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Newsline - March 27, 2007

Chinese President Hu Jintao met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 26 at the start of a three-day visit that is expected to center on Chinese interest in Russian oil, gas, other natural resources, and arms, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). Both leaders positively assessed bilateral relations and called for peaceful resolutions of the Iranian and North Korean nuclear imbroglios. Putin stressed that "the positions of Russia and China on all the issues discussed either coincide or are similar," adding that "today's negotiations once again confirm the strategic nature of Russian-Chinese partnership." Hu noted that Sino-Russian relations "are developing only upward," although Chinese media tend to depict Russia as a junior partner to a dynamic China enjoying its "peaceful rise." In an apparent jab at Washington, the two leaders pledged to "strengthen cooperation with Central Asian countries in the political, trade, and economic spheres, as well as in security issues." Putin hailed the "high level of cooperation in the arms sector and between our militaries," but did not elaborate. China is Russia's biggest arms customer and second-most-important trading partner after Germany, but the United States, Japan, and South Korea are far more important to China's foreign trade than is Russia. In a joint declaration, the two leaders referred to the need to "heighten the information sphere." PM

Among the deals signed in the two presidents' presence were one for $1 billion in Chinese loans to Russia's "VTB Group to finance the exports of Russian commodities and goods to China over the next eight years," "The Moscow Times" reported on March 27. The China State Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China will each contribute $500 million. The daily also noted that "the China State Development Bank signed an investment deal worth up to $1 billion with the Krasnoyarsk Krai and Vneshekonombank (VEB). Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Khloponin praised the agreement as 'an important stimulus for the development of the east Siberian economy.' The investment is part of a $1.5 billion loan that VEB earlier received from the Chinese bank, VEB Chairman Vladimir Dmitriyev said. One-third of the money has been spent to promote Russian exports, and the rest could go to Krasnoyarsk, he said." Dmitriyev did not elaborate. Interfax reported that the Export-Import Bank of China agreed to loan Gazprombank $100 million to finance imports of the Chinese equipment, technologies, and services. It is not totally clear why Russia, which enjoys record incomes from oil and gas sales, needs Chinese loans for such projects. On March 27, the Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" argued that China is flooding Russia with mass-market consumer goods and that Russia is the "loser" in bilateral economic relations. On March 28, reported from Khabarovsk Krai on the Chinese border that the cost of Chinese consumer goods is expected to rise after April 1, when foreigners will be banned from trading at Russian markets and will have to pay Russian middlemen to run their stalls for them. PM

The Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" commented on March 26 that "China's transformation into one of the world's economic heavyweights casts a shadow over Sino-Russian relations. The ideological confrontation from the era of [communist leaders] Mao Zedong, [Nikita] Khrushchev, and [Leonid] Brezhnev is long gone, of course. But the geopolitical realities remain." The paper stressed that "the fact is that China is an uncomfortable neighbor for Russia. Not even our government knows exactly how many unregistered guests from China have settled in Russia. Many residents of Siberia and the Russian Far East fear an influx of illegal immigrants. And China has far surpassed Russia in economic might. Its recent test of an antisatellite weapon showed that China is becoming an equal player in military uses of outer space, a field dominated by Russia and the United States." The daily noted that "the growing imbalance of power between China and Russia inevitably raises the question of whether Russia can retain control of its sparsely populated lands in the coming decades. Moreover, the maps used for history classes in Chinese schools mark a number of Russian regions as land taken away from China by Tsarist Russia" (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). PM

Sergei Novikov, who is a spokesman for the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), said on March 26 that Iran recently made its first payment since late 2006 toward financing the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant, Russian news agencies reported. He added that the payment is just over half of one of the monthly installments Iran is supposed to be paying. Russian officials recently said that Iran is well behind in its payments. They added that consequently it will not be possible to meet the original deadlines for the first fuel deliveries to take place in March and for the plant to begin operations in September. Iran denies that it is behind in payments and suggests that Russia has an unspecified political motive for holding up construction (see "RFE/RL Newsline, March 16, 19, 20, 21, and 22, 2007, and "Russia: Why Is The Kremlin Retreating From Bushehr,", March 23, 2007). About 2,000 Russian engineers and workers are involved in the Bushehr project. PM

