We need real cooperation from Pakistan, but it seems very difficult for them. The border is a very difficult region and we ask Pakistan to make some more effort to control it," Alliot-Marie told reporters in Kabul. "We think a lot of Taliban fighters are coming from Pakistan to Afghanistan." France has special forces operating in southeastern Afghanistan, where NATO will formally take charge this week. Alliot-Marie was in Kabul for a two-day visit to hold talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak. MR

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on July 30 that Tehran will reject a package of international incentives designed to curb Iran's nuclear program if the UN Security Council approves a draft resolution obliging Iran to stop uranium enrichment by August 31 or face possible sanctions, agencies reported. Some Western governments have expressed fear that Iran's pursuit of the atomic fuel cycle will help it develop bombs. The Security Council could vote on the draft as early as July 31. "If a resolution is issued" against Iran, Western proposals "will no longer be relevant," ISNA quoted Asefi as saying. He said the package of incentives is part of a negotiating process, but that EU states have "changed their method" and are moving away from talks by turning to the Security Council. He said Iran thinks "those who wish to issue a resolution" targeting Tehran are trying "to make the region's conditions" more critical, adding that this "is very clear, and needs no explanation." He did not specify what Iran would do in response to a resolution, but "my message to Western parties is very clear," ISNA reported. VS

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived in Iran on July 29 for a visit that included meetings with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The leaders used their meetings to affirm mutual support and to denounce Israel. On July 29, Khamenei told Chavez that the Americans are using Israel to wage a war intended to create an "American Middle East," but "they had overlooked the Lebanese people in their calculations," ISNA reported the same day. He said Hizballah resistance has obstructed plans to "create a Middle East made of puppet regimes, with [Israel] as the main axis." On July 30, Ahmadinejad presented Chavez with a medal for his "outstanding efforts against imperialism" at a ceremony in Tehran University, the setting for more condemnations of Israel, ISNA and Fars News Agency reported the same day. Ahmadinejad said Israel was created "as a permanent aggression and threat" to regional states and a means to "loot" their wealth through fear, leading to arms purchases from Western firms. Chavez denounced Israel's "fascist actions" in Lebanon and Gaza. The United States, Chavez said, is stuck in a "quagmire" in Iraq, Palestine, and Afghanistan, and "we can together defeat America's imperialism and save the world. America is defeated," ISNA reported. VS

Iran and Venezuela signed 11 agreements at the end of President Chavez's visit to Tehran in sectors that include oil, petrochemicals, and housing, IRNA reported on July 30. The two states agreed to form a joint housing-construction firm, cooperate to provide petrochemicals and oil-related training and education, and launch joint ventures to make bicycles and pharmaceuticals. The directors of state-affiliated Petropars and Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) signed a memorandum of understanding on oil exploration and extraction, while Oil Ministers Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh and Rafael Ramirez Carreno signed an agreement on cooperation between their ministries. Other documents signed were in aviation, the environment, and manufacturing, IRNA reported. The presidents and oil ministers of Iran and Venezuela, and Iran's health and industry ministers were among senior officials attending the ceremony. Chavez left Tehran for Hanoi late on July 30, IRNA reported. VS

Iranian officials on July 30 condemned an Israeli air strike on Qana in Lebanon that killed more than 50 civilians, many of them children, Iranian news agencies reported. Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said the "insane and savage murder" of women and children shows "the impotence" of Israel in the face of the resistance it has faced in Lebanon, ISNA reported. Elham said Western states backing Israel, especially Great Britain and the United States, share responsibility and must answer to international opinion for the killings. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran the same day that Israel has shown its inhuman and "terrorist" face by targeting women and children. He urged the United Nations to put an end to "the criminal and incendiary attacks of the Zionists in Lebanon and Palestine" and take them to court for "crimes against humanity," ISNA reported. Iranian parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel condemned the raid in telephone conversations with his Saudi and Kuwaiti counterparts on July 30, ISNA reported. He said, "the world's Muslims" expect Islamic parliaments to react appropriately to Israel's "crimes." VS

