RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCHES REUNITE
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II signed on May 17 a Canonical Communion Act with the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Metropolitan Lavr, at a solemn ceremony in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, Russian and Western news agencies reported. The ceremony, timed to coincide with Ascension Day, reunited the Russian Orthodox Church with the breakaway church that split off following the Bolshevik Revolution, after the then leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Sergy, declared the church's loyalty to the communist government. Aleksy called the ceremony "an historic event that will liquidate the tragic consequences of the civil war," AP reported. Leaders of the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad flew to Moscow earlier this week for the event. President Vladimir Putin attended the ceremony before leaving for Samara for a summit with EU leaders. Aleksy said Putin, an Orthodox believer, has strongly supported the reconciliation and gave him a folding icon of the Trinity, Interfax reported. The Russian Orthodox Church has recovered some of its old influence since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and is a firm supporter of the new Russian state. The connection of the Russian Orthodox Church with the state has been very strong historically. A spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, Archpriest Aleksandr Lebedev, has likewise stressed his church's devotion to "Russianness," Interfax reported. FF
UNION OF JOURNALISTS EVICTED IN FAVOR OF RUSSIA TODAY
The Russian Union of Journalists said on May 17 that it does not intend to comply with a decision by the Moscow branch of the Federal Property Management Agency to evict it from its headquarters in central Moscow, the daily "Novye izvestiya" reported. Union employees are busy preparing for the World Congress of Journalists, which opens in Moscow on May 28. On May 15, the Union of Journalists received an eviction notice, dated April 18, ordering it to vacate its offices within one month. Union Secretary Igor Yakovenko and other union representatives said the union, Russia's largest public organization, with more than 100,000 members, was told that it was evicted to make space for the Russia Today television station, the state-owned English-language channel tasked with creating a positive image of Russia abroad, Ekho Moskvy reported. The union and Russia Today both occupy offices in the same building in central Moscow, which also houses RIA Novosti. Yakovenko said the union occupies space in the building under a decree issued in the early 1990s by then-President Boris Yeltsin. The union also has offices in the House of Journalists on Nikitsky Bulvar. Part of that building was occupied by the Educated Media Foundation, the successor to Internews Russia, which was raided on April 18 after its president, Manana Aslamazyan, was detained at Sheremetyevo Airport in January for failing to declare excess cash. A criminal investigation has been opened against Aslamazyan. Security officials on April 18 confiscated the group's financial documentation and all its computer servers, causing the suspension of activities aimed at supporting regional broadcasters. Yakovenko said investigators have been looking at ties between the two organizations, "The Moscow Times reported." FF
DIFFICULT EU-RUSSIA SUMMIT OPENS IN SAMARA...
An informal meeting of Russian and EU leaders will open the first day of a difficult summit at a health resort 200 kilometers from the city of Samara on May 17, Interfax reported. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the EU Presidency, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, Russian President Putin, and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov will take part in the meeting. There are low expectations for the summit, but European leaders hope it will at least prevent relations deteriorating further. Reuters quoted Barroso as saying that he hopes the summit will demonstrate that, "whatever our current difficulties may be, there is a wide range of practical cooperation ongoing with Russia." Meanwhile, analyst Alexander Rahr of the German Council on Foreign Relations told the agency that "Russia wants a partnership of interests with the EU and not a partnership of values." FF
...WHICH EU FOREIGN-POLICY CHIEF MAY NOT ATTEND
Javier Solana announced on May 16 that he is unlikely attend the EU-Russia summit, because will be in the German town of Aachen accepting the Charlemagne Prize, his spokeswoman Cristina Gallach was quoted as saying by "The Moscow Times." Gallach stressed that the summit remains on Solana's agenda, but added that he cannot guarantee his participation. Some Russian analysts have questioned Solana's decision, which Aleksandr Khramchikhin of the Institute of Political and Military Analysis said looks like a demarche aimed at demonstrating the uselessness of the summit. Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal "Russia in Global Affairs," said protocol required Solana's presence at summits at the highest level, but Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russia's envoy to the EU, has downplayed the importance of Solana's anticipated absence, Interfax reported. FF
CONSTITUTIONAL COURT RULES THAT CRIMINAL CASES MAY BE REVISITED
Russia's Constitutional Court ruled on May 16 that cases against convicted criminals may be reviewed and sentences made more severe when new evidence appears, Interfax reported. The agency quoted Constitutional Court Judge Lyudmila Zharkova as saying that the ruling is definitive and cannot be contested. The court gave parliament six months to amend the Criminal Procedural Code in line with the its ruling. The ruling severely restricts already limited protection against being tried or punished twice for the same offense. Most lawyers' comments on the ruling have been negative. Lawyer Mikhail Barshchevsky told Ekho Moskvy radio that he is categorically against the ruling. It "looks like the start of a period of counterreforms," Barshchevsky said, adding that this rule is "very beneficial for the state, but not for citizens." Both Barshchevsky and Yury Shmidt, a lawyer for jailed Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said it is unlikely that the ruling will be applied against Khodorkovsky because prosecutors can "easily dream up new charges against him," "The Moscow Times" reported. FF
