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Newsline - February 23, 2007

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to the EU, told the state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of February 22 that Putin's February 10 speech in Munich should be understood as a "cold shower [and not a return] to a Cold War," RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, and 22, 2007). Yastrzhembsky added that "we are no longer in ideological conflict with the West. Russia is a totally different country" now than in Soviet times. He noted that Putin's remarks were aimed primarily at a European public and also sought to draw attention to a variety of world issues. Yastrzhembsky stressed that "Russia is back as a major world player," and that Putin's words were "tough rather than aggressive, fully in keeping with the currently applied principles of international politics," the news agency reported. Pointing out that Putin challenged the concept of what he called a U.S.-dominated "unipolar world," the aide said that an unspecified recent poll showed that at least 60 percent of German respondents agreed with Putin's remarks. Yastrzhembsky argued that "political elites are trying to smooth over these differences, but ordinary Europeans in the street (let alone Arabs) are so anti-American." He said that Russia accepts that Washington speaks out on issues affecting Russia's immediate neighbors and asked that the United States "recognize Russia's right to speak directly about our concerns over the U.S. policy in various regions of the world." On February 21, outgoing Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber said in Wildbad Kreuth that Putin's Munich speech signaled Russia's legitimate return to the world stage, reported. Stoiber added that Russia is a necessary partner for Germany and the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2006). He argued that any ambitions the United States might have had in creating a unipolar world ended with the 2003 invasion of Iraq "at the latest." The daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" suggested on February 22 that Putin flattered Stoiber, whose own Christian Social Union (CSU) is forcing him from office, when the two men met in Munich on February 10. PM

The daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on February 23 that some leading foreign-policy spokesmen of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) have criticized as deliberately misleading and anti-American the recent remarks by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democrats (SPD), in which he said that Washington should have consulted with Moscow before launching its projected missile-defense system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 21, and 22, 2007). An aide to Steinmeier subsequently admitted that he knew that such discussions have been in progress for some time. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who is a CSU member of the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Frankfurt-based paper that Steinmeier made a criticism of U.S. policy that he must have known was not justified by the facts and thereby "made a considerable contribution to a misleading image of the United States" in Germany and beyond. Guttenberg also noted that Steinmeier failed to object to recent remarks by President Putin and several other Russian politicians and generals, in which they threatened to target Poland and the Czech Republic with missiles if those countries participate in missile defense. Guttenberg suggested that Steinmeier was not observing Germany's "balanced" policy by making unwarranted criticism of Washington while remaining silent when he should have criticized Moscow. Eckart von Klaeden, who is foreign-policy spokesman for the CDU, told the daily that Russia must respect the decision of Poland and the Czech Republic as sovereign states to participate in missile defense if they want to. He also criticized Steinmeier and one of his aides for failing to object to Russia's support for Iran's missile and nuclear programs when criticizing the U.S. missile defense. Steinmeier was formerly chief of staff to Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, under whom U.S.-German relations reached their lowest point since World War II. The Foreign Ministry is currently dominated by the SPD, which includes people who are sharply critical of Washington while being enthusiastic about close ties to Moscow. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Berlin on February 22 that Russia appreciates the Russia-NATO Council, which functions better than the cooperation mechanisms between Russia and the EU, RIA Novosti reported. Lavrov added: "I would not bury the Russia-NATO Council.... The council can be an effective instrument if all its members follow the coordinated basis of a collective approach to decision making." Lavrov argued that the principles upon which the council is based provide for far more advanced security cooperation and crisis management than the ones "we are using in [security] relations with the European Union." PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov told a Berlin news conference with German Foreign Minister Steinmeier on February 22 that any "imposed" solution on the final status of Kosova is unacceptable to Russia, news agencies reported. He added: "I respect [UN Kosova envoy and former Finnish President] Martti Ahtisaari. We have known each other very well for a long time. But it is not up to him to decide whether or not the time for making a decision has run out. Mr. Ahtisaari is carrying out a mandate given to him by the UN secretary-general and the Security Council to provide mediation between the parties in the Kosovo settlement process." He added that a "decision on Kosovo can be made only by the parties themselves. No one can impose a solution. In any event, Russia will not be part of such a scheme" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 13, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," October 24, 2006). PM

