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Newsline - January 29, 2007

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 27 that he expects the United States to "explain its growing presence in the Middle East" when he visits Washington on February 2, RIA Novosti reported. He added that he has "seen no change in Washington's fairly aggressive rhetoric. It continues, just like its actions to increase the military presence in the region. It will be one of the questions which we want to clarify in Washington. What's it all about?" He also argued that "we are deeply convinced that Iran and Syria should not be isolated but brought into the peace process," Russian news agencies reported. He added that "in general, the problems that exist in the Middle East and in the surrounding region are linked to muddle-headed ideas about prestige. Someone says something once and from then on he can't break with this principle. This is an inflexible policy, and it's short-sighted." Lavrov will visit the U.S. capital to take part in a meeting of the so-called Quartet of international mediators for the Middle East, which comprises Russia, the United States, the EU, and the UN. Admiral Eduard Baltin, who is a former commander of the Black Sea Fleet, was quoted by on January 15 as saying that "the presence of U.S. nuclear submarines in the Persian Gulf region means that the Pentagon has not abandoned plans for surprise strikes against nuclear targets in Iran" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2007). PM

Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov appealed to Iranian leaders in Tehran on January 28 to consider a recent suggestion by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei, for a 'timeout' under which Iranian uranium-enrichment work and UN sanctions would be suspended concurrently, news agencies reported. Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said Tehran needs time to review the proposal. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stressed the great importance of Tehran-Moscow cooperation, adding that the two countries should be partners in political and economic, and regional and international affairs, IRNA reported. Khamenei "expressed pleasure" at an unspecified message that Ivanov delivered from Russian President Vladimir Putin, adding that Iran welcomes an "all-out expansion of relations with Russia." Khamenei stressed that "active cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Russia on regional issues within a defined framework can be effective in foiling ambitious U.S. plans" in the region. He noted that Iran and Russia together hold half of the world's total gas reserves, adding that "the two countries through mutual cooperation can establish an organization of gas exporting countries like OPEC." The EU has repeatedly expressed concern about the possible formation of a gas cartel involving Russia and several countries in the Middle East (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2007). On January 28 in Tehran, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Ivanov that "some [unnamed] powers outside the region do not want Russia and Iran, as two powerful countries, to play an important role in ensuring stability and security in the region and globally," RIA Novosti reported. Ahmadinejad added that "this testifies to the importance of cooperation and exchange of opinions between Moscow and Tehran." PM

Russia's large business-oriented delegation at the recent Davos World Economic Forum, which was headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, succeeded by and large in improving Russia's international image, and reported on January 29, citing several Russian and international media sources. The daily "Vedomosti" noted on January 29 that the Russian success was due primarily to Medvedev; both "Vedomosti" and the daily "Vremya novostei" noted that Medvedev impressed foreign conference participants as a likely successor to President Putin in 2008. "The Wall Street Journal," however, reported on January 29 that Medvedev was somewhat defensive at Davos regarding criticism of Russia's behavior in its energy disputes with some of its neighbors over the past year. The daily added that he was also "angered" by assertions that Gazprom is not doing enough to develop Russia's natural gas reserves. Medvedev stressed that "we know how much to invest to meet the demand." The paper cited U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) as saying, however, that he is not fully convinced by the Russian claims that their policies are based on economic and not political criteria. McCain stressed that "it's not how people speak, it's how they act. We've seen what happened with Belarus, we've seen what happened with major oil companies forced to sell. I don't think there is any doubt that President Putin is using energy as a weapon." Also at Davos, Medvedev said on January 27 that Russia realizes the problems it faces, namely "excessive dependence on [natural resources], corruption, and a declining population," Reuters reported. He added that Russia will seek to impress others through its achievements, but will not neglect its own unspecified interests. Medvedev denied that he is seeking the Russian presidency, saying that he is happy in his current job. RIA Novosti wrote on January 25 nonetheless that Medvedev's appearance in Davos amounted to "the candidate's trial run in the international arena." PM

President Putin said in Vladivostok on January 27 that he wants that city to host the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2012, when Russia holds the organization's presidency, Interfax reported. Putin noted that the government intends to invest about $3.7 billion in the project as part of the necessary development of the Far East. He added that "we've made the decision not to hold the summit in the capital city. The APEC rules allow holding summits either in the capital cities or in a region [on the Pacific]. Vladivostok would be the most acceptable venue." He called the $3.7 billion "a serious sum for the region and very serious by Vladivostok standards." Putin stressed that "whether or not the APEC forum convenes here, if we are to develop Vladivostok and the Far East, mere rhetoric will not suffice, and investment will have to be made. The money to be invested will not be wasted. The question is where to invest, how to invest, and how the state and citizens will benefit from the investment made." APEC has yet to officially endorse the choice of Vladivostok, but Putin suggested that such approval is a mere formality now that Russia has opted for that site. PM

