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Newsline - April 26, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said in his annual televised state-of-the-nation address to both houses of parliament on April 26 that "Russia has fully overcome the long period of production decline and now ranks among the world's top 10 largest economies." He outlined an extensive series of domestic development and spending projects, ranging from guaranteeing the level of old-age pensions to promoting "family values" to building new airports. He argued that unnamed outside forces are meddling in Russia's political and economic affairs in order to promote their own interests and prevent Russia from achieving its own potential. He called for a crackdown on "extremism" in domestic political life. Putin proposed suspending Russian compliance with the amended 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which limits military deployments in specific regions. He argued that unnamed NATO signatories to the document have not ratified it and do not respect its provisions. Putin linked his call for a Russian "moratorium," which was met with "stormy and prolonged applause" by the legislators, to the "incorrect behavior" of Russia's "partners." He said that the moratorium will remain in place until the other signatories ratify and observe the treaty, and "new NATO countries, like Slovakia [sic] and the Baltic states" agree to it. The Baltic states have repeatedly said they will accede to the CFE Treaty only after all 30 original signatories have ratified it; to date only a handful have done so, including Russia in 2004. Slovakia is in fact a signatory to the treaty, but Slovenia is not. Putin argued that the proposed U.S. missile-defense system amounts to NATO's "building up military bases on our borders [as it]...stations elements of antimissile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic." He said he proposes "discussing this problem in the NATO-Russia Council, and, should there be no progress in the negotiations, to look at the possibility of ceasing our commitments under the CFE Treaty." PM/LF

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 24 in Luxembourg that Russia "cannot join" in the planned U.S. missile-defense system, as the United States has offered, because "we have the impression that everything has already been decided in Washington," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 20, and 23, 2007). Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov took a similar line on April 23, when his visiting U.S. counterpart, Robert Gates, discussed the proposed system with him, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and President Putin. Lavrov is slated to speak further about the matter with his NATO colleagues in Oslo on April 26. On April 25 in Berlin, Gates suggested that the Russian leadership is nonetheless divided on missile defense. He argued that "we've made some very hard-hitting proposals, and so I have no doubt there is some debate in Moscow on how to respond." Washington is offering to allow Russian inspections of existing U.S. facilities in Alaska and California, among other things. Alluding to Russian complaints that Moscow has not been sufficiently informed about U.S. plans, Gates said that "it's important that we have initiated this dialogue on missile defense over the last few weeks. We have been talking to the Russians about this for several years." He added that he hopes "that they understand the intensification of this effort and an effort to try and enrich the potential partnership through the dialogue that we've had in Moscow." The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" commented on April 25 that Moscow does not believe that the U.S. system is directed against Iranian missiles, as Washington claims. The paper quoted General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, as saying recently that Moscow will not participate in a project that is directed against Russia itself. But Reuters reported from Washington on April 25 that both Gates and other unnamed leading U.S. officials were " the degree to which all our Russian interlocutors saw Iran as a very serious problem and a threat." Some Western media suggested that Russia is using missile defense to try to promote splits within NATO and the EU and to pave the way for new arms projects it has already decided on. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" commented on April 26 that the discussion on missile defense is just a diversion from other issues. PM

On the eve of a four-day visit to Russia, Czech President Vaclav Klaus was quoted by Interfax on April 25 as saying that "the Czech Republic has begun talks with the United States on the deployment of U.S. radar stations on our territory, and I do not think that this should be changed." He added that "Russia was informed of U.S. plans a long time ago, and the U.S. missile defense cannot be used against Russia." Klaus said that any questions about the matter can be dealt with in the Russia-NATO Council. PM

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on April 26 that the dismantling of a monument to Soviet World War II soldiers and its relocation from central Tallinn, which began the same day, amounts to "an attempt to rewrite the history of [the war]," Interfax reported. He added that "everything that has happened to the monument and the people buried there is inhumane.... Naturally, we will take all this into account in building our relations with Estonia.... The Estonian ambassador in Moscow was summoned to the...Foreign Ministry and presented with a [protest] note." State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said on April 26 that the Estonian move, which was long planned, is "devilish," ITAR-TASS reported. Gryzlov added that "the Estonian government is trying to turn on the dead." State-run Russian television on April 25 stressed that the removal of the memorial is a particularly painful emotional experience for many members of Estonia's Russian minority. First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov recently called for a boycott of Estonia and its products in connection with the dispute. The Estonian government said his appeal amounted to political grandstanding (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 5, 2007). Most Estonians regard Soviet-era war monuments as a symbol of foreign occupation by the Red Army. President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said recently that many of Russia's problems with its neighbors stem from the fact that Russia has never really come to terms with its totalitarian past and with the injustices Russia committed toward others. PM