The Russian cabinet voted on February 23 to adopt a draft program on fighting diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS, which are contributing to the country's rapidly declining population, news agencies reported. The previous day, Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov presented the program, which aims to reduce mortality rates and will cost nearly $3 billion. Russia's population recently fell to a post-Soviet low of 142.2 million people. President Putin has repeatedly drawn attention to what he calls the need to solve the demographic problem. PM

Representatives of Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and of the United Labor Party (MAK), the junior partner in the ruling three-party coalition, called on February 22 for amendments to the bills on dual citizenship drafted by the third coalition partner, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The draft bills, which parliament passed in the first reading on February 20, would extend citizenship to ethnic Armenians from the worldwide diaspora and give holders of dual citizenship resident outside Armenia voting rights. HHK deputies, including HHK faction head Galust Sahakain, argue that persons holding dual citizenship should be resident in Armenia for six months of the year and should pay Armenian taxes, Noyan Tapan reported, while MAK Chairman Gurgen Arsenian objected that persons holding dual citizenship should be barred from participating in either parliamentary or presidential elections. But Justice Minister David Harutiunian rejected the amendments proposed by the HHK and the MAK, adducing the clause of the constitution that affirms that all citizens of the Republic of Armenia enjoy equal rights. LF

The Hungarian Appeals Court upheld on February 22 the sentence of life imprisonment handed down in April 2006 by the Budapest City Court to Azerbaijani Army officer Ramil Safarov, reported. Safarov was found guilty of hacking an Armenian officer, Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian, to death with an ax in February 2004 while both men were attending a training course in Budapest sponsored by NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 19, 2004, and April 18, 2006). LF

Talks in Tskhinvali on February 20 between Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze and Boris Chochiyev, who is deputy prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, failed to yield an agreement on holding in Istanbul on February 28-March 2 an informal session of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported on February 22. The two men are co-chairmen of that commission, which also comprises Russian and North Ossetian representatives. South Ossetia reportedly agreed on February 14 to a proposal by Ambassador Roy Reeve, who heads the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Georgia, to hold an informal JCC session, but insisted that session should set a date and venue for a plenary JCC session, a condition that Tbilisi rejected. Antadze initially said Georgia "is ready" to participate in such a meeting, according to Caucasus Press on January 31. LF

Opposition forces in Kazakhstan have reacted with cautious optimism and harsh criticism to recent democratization initiatives by President Nursultan Nazarbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 22, 2007), news agencies reported on February 21-22. A joint statement by the Naghyz Ak Zhol Party and the Social Democratic Party said that "Kazakh democratic forces believe that they [proposals] are cautious, yet positive steps in defining new areas of our society's political modernization," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. But opposition leader Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov wrote on on February 21 that Nazarbaev has "made it clear that the authoritarianism in the form of a 'presidential republic' will remain unshakable, and democratic prospects will be put off for an indefinite period of time." Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who lost to Nazarbaev in a December 2005 presidential election, wrote on on February 22 that "all of these proposals stop exactly at the place after which they would affect the most important thing -- the system of unlimited presidential power." DK

Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov announced on February 22 that Kazakhstan and Russia will jointly develop a plan to modernize Kazakhstan's armed forces, reported. "In the near future, we will develop a joint program to reorganize the country's forces," Akhmetov said. "This is a joint program with Russia. In about a month, the program will be developed, and it will allow us by 2015 to change significantly the image of Kazakhstan's armed forces." He added that "the transformation of the armed forces' structure and military culture will be connected with training and the purchase of needed equipement," according to ITAR-TASS. Akhmetov also noted that he met recently in Moscow with Sergei Chemezov, head of Russian arms export company Rosoboroneksport, to discuss related issues. DK

Russia's Renova Group has won a tender to purchase the Kyrgyz government's 72.28 percent stake in the Kara Balta uranium-production facility, Interfax reported on February 22. Reports did not say how much Renova bid, although the starting price for the stake was 155.4 million soms ($4 million) in September 2006. A lack of raw material has left Kara Balta idle since 2005. DK