St. Petersburg Elections Commission official Dmitry Krasnyansky was quoted by Interfax news agency on January 29 as saying that the liberal political party Yabloko will not be allowed to compete in local elections there on March 11. He noted that nearly 12 percent of the signatures submitted in support of Yabloko's candidates have been declared invalid by authorities -- more than the maximum 10 percent allowed. Yabloko official Maksim Reznik was quoted by Reuters as saying that the party believes it was barred because it is in opposition to the current St. Petersburg authorities. Yabloko says it plans to appeal the decision. suggested on January 29 that the authorities might be trying to warn Yabloko against participating in the December 2007 parliamentary elections. PM

Organizers of the May 2006 Gay Pride parade in Moscow, which went ahead despite an official ban by the city authorities under Mayor Yury Luzhkov, have joined the growing list of Russian citizens who are seeking justice from the European Court of Human Rights, Interfax reported on January 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, and June 2 and 27, 2006, and "Council of Europe: Moscow Confronted With More Cases From Caucasus,", January 23, 2007). Organizers of the march want $26,000 in damages. Protest organizer Nikolai Alekseyev was quoted by the news agency as saying that the activists' decision to appeal to Strasbourg is an important one. If they succeed, the Russian authorities "will stop considering us second-class citizens without any rights.... We [currently] have the image of people who cannot defend their rights." Alekseyev said that his group plans to demonstrate on May 27, 2007, and has already applied to the authorities for a permit. PM

Speaking at a Moscow press conference on January 26, Lieutenant General Anatoly Zabrodin, who heads the Border Protection Department of the Federal Security Service (FSB), said that agency has information that groups of armed militants are again ensconced in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge, and may try to enter Chechnya, Interfax reported. He also mentioned the possibility that militants in Chechnya could try to flee to Georgia "to escape criminal responsibility." But Zabrodin admitted that over the past two years his agency has not registered any such illegal border crossings by militants in either direction. Persistent reports that Chechen fighters led by field commander Ruslan Gelayev were using Pankisi as a base served in 2002 as the rationale for the U.S. funded Train and Equip program to raise the combat effectiveness of the Georgian armed forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and May 3, 2002 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," October 27, 2003). LF

The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group met on January 25 in Stepanakert with Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, and the following day in Yerevan with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Russian co-chair Yury Merzlyakov was quoted by as describing the co-chairs' meeting with Ghukasian as "extremely useful" and as "substantive and detailed." He added that "we tried to reach agreement on a range of questions." Ghukasian for his part was quoted by Noyan Tapan on January 27 as saying that it would be premature to affirm that a settlement of the Karabakh conflict is close as "there are still many unresolved issues." No formal statement was issued after the co-chairs' talks with Kocharian in Yerevan on January 26, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

The Musavat party staged a rally and march on January 28 to protest the steep price increases for gas, electricity, and gasoline announced earlier this month, AP and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10 and 11, 2007). Speaking at a press conference on January 26, Musavat leader Isa Qambar appealed to the population to participate in the protest action, but stressed at the same time that the planned protest would be a social one, rather than an expression of a "political struggle" between Musavat and the Azerbaijani authorities, reported on January 27. How many people turned out for the protest, which took place at a location in the suburbs of Baku approved by the city administration, is unclear: AP reported a turnout of 1,000, while estimated attendance at 1,200-1,400. Musavat subsequently said 10,000 people participated, according to Addressing participants, parliament deputy Panah Huseinov said the Musavat parliament faction of which he is a member will call for the government to resign over the price hikes, reported. LF

In a joint statement issued on January 26, Azerbaijan's Agriculture and Health ministries said laboratory tests showed that a 14-year-old boy hospitalized with suspected bird flu was suffering from bronchial pneumonia, and reported on January 27. Two of the boy's relatives died last year from bird flu. LF

Police in Gyandja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city, arrested two men on January 26 on suspicion of printing and circulating counterfeit manat bills, reported on January 27. During a preliminary interrogation, the two men confessed to having printed false bills of five and 20 manats ($5.74-$22.97) which they used as payment for various goods over the past eight months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007). LF

In an interview with Ekho Moskvy pegged to the third anniversary of his inauguration as president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili said Georgia is ready to offer Russia "our friendly attitude and readiness for dialogue," Caucasus Press reported on January 27. "You will find us pragmatic and flexible interlocutors if you [agree to] talk to us," he added. He said the governments of both countries bear "great responsibility" for not destroying the "tradition of friendship" between them. In the same interview, Saakashvili described as "normal" Georgia's demand that Russia legalize trade at two border-crossing posts with the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia does not control those border crossings, and pegs its approval of Russia's bid to join the WTO to their legalization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19 and 26, 2007). Saakashvili further said that Georgia will not resort to the use of military force against Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and that he advocates the "broad federalization" of Georgia and "almost total self-government" for the two unrecognized republics, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Georgian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the 1992-1993 war in Abkhazia rallied outside the Georgian parliament building on January 26 for the fourth consecutive day to protest the government's decision to abolish most of the social benefits to which they were previously entitled, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported on January 26. On January 26, some 300 veterans set fire to an effigy of Health Minister Lado Chipashvili, who they believe drafted the bill that will entitle them to financial compensation in place of those benefits. On January 29, the political party Chven Tviton (We Ourselves), which represents Georgians forced to flee Abkhazia during the 1992-1993 conflict, appealed to displaced persons to join the veterans' protest since they too stand to lose their social benefits, Caucasus Press reported. LF