Hizballah's envoy in Iran, Abdullah Safieddin, said in Tehran on July 30 that Hizballah is independent and will retain its weapons to assure Lebanon's security, ISNA reported the same day. "Hizballah's weapons must stay in Hizballah's hands," Safieddin told a seminar, "because so far there has been nobody to assure our security against Israel." He stressed that Hizballah is "free" and not subject to "anyone's dictates." He added that U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice only visited Lebanon 10 days after Israel's recent offensive, when seemingly "Israel had attained no objective, and Hizballah was not being disarmed." Safieddin said Hizballah considers Lebanon's interests "first and foremost," and Lebanon's government "does not accept" its disarmament. Separately, in comments published by "El Pais" on July 30, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said Lebanon is the "battlefield" as Iran and Syria pursue their interests "from afar," either to "eradicate Israel, as that madman Ahmadinejad says," or to restore Syrian influence. Jumblatt said the Hizballah cannot participate in the Lebanese state with a "military organization linked to the Iranian regime," and Lebanon's future depends on whether Hizballah accepts a sovereign state or "link[s] it indefinitely to Iran and Syria. That is the key," reported. VS

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani condemned the July 30 Israeli bombing of the Lebanese village of Qana in a statement posted to his website the same day. Calling the attack a massacre, the statement says: "Words cannot describe this awful crime, which was committed by those who are bare of all human values and principles. Even women and children in shelters were not spared by [Israel's] attack." The statement calls on the international community to impose an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon. In an apparent reference to the United States, which is viewed in the Arab world as supporting the ongoing Israeli military campaign, the statement adds, "The Islamic world and all peace-loving peoples will not forgive the parties that impede putting an end to the crisis, which will result in grave consequences for the entire region." MENA reported on July 28 that Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sent 86 tons of humanitarian aid to Lebanon the same day, according to his Damascus representative Ra'id al-Kazim. Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi also condemned the Qana bombing in statements on July 30 and 31, Iraqi media reported. KR

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi has warned that a popular uprising, or intifada, may soon erupt in southern Iraq, "Al-Zaman" reported on July 28. Neither the government nor foreign troops have done anything to meet the needs of the people in the south, al-Najafi said. "We are afraid that the day of a massive popular uprising is approaching that will result in grave and unpredictable consequences." Al-Najafi cited the government's failure to address security, the lack of public services, and widespread unemployment as contributing factors to the current public sentiment. "Al-Zaman" reported that security in the south has deteriorated to such a level that militias are in almost full control of the cities of Al-Basrah, Al-Amarah, and Al-Diwaniyah. KR

Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani told reporters at a July 30 press briefing in Baghdad that he intends to implement important changes at the ministry in September, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. The changes will come following the conclusion of an investigation into allegations of misconduct by some officers, including detainee abuse and administrative corruption. "Beginning in September, there will be changes to the sensitive and important positions at the ministry," he said, adding that gross misconduct and human rights violations will no longer be tolerated. The ministry's Shi'ite-dominated police force was widely condemned for its alleged abuse of detainees under the previous transitional government. Ministry personnel will also be given new uniforms and identification cards and badges that are difficult to forge and new custom paint for ministry vehicles, al-Bulani said. Detention centers are almost completely under the control of the Justice Ministry, he noted. He added that the Defense and Interior ministries will soon launch an advanced system for information sharing. KR

Gunmen dressed in camouflage uniforms resembling those worn by Iraqi security forces kidnapped 25 Iraqis from a central Baghdad company on July 31, Reuters reported. The kidnappings in the Arasat district near Karrada in central Baghdad, were carried out by gunmen driving 15 four-wheel-drive vehicles. Reuters did not identify the company that employed the workers, while AP quoted police as saying the abductions took place at a mobile-telephone store. KR