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Newsline - January 23, 2007

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told a gathering of Indian industrialists in Bangalore on January 22 that "we intend to expand our technical and economic cooperation in the field of nuclear-plant construction in India, as well as other spheres of peaceful employment of nuclear power, with consideration, of course, of international obligations of the two countries," news agencies reported. Ivanov said on January 23 that Russia will offer its MiG-35 aircraft for an Indian tender to supply 126 planes. President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to arrive in New Delhi on January 25, where he will be guest of honor at Republic Day celebrations on January 26 in the company of a large economic delegation. Putin told several Indian media outlets on January 23 that "we intend to help India directly in construction of atomic-energy facilities for peaceful use. On top of that, some of our companies are very much interested in large contracts for construction of new facilities. On various occasions we provided India with nuclear fuel. And we will help in settling her problems in international affairs with the proviso that Russia will abide by international obligations." Putin noted that his "country has done a great deal for the development of the Indian nuclear-energy industry" over the years. He argued that Russia wants to be a country that is an "equal among equals on the international scene, rather than a superpower." Putin added that "when there is talk these days that Russia seeks that [superpower] status, I see only one thing in that -- a desire to undermine trust in Russia, to use Russia to spread fear, and foster the image of an enemy." The state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on January 23 described India as one of Russia's best arms customers, noting that India and China together account for about 70 percent of Moscow's weapons sales abroad. PM

Sergei Chemezov, who heads the state arms trader Rosoboroneksport, confirmed on January 23 that his firm has completed long-planned deliveries of Tor-M1 antiaircraft-missile systems to Iran, reported. The United States and Israel have strongly objected to the deal. On January 16, Defense Minister Ivanov argued that Iran is not under sanctions preventing it from acquiring defensive equipment. He added that "we develop our military and technological cooperation with Iran, based on international law...and if the Iranian leadership has a desire to purchase more defensive weapons for the needs of their armed forces, then why not?" In Washington on January 16, U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the sale sends a wrong signal at a time when the international community is trying to pressure Iran over its nuclear activities. Casey stressed that "we certainly don't want to see any kind of lethal aid or assistance given to any country that's a state sponsor of terror. And as we've said, Iran is the leading state sponsor in the world" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006, and January 17, 2007). PM

Britain's "Financial Times" reported on January 23 that "Russia is preparing to reserve control of all new offshore oil and gas fields for Gazprom and Rosneft, its state-controlled energy giants, in what analysts are calling a further example of resource nationalization." The paper noted that President Putin recently discussed the matter with unnamed senior ministers and top officials of the two firms, but no final decision was reached. If approved, the new strategy would exclude not only foreign companies, but also private Russian firms like LUKoil, from controlling future developments on Russia's continental shelf. The reported discussion took place only weeks after Gazprom took control of the Sakhalin-2 natural-gas project, which had previously been dominated by three foreign firms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006). The British daily quoted a recent report by Deutsche UFG, a Moscow-based investment bank, as saying that "the main rationale behind the government's decision not to allow foreign investors access may be yet another example of Russian energy nationalism." The study also noted that Gazprom and Rosneft lack the technology to develop offshore reserves, "which could lead to a falloff in the quality of offshore developments." The daily cited other, unnamed analysts as saying that "the changes could mean lower receipts to Russia's budget than if there were open auctions, and reduced transparency in how fields are allocated." PM

President Putin told several Indian media outlets on January 23 that he is convinced that the Russian people want him to be succeeded by someone who will continue his policies, Reuters reported. He added that he is "sure that our citizens will be able to single out a decent and capable person from the chatterboxes, phrase-mongers, and loafers." PM