RIA Novosti reported that Vladimir Churov, an "ultranationalist" member of the State Duma, was chosen on March 27 in a 13-2 vote to head the Central Election Commission (TsIK). He replaces Aleksandr Veshnyakov, who is completing his second term in that post. President Putin's failure to nominate Veshnyakov for a third term remains a subject of speculation in the media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14 and 19, 2007). The news agency noted that Churov, who belongs to Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), was proposed by TsIK member Yelena Dubrovina, who argued that Churov "is not constrained by stereotypes that have built up in our system." Following his election, Churov said that "the principal difference between me and...Veshnyakov is that I am less likely to comment on election legislation and more inclined to get things done." Veshnyakov opposed Putin's "administrative reform" of 2000-02, which replaced elected governors with presidential appointees. Veshnyakov also spoke out against a 2006 measure that abolished the 20 percent minimum-voter-turnout requirement, but supported some other Putin-sponsored legislation. The TsIK is formed by both houses of parliament and the president, each proposing five candidates. PM

On March 27, safety officials investigating the recent accident at the Ulyanovsk coal mine in the Kemerovo Oblast city of Novokuznetsk, which left at least 108 dead, ordered a halt to work at 12 other mines in the area identified as potential safety risks, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and 22, 2007). Kemerovo Oblast in western Siberia has a population of just under 3 million people, 70 percent of whom are urban. It is an important industrial region, particularly for coal and metallurgy. PM

Nurdi Nukhadjiyev, human rights plenipotentiary in the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, has criticized the reluctance of Russian military courts to pass judgment on servicemen charged with killing or injuring Chechen civilians, reported on March 26. He cited the case of Captain Eduard Ulman, who together with three colleagues has twice been acquitted of shooting five Chechen civilians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 20 and 23, 2005, and November 14, 2006). Nukhadjiyev claimed that the Chechen authorities only with difficulty averted mass public protests following an incident on March 24 in Shatoi Raion in which Russian servicemen opened fire on three Chechen women, killing one of them and wounding the other two. LF

In what appears to be an attempt to divert attention from damaging allegations of FSB involvement in the October 2006 killing of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007), "Moskovsky komsomolets" on March 26 published an account of how the FSB allegedly infiltrated the retinue of radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev and planted the bomb that killed him in July 2006. The paper suggested that an FSB agent succeeded in drugging the driver of a truck in which Basayev planned to transport arms and explosives, after which an entire team of FSB agents photographed the arms in question, and planted a bomb in the truck that detonated early on July 10 in the Ingushetian village of Ekazhevo, killing Basayev and three other militants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2006). LF

Minister for Youth Issues, Physical Education and Sport Rustem Kelekhsayev and one of his deputies, Alan Bagiyev, have been arrested in connection with the abduction and killing of the son of prominent businessman Kazbek Djibilov, reported on March 26. The two men reportedly demanded a multimillion dollar ransom. It is not clear why and in what circumstances the kidnap victim was killed. Interior Ministry and security officials have reportedly refused to comment on the case. LF

During a March 26 meeting between President Robert Kocharian and the pro-government parties represented in the Armenian parliament, agreement was reached that Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), the senior partner in the ruling three-party coalition, should retain the post of prime minister following the sudden death from heart failure on March 25 of HHK Chairman Andranik Markarian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported, quoting HHK spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). That agreement paves the way for Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, a prominent HHK member and likely candidate to succeed Kocharian as president next year, to become prime minister. Armen Rustamian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) told RFE/RL on March 26 that the HHD would support Sarkisian's nomination for the premiership. Kocharian's press service declined on March 26 to confirm unofficial reports that Kocharian will soon appoint Sarkisian prime minister. Under the terms of the Armenian Constitution, following the resignation of the cabinet on March 26 Kocharian must name a new prime minister within 10 days. LF

Incumbent Ruben Khlghatian of the HHK was reelected mayor of the southern town of Armavir on March 25 with some 53 percent of the vote, defeating Arayik Aghababian of the Bargavach Hayastan (BH, Prosperous Armenia) party, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 26. Prosperous Armenia was founded in late 2005 by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, who is reportedly close to Kocharian; the party is widely viewed as intended to serve as Kocharian's new power base once his second term expires early next year. Prosperous Armenia is viewed as the only party capable of reducing or demolishing the HHK's current parliament majority. Influential politicians from both parties converged on Armavir on March 25 to demonstrate support for their respective candidates. LF

In a statement circulated on March 26, the Georgian Foreign Ministry condemned as "cynical" and "an elaborately planned act of terrorism" the shooting of two Georgian policemen in the South Ossetian village of Didmukha the previous day, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). The statement argued that the killings underscore the urgent need to demilitarize the conflict zone and expel from it unauthorized armed groups. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze told journalists in Tbilisi on March 26 that the shootings prove that the South Ossetian leadership wants a military escalation of the conflict, rather than peace talks, and he condemned their refusal to sign a memorandum based on a peace plan proposed by Tbilisi in 2005. In Madrid, Spanish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Angel Moratinos issued a statement on March 26 ( condemning the killings and calling on Georgia and South Ossetia to embark on "meaningful dialogue," building on their exchange of views at an informal meeting in Istanbul last week of the Joint Control Commission that monitors the situation in the conflict zone. LF

