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Newsline - January 19, 2007

President Vladimir Putin announced on January 18 that he will send Vyacheslav Kovalenko back to Georgia as ambassador, Russian news agencies and reported. Kovalenko, who is a former director of the Foreign Ministry's CIS Department, was posted to Tbilisi as ambassador in July 2006, only to be recalled in late September, when Russia effectively declared a blockade of Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 4, and 25, 2006). Putin said after meeting with Kovalenko on January 18 that the two countries have "more than simply a long history of friendly and good-neighborly relations...and a shared destiny throughout many centuries." He noted that the two countries "unfortunately encountered certain problems in recent years. However, in November of last year, the president of Georgia and I agreed that both sides would take steps aimed at normalizing our relations." Putin added that "the first such step, a significant one, was made in December of last year when contracts were signed on supplies of Russian energy resources to Georgia -- based on market principles, but in the amounts needed by the republic." He argued that Russia "has been playing a significant role in the settlement of the conflicts that we inherited from the past [namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. We will continue to make all necessary efforts in the future as order to resolve these problems in the best and fairest manner." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 19 that Moscow may take further, unspecified steps to improve bilateral ties, but stressed that this is a "two-way process," Interfax reported. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on January 19 that Kovalenko's return to Georgia is indeed only the "first step" in a change of Russian policy toward that country. The paper suggested that Moscow will soon lift its sanctions because the blockade proved ineffective and only served to make Georgia less dependent on Russia. A NATO delegation is scheduled to arrive in Tbilisi on January 19 to evaluate Georgia's progress in the Intensified Dialogue with NATO on which it embarked last fall, Caucasus Press reported on January 9. Commenting on the significance of that visit, Minister for Eurointegration Giorgi Baramidze said, "I can put it bluntly that it is the Russian factor that prevents our integration into NATO." PM/LF

On January 18, President Putin told seven foreign ambassadors who were recently accredited to Russia that Moscow conducts a reliable and serious energy policy, Russian news agencies reported. He argued that "it is obvious that real energy security is only achievable through the mutual responsibility of all participants in the energy chain.... We are taking measures to move relations in the energy sphere with all countries onto a transparent market foundation, free of any political opportunism." He added that "conditions for international trade that are common for all should and will be respected." Putin is slated to discuss energy and other topics with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the EU Presidency, in Sochi on January 21. Referring to Russia's recent dispute with Belarus over gas, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on January 19 that Russia "wants an ally, but it has to be a reliable ally, not a well-paid parasite." PM

On January 18 at a high-profile conference in Berlin, top Kremlin aide Igor Shuvalov sought to rally support for a Russo-German partnership by stressing Russia's reliability as an energy supplier, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 16, and 18, 2007). He added that Russia does not need to ratify the EU's Energy Charter, which Moscow signed in 1994, and whose Transit Protocol would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines. The EU demands that Moscow ratify the document, although German Chancellor Merkel has suggested that it would be enough to incorporate the charter's principles into a new EU-Russia comprehensive cooperation agreement to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which runs out in 2007. Shuvalov added on January 18 that Russia is willing to guarantee uninterrupted supplies, but in a different but unspecified form from the charter, which Moscow argues does not serve its interests. He said that "we have certain differences on transit, but [Russia is] ready for talks." Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who heads the stockholders' oversight body for the projected Russo-German Nord Stream gas pipeline, told the Berlin conference that there is a need for a common European pipeline network, including Nord Stream, which is expected to begin operating in 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, October 11, 20, 24, and 31, 2006). Schroeder also accused the British police investigating team looking into the Aleksandr Litvinenko murder case of acting "unceremoniously" by suggesting that the unnamed killer is in Russia. Alexander Rahr, a German expert on Russian affairs and one of the organizers of the conference, argued that "the European mass media only foment suspicion about Russia," reported on January 19. He added that "the German press, for example, takes little interest in precise information and detailed facts.... It is...profitable for them to tell stories of the big bad Russian bear. It is not surprising that in the recent Russia-Belarus energy conflict, the latter has been represented as a victim of its stronger neighbor." PM

Nikolai Sentsov, who is a spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Committee, said on January 19 that the two-day-old nationwide alert to protect military facilities, state infrastructure, public transportation, pipelines, and other potential terrorist targets was lifted early that morning, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17 and 18, 2007). He added that "in the course [of the alert]...we received no information that would require further attention." PM