Deputies from several parties, including the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, resubmitted a bill to the State Duma on January 22 after briefly withdrawing it for modification, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). The measure would ban public marches or gatherings for the two weeks preceding and following elections, and was criticized by some members of the Public Chamber. The new bill is almost identical to the original, except that the authority to ban protests is shifted from local to federal authorities. But on January 23, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov objected to the bill and said he will not support it. Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena, who chairs the Public Chamber's commission for public control over law enforcement and security agencies and over judicial-system reforms, promised a thorough examination of the proposal. He said that it interferes with basic democratic rights to free expression. He stressed that such rights are set down in the constitution and are an essential part of democracy. On January 22, the Public Chamber marked its first anniversary. Yevgeny Velikhov, who heads both the chamber and the leading Kurchatov Institute for nuclear research, said that the chamber "is not a reception office for the Kremlin," "The Moscow Times" reported on January 23. He added that "our task is to help citizens solve their problems by themselves, so that civil society grows organically." The daily also quoted several human rights activists as saying that they were pleasantly surprised that the chamber has done some good and not turned out to be purely a Kremlin puppet, as many had feared. PM

Joel Simon, who is executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said on January 23 in Moscow that Foreign Ministry officials told him that prosecutors investigating the October 2006 killing of critical investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya have opened a criminal inquiry into unnamed police officials in Chechnya, Reuters reported. He added that "the Prosecutor-General's Office recently informed the Foreign Ministry that it has opened a criminal investigation into several police officials in Chechnya who may be behind the killing of...Politkovskaya." Officials at the Prosecutor-General's Office subsequently declined to comment on his remarks. Simon also noted that 13 journalists have been slain in what looked like contract killings in the years since President Putin took office at the start of 2000. Simon added that nobody has been successfully prosecuted for any of those killings. He stressed that this "record of impunity has a very negative effect on news coverage in Russia. It stops journalists in their tracks when they pursue independent newsgathering" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11 and 12, 2006, and January 22, 2007). PM

Moscow's often outspoken Mayor Yury Luzhkov said on January 22 that Russia should enact drug laws modeled on those of Singapore and "destroy" drug dealers, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 23. He argued that "in Singapore, there is no drug addiction [thanks to tough laws]. Let us do the same." PM

Daghestan's Central Election Commission has annulled the registration of the Communist Party (KPRF) and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) for the parliamentary elections due on March 11, reported on January 22. That ruling was based on a unique provision of Daghestan's election law that provides for banning any party that does not field at least one candidate in each of the republic's 53 raions. The KPRF's three candidates in Rutul Raion have all withdrawn, reportedly under pressure from the local authorities, and the republic's Supreme Court declined on January 22 to reinstate them, according to on January 23. Similarly, all four SPS candidates from Khasavyurt have withdrawn. All parliamentary mandates in Daghestan are allocated on the basis of party lists, and parties must field separate lists for each raion. That provision is intended to enable parties to select candidates according to their nationality, in light of Daghestan's very diverse ethnic composition. LF

Hackers have disabled the website of Azerbaijani Public Television (, posting on it a warning, in the name of Armenia's National Security Service, to an unnamed Azerbaijani hacker to desist from hacking Armenian government sites or risk being killed, reported on January 22 and and on January 23. But the Armenian government news agency Arminfo quoted an unnamed National Security Service expert as saying that security services do not normally publicly advertise their activities in that way. And quoted Osman Gyunduzov, chairman of the National Internet Forum of Azerbaijan, as pointing out that determining who was in fact responsible for the attack may prove difficult as the website is not based in Azerbaijan but hosted by Yahoo! Web Hosting. LF

Ilham Aliyev chaired a cabinet meeting in Baku on January 22 at which he commented publicly for the first time on the increases in the prices of gasoline, gas, and electricity announced by the Tariffs Council two weeks earlier, Azerbaijani media reported. Aliyev reportedly said that the price hikes, which have triggered a storm of protest from opposition parties, are economically justified (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10 and 16, 2007). At the same time, he announced that the state will take steps to cushion the impact of the increases. To that end, Aliyev issued a decree on January 22 raising the minimum pension as of February 1 by 25 percent to 50 manats ($57); the minimum wage will also be increased to 50 manats. The salaries of government-sector workers will also be raised by 25 percent next month. LF