On April 25, President Putin said at a Kremlin reception following the state funeral of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin that Yeltsin "sincerely tried to do everything possible to make the lives of millions of Russians better," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24 and 25, 2007). Putin called Yeltsin "a decisive person with a strong will, a person of a scale and soul inherent to Russia." He said that Yeltsin "loved and knew how to speak with people directly and openly, he did not hide in the shadows or behind other people. He often consciously drew fire upon himself and assumed personal responsibility for the toughest, but sometimes necessary decisions." Putin argued that "Yeltsin understood that the main thing is the irreversibility of reforms and the firmness of strategic policies. Such political style and sense distinguish national leaders who look far to the future, rather than take things one day at a time." Putin said that his predecessor's "wonderful ability to build sincere friendly relations became a real foreign political asset for Russia." He added that "few have the destiny to become free and lead millions of people, to inspire the motherland to make truly historic changes, and to transform the world. Yeltsin did this, and he never retreated, bowed, or betrayed the people's choice and his conscience. He will remain a bright symbol of change, a fighter against obsolete dogmas." PM

An initiative group named Justice and Dignity has released an open letter to the population of Ingushetia calling for coordinated protests and legal action to expedite the dismissal of republican President Murat Zyazikov. The appeal, which was posted on April 24 on the website, accuses Zyazikov of lying egregiously, including in audiences with President Putin, about the political and economic situation in Ingushetia, exaggerating the volume of foreign investment and housing construction and depicting the overall situation in utopian terms at a time when "nine out of 10 people do not have enough to eat and unemployment stands at 60 percent." The appeal further accuses Zyazikov of turning a blind eye to corruption among his subordinates and of undermining national dignity. The appeal notes that there are numerous factions within the Russian leadership, of which only one -- the "party of war" - supports Zyazikov. It predicts that, regardless who succeeds Putin as Russian president in 2008, Zyazikov will lose his post and, in all likelihood, be named Russian ambassador to Jordan. The appeal calls for legal action against Zyazikov for lies and disinformation, and encourages Ingush to sign the electronic petition ( calling for his dismissal. (That action was launched three years ago, and to date almost 2,000 people, of a population of some 468,000, have signed it.) Meanwhile, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on April 26 commented that Ingushetia's economic successes "do not cease to amaze even skeptics." The paper further quoted unidentified opinion polls as demonstrating a high rate of popular support for Zyazikov, who was first elected president in late April 2002, and who appealed successfully to President Putin in June 2005 to be renominated for a second term in the wake of the first wave of popular protests against his failure to expedite the return to their homes in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion of Ingush forced to flee during the October-November 1992 fighting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 3, 8, and 16, 2005). LF

Peter Semneby, the EU's special representative to the South Caucasus, met on April 25 in Yerevan with Vartan Oskanian to discuss regional issues, Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-EU relations, and plans, which Armenia opposes, by the GUAM member states to submit to the UN General Assembly a resolution on the so-called frozen conflicts in the CIS, including the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. On March 3, Semneby was quoted by as expressing implicit reservations with regard to the GUAM states' initiative to raise the Karabakh issue in the UN General Assembly. Semneby commented that doing so would distract attention from the "main issue" of seeking a solution to the conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22 and December 7, 2006, and February 20 and March 5, 2007). Semneby also stressed the EU's concern that the May 12 Armenian parliamentary election be free, fair, and democratic. LF

The Tbilisi City Court adjourned on April 25 until April 30 the trial of former Georgian Intelligence service head Irakli Batiashvili, who currently heads the opposition movement "Forward, Georgia!", but at the same time dropped one of the charges against him, Caucasus Press reported. Batiashvili was arrested in July 2006 and charged, on the basis of a recorded telephone conversation he claims was cut and edited, of providing "intellectual support" for Emzar Kvitsiani, the renegade former governor of the Kodori Gorge, and of concealing a particularly grave crime by failing to divulge to the Georgian authorities' Kvitsiani's plans to launch a local insurrection (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 24, 2006). That latter charge has reportedly been dropped. LF

Human rights ombudsman Sozar Subeliani told journalists in Tbilisi on April 25 that Minister for Refugees Giorgi Kheviashvili should be required to answer for the eviction by police the previous day from a building in Tbilisi's Vazisubani district of several families of displaced persons, Caucasus Press reported. Kheviashvili for his part claimed on April 25 that his ministry has allocated those families alternative accommodation, but the displaced persons say that accommodation is unfit for human habitation. LF

Kyrgyz rights groups held a demonstration outside the headquarters of the National Security Committee in Bishkek on April 25 to protest the detention of opposition leaders in connection with recent demonstrations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007), Interfax reported. Azamat Kalman, a spokesman for the opposition United Front For A Worthy Future For Kyrgyzstan, told the news agency, "The nongovernmental human rights organizations Citizens Against Corruption and Kalym Shamy are demanding that the chief of the headquarters of the United Front, Omurbek Abdrakhmanov, and leader of the youth movement Kanzhar [part of the United Front] Adilet Aitikeyev be released from custody." Meanwhile, 400-500 supporters of Omurbek Suvanaliev, another detained leader of the United Front, held a protest in Talas province on April 25, the news agency reported. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who was in Bishkek for an official visit on April 25, told that she cannot comment on the recent detentions. "I do not have enough information on this," Arbour said. "But I can say that an arrest, detention, and a measure of restraint should be applied by a court order and not the law enforcement agencies. The judiciary itself must be independent and transparent." DK