The trial in the Tbilisi City Court of 12 members of the Samartlianoba (Justice) party headed by fugitive former Georgian Security Minister Iigor Giorgadze was adjourned on March 26 after Maia Nikoleishvili, head of the Anti-Soros Movement, fainted in the courtroom, Caucasus Press reported. The trial opened on March 19 but was immediately adjourned. Also on March 26, the Tbilisi City Court acceded to a request by the Prosecutor-General's Office to declare the proceedings closed. The 12 accused, who were arrested in September 2006 on charges of treason and conspiracy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 8, 2006), have appealed to international experts to attend the hearing to ensure the trial is fair. LF

Kazakhstan's two communist parties, the Communist Party and the People's Communist Party, announce in a joint statement on March 26 that they will cooperate in the future, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Vladislav Kosarev, head of the People's Communist Party, told a news conference in Almaty on March 26, "What we mean is not a merger, but cooperation, taking joint action to protect the people's interests." Tulesh Kenzhin, a co-chairman of the People's Communist Party, told the opposition website on March 26 that the two parties decided to pool their efforts after deciding it was pointless to maintain two virtually identical parties. The two parties had been united as one but split in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2004). Kenzhin told that his party will hold a plenum on March 31 to discuss the technical details of consolidating the two parties' efforts. DK

Deputies in Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted on March 26 in favor of a bill on first reading that would strike from the criminal code articles that criminalize libel and defamation, reported. The second reading of the bill will take place in two weeks. DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev signed a decree on March 26 transforming Kyrgyzstan's National Television and Radio Broadcasting Corporation into a public broadcaster, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. The decree places the broadcaster under the authority of a 15-member monitoring board. The board's members are to be approved by parliament, and the president, the parliament, and civil society will each propose five members. The board selects the director, who is approved by the prime minister. Bakiev recommended that parliament complete the formation of the board within a month. The transformation of Kyrgyz state television into a public broadcaster is a key demand of the country's opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6, 2006). DK

The opposition movement For Reforms has removed Azambek Atambaev and Omurbek Tekebaev as cochairmen, reported on March 26, citing For Reforms member Temir Sariev. Sariev said that Atambaev and Tekebaev were removed "at the request of certain members of the leadership in order to resolve a number of existing disagreements." Atambaev and Tekebaev remain members of For Reforms, however. In all, For Reforms selected nine cochairpersons, Sariev said. DK

Representatives of embassies from the European Union and the United States would like to observe three April 1 parliamentary by-elections in Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on March 26. Muhibullo Zubaydulloyev, a political adviser to the British Embassy in Dushanbe, said that representatives from the United States, Germany, France, Sweden, the OSCE, and the European Union have expressed a desire to act as observers. Muhibullo Dodojonov, the head of Tajikistan's Central Election Commission, said that foreign observers can only be registered with the approval of Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry. DK

Turkmenistan plans to boost natural gas production by 20 percent in 2007 to 80 billion cubic meters, reported on March 26, citing a development plan presented at a March 24 cabinet meeting. According to the plan, oil production will rise 15 percent to 10.4 million tons. Gas exports will go up 25 percent to 58 billion cubic meters. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told ministers, "Accordingly, it will be necessary to direct major new investment into the [energy] sector," Interfax reported. Berdymukhammedov also stressed that long-term export agreements with China, Iran, and Russia must be honored. DK

Uzbek prosecutors have filed criminal tax evasion charges against Deutsche Welle stringer Natalya Bushueva, reported on March 26. They have also charged her with working for a foreign media organization without accreditation, the first instance of such charges under a February 2006 resolution that made the practice illegal. Prosecutors allege that Bushueva filed no tax returns for five years and owes $2,500 in back taxes. In an article on on March 26, independent journalist Sergei Yezhkov said that the charges against Bushueva are likely intended to "intimidate those who continue to express in the media their views on events taking place in the country, views that are often fundamentally at odds with official propaganda materials." DK

EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner on March 26 urged the Belarusian authorities to release all activists arrested ahead of and during the March 25 opposition demonstration in Minsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007), Belapan reported. Apart from arresting more than 30 opposition activists ahead of March 25, police detained an unspecified number of people coming to the rally in Minsk on March 25, who were released after the rally ended. The Minsk city police department reported no arrests during the opposition rally in the capital. JM