On January 18, the Prosecutor-General's Office formally charged Liana Askerova as an accomplice in the September murder of Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov, who led efforts against money laundering, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 16, and 17, 2007). Askerova has been in detention since January 10. Prosecutors recently charged banker Aleksei Frenkel with organizing the killing. PM

The daily "Vedomosti" reported on January 19 that its unnamed sources say that President Putin does not intend to accept the recent resignation of oligarch Roman Abramovich as governor of Siberia's remote Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, a post he has held for six years, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 21, 2006). The daily added that Putin intends to keep Abramovich in that office for the remainder of his own term, which expires in 2008. Abramovich is generally considered politically close to the Kremlin and is reportedly Russia's richest man, with wealth estimated by "Forbes" at about $18 billion. A spokesman for Abramovich said in Moscow on December 20 that "in six years [Abramovich and his team] have basically rebuilt the whole region from the bottom up" and that his departure "is a matter of mission accomplished." PM

All Ingush personnel have been or will be dismissed from serving at the six border posts in Ingushetia's Djeyrakh Raion, which borders on Georgia, the independent website reported on January 17. They are to be replaced by Russian and Ossetian border troops. Ingush commentator Magomed Surkhoyev equated that policy, which he said the Ingushetian leadership has not protested, with ceding a further tract of Ingushetia's historic territory to neighboring North Ossetia. Most Ingush still hope for a revision of the existing internal borders between Russian Federation subjects to restore to Ingushetian control Prigorodny Raion, which was part of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR until the abolition of that republic in 1944 but was left part of North Ossetia when it was reestablished in January 1957. In addition, reported on January 18, again quoting Surkhoyev, Ingush residents of the villages of Lyazhgi, Guli, and Olgeti have been offered 2 million rubles ($75,460) per household to vacate their homes and settle elsewhere in Ingushetia. Surkhoyev suggested that the North Ossetian authorities anticipate an influx of Ossetians from Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia in the event of a new attempt to restore Tbilisi's hegemony over the region. LF

The Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office said on January 18 that the criminal investigation involving businessman and parliament deputy Hakob Hakobian has been completed and will "soon" be forwarded to court, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hakobian, who was elected as an independent deputy but joined the majority Republican Party of Armenia last year, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in October following an armed attack on a gas-distribution facility in a village south of Yerevan on October 8 that left four men seriously injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11 and 16, 2006). He has been charged with "hooliganism" and tax evasion. Hovsepian told RFE/RL on January 18 that he tried to stop the October altercation, and that he is not guilty of the other charges against him. LF

Samvel Babayan, the former commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on January 18 that his Dashink party does not plan to join any opposition bloc formed to participate in the parliamentary elections due in May. "We will not join any alliances ahead of the elections.... We will contest them on our own," he told RFE/RL. Some Armenian media reported earlier this month that Babayan was considering aligning with former parliament speaker Artur Baghdsarian's Orinats Yerkir party and the Union of Constitutional Rights headed by Hayk Babakhanian (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 12, 2007). Babayan added that his party hopes to make a strong showing, garnering more than the minimum 5 percent of the vote required to qualify for parliamentary representation. "We are joining the fray to effect change. The new parliament must be multipolar," he said. LF

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili was quoted on January 18 by as having told Ekho Moskvy radio station that Tbilisi will continue to do all in its power to prevent Russian accession to the World Trade organization until trade relations between the two countries are completely normalized. Bezhuashvili recalled that in violation of an agreement it signed in 2004, Russia has closed the Verkhny Lars border crossing while permitting unrestricted passage of goods through border crossings in the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze for her part was quoted by Caucasus Press on January 18 as telling Ekho Moskvy that Georgia is justified in seeking to prevent Russia's accession to the WTO insofar as "in dealing with Georgia, Russia violates all the principles of the organization: free trade, free movement, and abjuring economic sanctions." LF