The South Ossetian members of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring developments in the South Ossetian conflict zone released a statement on January 28 claiming a group of Georgian Interior Ministry spetsnaz opened fire early that morning on a South Ossetian police post on the southern outskirts of Tskhinvali, wounding three policemen, reported. The statement further accused Georgian forces of opening fire on Tskhinvali, and suggested that their ultimate objective was to force a suspension of the ongoing talks aimed at resolving the conflict. The commander of the Georgian peacekeeping contingent deployed in the conflict zone, Mamuka Kurashvili, denied on January 29 that Georgian forces either opened fire on Tskhinvali or attacked the police patrol post, reported. He suggested that the shoot-out was between rival South Ossetian armed groups. LF

Uzakbai Karabalin, the president of the Kazakh state oil company KazMunaiGaz, announced on January 24 that a new memorandum of understanding has been signed with several international companies outlining a new export route for Kazakh oil using tankers to transport the oil across the Caspian Sea, AKIpress reported on January 26. The agreement centers on using the planned Eskene-Kuryk pipeline to transport oil to a terminal on the Caspian coast for transfer to oil tankers which would then ferry the crude oil to Azerbaijan for pumping into the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. The initial capacity of the planned route would be roughly 25 million tons of oil a year, with later projections to increase to some 38 million tons annually. The new $3 billion Kazakh Caspian Transport System project is expected to be launched with the start of production at the giant Kashagan field in the northern Caspian by 2010 or 2011. RG

Bolat Nurgaliev, the new Kazakh secretary-general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), outlined on January 25 the organization's priorities for the coming year, according to Khabar TV. Nurgaliev said the SCO is committed to "ensuring peace and stability" in the region and will focus on fostering greater cooperation "in the fight against terrorism, separatism, and extremism." He also highlighted the need for economic cooperation between the six SCO member states (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan), noting the approval of a "comprehensive development program" to create a new "free-trade area" that would include new measures to promote the unfettered "movement of goods, capital, technologies, and services." He said there will also be discussions within the SCO on forming an energy alliance based on a new "Asian energy strategy within the SCO." Nurgaliev is a former Kazakh ambassador to the United States. RG

Kyrgyz border guards head Zakir Tilenov announced in Bishkek on January 27 that security will be tightened along the Kyrgyz borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, AKIpress reported. Tilenov reported that two new border checkpoints are to be established at the Akdzhol border crossing with Tajikistan and at the Kara Su checkpoint in the southern Kyrgyz region of Osh on the border with Uzbekistan. The new border-security facilities are being financed by the United Nations Deveolpment Program (UNDP) and the European Union's Commission for Cooperation with Central Asia. RG

RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports that The Kyrgyz parliament today overwhelmingly confirmed Azim Isabekov for the post of prime minister, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Isabekov, who has served as agriculture minister since May, was President Kurmanbek Bakiev's second nominee -- the parliament has twice rejected outgoing Prime Minister Feliks Kulov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 25 and 26, 2007). The vote for Isabekov was 57 to four. Many deputies from opposition parties stated before the vote that they support Isabekov. Kulov said before the vote that Isabekov is a "mature politician," AKIpress reported. Shortly before his confirmation, Isabekov told parliament that his main priority will be the economy, saying: "I believe that for the effective work of the government it should implement its main function. And it must stay away from political struggles. Of course, politics also plays a role in government activity. But [the focus] must be economic policy, financial policy, and foreign economic policy." Isabekov is seen as a close ally of Bakiev, and he served as Bakiev's adviser when he was the governor of the Chui region. Isabekov, who was born in 1960, is an economist by profession and hails from northern Kyrgyzstan. PB/RG

Almazbek Syranov, the leader of a new political alliance of Kyrgyz cotton and tobacco producers, announced on January 26 in Bishkek the formation of a new political party, the Cotton and Tobacco Producers' Party, Kabar reported. According to Syranov, the new party was formed to represent the interests of cotton and tobacco producers because "the Kyrgyz authorities do not pay enough attention to the problems of farmers." The commodity-based party is centered in the southern Osh, Batken, and Jalal-Abad regions, three of the country's main cotton and tobacco growing areas. The party, which has a reported membership of about 2,500 farmers, advocates an increase in cotton and tobacco prices to "levels existing in neighboring countries" and seeks to "attract foreign investors" to "raise the quality of [Kyrgyz-grown] cotton and tobacco and to world standards." RG