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Michael Moseley said in New York on February 22 that the United States will close its air base in Kyrgyzstan when military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq end, RIA Novosti reported. Moseley said that the base in Kyrgyzstan, as well as other U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, are not permanent, and the U.S. military is eager to return to its permanent NATO bases. DK

Rashid Gulov, deputy chief engineer for the Tajik state electric company Barqi Tojik, told Asia Plus-Blitz on February 22 that the Tajik government has allocated $50 million to start work to finish building the Roghun hydroelectric power station. "According to some data, another [$50 million] will be allotted in the near future. Thus, Tajikistan will begin to implement the project on completing the construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power station using its own resources." Although Tajikistan signed an agreement with Russia to complete the power station, President Imomali Rakhmonov has said that Tajikistan will finish the job on its own (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2006). DK

The government of Tajikistan and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) signed an agreement on February 22 for a $21.5 million preferential loan to fund exports of Tajik electricity to Afghanistan, Regnum reported. The project, which is also funded by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) ($8.5 million), the Islamic Development Bank ($10 million), and the Tajik electricity company Barqi Tojik ($14 million), will involve the construction of a 220-kilovolt power line connecting Tajikistan's Vakhsh power station with cities in Afghanistan. The power line is expected to be completed in 2010, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. DK

State-controlled Turkmen newspapers appeared on February 21 bearing on the first page a new version of the oath of loyalty that does not refer to the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, the opposition website Gundogar reported the next day. The oath previously read, "If I should betray my homeland, Saparmurat Turkmenbashi the Great, may my breath stop." The new version replaces the reference to Niyazov with the word "president." DK

The Belarusian government has asked Moscow for a $1.5 billion stabilization loan to cushion the effects of the gas-and-oil price hikes earlier this year, Belapan reported on February 22, citing official information sources. "The Russian government is ready to consider the loan. The volume of the loan and its terms are a subject of negotiations," RIA Novosti quoted Russian Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref as saying later the same day. In January, Belarus's foreign debt amounted to $838 million, with the established upper limit of $2 billion at the end of 2007. JM

Alyaksandr Lukashenka on February 22 approved a draft agreement between Belarus and Ukraine on easing border-crossing formalities along the road and railway route between the Ukrainian city of Slavutych and the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, which run through Belarus's Homel Oblast. The eased formalities, which envisage exemption from customs inspections, would reportedly apply to the personnel of the Chornobyl plant living in Slavutych, vehicles and shipments destined for the plant, as well as foreign experts involved in the carrying out of international projects concerning the construction of the shelter around the reactor ruined in the 1986 explosion. There have recently been reports in Belarusian and Ukrainian media that Lukashenka is to pay an official visit to Kyiv in the near future. JM

Viktor Yushchenko said in Simferopol on February 22 that he will "insist" on approving his nominees, Volodymyr Ohryzko and Viktor Korol, as foreign minister and chief of the Security Service, respectively, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Earlier the same day, the Verkhovna Rada failed to approve Ohryzko and Korol to these posts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). "These were childish games," Yushchenko said, stressing that the failed votes on Ohryzko and Korol "do not contribute to stability in the country." The votes took place during a three-day row between lawmakers of the ruling coalition and the opposition, in which pro-government deputies blocked the parliamentary rostrum and held control over the electronic voting system, while opposition deputies were in control of the electric system and some other parliamentary facilities, including toilets. The opposition switched off electricity in the parliament building during the afternoon session. JM

The Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which received the most votes in the recent parliamentary elections, on February 22 called on Serbian negotiators to leave talks on the future of Kosova, the news agency FoNet reported the same day. SRS Deputy Chairman Tomislav Nikolic said the team is not authorized to discuss anything if there is no change in the stance adopted by Martti Ahtisaari, the author of the UN's blueprint for the contested province. There has been no sign as yet that the Serbian negotiating team has made any concessions at the talks, which began on February 21 in Vienna (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). The second day of consultations focused on minority rights, the judiciary, and a constitution for Kosova, the KosovaLive news service reported on February 22. The Belgrade broadcaster B92 on February 22 quoted a member of Belgrade's negotiating team, Dusan Batakovic, as saying there has been no change in positions. Though it won 28.5 percent of the popular vote, the SRS is not expected to enter government. Talks on the formation of a government have made little progress in the past month, as political attention in Serbia has been focused on the challenge of ensuring that Serbia retains sovereignty over Kosova, which has been under UN administration since NATO ended a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999. AG