The status of a parliamentary bid by Bermet Akaeva, daughter of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, remained unclear on April 25 amid conflicting reports about court rulings, news agencies reported. In an interview with, Myktarbek Alymkulov, a regional court judge in Kemin, said that he ruled to annul her candidacy in the April 29 by-election. He also alleged that Akaeva's supporters pressured him and threatened him physically. But the news agency reported that the court decision rests on a residency requirement that was removed from the country's constitution on December 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007). For her part, Akaeva told that she expects the Supreme Court to rule on the case. Akaeva's supporters briefly blocked the Bishkek-Torugart highway on April 24 to protest the court ruling to remove her from the running in the April 29 by-election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). DK

Murodali Alimardonov, chairman of Tajikistan's National Bank, told a news conference in Dushanbe on April 25 that the authorities will form a special commission to write off the more than $400 million that cotton growers owe futures companies, Regnum and RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Alimardonov called the debts an obstacle to agricultural development and said that the commission will complete the write-offs by the end of June. Debts incurred before January 1, 2006, will be eligible for the write-off. Alimardonov also said that five foreign banks will soon receive licenses to operate in Tajikistan, Interfax reported. President Emomali Rahmon will announce on April 30 that "all banks can freely enter and operate in Tajikistan," Alimardonov said. He commented, "Our banks have grown quire strong to stand up to the competition with the new banks that will enter our market, therefore we will gladly welcome them in our republic." Alimardonov named Kazakhstan's Kazkommertsbank as one of the foreign banks that will be granted a license to operate in Tajikistan. DK

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Arbour told journalists in Bishkek on April 25 that she will not visit Uzbekistan on her current Central Asian visit because Uzbek authorities told her that they have no time, the BBC's Uzbek Service reported. "When we were planning our trip to Central Asia, we contacted the five Central Asian governments, including the Uzbek government, to set up meetings to discuss human rights," Arbour said. "But the Uzbek government said that it did not have time for a meeting." DK

David Kramer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told journalists in Minsk on April 25 that Washington has not seen "much evidence" from the Belarusian government to support its recent expressions of interest in improving relations with the West, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Kramer, who arrived in Minsk on April 23, met with opposition politicians, relatives of political prisoners and students, and with Foreign Minister Syarhey Martynau and Natalia Pyatkevich, deputy head of the Presidential Administration. Kramer said he took advantage of these meetings to spell out the "minimum steps" that Washington expects Minsk to take toward better bilateral relations. These steps, Kramer elaborated, include releasing all political prisoners, dropping charges against other opposition activists, allowing the Chornobyl Way demonstration on April 26 to take place peacefully, and allowing the congress of democratic forces in Belarus in May to take place without any problems. "Absent those steps, I fear that relations could deteriorate," Kramer noted. "Under the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act that Congress passed [in December 2006] and President Bush signed [in January 2007], we have additional steps we can take to increase the pressure on the government. I hope that won't be necessary, but the ball is in the court of the government of Belarus." JM

Viktor Yushchenko said in a television address to the nation on April 25 that he has issued a decree on postponing the early parliamentary elections he decreed earlier this month for May 27 until June 24, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko said a new date for the early elections was needed to enable election officials to prepare the ballot, adding that preparations for the ballot have been complicated by the absence of a quorum in the Central Election Commission and the cabinet's refusal to allocate funds for the election campaign. "It has already been a month since the coalition in the Verkhovna Rada was reformatted against the constitution. From now on, the president of Ukraine can fully implement his right to dissolve the parliament on the grounds of Article 90 of the Ukrainian Constitution. I'm sure of the legal right and political necessity for such a decision. I'm convinced that Ukrainian society, responsible Ukrainian politicians, and the people understand this decision," Yushchenko said. The new decree, dated April 26, 2007, was published on the presidential website ( on April 26. JM

Lawmaker Raisa Bohatyryova, coordinator of the parliamentary coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, said on April 26 that, by signing his new decree on early elections in June, President Yushchenko intended to prevent the Constitutional Court from ruling on his previous decree, which scheduled early parliamentary elections for May 27. "Today, an attack was actually launched on the Constitutional Court to make it impossible for it to pass a resolution on the April 2 decree," Bohatyryova said. She added that the ruling coalition will appeal against the new decree to the Constitutional Court as well. Meanwhile, Party of Regions lawmaker Taras Chornovil called on lawmakers of the ruling coalition gathered in the Verkhovna Rada session hall on April 26 to initiate the procedure of impeachment against President Yushchenko. Under the Ukrainian Constitution, at least 226 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada are necessary to initiate the procedure of impeachment, at least 300 votes are required to accuse the president of "state treason or other crime" that could constitute the grounds for his/her impeachment, and at least 338 votes are necessary to approve the removal of the president from office. JM