Presidential spokesman Pavel Lyohki on March 26 denied rumors that President Alyaksandr Lukashenka is staying out of public view because of an illness, Belapan reported. "The head of state is in his residence in Minsk, [he] receives officials who present reports, works with papers," Lyohki told the agency. He declined to confirm reports that Lukashenka's visit to Vietnam, originally scheduled for March 25-27, was cancelled at "the Belarusian side's request." Lukashenka was last seen on television on March 10, when he was shown inaugurating a health and fitness center in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi. JM

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, newly appointed foreign minister, met with EU External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner in Brussels on March 26 and vowed to work on broad-based reforms in his country, dpa reported. Yatsenyuk said in Brussels that a planned new agreement on closer ties with the European Union is a "big and complicated home test" for Ukraine. "We are well aware that the question of full-fledged [EU] membership for Ukraine is extremely long in terms of time," Yatsenyuk told journalists after the meeting with Ferrero-Waldner. "But this way [to EU membership] has to be filled with integration, economical integration, educational integration, humanitarian integration," he added. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is to visit Brussels on March 27 and hold talks with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana. JM

Almost a year and a half after being asked by the United Nations to hold consultations leading to a recommendation on the final status of Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari on March 26 officially called for the UN-administered region to be granted independence from Serbia. According to international media reports, Ahtisaari told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN Security Council that "independence is the only viable option for a politically stable and economically viable Kosovo." Ahtisaari's recommendation comes as no surprise: when Ahtisaari presented his draft settlement on February 2, officials in both Prishtina and Serbia said the proposal amounted to independence, and details of Ahtisaari's final proposal leaked in the past week indicated that the former Finnish president would call for independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and March 8, 16, and 22, 2007). Ahtisaari also recommended, as envisaged in the draft proposal, that Kosova should "be supervised and supported for an initial period by international civilian and military presences." A statement released on March 26 by Ban's spokeswoman said that he fully supports Ahtisaari's recommendation. Kosova was integrated into modern-day Serbia shortly before World War I, but Serbs maintain claims to sovereignty over Kosova dating back to the early Middle Ages and argue that recognition of Kosova as an independent state would violate international law. However, Ahtisaari said that "autonomy of Kosovo within the borders of Serbia -- however notional such autonomy may be -- is simply not tenable." While leaders of Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority have generally commented positively on Ahtisaari's proposal since it was first presented on February 2, some believe Kosova should be given full control immediately. However, Ahtisaari said that "while independence for Kosovo is the only realistic option, Kosovo's capacity to tackle the challenges of minority protection, democratic development, economic recovery, and social reconciliation on its own is still limited." Ahtisaari reportedly gave no indication how long Kosova would remain under international supervision. AG

Two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council on March 26 expressed their support for the Ahtisaari plan, international media reported. "The United States does support the proposal by President Ahtisaari for supervised independence for Kosovo," U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said in Brussels on March 26, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported, adding that "after a year of effort and a year of conversation it's time the Kosovars received their just due." British Foreign Minister Margaret Beckett said that independence would give Kosova "clarity over its future," which, according to AFP, she described as "vital for Kosovo's political and economic development." Beckett said the proposed settlement is "a balanced approach requiring compromises from both sides" and contains "far-reaching and extensive guarantees protecting the rights and welfare of Kosovo's Serb and other non-Albanian communities." British and U.S. support for the proposal is long-standing, and the major question is whether other members of the Security Council -- many of whose members face separatist challenges -- will be willing to vote with the United States and the European powers in support of the emergence of a new state. Russia in particular has been forthright in its criticism of the possibility of independence for Kosova, though it has been careful not to state that it will use its veto, a right it enjoys as a permanent member of the Security Council. Reuters quoted Burns as predicting on March 26 that the plan "will be accepted by the United Nations," echoing previous optimistic comments by other senior U.S. officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). Burns also said he hopes the resolution will be passed "by April or May." AG

Kosova's Albanian-language media reported on March 26 that Albin Kurti, the jailed head of the hard-line nationalist movement Self-Determination, has been joined on a hunger strike by 15 other inmates at the Peje (Pec) prison. Kurti was detained in February after a demonstration organized by Self-Determination degenerated into violence, during which two protesters were killed by rubber bullets fired by UN police (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, 14, and 15, and March 26, 2007). Kurti has condemned the UN police for their handling of the February 10 demonstration and for his arrest, but Self-Determination gave the reason for his hunger strike as his objection to being "deliberately" fed food produced in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). Kurti began his hunger strike on March 24, Self-Determination members told local media the same day. Kurti's move promises to gain additional coverage in the coming days, as Self-Determination on March 24 called a rally for March 31 to demand Kurti's release and to protest at the "provocation" of his being given Serbian food. The prisoners are also demanding more time to watch television in the evening. Kurti's movement wants immediate recognition of Kosova as an independent state and an immediate end to any political role for the international community in the region. Under the UN-drafted plan presented to the Security Council on March 26, the province would be granted independence but an international envoy would be granted the power to veto laws and fire officials. AG