Acting Kyrgyz Interior Minister Omurbek Suvanaliev reported on January 26 that according to new statistics, the overall level of crime in the country fell by almost 6 percent in 2006, the Kabar news agency reported. Suvanaliev added that although a series of "illegal protest actions, held both in the capital and in regions, significantly contributed to the criminal situation in Kyrgyzstan," the ministry was able to maintain law and order. Referring to the ministry's counterterrorism efforts, Suvanaliev reported that Interior Ministry forces remained concentrated in the southern regions of the country, mainly in response to "the activities of terrorists groups," which attacked a customs checkpoint in the southern Batken Region in 2006. He also noted a sharp rise in crime in the southern Osh region, which he attributed to the expansion of organized crime groups operating there. Suvanaliev, a close associate of former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Kulov, was named interior minister in November 2006 and previously served as the Bishkek chief of police until being appointed deputy interior minister in October 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2005). RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on January 26 threatened to impose new duties on Russian oil transit across Belarus, charging that Russian oil companies deliver oil to Belarusian refineries at prices higher than those charged on world markets, Reuters and AP reported. "We have to compensate for these losses," Lukashenka said. "We're not going to argue with [Russian companies]; it's their oil. But we will pump this oil without any losses for us." Earlier this month, Lukashenka imposed a transit duty of $45 per ton of Russian oil in response to the introduction by Russia of an export tax of $180 per ton of crude oil shipped to Belarus. Lukashenka canceled that transit duty after Russia lowered the export tax on oil to some $53 per ton. Earlier this month Lukashenka estimated that in connection with recent price and duty hikes on Russian gas and oil, Belarus will have to spend $3.5 billion more in 2007 than last year. JM

Belarusian border guards prevented Polish Senate deputy speaker Krzysztof Putra from entering Belarus on January 26 without giving any reasons, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported the same day. According to Andrzej Poczobut, an activist of the Union of Poles of Belarus (SPB), Putra intended to meet with SPB members in Hrodna. "One of the Polish Senate's functions is to render assistance to the Poles living outside Poland and establishing ties with Polish communities all over the world. That's why Krzysztof Putra's visit could have been regarded as a routine working trip," Poczobut told journalists. "We appealed to our border guards and were told that it was up to the Republic of Belarus to decide whether or not to admit anyone and explain the reason." JM

Up to 10,000 tons of Ukrainian grain is thrown into the Black Sea every night, Ukrainian Television reported on January 26. The grain, loaded into elevators at Ukrainian ports last summer to be subsequently exported, stayed there for too long because the government of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych introduced grain-export quotas. The government justified the quotas by saying there would be not enough grain for domestic needs. Having been stored for six months, the grain reportedly spoiled, germinated, and was attacked by insects. The volume of unusable grain now amounts to some 270,000 tons. Farmers say the grain market in Ukraine is saturated with 6 million tons of excess grain, which could be sold abroad for 4 billion hryvnyas ($800 million). "It is a paradoxical situation that this country has never seen before. Every night 5,000-10,000 tons of grain are thrown out into the Black Sea, feeding fish. At the same time, we are looking for funds for the agricultural sector," Ukrainian Television quoted Ukrainian Agrarian Confederation Chairman Leonid Kozachenko as saying. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on January 26 signed into law several bills extending the number of enterprises to be put up for privatization in 2007, including such potentially attractive items as the Kyiv-based Ukrtelekom telecommunications provider and the Odesa Port Plant, which produces fertilizers, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Ukraine's 2007 budget projects revenues from privatization at 10.5 billion hryvnyas ($2.1 billion). In 2006, the state budget received 550 million hryvnyas from privatization. JM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica will not receive the United Nations envoy charged with mediating talks on the final status of Kosova in Belgrade on February 2, local media reported on January 26. Martti Ahtisaari intended to use the visit to present his proposal for the future of the UN-administered Serbian province. Kostunica's office said the Serbian premier made his decision "because only the new government has a mandate to talk with the special representative on the future status of the province," the Tanjug news agency reported. Talks on the formation of a new government are due to begin on January 29, following parliamentary elections on January 21. Ahtisaari has previously said his plan will focus on the protection of minority rights and will call for a strong international civilian and military presence in Kosova. Belgrade rejects the idea of independence for the province, which has been administered by the UN since NATO forces intervened in 1999 to halt a Serbian crackdown on rebels in the predominantly ethnic-Albanian province. AG

In an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic Service on January 27, U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Michael Polt said he expects a decision on the future status of Kosova to be definitive and not temporary in character. He said it must provide a clear and unambiguous basis on which Kosova can build its future. Also on January 27, the London-based "Financial Times" reported that Kosova will declare independence in the next few months, with the "tacit support" of the EU and NATO. EU and NATO states will recognize Kosova as independent once a United Nations resolution about its future is agreed, the newspaper reported, citing unnamed "senior Western diplomats." The UN resolution is expected to stop short of granting Kosova independence, in part because of Russian opposition. A meeting of NATO foreign ministers on January 26 showed "a very strong sense of unity" in support of the plan presented by UN envoy Ahtisaari, news agencies quoted NATO spokesman James Appathurai as saying the same day. Details of the Ahtisaari plan have not been released. AG

Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina on January 26 agreed to establish a joint team to investigate war crimes allegedly committed in 1992 in the Bosnian-Serb town of Zvornik, RFE/RL's South Slavic Service and other local media reported the same day. The agreement was signed by the head of the war crimes department of the Belgrade district court, Sinisa Vazic, and Adnan Gulamovic, chief prosecutor of the Tuzla canton in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The investigating team "will be tasked with gathering evidence, discovering the perpetrators, and later enabling the war crimes prosecution in Serbia to start and continue processes based on the evidence collected," Vasic told reporters in Belgrade. Bosnian authorities have charged seven alleged members of a Serbian paramilitary group accused of executing hundreds of Muslim civilians near Zvornik (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2006). Gulamovic said he expects the cooperation shown by Bosnian and Serbian authorities in matters relating to war crimes to continue and possibly to be extended to areas such as organized crime, the Bosnian public-service channel BH Radio 1 reported on January 26. AG