The Georgian Defense Ministry dismissed as "groundless" on January 18 the claim made the previous day in an interview with ITAR-TASS by Boris Chochiyev, first deputy prime minister of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, that Georgia has begun rotating its peacekeeping contingent in the South Ossetian conflict zone in violation of the agreement that all such troop movements must be coordinated in advance with the Joint Control Commission (JCC), Caucasus Press reported. Chochiyev said the South Ossetian leadership believes Tbilisi is preparing a new military offensive. Also on January 18, quoted Chochiyev as saying Georgia has rejected an oral proposal by the OSCE to attend a JCC meeting in Yerevan on January 24-25. Chochiyev reportedly condemned that refusal as "unconstructive." LF

Prime Minister Karim Masimov pledged at a January 18 meeting at Kazakhstan's Energy Ministry in Astana that the country's energy policy will remain "unchanged" and that "Kazakhstan will be a responsible supplier of energy resources to external markets," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In a statement the same day, the ministry reported that Kazakhstan produced 64.8 million tons of oil in 2006, a 5.5 percent increase on 2005, exporting 57.1 million tons. Energy Ministry Baktykozha Izmukhambetov told journalists that 2007 crude oil production is expected to be 65 million tons, Reuters reported. The national oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz announced on January 18 that 2006 revenues rose 23 percent to 812.2 billion tenges ($6.49 billion), with the company and its subsidiaries paying 233.4 billion tenges in taxes, a 50-percent increase on 2005, Interfax reported. The Energy Ministry also announced that it plans to boost uranium production 31 percent to 6,937 tons in 2007, and gas production 7.4 percent to 29 billion cubic meters. DK

Three more children have been diagnosed with the HIV/AIDS virus in Southern Kazakhstan Province, reported on January 18, quoting Natalya Babina, director of the province's AIDS center. The latest cases bring the total number of infected children, who are believed to have contracted the disease through botched transfusions, to 87, including eight children who died (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006). The trial of 21 people charged in connection with the HIV/AIDS scandal began on January 19, RFE/RL reported. The trial has been closed to protect the confidentiality of the infected children, Judge Ziyadinkhan Perniyaz told reporters on January 18. DK

Kyrgyzstan's parliament on January 18 voted down the candidacy of acting Prime Minister Feliks Kulov for the premiership, reported. Kulov garnered 23 votes "for" and 39 "against," with 38 needed to confirm him. The news agency reported that President Kurmanbek Bakiev would submit Kulov's candidacy for a second vote, but Iskhak Masaliev, chairman of the legislature's Constitutional Law Committee, told that the president may not submit the same candidate twice in a row. But Marat Sultanov, speaker of parliament, told "Bely parokhod" that that Kyrgyz law allows Bakiev to resubmit Kulov's candidacy. For his part, Kulov said that Bakiev "has promised to submit my candidacy and therefore, I hope, there will be a positive result," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. On January 19, Bakiev again nominated Kulov, with a vote not expected until January 23 or 24. If parliament fails to confirm a prime minister in three votes, the president can dissolve it. DK

Kyrgyz law enforcement officers have detained a suspected leader of the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in Osh, reported on January 18. The 42-year-old Osh resident was identified by as N. Baltabaev. Police said that a search of his home revealed a sawed-off shotgun, ammunition, and religious propaganda consisting of 35 disks, 14 audiocassettes, 43 brochures, 81 leaflets, and two placards. DK

Sharifkhon Samiyev, chairman of Tajikistan's national electric company Barqi Tojik, and Fan Jixiang, general manager of China's Sinohydro Corporation, signed an agreement in Beijing on January 17 for China to build a hydroelectric power station in northern Tajikistan, Asia Plus-Blitz reported the next day. Rashid Gulov, an engineer with Barqi Tojik, told the news agency that China will give Tajikistan a 25-year, 1-percent, $200 million preferential loan to cover the cost of the project, which will take 36 months to complete. Gulov said that the plant will generate 600 million kilowatt hours of electricity a year. DK

Acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told a meeting with voters in Turkmenistan's Lebap Province on January 17 that Turkmenistan will fulfill its April 2006 agreement to supply China with 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year starting in 2009 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006), NewsCentralAsia reported the next day. "The supply of gas to China in accordance with the agreement signed by our Great Leader during his visit to China will be fulfilled from the deposit of right bank of Amudarya," Berdymukhammedov said. Berdymukhammedov, whose remarks were televised in Turkmenistan on January 18, also said, "We will strive to deliver our energy resources, especially natural gas, to world markets, adhering to the existing contracts and looking for new partners," AP reported. DK