In a further escalation of political and constitutional tensions between Bosnia's major ethnic communities, the parliament of the autonomous Muslim-Croat Federation on April 24 urged Srebrenica to push for special status, thereby removing it from the control of the other autonomous region, the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. Local media reported the same day that the resolution was the initiative of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which is led by the Croats' representative in Bosnia's three-member Presidency, Zeljko Komsic. The basis for the motion was a ruling in February by the UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ), which concluded that the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995 was an "act of genocide." Proponents of a reform of Bosnia's political and constitutional structure -- most prominently, the Muslim member of the presidency, Haris Silajdzic -- argue that the creation of the Republika Srpska was the direct result of the genocide at Srebrenica and of other war crimes. On April 23, the parliament of the Republika Srpska vetoed an initiative by Silajdzic and Komsic to put pressure on Serbia to hand over war crimes suspects (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). The assembly's resolution calls for Srebrenica to fall under the direct authority of the federal government. AG

Republika Srpska President Milan Jelic on April 25 called the resolution by the Muslim-Croat assembly a clear violation of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Constitution and the Dayton peace accords that brought an end to the civil war in 1995. The SRNA news agency quoted Jelic as saying that "illegal and illegitimate attempts at a unconstitutional takeover of the powers of the Republika Srpska by state bodies and demands to adopt a state law on Srebrenica's status confirm that what is happening here is an unrelenting struggle for the centralization and creation of a unitary Bosnia-Herzegovina and for a new, unacceptable constitutional model completely contrary to the Dayton solutions." Jelic suggested that the federal government should seek to emulate the Republika Srpska in its efforts to improve life in Srebrenica. The Bosnian Serb authorities have granted Srebrenica special economic status and promised investment in its infrastructure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and April 10, 2007). According to the Fena news agency on April 24, the resolution passed by the Muslim-Croat Federation's parliament specifically called on its own government to help develop Srebrenica economically. Bosnian Muslim returnees in the city say the effort is limited and too late, complain of routine discrimination, and accuse the Republika Srpska of failing to dismiss participants in the massacre from its security forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). In an alleged protest at conditions in Srebrenica, a group of Bosnian Muslims left Srebrenica on April 16, setting up a tent camp in Sarajevo. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik on April 25 appealed for them to return to Srebrenica, saying, according to SRNA, that they are being "manipulated." AG

A court in the Netherlands on April 24 ordered the Dutch Defense Ministry to grant a widow of one of the 8,000 victims of the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica access to confidential files about the events surrounding the slaughter, international media reported the same day. The report did not provide details of the files requested, but the case could reopen questions and sensitivities about the failure of Dutch peacekeepers to protect Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, which was designated a UN safe area at the time it was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces. A damning independent Dutch report that concluded that the Dutch government sent its soldiers on "an ill-conceived and virtually impossible peace mission" prompted the resignation of the Dutch cabinet in 2001. The woman, a Bosnian Muslim married to an engineer with the Dutch battalion, is seeking compensation from the Dutch government, though the report did not provide details of her claim. AG

Most Serbs believe that the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) treats Serbian defendants unfairly, according to a poll conducted by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights. The poll, the results of which were aired on April 23 by the broadcaster B92, found that 63 percent of respondents mistrust the Hague-based court, and that over 70 percent believe war crime indictees should be tried at home. The ICTY has increasingly been passing cases on to domestic courts in preparation for its own closure in 2010. The ICTY will take on its last cases in 2008. B92 reported that analysts at a roundtable to discuss the poll added that Serbs have more confidence in reports of crimes committed against Serbs than by Serbs. Previous polls have found that half of Serbs question the veracity of well-documented war crimes, most prominently the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, which has been ruled an "act of genocide" by the International Court of Justice, as well as the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). AG

At a press conference on April 25, the head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, called on Kosova's Serbs to become more involved in the region's public life, saying that "it is not fair to isolate yourself and then complain about isolation." Ruecker's comments echoed many previous statements, but they carry particular weight as they came on the eve of a visit by a delegation of UN ambassadors to make their own assessment of the situation in Kosova ahead of a UN Security Council vote on granting independence to Kosova. One of the primary reasons for the mission is to assess conditions on the ground for Kosovar Serbs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). Ruecker listed ethnic Serbs' "inadequate participation" in Kosova's central institutions among the UNMIK's three key "disappointments," along with the low number of Serbs who have returned since the conflict in 1999 and "a still difficult economic situation." Ruecker said he will inform the mission of Kosova's "respectable progress" toward meeting international standards set as targets, adding that "this does not mean that the standards have made miraculous achievements, but they have contributed to the steady development of the Kosovo institutions, and so to the increasing normality of life in Kosovo." AG