Fifteen of 38 prisoners who went on hunger strike on January 8 began accepting food on January 26, the news agency SRNA reported the same day. The prisoners, who are jailed in Kula and Zeniza, were demanding to be tried according to the Yugoslav Penal Code in force when war broke out in Bosnia in 1992. Their decision came shortly after a human rights ombudsman, Vitomir Popovic, on January 24 recommended that the Bosnian government rescind a clause allowing the retroactive application of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Criminal Code to the period of the war. Popovic said the old law was "more lenient," but that retroactive application breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, the independent television station Hayat reported the same day. Popovic's fellow ombudsman, Safet Pasic, criticized his colleague, telling TV Hayat on January 24 that "one cannot give recommendations only to satisfy some ears." AG

The mayor of Athens, Nikitas Kaklamanis, on January 25 walked out of a reception for acclaimed Albanian author Ismail Kadare when Kadare used the name Macedonia to refer to the Balkan state, the Albanian daily "Shqip" reported on January 26. Athens refers to Macedonia as the "former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," believing the name Macedonia should be applied only to the Greek region of the same name. Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski on January 25 said that "the Republic of Macedonia has never insisted, neither will [it] insist, on the exclusivity of the term Macedonia or on exclusivity stemming from historical heritage of ancient Macedonians." Crvenkovski's comments came in response to a January 24 statement by Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis that he and another 2.5 million Greeks are Macedonians as well as Greeks. National sensitivities were also on display on January 26 when Macedonian journalists lodged a protest with the Council of Europe over the removal of accreditation tags with the name "Macedonia" during a session of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, the news agency MIA reported the same day. AG

Russia's agricultural inspectorate, Rosselkhoznadzor, on January 25 allowed three Moldovan meatpacking plants to resume exports to Russia, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported on January 26. Rosselkhoznadzor spokesman Aleksei Alekseyenko said the decision followed fresh inspections of the plants. The two countries agreed to "step up cooperation to prevent interruptions of meat supplies," he added. Russia banned meat imports from Moldova in May 2005, citing health concerns. Russia dropped a ban on the import of Moldovan wine in November, at the same time that Moldova promised to back Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). The ban on wine imports was imposed in March 2006, again on health grounds. AG

On January 23, the U.S. military announced it had arrested more than 600 fighters from Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army. Just four days earlier, Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. troops arrested senior al-Sadr aide Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji in Baghdad.

While Washington has often urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to rein in al-Sadr's militia, which has been blamed for much of Iraq's sectarian violence, he never seemed willing to make a move. Last week's crackdown, however, suggested to many that al-Maliki may have finally acquiesced to the U.S. demand.

The initial crackdown on the Imam al-Mahdi Army by Iraqi and U.S. forces may be an indication that the militia's end is near. The mere fact that a crackdown actually occurred is important, since al-Maliki was previously unwilling to go after al-Sadr's fighters. It seems that his demands for the militia to disarm have finally been backed by tough action.

In addition, the lack of major public displays of outrage by al-Sadr supporters is perhaps an indication that the movement does not currently have the popular support to withstand the moves against it. Previous attempts by U.S. forces to arrest high-ranking members of al-Sadr's circle provoked street protests and threats of retaliation.

Last week, by contrast, al-Darraji's arrest brought no protests or serious condemnation. In fact, the arrest was followed by what seemed to be a conciliatory gesture by al-Sadr toward al-Maliki, when al-Sadr's political faction announced the end of its boycott of the political process and its return to the Iraqi government.

Al-Sadr may have realized that his position had reached an indefensible point and, fearing an all-out attack by U.S. forces, sought to present himself as more of an ally of the al-Maliki government and less of a pariah. Indeed, with the political process grinding to a halt, the al-Sadr movement's boycott was seen as one of the main obstacles preventing the parliament from carrying out its legislative duties.

However, despite the much-touted achievements, there are also some signs that the al-Mahdi Army crackdown has failed to meet expectations. It has been widely reported that movement leaders have ordered their fighters not to confront U.S. forces while they conduct security sweeps in Baghdad.

Baha' al-Araji, a leader in the al-Mahdi Army, told "Al-Zaman" on January 23 that militia fighters would not hinder the Baghdad security plan and would not retaliate against U.S. forces for the arrests of their comrades. The arrests of al-Darraji and the 600 militiamen did not produce any reprisal attacks.

"Al-Zaman" reported on January 15 that militiamen would temporarily disband and disappear into the populace, only to reemerge once U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq.

Moreover, the mass arrests of al-Mahdi Army fighters may directly benefit al-Sadr's leadership in the long run. There has been widespread speculation among U.S. military officials that as the militia increased in size, it became more difficult for al-Sadr to control. It is believed that some of the militants may have broken away and formed "freelance" criminal gangs that have been operating beyond al-Sadr's control.

A crackdown by U.S. forces could be the ideal means by which to purge the militia of undesirable elements, resulting in a more streamlined and disciplined force.