After a seven- week trial, the Batumi City Court passed sentence in absentia on January 22 on Aslan Abashidze, who from 1990-2004 served as chairman of the Supreme Council of Georgia's autonomous republic of Ajara, Caucasus Press and Russian media reported. Abashidze stepped down from that post in the wake of mass public protests in early May 2004 and has lived in Moscow since then. The court found him guilty of forming illegal armed groups, defying the Georgian central government, and misappropriation of state property worth millions of dollars, and sentenced him to a total of 15 years' imprisonment. He must also pay 98 million laris ($57 million) in compensation to the Georgian budget. Abashidze's lawyer Shalva Shavgulidze said the prosecution failed to prove Abashidze's guilt. He also said he fears his client's remaining property will be confiscated, but he doubts the Russian authorities will accede to any demand by Tbilisi for Abashidze's extradition to Georgia, where he faces a second trial, on charges of terrorism, according to LF

A Kazakh district court in Almaty found opposition journalist Kazis Toguzbaev guilty of libel and handed down a two-year suspended sentence on January 22, Interfax reported. The Bostandyk district court's ruling followed a three-month trial of Toguzbaev, an activist with the unregistered opposition Alga! (Forward) party, on criminal charges brought after he posted two Internet articles in April that criticized Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in connection with the murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006). Toguzbaev was tried under Article 318 of the country's criminal code, which pertains to "undermining the reputation and dignity of the country's president and hindering his activities." RG

Members of the parliamentary Constitution Committee on January 22 rejected a second nomination by President Kurmanbek Bakiev of Feliks Kulov as prime minister, saying the decision to renominate Kulov violates existing legislation, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Constitutional Law Committee Chairman Iskhak Masaliev explained that the president must now submit a new candidate. Myrza Kaparov, a presidential liaison to parliament, argued that the current constitution allows the president to submit the same candidate up to three times (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). The political confrontation continues over presidential authority in light of recent constitutional reforms. Also on January 22, the Dzhany Mezgil (New Time) Party organized a rally by about 50 demonstrators outside the parliament building to show their support for Kulov's nomination, according to the Kabar news agency. RG

Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov reported to the parliament on January 22 that the United States paid $4.35 million for use of the air base at Manas Airport in December, AKIpress reported. Under the terms of a new lease agreement, Kyrgyzstan should receive $20 million annually, or nearly 10 times the previous rate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). Direct U.S. payments for the base are projected at total $40 million in 2007 and $60 million in 2008, with total U.S. compensation to Kyrgyzstan in 2007 expected to reach $150 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). RG

Kyrgyz law enforcement officers have seized a large quantity of "extremist" literature linked to the outlawed Hizb ut-Tahrir group in the Suzak district of the Jalal-Abad region, the website reported on January 22. The seizure included more than 1,100 leaflets, audio- and videotapes, and some 150 books promoting "Islamist extremism." Two alleged Hizb ut-Tahrir supporters were arrested on January 21 in northern Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyz police also recently arrested a suspected leader of the same group in Osh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 2007). RG

Acting Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov announced on January 22 that Turkmenistan will pay Ukrainian contractors in hard currency, ending a long-standing barter arrangement whereby those enterprises were paid in the form of gas supplies, ITAR-TASS reported. The Ukrainian contractors are engaged in large-scale construction projects in Turkmenistan. RG

Exiled Uzbek opposition activists announced on January 22 that President Islam Karimov has "no legal right to run the country until the next election," arguing that his presidential term has expired, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Karimov, first elected president in 1991, began serving a second, five-year term on January 22, 2000, that was extended for another two years by a national referendum in 2002. Shahida Yaqub of the London-based nongovernmental group Uzbek Initiative argued that under the Uzbek Constitution, Karimov has no right to seek a third term and his government is "illegitimate." Constitutional Court Deputy Chairman Bahtiyor Mirboboev argued that such a constitutional interpretation is incorrect, noting that the lower house of parliament voted to allow Karimov to remain in office until new elections are held at the end of this year. RG

The Council of the Republic on January 22 unanimously approved the reappointment of Lidziya Yarmoshyna as chairwoman of the Central Election Commission and elected six new commission members, Belapan reported. Under the Belarusian Constitution, six of the 12 members of the Central Election Commission are elected by the upper house and the remaining six, including the commission's head, are appointed by the president. "I cannot say that I would perform better because this would be an indirect admission that I did not perform very well before," Yarmoshyna said before the Council of the Republic on January 22. Yarmoshyna, a member of the commission since 1992, has been chairing it since 1996. In December 2004, following a deeply flawed constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections in October, the EU imposed a travel ban on Yarmoshyna. In November 2006, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka acknowledged that the authorities falsified the presidential election in March 2006. Lukashenka claimed that the authorities stole the vote from him in order to make the official results look more "European" (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," November 28, 2006). JM