Rene van der Linden, the president of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), arrived in Minsk on January 18 to hold meetings with Belarusian authorities and representatives of nongovernmental organizations, Belapan reported. Van der Linden met on January 18 with Uladzimir Kanaplyou, chairman of the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Belarusian legislature, and Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau. Kanaplyou suggested that the PACE president needs "firsthand" information about the situation in Belarus to form an objective view of it. Following the meeting with Martynau, Van der Linden said that the release of those people whom the EU considers political prisoners would be a step toward rapprochement between Belarus and the EU. Van der Linden also told Belapan that the EU put forward many conditions for his visit to Belarus, but "they [Belarusian authorities] fulfilled most of the conditions." AM

The Central Election Commission announced on January 18 the final results of the January 9-14 local elections, Belapan reported. The average turnout was 79 percent, with the highest in Vitsyebsk Oblast (90 percent) and the lowest in the city of Minsk (60 percent). Elections filled 22,639 out of the 22,661 contested seats in the Belarusian local councils. Repeat elections will be held in 22 electoral districts, three of which featured no candidates and, in the remaining 19, no candidate obtained the required 50 percent of the vote. Commission head Lidziya Yarmoshyna said that complaints filed during the election campaign did not contain mention any violations of electoral regulations. Yarmoshyna also rebutted German and EU criticism of the elections. "The European Union draws its conclusions based on reports from biased sources rather than on impartial, verified circumstances and facts...the EU should not be guided by unreliable information in such statements," she said. AM

Belarusian Prosecutor-General Pyotr Miklashevich said that mass hunger strikes staged in 2006 were evidence of the protestors' low "legal awareness," Belapan reported on January 18. Miklashevich said that Belarus has a judicial and law-enforcement system that ensures "the accurate and rigorous enforcement of laws, edicts, decrees, and other law-enforcement regulations by all government officials and people." Miklashevich also said that public awareness should be raised on how to solve problems. "It [a hunger strike] brings nothing but health problems," he added. AM

Alyaksandr Vaytovich, a former speaker of the Council of the Republic, Belarus's upper chamber of parliament, was unanimously elected chairman of a movement called Cooperation and Progress at its founding conference held in Moscow on January 17, Belapan reported. The movement intends to contribute to the development of cooperation between Belarus, Russia, and other countries, as well as promoting Belarus's independence and the establishment of democracy in the country. Cooperation and Progress plans to operate in Russia, Belarus, and other countries through an international network of branches and representative offices. AM

Viktor Yushchenko said on January 18 he will again veto the bill defining the powers of the cabinet, Interfax reported. Yushchenko argued that the text of the bill adopted on January 12, when the Verkhovna Rada overrode his veto, differs from the text he had vetoed on January 11. "The bill contains changes, which were not foreseen by the proposal of the president," Yushchenko said. Thus, he concluded, the Ukrainian legislation gives him the right to return the bill to the Verkhovna Rada for a new consideration. "The adopted bill violates the entire constitutional system. It is a way to nowhere," "Ukrayinska pravda" website quoted Yushchenko as saying. AM

In comments published on January 18, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Daniel Fried predicted that Serbia's general elections will show that a majority of voters support Western democratic values, UPI, Beta, and B92 reported the same day. "The upcoming elections are an opportunity for Serbian citizens to show their commitment to democracy and to express their will concerning the future of Serbia," Fried wrote in the Belgrade-based daily "Blic." Fried also said Washington encouraged NATO to accept Serbia into the Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 15, 2006). Fried said U.S. support was based on the belief that most Serbs accept "the same set of values" as do the United States and European democracies. Serbia's general elections are scheduled for January 21. BW

In the same article published in "Blic" on January 18, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Fried warned Serbian voters against apathy, Beta and B92 reported the same day. Those who choose not to cast a ballot on January 21, Fried said, "put their own fate in the hands of other people." He reminded Serbian voters that while 105 million Americans voted in the 2000 presidential election eventually won by George W. Bush, the outcome was decided by just several hundred votes in Florida. Fried also wrote that Washington wants to promote friendship with Serbia and "leave the conflicts of the '90s in the distance," B92 reported. BW