A rift has emerged in Serbia's Muslim community after the creation of a new Belgrade-based supreme body for the country's Muslims, in the process severing traditional ties to Bosnia-Herzegovina, local media reported on February 21 and 22. The new body, or riyaset, on February 19 appointed Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic as its supreme leader, the Belgrade daily "Blic" reported on February 21. The move has been rejected by leading Muslim figures in Sandzak, a western region that straddles Serbia and Montenegro. Mevlud Dudic, deputy chairman of the Islamic Community of Sandzak, on February 20 called the new body "illegitimate," "Blic" and the news agency Beta reported on February 21. "They want to sever the spiritual bond with Sarajevo and this is something that we will not countenance," Dudic told "Blic," adding that "Istanbul transferred powers to Sarajevo back in 1878 and it is only in this city in the Balkans that the reis-ul-ulema [supreme leader] can sit." The secretary-general of the Bosnian riyaset, Muhamed Salkic, on February 22 expressed "surprise" at what he called "the unilateral formation" of the new body, the Islamic Community of Serbia, telling Beta that it was created "under the false mantle of representing all of Serbia. However, that organization only represents the dzemat [parish] of Muslims in Belgrade," Salkic said. "The way the riyaset of the Islamic Community of Serbia was proclaimed makes it appear as if it had been proclaimed autonomously or unilaterally by the dzemat [parish] in Belgrade or by only one family," Salkic continued. Sarajevo's Muslim leaders retain spiritual leadership over Kosova. The creation of the Islamic Community of Serbia was agreed upon in 2006 by representatives of 52 municipalities, who justified their decision on the grounds -- as reported by "Blic" -- that the Islamic community should respect "the legal and territorial integrity of their country," which dictates that "the supreme leadership of the Islamic Community of Serbia must be within the borders of the Republic of Serbia." AG

The latest round of talks on the reform of Bosnia-Herzegovina's police forces collapsed on February 20, as local media reported on divisions among representatives of the international community. A subsequent meeting of parliamentary leaders on February 21 reportedly brought no progress. While Bosnia's military forces have been united, policing remains divided between the country's two autonomous regions, with each force funded from a separate budget. Local media reported on February 21 and 22 that Raffi Gregorian, the principal deputy to the international community's high representative, presented a new plan that, according to the February 21 edition of "Oslobodjenje," "some of the international officials had allegedly not been informed about." German Ambassador Michael Schmunk then walked out of the meeting, despite protestations from Bosnian Prime Minister Nikola Spiric. "Oslobodjenje" said leaders of the political parties refused to discuss details of the alleged differences between international officials, but the leader of the Muslim nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Sulejman Tihic, said disagreements were "logical because some of the international officials had significantly deviated from the police reform goals." AG

SDA leader Tihic said of the new plan that "they are trying to wrap things in cellophane, but inside is trash," the daily "Oslobodjenje" reported on February 21. The new plan reportedly envisages maintaining police boundaries that match those of Bosnia's autonomous regions and the creation of a six-member board comprised of government ministers and the heads of law enforcement agencies. "It is obvious that, by dragging the entity police ministers in some ministerial board, they want to maintain political control over the police, which is in contravention of the European principle of depoliticizing the police," Tihic said. Leaders of other Bosnian Muslim parties also rejected the plan. "Oslobodenje" noted on February 21 that Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska, accepted the proposal with some caveats about the budget, while public radio on February 21 said that Bosnian Serb leaders view the proposal as "unacceptable" because it does not envisage the continued existence of the Republika Srpska police force. On February 11, Dodik warned High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling not to try and impose a solution and reiterated that he will call a referendum in Republika Srpska before accepting any plan to reform the police, the Bosnian Serb paper "Glas Srpske" reported on February 12. The country's chief EU negotiator, Igor Davidovic, has warned that Bosnia may not be able to open preaccession talks with the EU in mid-2007 if it fails to agree on police reform by the end of February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007). AG