EU foreign ministers on January 22 approved a mandate for talks with Ukraine on a new cooperation agreement including a possible free-trade deal, Reuters and dpa reported. Poland and other supporters of Ukraine's EU membership bid wanted the mandate to include a mention of Ukraine's "European aspirations," but this formulation was opposed by other EU members. "Through this agreement, the EU aims to build an increasingly close relationship with Ukraine, aimed at gradual economic integration and deepening of political cooperation," the EU foreign ministers said in a statement. "A new enhanced agreement shall not prejudge any possible future developments in EU-Ukraine relations," the statement adds. JM

Some 4,000 Crimean Tatars gathered on a central square in Simferopol on January 22 to protest a recent bill introducing harsher criminal responsibility for land squatting and what they see as the government's discrimination against Tatars in land-rights disputes on the peninsula, Interfax-Ukraine and dpa reported. In December, the Verkhovna Rada passed a bill that, if enforced, would reportedly drive thousands of Crimean Tatars out of temporary homes and give undisputed title to the most valuable land in Crimea to non-Tatar persons or firms. Since 1989, some 260,000 Crimean Tatars or their descendents resettled to Crimea from their forced exile to Central Asia in May 1944. Land distribution has since long become a burning issue in relations between Slavic inhabitants of the Crimean Peninsula and the resettlers. JM

Serbian Radical Party (SRS) deputy leader Tomislav Nikolic said late on January 21 that although his party won the most votes in the election, it will not be able to form a new government, B92 and Beta reported the next day. According to early returns and exit-poll estimates, the SRS should control 81 seats in the 250-member parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). "We are not going to have an opportunity to form the government, while those who stated they were not going to team up with us will have a hard time finding partners elsewhere," Nikolic said. He also said that the SRS does not expect to join any new governing coalition. Speaking at a press conference on January 22, Nikolic said there is a strong probability Serbia will need to hold new elections, Makfax reported the same day. "Even in the event that a government is formed in Serbia, it won't last until the end of the year," he said. BW

The Democratic Party's (DS) candidate for prime minister, Bozidar Djelic, said on January 22 that he expects President and DS leader Boris Tadic to ask him to head a new government, B92 and Beta reported the same day. Exit polls and early returns show the DS receiving 65 seats in parliament. Djelic said Serbia needs a new government as soon as possible and that the DS remains open to working with all parties except the SRS and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS). He added that it is time for politicians and parties to "forget what was said in the campaign and turn to Serbia and its progress." Likewise, Tadic said the DS is now the democratic bloc leader and should hold the post of prime minister. Asked if he would be willing to let another party name the prime minister should talks fail, Tadic said, "I don't think so." BW

Outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica refused to reveal on January 22 whether his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) will enter a coalition with the nationalistic SRS, B92, and Beta reported the same day. Early returns show the DSS receiving 47 parliamentary seats. Kostunica said it is "irresponsible to speak about postelection coalitions only several hours after the first, incomplete results have emerged." Kostunica added that the DSS will release its negotiating positions for a new government after internal party consultations. "As for putting together the new government, the man who is, in a sense, in charge, is the president," Kostunica said. "It is up to him to come up with a politician who will secure the parliamentary majority, to find the person who will have the backing of the majority in the parliament," he added. BW

Mladjan Dinkic, leader of the liberal G17 Plus party, said he favors joining a coalition government with Tadic's DS and Kostunica's DSS, B92 and Beta reported on January 22. G17 Plus will receive 19 parliamentary seats, according to early returns. Dinkic said the DS, DSS, and G17 Plus together will hold more than 130 seats in the 250-member parliament, enough to form a strong government. If the three parties were to team up with smaller parties representing ethnic minorities, they would control 140 seats. BW