A preelection moratorium on campaigning in Serbia is scheduled to begin at midnight on January 18, B92 and Beta reported the same day. According to Serbia's law on the election of representatives, campaigning, agitation, and propaganda are forbidden from 48 hours before election day until polls close. The ban includes political campaigning in the media, political rallies and gatherings, and even public speculation about the election's results, B92 reported. Polling stations are scheduled to open at 7 a.m. on January 21 throughout Serbia and will close at 8 p.m. Serbia's Election Commission has announced that there are 6,652,105 eligible voters. BW

A Montenegrin state hospital announced on January 18 that Prime Minister Zeljko Sturanovic has been diagnosed with lung cancer but will remain in office while receiving treatment, Reuters reported the same day. "The prime minister is capable of working. He was only advised to slow down during the treatment that he will receive for a few days each month," Podgorica's Clinical Center said in a statement. It added that Sturanovic has been diagnosed with a "rare neuroendocrine lung tumor." Montenegro's ruling Democratic Party of Socialists chose Sturanovic, a former justice minister, as prime minister in October after veteran party leader Milo Djukanovic stepped down following the country's first postindependence election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12 and November 14, 2006). BW

Security forces in the separatist Transdniester region on January 18 released two Moldovan police officers arrested earlier in the day, dpa reported the same day, citing Moldova's Infotag news agency. The two Moldovan police officers, Colonel Igor Mikhailenko and Lieutenant Yeudzhen Karaman, were arrested in the city of Bender. Moldovan officials said the two were attempting to track down a Transdniester resident linked to the breakaway province's security services who is wanted by Moldovan police for drug trafficking (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). Tiraspol denied those allegations and accused the police officers of plotting to violate the rights of Transdniestrian citizens, dpa reported. Mikhailenko and Karaman were unhurt during their four-day stay in a Bender city jail, said Ion Liakhu, a Moldova Interior Ministry spokesman. BW

Many analysts and commentators have described U.S. President George W. Bush's new Iraq strategy, unveiled on January 10, as perhaps the last opportunity to stem the violence and prevent Iraq from descending into chaos. However, for this new strategy to be at all effective, significant action must be taken by the Iraqi government.

On January 13, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office issued a terse statement in support of Bush's new strategy to take control of Baghdad.

The plan "represents the common vision and mutual understanding between the Iraqi government and the U.S. administration," the statement said. "It is supportive of the Iraqi government's strategy to acquire command and control, as is clear in the Baghdad security plan, which will be commanded by Iraqis with support of multinational forces."

Although several Iraqi government officials voiced support for Bush's strategy, this was al-Maliki's first official comment on the plan. However, he did not refer to any of the political benchmarks that Bush said the Iraqi government must meet, and al-Maliki has made no public comments in person concerning the plan, a sharp contrast to Bush's televised national address.

Al-Maliki's relative silence has been offset by the increasingly tough talk by U.S. officials. On January 11, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a sternly worded statement saying that al-Maliki's government must make progress and is on "borrowed time."

More glaring was a blunt statement made to "The New York Times" on January 16 by an unnamed U.S. military official involved in discussions of Bush's strategy questioning the commitment of the Iraqi government to execute the plan. "We are implementing a strategy to embolden a government that is actually part of the problem," the official said. "We are being played like a pawn."

Despite his tough rhetoric, there are still questions surrounding al-Maliki's willingness to go after the Shi'ite militias. On January 10, he issued a veiled warning to Muqtada al-Sadr, calling on his militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army, to disarm or face an all-out attack by U.S. forces. But his subsequent actions have done little to back up this warning.

On January 12, al-Maliki appointed Lieutenant General Abud Qanbar, a little-known Hussein-era military figure, as the top military commander of the Baghdad operation, despite objections by both U.S. and Iraqi military officials, "The Sunday Telegraph" reported on January 14.

He also appointed Qanbar, who will report directly to al-Maliki, without consulting the leaders of other political parties, raising suspicions that Qanbar may have links to sectarian groups. If Qanbar shelters the Al-Mahdi Army, Bush's plan will undoubtedly fail.

"It's a delicate situation. It's very dangerous if it turns out that he has [sectarian] affiliations," Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Uthman was quoted by the "Los Angeles Times" on January 13 as saying.