With unofficial results still not available, sharply divergent assessments have emerged about local elections held on February 18. Prime Minister Sali Berisha, the leader of the Democratic Party, claimed victory for his 10-party governing coalition at a February 22 press conference , the ATA news agency reported. Berisha said the coalition garnered 56 percent of the popular vote and increased the number of local councils under its control from 126 to at least 238. That represents roughly 60 percent of the country's 384 councils. Berisha's assessment differs sharply from those of political commentators, with the daily "Tema" claiming on February 21 that the Socialists won a "landslide," in the process creating a "new political monster," Socialist leader Edi Rama. Meanwhile, a commentary in "Gazeta Shqiptare" said the elections "changed the country's political map," reconfirming Rama as the mayor of Tirana and enabling the Socialist-led opposition to win back control over a string of towns and cities. "So all the reasons are there for the opposition bloc to start celebrating," it concluded. A campaign marked by sharp words but little of the violence seen in previous elections ended with international monitors concluding that the elections fell short of international standards and did not justify Berisha's claim that these were the best elections in Albanian history (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2007). AG

The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released a report on February 22 saying that Iran has failed to halt uranium-enrichment activities, as demanded by the UN Security Council. The report by IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei confirmed an open secret: that Iran has expanded its uranium-enrichment program instead of halting it.

The UN's 60-day deadline expired on February 21 and Iran has said it will continue its nuclear activities. The UN has warned, however, that it will take "further appropriate measures" if Iran refuses to comply and stop enrichment activities.

The report will be sent to the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors, as well as to the UN Security Council. Then the five permanent members of the Security Council (Britain, France, China, Russia, and the United States) plus Germany will start consulting on the next steps to increase pressure on Tehran.

Much of the international community is suspicious that Tehran is seeking to secretly develop nuclear weapons. Therefore, they aim to curb Iran's nuclear program, in particular its enrichment of uranium. The result of that process can be used both for civilian and military nuclear programs.

Iran says its nuclear activities are strictly for peaceful purposes. Iranian officials have said they are ready to provide guarantees that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons as part of negotiations. But Tehran has rejected preconditions.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior nonproliferation expert at the London-based International Institute For Strategic Studies, says that Iran is now exposed to having broader sanctions made against it. "The Security Council will begin to discuss another set of sanctions," Fitzpatrick said. "In the last resolution of December 23, the Security Council said very explicitly that if Iran did not meet the 60-day deadline that the Security Council would take up additional measures under Chapter 41, these are economic sanction measures."

In December, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted limited sanctions on Iran. The resolution was approved following weeks of debate, reportedly due to objections by Russia and China, which can veto any proposal brought to the Security Council. Both countries are engaged in commercial dealings with Iran and they have called for diplomacy in the nuclear standoff.

A senior nonproliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Institute, Shannon Kile, is skeptical of Security Council members being able to agree on stricter sanctions because of possible resistance from Beijing and Moscow. "In part for commercial reasons and in part for strategic reasons [Russia and China are] not going to be willing to go along with a set of sanctions, which would be genuinely punitive in nature as opposed to sanctions that were passed as part of [Security Council Resolution] 1737, which were really more aimed at denying Iran the ability to get a certain capability for its nuclear and ballistic-missile programs," Kile says.

Fitzpatrick says that the follow-through on this issue is likely to be slow and painful. Yet he believes Russia and China would be willing to accept additional sanctions against Iran. "They will not be interested in applying sanctions that could affect their own strategic or commercial relationships with Iran, but they also have an important strategic relationship with the United States and Europe and they want to be part of the solution, they want to be international players," he says.

In recent months, pressure outside the Security Council has also increased on Iran. The United States has sought to isolate Iranian banks, including Bank Saderat, for its alleged involvement in financing terrorist groups. A number of European banks, such as Credit Suisse, have also curtailed their activities with Iran and Iranian firms. Analysts expect additional de facto sanctions such as these to increase.