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), and NATO all praised Serbia on January 22 for holding free and fair elections, B92 reported the same day. "The elections in Serbia were free and fair," OSCE Parliamentary Assembly President Goran Lennmarker said. "I was personally impressed and proud on behalf of the Serb people for the professional, orderly, and well-organized way they carried out this election. It bodes well for Serbia's future." PACE delegation head Tadeusz Iwinski said the elections prove Serbia "has made significant progress toward ensuring a free expression of the will of the electorate, whose active participation in the vote shows its intense involvement in determining the vector of their country's development." Assen Agov, head of the NATO observer delegation, said the elections, Serbia's first since joining the alliance's Partnership for Peace program, were "free and fair." BW

Despite the SRS's first-place showing in Serbia's elections, European Union leaders expressed confidence on January 22 that a pro-European democratic government will be formed, Reuters reported the same day. "The majority voted for forces that are democratic and pro-European," EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said. "I hope very much there will be a speedy formation of a government that will be on the line of pro-European forces." Germany, which holds the EU's rotating Presidency, expressed similar confidence. "The radicals got most votes but nevertheless two-thirds of the seats in parliament will go to democratic forces," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said. "I believe that is going to be the basis for a government that is going to lead the country on a path toward Europe." BW

Speaking at a meeting in Moscow with Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 22 that Moscow would like to forge deeper ties with the Bosnian Serb republic, Interfax reported the same day. "Our relations with Republika Srpska are a locomotive for Russia's interaction with Bosnia-Herzegovina, and we want to make the most of this visit for promoting cooperation in spheres of interest," Lavrov said. "We will give comprehensive political support to this process." BW

Turkish officials have recently voiced their concerns over the fate of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Turkey fears that if the Iraqi Kurds annex Kirkuk into their autonomous region, they will eventually want to carve out an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and thus stoke separatist desires in Turkey's own sizable Kurdish population.

Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution calls for a three-step process to be implemented to reverse the "Arabization" policies of the regime of former President Saddam Hussein to expel and/or displace non-Arabs in the area around Kirkuk. The article also stipulates that once the province has been "normalized," a census is to be conducted, followed by a referendum, which is to be carried out sometime in 2007 to determine whether the city and its environs will join the Kurdish region.

On January 16, a two-day symposium titled Kirkuk 2007, sponsored by the Turkish Global Strategy Institute, ended in Ankara with a final declaration calling for "the suspension of the referendum until the Iraqi Constitution is reviewed," the Ankara Anatolia news agency reported the same day.

The aim of the symposium was to discuss the future of Kirkuk with the participation of Iraqi Sunni, Shi'ite, Turkoman, Christian, and Assyrian groups. However, no representatives of Iraqi Kurdish groups were invited; the conference's organizers said the Kurds were asked to submit their views in writing.

Iraq's Turkomans, who are ethnic Turks, have voiced fears that tensions could spill over if the Kurds took control of Kirkuk. The leader of the Iraqi Turkoman Front, Sadettin Ergec, said on January 15 at the conference that due to the complex ethnic and religious makeup of Kirkuk, the referendum should be cancelled and the province be placed under the control of the federal government, Ankara Anatolia reported the same day.

"Kirkuk is not a normal province. Rather, it is Iraq's national asset. Therefore, all the Iraqis should have a say in its future and the city," Ergec said.

Several Kurdish lawmakers in the Iraqi parliament issued a joint statement denouncing the conference, "The New Anatolian" reported on January 17. "We condemn this interference in Iraqi affairs by the Turkish government [and] upon the Iraqi government and Foreign Ministry to take a decisive stance to stop this interference, and to threaten to cut political and economic relations with Turkey should Turkey continue its interference," the statement read.

The confrontational rhetoric from Turkish officials has been amplified in recent weeks as the Kirkuk referendum approaches. During a session of parliament on January 15, Turhan Comez, a leading member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), warned that the Kirkuk referendum may lead to ethnic clashes in the city, which could force Ankara to intervene, "The New Anatolian" reported the same day.

"Turkey should announce that it will not recognize the results of a referendum on the future of Kirkuk under these conditions. And we should also announce that we are going to intervene if civil war erupts in Kirkuk," Comez said.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on January 9, "Turkey cannot stand idly by, watching the efforts to change the demographic structure of Kirkuk," the Cihan news agency reported on January 10. Erdogan's statement reflects a longstanding accusation by Turkey that Iraq's Kurds have been drastically altering the demographics of Kirkuk in an attempt to influence the outcome of the upcoming referendum in their favor.