The president of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serbian entity, Milan Jelic, threatened on March 26 to dissolve the current municipal government in Srebrenica, whose mayor is a Bosnian Muslim, and to impose direct rule, local media reported the same day. Jelic's statement mirrored a similar reaction one day earlier by Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik to a resolution passed by Srebrenica's municipal assembly on March 24, which called for the town to be given special status, in effect removing it from Republika Srpska control. The resolution was taken against the will of ethnic Serb councilors, who walked out of the session ahead of the vote. "If the municipal bodies continue to disregard the Republika Srpska Constitution and laws, the government -- in line with its competencies -- will not hesitate to dissolve the local authorities in Srebrenica and thus ensure the rule of law on the entire Republika Srpska territory," said a statement issued by the Bosnian Serb government on March 25. It continued, "Although legally nonbinding, the act has disturbing political consequences, which are considerably exacerbating the overall atmosphere and relations within Bosnia-Herzegovina." The top international official in Bosnia, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, also called the resolution "unacceptable" in an interview with the Sarajevo daily "Avaz" on March 26, though he signaled interest in a scheme suggested by Dodik to turn Srebrenica into a special economic-development zone. The international community is concerned that the initiative for a status change would represent a challenge to the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which recognized the Bosnian Serb republic and its control of many areas that were "ethnically cleansed" during the war, such as Srebrenica. The current cascade of proposals and counterproposals was triggered by a judgment of the International Court of Justice in February recognizing that the massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica in July 1995 constituted an act of genocide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 2, 6, 7, 13, 15, and 21, 2007). Recently, Muslim returnees to the municipality threatened to collectively leave again, a threat they now appear to have abandoned. TV

The first assessment by U.S. and Iraqi officials of the month-old Baghdad security operation, which was launched on February 14, has been positive. Initial signs indicate that the operation has significantly curbed violence in the Iraqi capital.

This is the third attempt to bring security to Baghdad since Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki came to power in May 2006, and many observers regard the current operation as the last chance to avert an all-out civil war in Iraq. But while the initial assessment has been promising, questions remain as to whether the plan will have a long-term effect in stemming the violence that has engulfed Baghdad.

At a March 14 press conference, Brigadier General Qasim al-Musawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad security operation, released statistics for the first month, saying that the overall death toll dropped by 30 percent. He said that 1,440 civilians were killed from January 14 to February 14, compared to 265 killed from February 14 to March 14. During the first period, 3,192 civilians were wounded, while 781 were wounded during the second period.

Since the plan was launched, car bombings dropped 36 percent, mortar attacks by 47 percent, hand-grenade attacks by 70 percent, Katyusha rocket attacks by 35 percent, and suicide bombings dropped by 33.3 percent.

Al-Musawi also said that during the earlier period, 19 militants were killed and 169 arrested, while 94 militants were killed and 713 arrested in the later period. Since February 14, 24 hostages have been freed and more than 2,000 displaced families have returned to their homes," he said.

Lieutenant General Abbud Qanbar, the commander of operations for the Baghdad security plan, stressed at the same March 14 press conference that Iraqi civilians are expressing optimism over the security plan. "The results of the past 30 days cannot be assessed by the numbers of explosions, car bombings, and acts of terrorism, but by the citizens' feeling that a new, positive development has taken place to reassure a large sector of the society about the situation," Qanbar said.

The centerpiece of the United States' part in the security operation is a troop "surge" in the course of which an additional 21,500 U.S. forces will be deployed in Baghdad and the restive Al-Anbar Governorate to the west. In a BBC interview on March 18, U.S. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, expressed cautious optimism, saying that the plan shows "encouraging signs", but he will have a better idea of the plan's success once all U.S. troops have been deployed in the coming months.

"By early June, we should then have everyone roughly in place -- and that will allow us to establish the density in partnership with Iraqi security forces that you need to really get a good grip on the security situation," Petraeus said.

While initial statistics indicate that attacks in Baghdad have dropped off significantly, some Iraqi officials have indicated that the steep drop in violence is due to militia elements assuming a lower profile to avoid the security crackdown.

The Imam Al-Mahdi Army, the militia of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has become much less visible, for example. In fact, it has been widely reported in the Arab and Western press that al-Sadr himself may have left the country, to avoid being caught up in the security lockdown in Baghdad.