Yet despite the increasing pressure, Iran has remained defiant and refused to suspend any of its sensitive nuclear activities. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all issues in Iran, said in January that Iran will not abandon its right to nuclear technology and that Iranian officials have no right to deprive the nation of this right.

Kile says that it is difficult to predict what's going to happen next in the nuclear standoff. "Obviously, at one end of the spectrum we do have the prospect of military action being taken -- perhaps by the United States, perhaps by Israel -- if Iran would be seen as closing in on the capability to actually produce a nuclear weapon," Kile says. "I think there is still time for diplomacy; I think that Iran won't have that capability until 2009 [or] 2010 at the earliest."

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has said all options are on the table when it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program, but he and top U.S. officials have said they remain committed to diplomacy.

On February 21, German officials said they are not giving up hope for a return to talks with Iran but added that it is up to Iran to signal that it is sincere in wanting negotiations.

In London, Fitzpatrick says he expects heightened diplomacy from both sides in the coming weeks. "There have been some hints from Iran about some willingness to accept suspension [of nuclear activities] under certain conditions and we see on the other hand the United States with the deal agreed to with North Korea, a new flexibility to talk with countries that are considered the enemy," he notes.

The UN report comes as concerns inside Iran about the costs of a confrontation with the West are increasing. Earlier this week, a reformist party in Iran urged the government to accept a UN demand for a halt to sensitive nuclear work to prevent the adoption of new UN resolutions against the country.

(Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Al-Jazeera satellite television aired an interview on February 21 with Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah in which he said that he has deployed more than 6,000 fighters in preparation for a spring offensive against the Afghan government and its allies. "The attack is imminent," said Dadullah, who claims the number of fighters may reach 10,000 once the conflict begins. The fighters are alleged to be hidden as they await orders to begin the offensive. The militant commander also claimed on Al-Jazeera that the group has acquired new antiaircraft weapons suitable for use against helicopters. Dadullah claimed to have successfully shot down a U.S. helicopter near Kandahar two months ago, and showed video of burning helicopter wreckage. Meanwhile, Ali Jan Orkazi, the governor of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, said the Taliban is growing stronger. JC

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose forces fight against U.S.-led coalition troops separately from the Taliban, said in a videotaped message that the United States does not have the capacity to remain in Afghanistan and will leave the country at the same time that it withdraws from Iraq, Reuters reported on February 22. Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister, denounced the United States, saying it is "the mother of problems" and said Afghanistan's turmoil will not end until U.S. forces leave the region. Hekmatyar claimed America's allies sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq because they fear Washington. "The occupying forces...have only one successful way and...that is to pull out of Afghanistan as soon as possible," he added. The tape was provided by a Hekmatyar sympathizer. Hekmatyar was a major recipient of U.S. aid in the 1980s. JC

British Defense Secretary Des Browne is expected to announce on February 26 the deployment of more than 1,000 additional troops and equipment to Afghanistan, the British daily "The Guardian" reported on February 23. On February 21, Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain will begin withdrawing 1,600 of its 7,100 troops from Iraq in the coming months. The increase in forces to be sent to Afghanistan was reported to the cabinet on February 22 amid discussion about the situation in Afghanistan and the needs to bolster the government in Kabul. The new military push is expected to cost 250 million pounds ($490 million). There are approximately 5,000 British troops currently stationed in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold responsible for 60 percent of Afghan opium production. JC

The Australian government is considering doubling its deployment to Afghanistan to about 1,000 troops in anticipation of an expected spring offensive by Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, Reuters reported on February 21. Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said on February 22 that military officials will be sent to Afghanistan to evaluate the situation, in light of his government's growing concern over the increased activity by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The troop increase in Afghanistan will not effect Australia's military commitments in Iraq, Nelson said. Australia has not formally decided to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan, although Nelson said he has discussed the issue with the Dutch, British, and U.S. governments and Australians should not be surprised if extra troops are sent, AFP reported on February 22. Australia currently has some 550 soldiers in Afghanistan, of which 370 are assigned with a reconstruction task force. JC