Indeed, "The New Anatolian" reported on January 15 that Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) has obtained information that since 2003 "an estimated 600,000 ethnic Kurdish Iraqi citizens have been moved to Kirkuk from different areas in northern Iraq and have subsequently been registered to vote in elections."

Moreover, the Turkish daily "Ortadogu" reported on January 17 that 240,000 Turkish troops deployed last March along the Iranian and Iraqi borders are awaiting orders to enter northern Iraq to go after Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters and to protect the Iraqi Turkoman population.

It is unclear whether Turkey would go so far as sending troops into northern Iraq if the Kurds continue with their drive to annex Kirkuk. Both the ruling AKP and the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) have on separate occasions asked for a closed-door session of parliament to discuss the Kirkuk situation. The session is to take place on January 23.

CHP leader Deniz Baykal indicated that an order to send troops to northern Iraq would be issued if the situation "warranted" it, "Milliyet" reported on January 16.

Iraqi Kurdish regional parliament speaker Adnan Mufti on January 19 denounced the upcoming session, calling it an attempt by Turkey to sow chaos in Iraq, Salah al-Din Kurdistan Satellite television reported the same day.

"I believe that the [Turkish] parliament's session is unnecessary. Now, since the session has become a fact, I hope that they will discuss the realities," he said.

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns moved to clarify the situation when he stressed on January 18 after a meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan that the issue of Kirkuk is a matter for the "Iraqis, since they are sovereign in their country." However, as the referendum nears, tensions are bound to increase and Turkey will continue to watch northern Iraq anxiously.

Taliban chief Mohammad Mullah Omar is probably leading the resurgent militant group out of southern Afghanistan, AP quoted Pakistan's Foreign Ministry as saying on January 22. Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said that Omar's exact location is unknown, but it is likely he is marshalling his troops from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. Last week, Afghan officials claimed that a captured Taliban spokesman told interrogators that Omar is living in Pakistan under the protection of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). "We have very regular meetings, intelligence sharing with the U.S. [and], to some extent, with Afghans," Reuters quoted Aslam as saying on January 22. "Nobody has any [specific] information about the whereabouts of Mullah Omar," she added. Afghan officials allege that Pakistan provides refuge for Taliban militants carrying out attacks in Afghanistan, a claim that Pakistan vehemently denies. JC

Afghanistan dismissed a recent Taliban vow to open schools in southern Afghanistan as "ridiculous" and said the group is probably using education as a front to set up religious extremist schools, AFP reported on January 22. Education Minister Hanif Atmar scoffed at the claim of Taliban schools, saying that the Taliban closed down nearly 400 schools under their regime, the majority of which were located in areas where they say they will now open schools. "The Taliban's record on education is a tragic one and I think speaks quite adequately for itself," Atmar said. The UN mission also rejected the Taliban's claims. "I don't think we see this as being serious," UN spokesman Adrian Edwards said. School enrollment in Afghanistan is five times the level it was under the Taliban regime, according to Atmar, although the nongovernmental organization Oxfam has said nearly 7 million Afghan children still do not attend school. JC

The top British commander of NATO troops, General David Richards, said a yearlong push to finally defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan will require more money and soldiers, AFP reported on January 22. Richards praised the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for bravely frustrating the Taliban's winter campaign, but said the achievement was "against the odds" and "[has] been achieved with less troops than are really needed," the BBC reported on January 22. In an interview with "The Guardian," Richards expressed concern that NATO nations will assume the same level of risk in 2007 as in previous years under the "dangerous" assumption that the same factors fueling the insurgency will continue to exist. "I hope, but am not yet convinced, that the nations concerned now understand this crucial issue [for more resources]," Richards said. He also called on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accelerate his efforts to fight corruption. JC