Montenegro on April 25 signed a security agreement with NATO, a move that elaborates on its entry into NATO's Partnership for Peace in December. NATO and local media reported that the agreement was signed in Brussels by Defense Minister Boro Vucinic. In Podgorica, President Filip Vujanovic reiterated to a delegation of NATO officials that NATO membership is a priority for his country, Radio Montenegro reported. Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia hope to be invited to join the alliance in 2008. Montenegro is currently in the process of slashing the size of its military and establishing full civilian control, as well as modernizing standards and equipment. However, TV Crna Gora on April 24 reported that Vucinic expressed the fear that the ongoing dispute over the new state's constitution could slow down military reform. Vucinic said that a full military strategy could be adopted by the government by mid-May. AG

The mayor of the ethnic Greek-populated town of Himare, Vasil Bollano, has likened Greek territorial claims on southern Albania to the demands for independence by ethnic Albanians in Kosova, the Albanian-language newspaper "Korrieri" reported on April 23. Speaking to Top Channel television on April 22, Bollano reportedly said that "Northern Epirus" (Vorio Epir) -- as Greeks refer to a swathe of southern Albania -- deserves the same solution as Kosova, which the UN is proposing should be granted independence from Serbia. Roughly 2 percent of Albania's population of 3.6 million are ethnic Greeks. Tensions between ethnic Greeks and local Albanians occasionally surface, as they did in local elections in January in the form of brawls between competing parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15 and 21, 2007). Ethnic tensions in the region reached a modern-day high in 1994 when members of an ethnic Greek underground organization, the Liberation Front of North Epirus, attacked an Albanian Army barrack at Peshkepi on the Greek border. Two soldiers were killed and three seriously wounded. Relations with Greece were soured in March when a video emerged that showed Greek soldiers insulting Albania during training exercises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 16, 2007). AG

While U.S. military officials have said that there are signs that the Baghdad security plan is having a positive effect, a recent series of high-profile attacks underscored that the security situation in Iraq remains very tenuous.

When the Baghdad security plan was launched on February 14, many Iraqi and U.S. officials bluntly stressed that this could be the final opportunity to establish order in the Iraqi capital. And the seriousness of the security situation was further emphasized by the news that the U.S. military was planning to build a security barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah to protect its citizens from reprisal attacks.

In an indication that insurgents may have adapted to the current security environment due to the Baghdad operation in recent weeks, the Iraqi capital witnessed a series of high-profile attacks.

On April 12, a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest inside one of the cafeterias of the Iraqi parliament building, killing three, including an Iraqi lawmaker, and injuring 22 others .

The attack was shocking, given that the parliament building is located in the heavily fortified Green Zone and those entering from outside must pass through five security checkpoints. The attack demonstrated that insurgents and terrorists could still strike even in the most heavily guarded section of Baghdad.

Moreover, it revealed the possibility that the attack was carried out with assistance from those inside the parliament. Two weeks before the April 12 bombing, the U.S. military found two suicide vests in the Green Zone, suggesting that the attack may not have been an isolated incident.

One of the most spectacular attacks in Baghdad occurred on April 18, when a series of five bombings killed nearly 200 people and wounded more than 250. The deadliest of them took place in the predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Sadriyah in central Baghdad, where a car bomb exploded near a marketplace, killing 140 people and wounding 159.

Local officials blamed Sunni insurgents for the attacks, but the sheer scale and coordination behind the bombings underscored that despite the ongoing security operation, insurgents can still cause mayhem.

In addition, the massive attack on the Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Sadriyah has increased the pressure on U.S. and Iraqi forces to protect Shi'ite districts, which prior to the new security operation were primarily the responsibility of the Shi'ite militias, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

However, since al-Sadr's militia has taken an increasingly lower profile and has shown restraint in not being provoked into confrontation with Sunni insurgents, the onus rests on the U.S. and Iraqi forces to provide protection. Continuing attacks similar to the Al-Sadriyah market bombing may force residents into the streets to demand the protection of the militia.

On April 23, a suicide truck bombing on a U.S. military patrol base near the town of Ba'qubah in the restive Diyala Governorate killed nine U.S. soldiers and wounded more than 20. Media described the attack as the deadliest since December 2005, and the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq later issued a statement claiming responsibility for the bombing.

The attack underscored the increasing volatility of the Diyala Governorate. The U.S. military describes Diyala as the third-most-dangerous governorate in Iraq after Al-Anbar and Baghdad, and 56 U.S. soldiers have been killed there since November. There are suggestions that Diyala is starting to turn into a major front: "The Washington Post" reported on April 21 that the U.S. military is sending an additional 2,000 soldiers into the governorate.

The increase in violence in the governorate may be partly due to Al-Qaeda-linked elements being pushed out of the Baghdad by the ongoing security operation. As Baghdad is blanketed by thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops, Al-Qaeda fighters are forced to seek other places to carry out their operations.