Major General William Caldwell, the spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Iraq, told reporters at a March 14 press briefing in Baghdad that al-Sadr's whereabouts are unknown and that he is probably outside Iraq.

However, several Sunni leaders, who accuse al-Sadr's militia of being responsible for the majority of sectarian attacks against Sunnis, contend that the militia will only "lay low" as long as the security crackdown continues, and that once the Baghdad operation has ended and U.S. forces have withdrawn, the militia will reemerge and sectarian violence will resume.

Sheikh Khalaf al-Alyan, the leader of the Sunni-led National Dialogue Council, claimed in a March 23 interview with "Al-Quds Press" that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and al-Sadr have come to an agreement for the Al-Mahdi Army to be disbanded and its leaders sent abroad to avoid being captured by U.S. forces.

"The leaders of death squads and the Imam Al-Mahdi Army have been smuggled into Iran and those ranking second and third were sent to the south," al-Alyan said. "Most elements of this army were officially incorporated into the National Guard and [the forces of] the Interior Ministry in order to avoid confrontation with U.S. troops. This happened on the basis of an official letter signed by the prime minister in agreement with Muqtada al-Sadr," he added.

Indeed, the militia leadership realizes that time is on their side and the U.S. military most probably cannot keep up the troop levels needed to maintain the Baghdad security plan indefinitely, particularly in light of how unpopular the Iraq war has become in the eyes of the U.S. public.

While the security operation continues to attempt to bring security to Baghdad, some Iraqi leaders have stressed that the gains achieved by the Baghdad security plan will only be short-lived and that political reforms need to be instituted before the country will be secure.

In an interview with "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on March 22, Salih al-Mutlaq, the leader of the Front for National Dialogue, said that the drop in attacks since the Baghdad security plan was instituted is due to the presence of a large contingent of U.S. forces that cannot remain indefinitely. He argued that only a legitimate political program that convinces marginalized Sunnis, who are believed to form the bulk of the insurgency, to give up their weapons and join the political process, is capable of yielding a long-term solution to Iraq's security woes.

"We do not believe these [U.S.] forces will remain in their position for long and we do not believe Baghdad can endure such a situation and such an anomalous situation as this one," al-Mutlaq said. "Therefore, there is a need to seek a political program to solve the current problems. If this is not achieved, no logical solution can be found for the current situation."

Indeed, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi made similar comments in a BBC interview on March 21 when he called for a dialogue to be opened with the insurgents and for political reforms to be carried out in order for Iraq to move beyond sectarian divisions.

"One of the political recipes might be that the Iraqis need to be convinced that to break up this polarization we have to go for, first of all, election-system reform and, second, to go for early elections," al-Hashimi said.

While the Baghdad security plan has shown promise, it remains to be seen what might happen if there were another high-profile attack, such as the February 2006 Al-Askari shrine bombing, widely seen as the point when the conflict became sectarian in nature.

Afghanistan is setting up madrasahs, or religious schools, to counter the Taliban's purported establishment of similar schools in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported on March 26. Education Minister Mohammad Hanif said Taliban militants use education as a "weapon of terrorism." The Taliban vowed in January to open madrasahs in a declaration that was immediately denounced by the Afghan government and the United Nations (see "RFE/RL Newsline", January 23, 2007). The first of the officially sanctioned Afghan schools, expected to accommodate up to 50,000 children, will be set up in two months with the goal of opening one school in each of the 34 provinces, AFP reported. The schools will offer 40 percent religious education, 40 percent general education, and 20 percent computer science and foreign languages. Many of the Taliban fundamentalists who ruled Kabul and much of Afghanistan attended madrasahs in Pakistan before the movement seized power in 1996; they were dislodged by U.S.-led international military intervention in late 2001. JC

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns encouraged European countries on March 26 to increase troops and aid for Afghanistan in anticipation of a long-term Western presence there, Reuters reported the same day. At a meeting in Brussels, Burns said Washington is grateful to European countries with troops operating in combat zones, but he stressed the need for a greater number of troops and more operating flexibility. He also called for increased economic and humanitarian aid and said that both NATO and the European Union should expect to remain in Afghanistan for many years. Burns referred to peace-restoration efforts in the Balkans after the 1992-95 war as an example of what might be necessary to bring stability and security to Afghanistan. Last year saw the worst violence in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and fighting is expected to increase in 2007. JC