Pakistan's military said U.S.-led forces killed one of its soldiers after mistakenly bombing a border post between Afghanistan and Pakistan on January 22, AP reported the same day. A U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Fitzpatrick, confirmed that U.S.-led forces dropped four precision-guided bombs on suspected militants who were allegedly firing rockets at a U.S. military outpost near the Pakistani border. He did not confirm or deny loss or injury to the Pakistani military, but said the coalition is investigating. In a statement, Pakistan protested the incident to the coalition authorities, requesting they investigate it and take "necessary steps to ensure that such incidents are not repeated in the future." This is not the first time fire by U.S.-led coalition forces has caused casualties in Pakistan. In January 2006, Pakistan complained to the U.S. military in Afghanistan after firing at a village in North Waziristan left eight people dead. JC

Iran has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it will not allow 38 IAEA inspectors to investigate unspecified Iranian installations, following a recent parliamentary vote to reconsider cooperation with the UN nuclear inspectorate, Radio Farda reported on January 22, quoting an Iranian legislator and news agencies (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," January 3, 2007). Alaeddin Borujerdi, who heads the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told ISNA on January 22 that Iran is implementing the recent parliamentary decision, although officials have said Iran is not in principle ending cooperation with the IAEA and remains a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran has apparently suspended an additional protocol to the treaty, which allows closer checks of installations. Separately, a special parliamentary committee formed to study the construction of future nuclear plants met on January 21 with the heads of five other parliamentary committees whose work relates to Iran's nuclear program, Radio Farda reported, citing a report by IRNA. Participants drafted a letter addressed to Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, asking him to speed up a construction process already approved by parliament (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," May 24, 2005). VS

Former President and current Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told a conference in Tehran on January 22 that Iran must use its private sector more effectively and realize the constitution's goal of a diversified economy, IRNA reported. He told a conference on the implementation of Article 44 of the constitution -- which calls for large-scale privatization -- that the heads of the legislature, executive, and judiciary recently met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who told them he expected the implementation of Article 44 to initiate "an economic revolution" in Iran. Khamenei told the officials that he opposed the nationalization policies of Iran's post-1979 government, but that "the atmosphere at the time did not allow" a free-market economy, according to Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Hashemi-Rafsanjani reportedly added that differences "between the factions" over this part of the constitution was in part behind the creation of the Expediency Council, which is now a key political arbitrating body. The council has issued its interpretation of Article 44 and Khamenei has approved it, Hashemi-Rafsanjani said. "We must turn floating capital into constructive activities," he said. He added that "some people still think these things are against [social] justice," but he stressed that there can be no "economic revolution" without the private sector, IRNA reported. VS

Conservative legislator Imad Afrugh told ISNA on January 22 of the formation of a new grouping on the political right comprising "creative and critical fundamentalists" (osulgarayan-i khallaq va enteqadi). Some observers have suggested a persistent division on the political right -- pitting greater and lesser supporters of Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government against each other. Afrugh, who heads parliament's Culture Committee and has been a relatively outspoken critic of some government policies, said "one should not be afraid" of divisions among "fundamentalists" -- a title that conservatives have adopted in recent years -- if divisions are "based on recognized standards and clear ideological disagreements." He said divisions are less important now because all factions in Iran broadly agree with the ideas of the 1979 revolution. Afrugh said that "systematic" divisions contribute to "political development" and prevent "our political suicide." He compared adherents of this incipient current of "critical fundamentalism," who he said engage in disinterested criticism of government policies, with a more calculating fundamentalist faction dominant in parliament. The dominant current, Afrugh said, is pursuing its narrow interests by invoking "expediency" and the need to support the government. This "is Machiavelism itself," ISNA quoted him as saying. VS

Mohammad Reza Bahonar, the head of the "fundamentalist" faction in parliament and a deputy speaker of parliament, told ISNA on January 22 that "we...welcome certain gentlemen" forming a new faction (see item above), but "one has to see how many people they can gather" and what they can do. He said legislators associated with the new group have already distanced themselves from other fundamentalists. Another right-wing legislator, Said Abutaleb, told ISNA on January 21 that certain "fundamentalist" legislators are forming the new group because they are dissatisfied with the performance of the main parliamentary faction, and the methods of its presiding board, including Bahonar. He said that the "critical" fundamentalists, which he added are still an informal grouping, comprise lawmakers who wish to perform their supervisory duties as public representatives more seriously. His comments suggest that Bahonar is seen by some as overly accommodating toward the government. Abutaleb said the new grouping currently includes himself, Imad Afrugh, and legislators Said Madani and Mohammad Khosh-Chehreh, ISNA reported. VS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on January 22 that the government is seeking the release of Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, a top aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, AFP reported the same day. Al-Darraji was arrested in Baghdad during a raid conducted by Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. troops on January 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 21, 2007). The U.S. military did not mention al-Darraji by name, but said that it arrested a member of an illegal armed group involved in the killing of civilians. However, Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, criticized the arrest and told Al-Arabiyah satellite television on January 19 that the raid was not coordinated with the Iraqi leadership. SS