The attack near Ba'qubah is particularly striking, because it is relatively rare that a U.S. military instillation, albeit a smaller outpost, has come under a full frontal assault. The attack itself could be viewed as a direct response by Al-Qaeda to the Baghdad security operation. Unable to penetrate the heavily fortified U.S. military bases in Baghdad and other major cities, the group has much better chances of success when it attacks more vulnerable smaller outposts.

The increasing violence and fears of Shi'ite reprisal attacks against Sunni Arabs prompted the U.S. military to begin erecting a wire-and-concrete barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah on April 10. After the news of the barrier became known, Sunni politicians and local Sunni leaders condemned the plan, accusing the U.S. and Iraqi governments of isolating the community. The outcry and subsequent street demonstrations prompted Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to call for construction to be halted.

Many rejected the U.S. argument that the so-called "gated community" would increase security for the neighborhood by preventing Shi'ite death squads from attacking its residents. Conversely, residents likened the plan to transforming Al-Adhamiyah into a huge prison and accused the U.S. and Iraqi governments of using collective punishment.

Indeed, some Sunni leaders subscribe to the belief that separating the Sunni neighborhood from the surrounding Shi'ite districts would accentuate the sectarian divisions between Shi'a and Sunni that may ultimately lead to increased animosity. The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement on April 21 warning that the barrier would "inflict social and economic damage and it will lead to more sectarian tension."

There was also the inevitable comparison by some in the Arab media of the Al-Adhamiyah barrier with the Israeli separation barrier. An April 23 editorial in the pan-Arab daily "Al-Quds al-Arabi" described the barrier as an act of desperation by the United States in its attempts to gain control of the security situation. "It seems that the U.S. administration has exhausted all the solutions and ideas in its possession to control the situation in Iraq. So it has resorted to its Israeli ally to ask for help, and the answer came in the form of a plan to build walls to split Baghdad's quarters and entrench sectarian separation," the editorial said.

Regardless of whether the comparison is justified or not, the mere notion that the United States is employing "Israeli" tactics in Iraq does not bode well for U.S. attempts to win the "hearts and minds" of the Iraqi people.

It would be premature to assume that the U.S. surge policy and the Baghdad security plan is failing. U.S. military officials have stressed that maximum troop levels will not be reached until mid-summer, and only then will it be known if the new policy is achieving its aims.

U.S. military officials have claimed that sectarian violence has been significantly curtailed since the Baghdad security operation began. Indeed, the essential "disappearance" of al-Sadr's militia, which the United States and some Iraqi officials blame for many of the attacks against Sunnis, has undoubtedly reduced the overall level of sectarian violence in Baghdad. Furthermore, the militia's decision to lay low is a direct result of the security plan.

However, the recent spike in car bombings and high-profile attacks such as the Al-Sadriyah market bombing may be an indication that insurgents have altered their tactics to counter the Baghdad offensive. Major General Michael Barbero, the Joint Staff's deputy director for regional operations, said at an April 19 press conference that he expects more high-profile bomb attacks by Sunni extremists. "It's, you know, action on our part, and now we're seeing the reaction on their part," Barbero said. "And it'll be like that until we can defeat these forces."

In addition, the plan to construct the Al-Adhamiyah security barrier has struck a nerve among the populace. While the policy is based on benign U.S. intentions, the mere idea of sequestering an entire neighborhood in order to protect it emphasizes the seriousness of the security situation.

The majority of Iraqi leaders, like Mahmud Uthman, a member of the Kurdistan Alliance, believes the barrier represents a complete and utter failure of the U.S. military to achieve its security objectives. However, what may be more damaging is the highly symbolic idea the barrier conveys, in that after four years of bloodshed, the differences among Iraq's factions are so great that perhaps they cannot be insurmountable.

An explosion destroyed an Afghan National Army vehicle in Waza Khwa district of Paktika Province on April 25, killing seven soldiers and wounding another, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Zabiullah Mojahed, claiming to speak for the Taliban, told AIP on April 25 that the "Taliban blew up a vehicle of the foreign troops by remote-controlled explosive device." Also on April 25, three Afghan police officers were killed and four others were injured in an ambush in Herat Province, AFP reported. Ali Khan, director of the provincial criminal-investigation department, told AFP that police were guarding a hydropower dam that is being built with financial assistance from India at the time of the attack. Ali Khan did not identify any suspects. AT

Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) head Sayyed Husayn Faramarz told a news conference in Kabul on April 25 that his agency registered more than 200 cases of violence against women across the country in the first quarter of 2007, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Faramarz said the cases include 116 instances of physical abuse, 40 cases of forced marriage, 11 cases of expulsion from home, 10 runaways, eight cases of women offered as part of settlement of enmity, and a dozen cases of self-immolation. In 2006, the AIHRC received reports on 1,651 cases of violence against women from 10 Afghan provinces. Most cases of violence against women remain unreported in Afghanistan, especially cases involving sexual assault. AT

The Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) of the Afghan National Assembly began debating the country's media law on April 25, the state-run Radio Afghanistan reported. The Wolesi Jirga's 18-member Religious, Cultural, and Education Affairs Commission, which is headed by Mohammad Mohaqeq, decided to debate the media law in the upcoming general session of the lower house on April 26. Current media guidelines were decreed by President Hamid Karzai just days before the National Assembly was inaugurated in December 2005. Reports of new proposals to the media law by the Wolesi Jirga suggest a tightening of restrictions on the media (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 6, 2007). AT

Iran's parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel told reporters on April 25 that an increase in the price of gasoline slated for May 22 is intended to reduce car use by Iranians and cut fuel imports, ILNA reported. The gasoline price will rise to 100 tumans (about $0.11) per liter for a set amount of gasoline per car or driver, up from the current 80 tumans a liter. The government is to set the limit on how much gas each registered car can purchase at the subsidized price, and drivers will be required to use "smart cards" to measure consumption. Haddad-Adel said he hopes the 100-tuman price will lead people to drive less, consume less, and avoid having to buy more expensive gasoline. He said Iran spent "close to" $8 billion importing gasoline for cars in the Persian year to March 20, 2007. He also urged the government to act now to prevent the petrol price change from sparking a general rise in prices. "Before, when gasoline prices rose," he said, "the next working day many businesses somehow related to gasoline increased their prices." Haddad-Adel called the price rise good for Iran but warned that it might initially upset those Iranians who are "used to having unlimited and cheap gasoline," ILNA reported. VS

Iranian police chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam said in Tehran on April 25 that some 150,000 people were briefly detained in the first four days of a police drive to "enhance social and moral security" and banish indecent public conduct or appearances in line with religious laws, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media. Women are obliged to cover their hair with head scarves and their clothes and bodies with overalls or full-length garments called "chador." Ahmadi-Moqaddam said 150,000 people were arrested for wearing skimpy clothing, "violating privacy," or bothering family groups on the streets or on public transportation. He said all but 13 were released after signing pledges of good conduct and talking to psychologists or counselors, Radio Farda reported. Thirteen people were referred to the judiciary, he said, after police gathered evidence of their alleged misconduct. He said police and plainclothes agents were discreetly taking photos of individuals "bothering" women or families on the streets or in vehicles. Iranian laws forbid any form of intimacy between men and women outside marriage or the close family circle. Ahmadi-Moqaddam told the press that the police campaign is not confined to telling women to tighten their head scarves, but also intends to enhance public security for women and families. VS

Iranian Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Herandi told the media on April 24 not to undermine the police's public-decency drive with undue criticism, and he threatened them with unspecified restrictions if they engage in "divisive" criticism, IRNA reported. The police drive has met with a mixed reception among officials, politicians, and the public. The Culture Ministry oversees press affairs and could take legal action to shut down dailies. Saffar-Herandi told a seminar on the premises of state television in Tehran that some media are disrupting police work with their critical reporting. "These media can be sure they can be tolerated up to a point," he warned, "but if they continue, there will be a firm response against them." The police drive has "these days" become a "source of concern" for some and "a platform for mischief" for others, Saffar-Herandi said. He added that the police are being treated unjustly and their drive to promote street security and morality has been "downgraded" to a campaign against loose head scarves, IRNA reported. VS

Mustafa Moin, a higher-education minister in the reformist government of President Mohammad Khatami and a presidential candidate in 2005, said in Tehran on April 25 that reformists want no revolution in Iran but must firmly defend the civic and political rights of Iranians, ISNA reported. "The main goal of reformists is to defend the people's rights," he said. Moin said reformists must examine their past record to see if they have adequately served the public in line with reformist ideals. He said elections and politics are means with which to safeguard public rights, strengthen democracy, and improve people's living standards, so "there is no justification in taking part in elections of any quality or by any means." Moin was presumably referring to pre-election restrictions that reformists say are imposed on them by election supervisors, which reformists claim render many Iranian elections neither free nor fair. Moin said that "suspicious" perspectives in government have reached the point where officials no longer tolerate any type of protest in universities. "This type of response leads to more division and weakens national interests," he said. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has appointed Ruhollah Hosseinian, a mid-ranking cleric with reputed radical right-wing views, as his political and security affairs adviser, Radio Farda reported on April 25, without dating the appointment. Farda went on to add that critics accuse Hosseinian of being a "theoretician of violence" in the 1990s, and some regard him as a mentor to state security agents arrested at the time for possible involvement in the murders of writers and dissidents. Hosseinian reportedly defended Said Emami, a leading suspect in the "serial murders" of dissidents, and claimed he had evidence that a senior reformist official in the Khatami government -- and not Emami -- was a key planner of the murders. Hosseinian studied at the hard-line Haqqani seminary in the 1970s. Other graduates and Hosseinian's reported college friends include Iran's current ministers of Intelligence and Interior, Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei and Mustafa Purmohammadi, respectively, according to Radio Farda. VS