The arrest of al-Darraji, a leading figure in al-Sadr's movement, was seen as the most explicit indication that al-Maliki's government was serious about going after the al-Mahdi Army. However, soon after al-Darraji's arrest, Iraqi government officials began sending conflicting signals concerning his detention. Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to al-Maliki, criticized the raid that led to al-Darraji's capture, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported on January 19.

"I do not think the arrest of Sheikh al-Darraji is part of the security plan," al-Rikabi said. "I would like to explain...that al-Darraji's arrest was not conducted in coordination with the Iraqi political leadership."

Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the government plans to release al-Darraji as soon as he is questioned, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on January 20. "I am not positive whether he will be released today. However, after the interrogation is over, he will be treated and released in a respectful manner," he said.

The perceived reluctance by the Iraqi government to hold al-Darraji, who is suspected of having links to illegal armed groups, in custody may be an indication that the crackdown will only focus on low-level figures, while sparing the leadership.

This scenario has been seen before. On October 17, U.S. forces arrested Sheikh Mazin al-Sa'idi, a high-ranking al-Sadr aide who was suspected of leading a cell that carried out sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs. He was quickly released at al-Maliki's behest.

Although al-Maliki's current willingness to crack down seems to be genuine, if he is seen as bowing to U.S. pressure to crush al-Sadr's militia, then Iraqis -- particularly the Shi'a -- may perceive him as a weak U.S. puppet.

While al-Sadr's militia seems to be keeping a low profile during the crackdown, Sunni insurgents have not. A double suicide bombing on January 16 at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad, which has become a bastion for al-Sadr's political party, killed 70 Iraqis and wounded more than 170. Another double bombing at the Shi'ite commercial district of Al-Bab al-Sharqi on January 22 killed 78 and wounded 150.

If these attacks continue, then it might be a matter of time before Shi'a demand the protection of the al-Mahdi Army. The leadership of al-Sadr's movement has continued to stress that the militia exists solely to protect Shi'ite citizens.

The al-Mahdi Army "are voluntary armed manifestations of self-defense," said the head of the Al-Sadr bloc in parliament, Naser al-Rubay'i, during a January 21 interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television. "This type of armament exists due to the government's weakness to ensure security for the citizens. The other type is terrorist armament. This type must be eliminated."

Another attack on the scale of the Al-Sadr City attack on November 23 that killed 215 people may force al-Maliki to end his hard-line policy against the militia. Worse yet, it may incite al-Sadr's followers to carry out reprisal attacks against Sunnis in the name of protecting their own.

Mawlawi Islam Mohammadi, who represents Samangan Province in the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) of Afghanistan's National Assembly, was gunned down by "enemies of Afghanistan" on January 26 in Kabul, a press release from Karzai's office reported on January 27. In the statement, Karzai "strongly condemned" the killing of Mohammadi, calling him a "prominent jihadi figure" who made "great sacrifices during the year of jihad against [the] Soviet invasion" of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- claimed on January 27 that mujahedin of the "Islamic Emirate" assassinated Mohammadi. Mohammadi, who was thought to be in his early 60s, once served as a provincial governor during the Taliban regime, the website said. However, the website claims that in 2001 he helped the U.S.-led coalition forces to close the main road between northern and southern Afghanistan to Taliban forces retreating southward. As a result, he was under surveillance by the mujahedin for assassination. Mohammadi served as governor of Bamiyan Province when the Taliban destroyed the colossal statues of Buddha located there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, 2005). AT

President Hamid Karzai met with Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California), speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in Kabul on January 28, a press release by Karzai's office reported. Karzai thanked Pelosi for the $10.6 billion assistance pledge by the United States to Afghanistan, adding that his country "has made significant progress in the areas of peace and stability, reconstruction, economic prosperity, education, and health." The Afghan people "will never forget the assistance of the people" of the United States, Karzai told Pelosi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007). He also briefed Pelosi on the progress of a proposed peace jirga (assembly) between Afghanistan and Pakistan, saying that Kabul wants friendly relations with neighboring states. AT

A son-in-law of Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed by unknown assailants in Kabul on 27 January, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on January 28. According to the press office of the Afghan Interior Ministry, "Wahidullah, known as Moheb, was shot...and his wife" was injured. Rabbani, who currently serves as a representative in the Wolesi Jirga from the northern Badakhshan Province, served as Afghan president from 1992-96 when the Taliban overran Kabul. He continued to be recognized by most of the world as the legitimate Afghan president until the demise of the Taliban in 2001, despite having little actual power. Afghan First Vice President Ahmad Zia Masud is also a son-in-law of Rabbani. AT

Investigators involved in the suicide blast targeting the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on January 26 are said to be looking for possible pro-Taliban links, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on January 28. A suicide bomber detonated explosives at the entrance of the hotel, killing a security guard. An unidentified Pakistani security official said that officials suspect that the attack "could be [carried out] by militants opposed to the [Pakistani] government's drive against Taliban elements in the tribal regions." Pro-Taliban elements are operating along the Afghan-Pakistani border region, and Kabul has accused Islamabad of not doing enough to stop the militants and even aiding them. AT