Two near-simultaneous bombings on January 22 near a Shi'ite commercial district in Baghdad killed 78 people and wounded more than 150, international media reported the same day. The first bomb exploded among stalls of vendors selling DVDs and secondhand clothes in the Al-Bab al-Sharqi area. Moments later, a car bomb exploded nearby. This is the second major attack within a week. On January 16, a double bombing at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad killed some 70 people and wounded more than 100 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007). The attack in Al-Bab al-Sharqi was the worst since a series of car bombs and mortar attacks killed 215 people in Al-Sadr City on November 23. Meanwhile, at least 12 people were killed and 29 wounded when a bomb exploded in a vegetable market in the town of Al-Khalis in the volatile Diyala Governorate, Xinhua news agency reported on January 22. SS

A shoulder-fired missile may have downed the U.S. Black Hawk helicopter that crashed northeast of Baghdad on January 20, killing all 12 people on board, CNN reported on January 22, citing an unnamed U.S. military official (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). CNN said that debris recovered near the crash site indicated that a missile caused the crash. Meanwhile, an Al-Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq, posted a message on a jihadist website on January 22 claiming responsibility for shooting down the helicopter. "The lions of the Islamic State of Iraq were able to down a Black Hawk aircraft. A clash with the crusaders followed, which led to the complete destruction of two Humvees and the killing of those on board. Praise and thanks be to God," the statement read. The authenticity of the statement has not been verified. U.S. military spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Josslyn Aberle said the cause of the crash has not yet been determined. SS

During a January 22 press conference in Baghdad, government spokesman al-Dabbagh called on Iraq's neighbors to stop interfering in its internal affairs, KUNA reported the same day. "The Iraqi government expresses its rejection of the interference of some countries in Iraq's internal affairs by holding conferences of a sectarian or political nature or statements by officials of these countries in which they talk about Iraqi internal affairs," al-Dabbagh said. He also warned that the Iraqi government might be forced to sever diplomatic ties with states that continue to host gatherings that inflame sectarian tensions in Iraq. Al-Dabbagh's comments were seen as a reference to Turkey, which hosted a two-day symposium called Kirkuk 2007 that brought together Iraqi Sunni, Shi'ite, Turkoman, and Assyrian groups to discuss the future of Kirkuk (see End Note and "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). No representatives from Iraqi Kurdish groups were invited, but the organization committee said those groups were asked to send their views in writing. Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution calls for the "normalization" of Kirkuk, after which a census is to be carried out and a referendum is to take place sometime in 2007 to determine whether the city is to be part of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. SS

The London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on January 22 that the United States plans to build a military base in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region. A source said the base will be built in Al-Sulaymaniyah, where villagers will be asked to leave their homes in exchange for compensation. Also, the paper said that as part of U.S. President George W. Bush's new Iraq strategy, coalition forces have decided to close transit points between Iraq and Iran in the Al-Basrah Governorate. An informed source said the closure will most probably cause new problems between British forces, who are primarily responsible for security in the governorate, and provincial authorities in Al-Basrah. SS

In an interview published in the "Financial Times" on January 23, the Kurdish regional government's oil minister, Ashti Hawrami, said the new draft oil law announced last week has not been agreed upon. On January 17, Iraqi Oil Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said a draft oil law has been approved and it will be sent to the cabinet for approval. "Several issues are still not resolved. The Oil Ministry statement is unfortunately premature," Hawrami said. "The head of the [committee drafting the law] is going to organize new meetings to address these issues. Probably we will reconvene next week or after to discuss the remaining issues." SS