Brigadier General Qasim al-Musawi, the Iraqi military spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, announced on April 25 that the government has modified a U.S. plan to build a security barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah, Reuters reported the same day. "We have sought other substitutes such as barbed wire, sand walls, and small concrete barriers," he said. "We immediately started implementing the order of the prime minister three days ago." The reworked plan was announced after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on April 22 for the construction of the barrier to be halted. Local Sunni leaders earlier complained that it would turn the neighborhood into a huge prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). SS

Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr issued a statement on April 25 denouncing the construction of a barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah in Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. He described the barrier as a "sectarian, racist wall that seeks to divide" Shi'a and Sunnis. "We, the sons of the Iraqi people, will defend Al-Adhamiyah as long as we are alive," he added. "We will also defend other areas, which you [the Americans] want to segregate. We will stand united to stage demonstrations with them [the inhabitants of Al-Adhamiyah] and defend our sacred places." He stressed that only "honorable voices will remove the wall." On April 23, hundreds of Al-Adhamiyah residents took to the streets to denounce the barrier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). U.S. military officials have stressed that the barrier is meant to protect the neighborhood's residents from Shi'ite death squads. Sunni leaders and U.S. officials have long accused al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, of being behind many of the sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs. SS

Coalition forces killed a top Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader in northwest of Baghdad on April 20, the U.S. military announced in a statement on April 25. It said coalition forces killed Muhammad Abdallah Abbas al-Issawi (aka Abu Abd al-Sattar and Abu Akram) during a firefight with alleged terrorists. The military said al-Sattar was known as the "security emir" of the western Al-Anbar Governorate and had close ties with former Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed in June 2006 in a U.S. air strike. He is also accused of being a weapons supplier and being involved with the recent use of "vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices" (VBIEDs) using chlorine gas. U.S. troops also found suicide bomb vests at the scene, and U.S. military intelligence reports indicated that al-Sattar's terrorist cell used "12- to 13-year-old children as VBIED drivers." "Abu Abd al-Satter's death is a serious disruption to Al-Qaeda in Iraq's VBIED network," U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said. "This represents one more victory in the war against those that would deny safety and security to the Iraqi people." SS

At an April 25 press conference, UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) spokesman Said Arikat accused the Iraqi government of withholding casualty figures, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "The new UNAMI quarterly human rights report, unlike previous ones, does not contain official statistics of violent deaths regularly gathered by the Ministry of Health and the Medical Legal Institute in Baghdad. This is because the Iraq government decided not to make such data available to UNAMI," Arikat said. He said that based on UN High Commission for Refugees data, an estimated 736,422 people have been forced from their homes since the bombing of the Al-Askiri Shrine in Samarra on February 2006, mainly due to sectarian violence and military operations. Arikat said the UN is also concerned about procedures followed by Iraq's criminal courts, including those in the Kurdish regions, "which have failed to meet minimum fair-trial standards." In response, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki issued a statement calling the UNAMI report unreliable, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on April 25. "Despite the Iraqi government's full cooperation and transparency in dealing with the UN delegation in Iraq, much of the information contained in the report was not taken from credible sources," the statement said. SS

Aides to Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki announced on April 25 that Kuwait has balked at forgiving Iraq's $15 billion debt, AP reported on April 25. Kuwait in principal has decided to forgive 80 percent of Iraq's debt, but that is contingent upon parliamentary approval. However, Kuwaiti lawmakers oppose the move, saying that Iraq is an oil-rich country and should pay back the money. Al-Maliki said at a news conference on April 25 that he spoke about the debt with Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah and Prime Minister Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah, but said the matter was left up to the Kuwaiti parliament. "We hope that the National Assembly will not stand against this huge debt. The brothers in Kuwait are sympathetic, and, God willing, the National Assembly will be generous," al-Maliki said. On April 17, Saudi Arabia announced that it will write off 80 percent of Iraq's $15 billion debt to the kingdom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). SS

The United States has started to issue new identification cards to residents of Al-Ramadi, in the Al-Anbar Governorate, in an effort to secure the city, Voice of Iraq radio reported on April 25. Voice of Iraq quoted a security source as saying that the U.S. military has set up locations in the city to issue the ID cards, which will be given only to Al-Ramadi residents. "U.S. forces started this morning issuing identification cards to residents of Ramadi city after taking local residents' fingerprints and making cornea scans to isolate wanted persons and to prevent anyone from entering the city without an ID," the source said. The city has witnessed a recent upsurge in violence in the past few days. On April 24, a suicide truck bomber killed 25 Iraqis and wounded more than 44 at a local market (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). A day earlier, a suicide car bomber struck near a restaurant popular with local policemen, killing 20 people and wounding more than 35. SS