Iranian officials said today they need more time to study a proposal from Muhammad el-Baradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for a nuclear "time-out," international agencies reported. Under the proposal, both Iranian nuclear work and UN sanctions on Iran would be suspended. "Iran needs time to review such an initiative to see whether it has the capacity to resolve Iran's nuclear issue," chief Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said in Tehran on January 28. Visiting Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov, who appeared with Larijani at a news conference in Tehran, said the "time-out" proposal should be considered by Iran's government. El-Baradei said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week that any military action by foreign countries against Iranian nuclear sites could have disastrous consequences and called for a "time-out" so dialogue can be pursued. The United States and Israel have not ruled out military action against Iranian nuclear sites. PB

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on January 28 that Iran has received a message from the United States whose contents are not "unusual," IRNA reported. "Usually in these messages there is an attempt to help resolve certain issues," he said. He did not comment on the exact content of the letter or say who or which U.S. entity had sent it. He added that a reported meeting between former President Mohammad Khatami and U.S. Senator John Kerry at the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland, from January 24-28, was "ordinary and in line with meetings of thinkers and political people" on the sidelines of such an event, IRNA reported. "These meetings have happened before," he said. He added there there is no definitive report of Khatami having been briefed by the Iranian Foreign Ministry or the government before meeting Kerry to coordinate any comments he might make. Husseini referred to "mistaken" U.S. policies in Iraq and said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad is making "divisive" remarks in saying that there is evidence of Iranian involvement in the insurgency-related events there. "One of Khalilzad's characteristics," Husseini said, is to make statements to "foment plots and create divisions between Shi'a and Sunnis." VS

Mohammad Javad Larijani, a prominent conservative and Iranian deputy foreign minister in the 1990s, told IRNA in Tehran on January 28 that Iranians must remain united behind President Mahmud Ahmadinejad over the nuclear program because disunity is the tool that Western powers will use to halt Iran's program. Larijani -- who is the brother of Iran's leading nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani -- said "ripping the unity between [Iranians] and [their] statesmen" is more important to the West than economic pressures. By breaking this unity, he said, "Iran's peaceful nuclear program will be stopped forever, and that is their ultimate wish." He said "sending signals indicating disunity" will only encourage "greater strictness against us," although he does not advocate suppression of the media or public debate on the nuclear issue. He said Iran would be more easily accepted in the "nuclear club" if it pursued its program "without a lot of noise." VS

Larijani told IRNA that a "deterrence logic" should shape Iran's nuclear policies. "The world is used to this logic," he said. "It should know that if they do not pester us too much, then we will not bother them." He added "we have to talk to everyone in the world. We should even talk to the most hostile of our enemies, which is America." He said Resolution 1737 against Iran's program might not be legal in Iran's view, but Iran must adopt "a realistic position." The text respects the "facade of international regulations, and this was a success for the nuclear club...they managed to strike a blow against us, but this blow is not an achievement." The resolution, he said, could not prevent Iran from entering the nuclear club. Larijani said Iran must "speak softly" when it wants to convey firm policy positions. He said Iran's best response to the resolution is to pursue its nuclear program, while also asking the UN nuclear inspectorate if -- given what Iran sees as discrimination -- it should remain committed to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. VS

Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri suggested at a gathering in the central Iranian city of Qom on January 26 that Iran should "avoid radicalism" and move toward "an open political atmosphere" in response to international pressure, Radio Farda reported on January 28. "Should we not be kinder to our people?" he asked, when meeting with members of the Association in Defense of Prisoners Rights in Iran. Montazeri is a prominent government critic who in the 1980s was set to succeed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as Iran's supreme leader. He was later disgraced for criticizing state policies. He said on January 26 that academics, students, and ordinary people are in prison in Iran for "illusory or political reasons." He said the state's policy of defining Iranian activists and politicians as "familiar" or "outsiders" -- depending on how critical their views are -- contradicts the Koran's teachings. "Officials should, before it is too late, wake up...and stop their [power] monopolies," he said. He deplored the occasional use of stoning in Iran -- in line with the country's religious laws -- to punish alleged adulterers, saying that Islamic law makes it "very difficult and almost impossible" to prove in a court that someone committed adultery. VS

Tehran University lecturer and liberal commentator Davud Hermidas-Bavand told Radio Farda on January 27 that the United States is adopting a harsher attitude in the region toward Iran, partly to defend its troops and goals in Iraq, but also as part of what he said is a decision to enhance the position of Sunnis in Iraq. "The aim is to give the Sunnis a relatively better position, and for cooperation with the Shi'a to be reconsidered," he told the broadcaster. He said the United States has adopted a "gradualist strategy" against Iran, involving financial pressure, the entry of warships into the Persian Gulf, and more aggressive talk, which has prompted media speculation about the increased likelihood of strikes on Iran. He added that Iran should respond to an apparent increase in tensions "with dialogue and the diplomatic path." Iran must use "positive areas" where its interests in Iraq may coincide with the United States in order to "engage in negotiations with America" and reduce tensions "before there is...military action," he said. VS