The abductors of Afghan translator Ajmal Naqshbandi said on March 25 that they are ready to negotiate with the Afghan government over his release, Pajhwok Afghan News reported the same day. Taliban militants under the command of Mullah Dadullah reportedly kidnapped Naqshbandi, along with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo and driver Sayed Agha, who was subsequently killed, on March 4. The Afghan government conceded it released five Taliban prisoners in return for Mastrogiacomo's release on March 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). Agha was beheaded by his captors on charges of spying for foreign troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2007). Shahabuddin Atal, a purported spokesman for Dadullah, told Pajhwok that the Afghan government did not attempt to contact the group to negotiate Naqshbandi's freedom even after Mastrogiacomo's release -- which Atal claimed proves that the government does not protect its own people. Afghan presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi said the government is making every effort to ensure Naqshbandi's release. JC

An unnamed official from Iran's Atomic Energy Organization was quoted by ISNA as saying in Tehran on March 26 that Iran's cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will now fall strictly within the provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and that Iran will reject "extra" cooperation with UN nuclear inspectors. The cabinet on March 25 decided to suspend two sections of "peripheral arrangements" signed with the IAEA in February 2003 pertaining to an earlier safeguards agreement. The unnamed official said the peripheral arrangements were not obligatory under the NPT and added that Iran accepted them to build confidence in its atomic program. The arrangements required that Iran inform the IAEA of any "thoughts and plans" or "details of our technical knowledge" regarding planned nuclear projects, the official said. The standard safeguards agreement, the official added, merely required Iran to give the IAEA six months' notice on the introduction of any "nuclear substance" into installations. After the March 25 cabinet decision, "all Iran's cooperation with the [IAEA] will be only within the framework of the safeguards agreement, and it will implement no extra commitment," the source said. "We have suspended all extra commitments" and "our collaborations are [now] within the [NPT] framework," the official said. "Our subsequent measures will be harsher." VS

Parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said on March 26 that the previous day's cabinet decision to cut back Iranian cooperation with the IAEA is "rational" and "in line with implementing" a parliamentary vote from 2006 instructing the government to reconsider its level of cooperation with UN inspectors, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). He said Iran does not see why its membership of the IAEA and the NPT carries duties but no benefits. Haddad-Adel accused the IAEA of becoming a tool in the hands of the great powers. He claimed that the "instrumental use" of the UN Security Council and "international bodies" by these powers might bring them short-term benefits and "they might think this is a pressure on Iran," but he warned that in the long term "such measures" threaten world peace by discrediting international bodies. Haddad-Adel said some countries that wish to respect international laws face pressure from the great powers "through the United Nations," while international bodies back Israel, a state that he accused of having respect for neither international bodies nor nonproliferation rules. Haddad-Adel predicted that such alleged conduct will help countries "become more familiar with the double standards and irrational conduct of powers like the United States." VS

Iran has made a payment to Atomstroieksport, the Russian contractor building the nuclear power plant in Bushehr on the Persian Gulf, news agencies quoted company spokesman Sergei Novikov as saying in Moscow on March 26. Iran and Russia are currently in a dispute over payments, and Russia has alleged that Iran has fallen behind on payments; Iranian officials have repeatedly rejected that claim. The firm welcomed the payment as "positive" and indicating that Iran is overcoming financial difficulties, but added it was far from settling what it stated were sums owed. The presidents of China and Russia, Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin, urged Iran in a statement issued in Moscow on March 26 to fulfill the UN Security Council's demands over its nuclear program, AP reported. Security Council states want Iran to stop sensitive fuel-making activities. Separately on March 26, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana spoke by telephone with Iran's ranking nuclear diplomat, Ali Larijani, renewing an offer of talks between Iran and the EU, AP reported, quoting Solana spokeswoman Christina Gallach. Gallach told AP in Brussels that Larijani has accepted an invitation for "future contacts." VS

Pakistani security forces on March 23 freed three of four Iranian policemen or security agents captured in February by suspected Sunni extremists inside Iran and have returned them to Iran, Radio Farda reported on March 26, citing news agencies. Farda suggested that a fourth hostage was probably killed. The policemen were captured and taken to Pakistan on February 25 or 27 after a shoot-out with suspected members of the extremist group known as Jundullah in the Magur district of Sistan-Baluchistan, near Pakistan, AFP and Radio Farda reported previously. On March 8, AFP reported footage broadcast by Al-Arabiyah television showing the captured policemen kneeling with camouflaged captors standing behind them. It also cited a purported Jundullah member as rejecting any allegation that Jundullah had ties to U.S. intelligence, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, AFP reported. Iranian officials have accused foreign forces of organizing or aiding banditry in Iran's frontier regions. VS