There is also speculation in the Iraqi press that al-Sadr's militia will essentially disappear into the general population of Baghdad's Al-Sadr City and wait out any U.S.-backed offensive. "Al-Zaman" reported on January 15 that Al-Mahdi Army commanders are preparing a strategy to counter any U.S. military campaign in Al-Sadr City by purportedly ordering militiamen not to engage any U.S. forces.

Militiamen would temporarily disappear and keep their weapons in preparation for a post-U.S. Iraq. Once U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq, al-Sadr's militia would regroup.

While there is no evidence that al-Maliki and al-Sadr are in collusion in this alleged strategy, temporarily disbanding the militia would allow U.S. forces to enter Al-Sadr City, an area that was previously off-limits. This could give the appearance that al-Maliki is acquiescing to U.S. and Sunni Arab demands to go after the Al-Mahdi Army, while still effectively sheltering the Shi'ite militia.

While the new plan's prospects for success are hard to predict, in the short term it is presumed that the infusion of 21,000 additional U.S. forces will have a positive effect in reducing the violence in Baghdad.

However, U.S. officials have clearly said that the onus is on the Iraqi government to produce results on the ground. "We will support them, but the Iraqis will be in the lead," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said on January 15 at a press conference in Baghdad.

Khalilzad also said that the Iraqi government has assured him that they will go after both Shi'ite and Sunni extremists in the effort to gain control of the Iraqi capital. However, if the reports of the recent joint Iraqi-U.S. operation in the Sunni neighborhoods along Baghdad's Haifa Street are accurate, then it does not bode well for any larger operation.

The Haifa Street operation is a campaign to rid the area of Sunni extremists, but several reports have emerged that Iraqi forces have been using heavy-handed tactics against the Sunni Arab population.

In a statement posted on the Internet on January 10, the Muslim Scholars Association, an influential group of Sunni clerics, accused Iraqi government forces of cordoning off several Sunni neighborhoods along Haifa Street, allowing Shi'ite militias to enter and massacre civilians and then calling in U.S. warplanes to bomb the areas.

"When these forces did not manage to storm these areas, the occupation [U.S.] air forces intervened and shelled the areas of Al-Mushahadah and Al-Sheikh Ali, resulting in the martyrdom of a number of people, including women and children, whose bodies have not been recovered up to this moment," the statement said.

On January 14, Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i, a member of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front, accused an Iraqi soldier of killing eight civilians in the Haifa Street area execution-style in front of U.S. forces.

If similar reports emerge, this would add fuel to the sectarian fire and underscore the Sunni Arabs' belief that they are being marginalized in the new Iraq. With the controversial execution of former President Saddam Hussein and the subsequent "botched" hanging of Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, Sunnis may well continue to see themselves as victims of a vindictive government with a clear sectarian agenda.

A suicide bomber killed one soldier and wounded three others in a targeted attack in eastern Paktika Province on January 18, AP reported the same day. The bomber detonated his explosives next to the Afghan soldiers in a market in Sharan, the capital of Paktika. Two civilians were also wounded in the attack, said Akram Akhpelwak, Paktika's governor. One day earlier, authorities arrested three men in the border town of Spin Boldak arriving from Pakistan in an explosives-laden vehicle, Reuters reported on January 18. The men were said to have confessed to being recruited and trained in Pakistan, and admitted to having plans to distribute the explosives to "their men" and to carry out attacks in Kandahar, according to Mohammad Anway, an Afghan border security official. JC

The Indo-Asian News Service reported on January 18 that the European Union expressed concern on January 17 over Pakistan's plans to mine and fence a section of its border with Afghanistan. German Ambassador and new EU envoy Gunter Mulack implored Pakistan to explore "other means" before resorting to land mines. "We think that land mines are dangerous and Afghanistan is still suffering from those laid down by the Soviets," Mulack told a press conference. President Pervez Musharraf announced on January 15 that Pakistani officials are examining an alternative border-protection proposal submitted by Canada, which has previously spoken out against Pakistan's plans to mine and fence parts of the disputed border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2007). Kabul has vehemently objected to Pakistan's proposal and sought support from the United Nations in a recent open letter to all UN members (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). JC