During the January 28 session of the Anfal trial, Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the former secretary-general of the northern bureau of the Iraqi Ba'ath Party, told the court he ordered the Iraqi Army to clear 20 Kurdish villages in 1988, international media reported the same day. He argued that it was a legitimate military campaign since Kurdish guerrillas in the north were assisting Iranian agents during the last stages of the Iraq-Iran War. "The orders were given as the region was full of Iranian agents. We had to isolate these saboteurs. We know that Iran had taken a lot of our land...almost more than the size of Lebanon," al-Majid said. His acknowledgement came after prosecutors presented the court with more than 20 documents detailing the Kurdish villages that were destroyed and the people who were forced to flee from their homes. Al-Majid insisted his decisions were correct and said had nothing to apologize for. SS

Iraqi officials said U.S. and Iraqi forces killed about 250 alleged militants in heavy fighting near the holy city of Al-Najaf on January 28, international media reported on January 29. The officials claim the militants were planning to attack Shi'a during the religious festival of Ashura. Al-Najaf Governorate head Assad Abu Gilel said the militants planned to attack Shi'ite clerics and pilgrims. The religious affiliation of the militants was not clear. They were reportedly from a previously unknown group called the Army of Heaven. At least two Iraqi soldiers were reported killed in the fighting. RC

Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on January 28 that a U.S. Apache helicopter was shot down near the holy city of Al-Najaf. Al-Najaf Governor Gilel said a U.S. military helicopter was shot down by what he called "enemy fire" in Al-Zarqa, where Iraqi and U.S. forces clashed with several hundred unidentified armed men, the BBC reported the same day. Qasim Zen, a McClatchy Newspapers correspondent, said he saw the helicopter lose control after it appeared to be struck by a rocket fired from the ground. The fighting erupted as Shi'a gathered in the holy city of Karbala to commemorate the religious festival of Ashura. The festival was the scene of insurgent attacks in previous years. Meanwhile, on January 27, the Kurdish paper "Hawal" reported that 17 Kurdish troops were killed in Baghdad. Two brigades of Kurdish troops had been deployed to Baghdad to assist U.S. forces in security operations. An Iraqi Army source said the bodies were wrapped in Iraqi flags and sent back to Kurdistan in secret so as not to provoke a public outcry. The source also said that instances of desertion among the Kurdish brigades sent to Baghdad are increasing. SS

Several informed sources in Baghdad said on January 27 that the majority of the leaders in Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army, have fled Iraq for Iran, fearing a major crackdown by U.S. forces, Al-Sharqiyah satellite television reported the same day. The sources also said the remaining militia commanders will be supervising any operations, which are to be carried out by militiamen who have infiltrated the Iraqi security forces. On January 21, an unnamed Iraqi official told "Al-Sharq Al-Awsat" that alleged Shi'ite death-squad leader, Abu Dura, fled to Iran after U.S. forces intensified their efforts to capture him. On January 19, Iraqi special forces backed by U.S. troops arrested Abd al-Hadi al-Darraji, a top aide to al-Sadr, who U.S. forces suspect of having links to Abu Dura (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 21, 2007). SS

Gunmen ambushed Adil Abd al-Mahsun al-Lami, the director-general of the Iraqi Trade Ministry, on January 28, as he drove to work in Baghdad, killing him, his daughter, and two others, international media reported the same day. Police officials said unknown gunmen attacked Al-Lami's car in the Yarmuk district in western Baghdad. Meanwhile, a mortar attack on a girl's secondary school in Baghdad killed five students and wounded more than 20, international media reported on January 28. Local police officials said several mortar rounds landed in the courtyard of the Khalud Secondary School in the western neighborhood of Al-Adl. On January 27, two car bombs in a predominately Shi'ite shopping area in the Baghdad Al-Jadidah district of the Iraqi capital, killed 15 people and wounded 55, international media reported the same day. SS

The leader of the International Union of Islamic Scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, on January 27 called on Iraqi Kurdish leaders to mediate between Iraq's Shi'ite and Sunni populations, "Gulf Times" reported the same day. "Our Kurdish brethren should play a reconciliatory role between Sunnis and Shi'a," al-Qaradawi said. "Kurds are currently more influential in Iraq. They have the presidency and the Foreign Ministry. They should intervene between the two sides. The neutrality of Kurds is unacceptable in this regard." In addition, he called on Iran to use its influence in Iraq to prevent the country from fragmenting. "I have repeatedly called upon Iran to use its influence in Iraq to help end the escalating sectarian strife. Iran holds the key to stop the bloodshed in Iraq," al-Qaradawi said. He warned that if the ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq does not end, it might eventually spill over into neighboring countries and undermine the unity of the Islamic world. SS

Muktar Lamani, the Arab League envoy to Iraq, has announced he intends to resign because of what he called a lack of "Arab vision" to end the conflict in Iraq, AFP reported on January 28. In a letter sent to Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa last week and acquired by AFP, Lamani said he will resign at the end of February because of an "inability to achieve anything serious or positive." Lamani was appointed in March 2006 by Arab foreign ministers with a brief to aid Iraq's national-reconciliation process. Insurgents have repeatedly targeted Arab diplomats in Baghdad. An Egyptian ambassador-designate was kidnapped and murdered in July 2005 and an UAE diplomat was kidnapped in May 2006. SS