President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have approved a draft law on accountability and justice that essentially revises Iraq's current de-Ba'athification law, while ensuring justice and protecting citizens' rights, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 27. The announcement of the draft law has been anticipated for several weeks as part of al-Maliki's national-reconciliation plan. The draft will allow government workers from all but the top three tiers of the party to return to their jobs or collect a pension. Thousands of Iraqis, mostly Sunni Arabs, dismissed from government jobs under the Coalition Provisional Authority's 2003 de-Ba'athificiation law claimed they only joined the Ba'ath Party in order to work, but felt no loyalty to Saddam Hussein or the party. The cabinet is expected to review the draft and refer it to parliament, where it could be voted on as early as this week, according to aides to al-Maliki, "The Washington Post" reported on March 27. KR

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced on March 26 that the 15 British naval personnel detained in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway were in Iraqi territorial waters and therefore should be released immediately, KUNA reported the same day. "According to information available to Iraqi authorities, the soldiers were arrested in Iraqi waters...they were there as part of the Multinational Force-Iraq and had the consent of the Iraqi authorities in line with UN Security Council resolutions," Zebari said. He added that he discussed the situation with his Iranian counterpart Manuchehr Mottaki on March 25 and called for "addressing the issue legally and wisely." On March 23, Iranian authorities seized 15 British Navy personnel for allegedly entering Iranian territorial waters illegally (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). The Iran-Iraq border along the Shatt Al-Arab waterway has long been under dispute. SS

Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said he has held talks with insurgent groups in an attempt to bring them into the political process, "The New York Times" reported on March 26. He is the first U.S. official to publicly acknowledge holding such talks. "There were discussions with the representatives of various groups in the aftermath of the elections, and during the formation of the government before the Samarra incident, and some discussions afterwards as well, " Khalilzad said. He declined to give details concerning his meetings, but several U.S. and Iraqi officials said the talks collapsed after the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra in February 2006 that set off a wave of sectarian violence. "I think that it [the security situation] has not gone as well as one would have clearly liked," Khalilzad said. "And I think the complicating factor was the intensification of sectarian violence, particularly in the aftermath of Samarra." SS

Hamam Hammudi, the head of the Iraqi parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, said on March 25 that Iraq's agenda for the upcoming Arab summit will include five main requests from Arab countries, KUNA reported the same day. Those requests are: calling for more Arab support for Iraq's political process; for more Arab financial support for Iraq's reconstruction efforts; for Arab assistance in settling Iraq's national debt; for Arab support for the Iraqi government's Baghdad security plan; and for Arab support for the government to tackle the mounting sectarian conflict between Shi'ite and Sunni communities. Hammudi urged Saudi King Abdullah to take the lead to help defuse the Iraqi crisis just as he did for the Palestinian and Lebanese domestic conflicts. The Iraqi delegation is to be led by President Jalal Talabani and will include Foreign Minister Zebari, Trade Minister Abd al-Falah al-Sudani, and Minister for Higher Education and Scientific Research Abd Dhiyab al-Ajili. SS

A source in the Iraqi government has accused the Iraqi Ba'ath Party of being involved in the failed March 23 assassination attempt on Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i, "Al-Hayat" reported on March 26. An informed security source said that the remnants of the dissolved Ba'ath Party colluded with the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq to infiltrate al-Zawba'i's security detail. He said that the perpetrator of the suicide attack, Kamal Wahab Sa'idi Ghazal al-Azawi, was a police officer for the former regime and the brother of Aziz Sa'idi al-Azawi, a second-tier leader in the Islamic State of Iraq, who played a role coordinating operations between Al-Qaeda and the Ba'ath Party. The latter is believed to have fled to Syria. Al-Zawba'i was seriously injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up as he was praying at a mosque located inside his residential compound (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). SS

The Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on March 26, condemning the recent attacks on Shi'ite and Sunni mosques. "The Muslim Scholars Association calls on all Iraqis to exercise patience and wisdom, and to stand strong in the face of those who are sowing sedition, no matter what their affiliations and motives. The Muslim Scholars Association holds the sectarian militias, their supporters, the occupation [the U.S.-led occupation], and the current government fully responsible for these blatant violations," the statement said. On March 25, gunmen stormed a Sunni mosque in Al-Haswah and burned it to the ground, apparently in retaliation for an attack on a Shi'ite mosque in the town the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). SS

Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki met with U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander Admiral William Fallon on March 26 in Baghdad, state-run Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The meeting was also attended by Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi and national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i. They discussed the ongoing Baghdad security plan and the process of transferring security responsibilities to the Iraqi government. "We also discussed the processes of developing the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces in the areas of armament and training in the present time and in the future," Jasim said. "There are clear plans which we will implement through joint committees." SS