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat, New York) called on January 17 for a legislated cap on the number of troops in Iraq and an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan, AP reported the next day. Clinton referred to the conflict in Afghanistan as "one of the great missed opportunities," urging President George W. Bush to increase the number of troops before an anticipated "spring offensive" by the Taliban. "Let's focus on Afghanistan and get it right," she told CBS television. Clinton recently led a three-member delegation to Kabul to meet with President Hamid Karzai and U.S. commanders in the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2007). On her return, Clinton wrote a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging him to maintain the number of troops in eastern Afghanistan and to deploy additional U.S. forces -- approximately 2,000 soldiers -- to southern Afghanistan, CanWest News Service reported on January 17. JC

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told journalists in Tehran on January 18 that "Westerners" no longer have a "raison d'etre" and wars have erupted in Sudan, Palestine, and South America "from their liberalism," reported. He told an event to mark the 10th anniversary of "Iran" newspaper's launch that Western powers "have tried so hard" to draft a UN resolution against Iran's nuclear program, which "may exert mild pressures in some places, though we have forecast ways of countering that." He claimed that "more than 30 presidents" have contacted him to assure him of their countries' continuing relations with Iran and said they told him "we can trade" anything Iran might lack as a result to UN sanctions. He said that "a reporter asked me in South America" on his recent tour whether Iran believes it is interfering in Iraqi affairs. "I answered, 'We are neighbors with Iraq.... What are 160,000 American troops doing in Iraq?' They have overthrown Saddam [Hussein]. Now what are they doing? Clearly they want the oil," he said. Ahmadinejad accused Western powers of wanting to "strike down" the Iraqi government and maintain anarchy in Iraq. "We know [which] Americans are arming and backing the terrorists," he claimed. "Only two weeks ago, British forces attacked a prison and freed terrorists the Iraqi government had arrested." Ahmadinejad may have been referring to a December 25 raid by U.K. troops on an Al-Basrah detention center, purportedly to save inmates from execution by police forces. VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini on January 18 condemned reported remarks by the new UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, suggesting that Iran's nuclear program is an international threat, news agencies reported. Husseini said Ban's remarks contradicted Article Four of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), giving states an equal right to access peaceful nuclear technology, and compromised the impartiality expected of his position, ISNA reported. He urged that attention be given to "the serious dangers and actual threats" posed by Israel's purported nuclear arsenal. Ban met with President George W. Bush in Washington on January 16, and discussed Iran, among other issues, news agencies reported at the time. On January 18, AFP quoted Ban as saying that he and Bush agreed that Iran's program is a threat and its uranium-enrichment activities have "serious and wide implications" for the region and the world, without dating the remarks. Reuters quoted unnamed diplomats as saying in Vienna on January 18 that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stopped certain aid projects for Iran's program that were "definitely not compatible" with a December 23 UN Security Council resolution aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear program. Other assistance projects are currently being examined to determine whether they violate the resolution, Reuters reported, quoting a diplomat and IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming. VS

The U.S. envoy to the IAEA, Gregory Schulte, told Radio Farda on January 18 that, contrary to Iranian claims, many countries are suspicious of Iran's atomic program. Iranian officials reiterate that "Third World" or Non-Aligned Movement states support what Tehran says is a peaceful nuclear program. Schulte said those states have very serious questions about the program and approved the referral months ago of Iran's dossier to the Security Council. The only states that backed Iran, Schulte said, were states "like Cuba, Syria, and Venezuela," Radio Farda reported. He said the United States supports the IAEA's technical aid to countries' atomic programs, but concerns now are focused on one country: Iran. He said the United States would like Iran to celebrate its nuclear achievements but wants it to end some activities. The United States and EU countries now have an entirely similar stance on Iran's program, he told Radio Farda. VS

Parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel told a crowd in Qaen, in Iran's eastern South Khorasan Province, that he was lucky to have lived through the 1979 revolution and he praised the apparent frugality of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "You and I have to thank God [that] we were alive and are witnessing this revolution," he said. He said "a man greater than the heroes of other countries" -- the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- led the revolution that toppled the Persian monarchy. In that regime, Haddad-Adel said, Iran's rulers did nothing "without the permission of the British." But today, he said, Khamenei runs the country: "And look how he and his family live. We should be proud and glad that our country came out of the hands of mercenary and corrupt people," and is now run by "the most suitable people." Haddad-Adel said Iranians have progressed for 28 years despite U.S. hostility. "America began its plots and threats from the very start of the revolution, and even blocked Iran's money. It also imposed eight years of war on us," Haddad-Adel said, referring to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. VS