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a meeting with the newly convened Assembly of Experts in Tehran on February 22 that he thinks Iran enjoys an excellent situation and Iranians are profoundly attached to the country's political system, IRNA reported. He told the clerical body that supervises his office that Iran's political system is "in the strongest position" since the 1979 revolution. Khamenei added that "the enemy" has failed in its attempts to dissuade Iranians from voting in simultaneous elections in December for the Assembly of Experts and municipal councils, and asserted that Iranians have a "heartfelt faith and belief, and emotional and intellectual attachment" to the Islamic system. He dismissed unspecified reports of uncertainty inside Iran. "There is no extraordinary situation in [Iran]," he said, because Iran has faced "the serried ranks" of its enemies since 1979. In spite of this enmity, he said, "the Islamic system" has been fortified "by the day," and "the Islamic revolution's influence has become stronger among Muslims." Khamenei said Iran's enemies are using "pressure, insults, and threats" and an exaggeration of Iran's domestic problems to intimidate Iranian officials over national policies. He told the assembly that they have the "most essential" duty of "deciding for that necessary day" when Iran will need a new leader, and should be prepared accordingly, IRNA reported. VS

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei confirmed in a report submitted on February 22 that Iran has not complied with a December 23 UN demand to halt nuclear fuel-making activities, news agencies reported. The report, sent to the IAEA governing board and the UN Security Council, stated that "Iran has not suspended its [uranium] enrichment activities" in keeping with a Security Council resolution asking that these be halted by February 21, and is continuing a variety of related activities, AP reported. The report could lead to the amplification of limited sanctions already imposed by the Security Council, whose permanent members plus Germany are expected to meet in London on February 26 to discuss Iran. Before the report was issued on February 22, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed Iran in Vienna with the foreign ministers of Germany and Russia and EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, later telling the press that Western powers will use "our available channels and the Security Council" to have Iran return to talks after suspending enrichment activities, AFP reported. The agency quoted her as telling CNN that "the United States has no desire for confrontation with Iran, none." VS

Alaeddin Borujerudi, the head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told reporters in Madrid on February 22 that "Iran, while maintaining its nuclear rights, is ready to take any step to assure the West and create confidence over its peaceful nuclear program," IRNA reported. He said if the aim of "the opponents of Iran's peaceful" program with a Security Council resolution is "that we should stop our work, this will not happen. Iran will not halt its program with threats, and sanctions will not be an obstacle to Iran defending its legal rights." He said "the best and only" way to resolve the impasse over Iran's program is to talk "within a rational setting, in the framework of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty" (NPT), of which Iran is a signatory. Borujerdi said Iran's case should first be taken from the Security Council and IAEA governing board to the IAEA itself. He proposed the participation of Western states in "Iran's immense projects" to build itself several nuclear power plants as the way to "safeguard Iran's rights" while reassuring the West of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. VS

The Iran Society of Writers (Kanun-i Nevisandegan-i Iran) has denounced in a public statement "intensifying censorship" and "the elimination of cultural works by" Iran's government, Radio Farda reported on February 22, without giving the date of the statement. The text observed that the freedom of written expression is "an undeniable" right, regardless of religion, political opinions, or gender. It decried "cultural censorship" in Iran, including the confiscation of books and magazines, closure of newspapers and "many" websites, and "prosecution and harassment" of Internet commentators, also known as bloggers. The "expansion of censorship" has provoked a "social and cultural crisis" in Iran, it stated, and caused the "discouragement and alienation" of writers. The society noted that even new editions of the works of famous Persian poets like Hafez, Saadi, and Ferdowsi -- who lived in the mid- to late Middle Ages -- were subject to censorship, and this was leading Persian-speaking neighbors to shun their works. Persian is spoken in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It noted, on the occasion of the International Mother Language Day on February 21, that Iran's ethnic minorities have a right to have their dialects or languages taught in schools. VS