In a January 18 interview with London's "The Times," Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki criticized the United States for not supplying enough weapons to the Iraqi Army. Al-Maliki said the insurgency has been bloody and prolonged because Washington has refused to provide the necessary weapons. There are concerns among U.S. military officials about handing over large amounts of weapons to the Iraqis because some of them may end up in the hands of insurgents and militias. Al-Maliki added that a better-equipped Iraqi Army would allow the United States drastically to reduce its military presence in the country. "If we succeed in implementing the agreement between us to speed up the equipping and providing weapons to our military forces, I think that within three to six months our need for American troops will go down dramatically," al-Maliki said. "That is on the condition that there are real, strong efforts to support our military forces and equipping and arming them." SS

Prime Minister al-Maliki said that criticism of his government by U.S. officials is unwarranted and only boosts the morale of the insurgents, according to "The Times" on January 18. "I wish that we could receive strong messages of support from the U.S. so we don't give some boost to the terrorists and make them feel that they might have achieved success," al-Maliki said. "I believe that such statements give morale boosts [sic] to the terrorists and push them towards making an extra effort and making them believe that they have defeated the American administration, but I can tell you that they haven't defeated the Iraqi government." On January 11, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice issued a harshly worded statement saying that al-Maliki's government is on "borrowed time" and that U.S. patience is running out. Al-Maliki also rejected criticism that he is protecting Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army, countering that 400 Al-Mahdi militiamen have been arrested in recent days during crackdowns in Karbala, Samawah, Al-Diwaniyah, and Al-Nasiriyah. SS

At a January 18 news conference, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said that the group of Iranians detained by U.S. forces during a January 11 raid in Irbil are not diplomats, KUNA reported. Al-Dabbagh declined to provide any further details, but said the Iraqi government is doing everything it can to free the Iranians. He also called on all countries to respect Iraq's sovereignty and stressed that Iraq will not become a battlefield for a war between the United States and Iran. "Iraq rejects its territories becoming a field for various big powers to show off their capabilities," al-Dabbagh said. SS

Iraqi government spokesman al-Dabbagh on January 18 refuted a recent UN report that more than 34,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007), international media reported the same day. At a press conference, al-Dabbagh said the UN report released on January 16 "does not reflect the reality on the ground," but was "based on individual stories." Although the UN said its numbers were based on data obtained from the Iraqi Health Ministry and hospitals across the country, al-Dabbagh said that "the report is not based on official sources." Asked if the government could provide its own casualty figures, al-Dabbagh responded, "We do not have casualty figures because we have been unable to gather them due to security reasons." SS

In a January 18 interview with Reuters, Majid al-Qu'ud, the head of an Iraqi NGO called The Glow of Iraq, said Iraqi insurgents are ready to discuss a truce with the United States if coalition forces rein in Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias. Al-Qu'ud said Sunni insurgents now believe that the Iranian occupation of Iraq is a much greater threat to its sovereignty and future than the U.S. presence, which will eventually end. "If the Americans disband these militias and other militias, we might entertain the notion of concluding a truce with them," al-Qu'ud said. "This is because what concerns us and all Iraqi resistance men is how to protect the Iraqi people and Iraq. This is our main goal. [Iran's] goal is to turn Iraq into an Iranian province affiliated with the Iranian mullahs' regime." He added that Iran's main motive for occupying Iraq is to seize the latter's vast oil resources. The Glow of Iraq is an Iraqi humanitarian organization based in Amman, Jordan, and is believed to have links to Islamic and secular insurgent groups. SS

The Arab League issued a statement on January 18 condemning the January 16 bombing outside Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad that killed some 60 Iraqis, international media reported. The organization described the attacks as "an attempt by anti-Iraqi unity fronts to disable reconstruction efforts in the country." Furthermore, it said that it is the responsibility of coalition forces to protect Iraq and all Iraqis. On January 18, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, also condemned the bombings, KUNA reported the same day. Ihsanoglu said the attack will lead to further deterioration of the Iraqi education system. SS