The Japanese cabinet announced on February 23 that it will issue an emergency grant of 104.5 million yen (about $861,000) to Iraq to help improve security and basic services, Kyodo World Service reported. The aid will go to developing the country's food supply, as well as health care and human-resource development, the Japanese Foreign Ministry announced. The aid will be dispersed through various UN organs including the UN Children's Fund, UN Development Program, and the UN World Food Program. KR

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told the German daily "Handelsblatt" that foreign forces are still needed in Iraq, the newspaper reported on February 22. "I do not expect a sudden pullout, nor a fundamental change in the policy of the United States -- at least not until the Iraqi government's plan to bring order to Baghdad has been implemented. This will be the case next summer," he said. Zebari called U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq as a "very brave decision," adding that Iraqi security forces may be able to assume full control by 2009. Zebari said he believes Germans are becoming more aware of what is at stake in Iraq. "We should not delude ourselves: a failure in Iraq would not just have local or regional implications. It would affect the whole [Persian] Gulf region and the oil supply," he noted. Asked about the transfer of weapons from Iran to Iraqi insurgents, Zebari said: "Unlike Syria, Tehran does not fully reject the reports [of arms transfers] but speaks of an 'abuse' of the deliveries." Zebari held separate meetings with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on February 21.

Insurgents in Ba'qubah are using civilians as human shields, the British daily "The Guardian" reported on February 22. The daily depicts the view from a Bradley fighting vehicle, where U.S. soldiers see a gunman stepping out from behind a building with a small boy thrust in front of him for protection. Once he gets a good look at the Bradley, he and the boy disappear behind the building again. A few hundred meters on, a woman and three small children are thrust out from behind another building -- while an insurgent hides behind them, crouched with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher. The insurgents "know exactly what our rules of engagement are. They know we can't fire back," Specialist Christ Jankow tells the daily, which also reported that insurgents are using children to run guns for them in the city. "The Guardian" also reported that it appears that some members of the Iraqi Army stationed in the city provide information regarding planned operations to insurgents. KR

Muslim Scholars Association Secretary-General Harith al-Dari told Al-Sharqiyah television in a February 22 interview that it was he who brought the media's attention to the alleged rape of an Iraqi woman. Al-Dari said that Sabrin al-Janabi's relatives alerted his organization to the alleged attack, which al-Janabi claims took place at the hands of Iraqi security forces. He said his organization looked into al-Janabi's claim, and then made her known to the media. Al-Jazeera broke the story by interviewing al-Janabi on February 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2006). "By the way, there are hundreds -- or rather thousands -- of rape incidents that took place during the era of [former Prime Minister] Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, and the number of these incidents has increased in the era of [current Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki," al-Dari said. KR

Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told a Turkish television channel on February 21 that relations could improve between Turkey and Iraq, the Anatolia news agency reported on February 22. "Wherever the political leaders in this region act rationally and make correct decisions, then peace can be ensured in this region, mistakes are ended, and a serious cooperation is launched," Gul said. "The Americans, Britons, and Europeans think that Kurds are the enemies of Turks, and Turks are the enemies of Kurds. This is wrong." He blamed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatist group for trying to tarnish Turkey's relations with Iraq's Kurds. Asked about Iraqi Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Mas'ud Barzani, he said: "Our meeting with them does not mean that we are acknowledging a separate region or an independent thing. Barzani and Talabani have to do more. We may meet them, but there is nothing planned yet." Asked about the future of Kirkuk, he added: "People in the city should themselves find a formula in which everybody can live in peace." KR

South Korean businessman Park Tong-sun was sentenced to five years in prison on February 22 for his role in a bribery scandal surrounding the UN oil-for-food program, "The Washington Post" reported on February 23. Park admitted taking more than $2.5 million from the Iraqi government to bribe senior UN officials to ease economic sanctions against Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. He was convicted in July of acting as an unregistered agent of Iraq. It appears he intended to set up a back channel between Iraqi Prime Minister Tariq Aziz and then-UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin fined Park $15,000 and ordered him to forfeit $1.2 million in assets in addition to the prison term, the maximum under the law. "You either bribed a UN official or you were acting as if you were going to bribe a UN official," Chin told Park at the sentencing. KR