CHECHEN HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN TARGETS PROSECUTOR
Addressing a special session of the Chechen parliament on May 16 to evaluate the role of law-enforcement agencies in protecting human rights, human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev accused republican prosecutor Valery Kuznetsov of "criminal failure to take action" and demanded that he be replaced, the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 17. Nukhadjiyev added that pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov has a similarly negative view of the work of the law-enforcement agencies, and of the prosecutor's office in particular. Kuznetsov for his part rejected Nukhadjiyev's criticisms as unfounded, as did a staffer from the Chechen office of the human rights group Memorial, who said the human rights situation has improved markedly since Kuznetsov's appointment. One of Kuznetsov's subordinates pointed out that Kuznetsov incurred Kadyrov's displeasure last year by insisting, albeit without success, that a close associate of Kadyrov implicated in bribe-taking should be brought to trial. LF
ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER CONFIRMS PRESIDENTIAL INTENTIONS
Serzh Sarkisian confirmed in comments to journalists in Yerevan on May 16 that he intends to participate in the presidential election due in February 2008, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The Armenian Constitution precludes incumbent President Robert Kocharian from seeking a third consecutive term. Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) polled almost one-third of the vote in the May 12 parliamentary ballot, prior to which Sarkisian announced that he would run for president if his party polled over 25 percent. Sarkisian dismissed opposition allegations that the vote outcome was falsified, but vowed to ensure that both the Armenian people and the international community consider next year's presidential ballot "to be in full compliance with European standards." Taking into account the parliamentary seats it won in single-mandate constituencies, the HHK will have a total of 65 or 66 seats in the 131-member legislature, but Sarkisian nonetheless reasoned that "the more political forces are included in the government, the more trusted that government will be." He said the HHK is ready "to cooperate with any political force, any capable individual." LF
ARMENIAN OPPOSITIONIST CLAIMS ELECTION OUTCOME FALSIFIED
Former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who heads the Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State, OY) party, told a press conference in Yerevan on May 16 that he plans to demand that the Constitutional Court invalidate the results of the May 12 parliamentary elections, and he asked voters to supply evidence of fraud to substantiate that appeal, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. A recount of votes on May 16 in two villages in Aragatsotn district established that several dozen ballots cast for opposition parties were attributed to either Sarkisian's HHK or the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, its junior coalition partner. But Baghdasarian indicated on May 16 his party will not join in the street protests called for by radical opposition parties, including the Impeachment group, one of whose leaders, Nikol Pashinian, began a two-day sit-in on May 16 on Yerevan's Liberty Square. LF
AZERBAIJANI EX-MINISTER SAYS CHARGES AGAINST HIM FABRICATED
Testifying on May 16 on the second day of his trial in Baku, former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev said the charges of corruption and abuse of his official position that he faces were falsified, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on May 16 and 17 respectively. He demanded that those charges be dropped, and that he be tried on the initial charges against him of plotting a coup d'etat, which he equally rejected as unfounded. Aliyev described the circumstances of his arrest in October 2005, explaining that investigators demanded that he confess that money he lent to former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov was intended to finance an "Orange Revolution" that would bring to power former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev. Yusifov was initially accused of involvement in the alleged coup plot, but tried and sentenced last August only on charges of illegal possession of a pistol, and released three months later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3 and November 11, 2006). Aliyev said that his trial is the direct result of his refusal to beg forgiveness from President Ilham Aliyev (to whom he is not related) and pay $100 million, zerkalo.az reported. LF
TWO JOURNALISTS SENTENCED IN AZERBAIJAN
Baku's Yasamal District Court on May 16 found Rovshan Kabirli and Yasha Agazade guilty of insulting Jalal Aliyev, the brother of deceased President Heidar Aliyev and uncle of the current president, in articles published in February-March 2007 in Kabirli's newspaper "Muhalifet," day.az and zerkalo.az reported on May 16 and 17 respectively. Both men were sentenced to 2 and 1/2 years and taken directly from the courtroom to the Bailov prison. The articles deemed insulting to Aliyev's honor and dignity cited Turkish press materials implicating Aliyev in corruption. As a result of those sentences, Azerbaijan currently holds the record in Eurasia for the number of journalists behind bars, zerkalo.az calculated. LF
KAZAKH PARLIAMENT APPROVES CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGES IN FIRST READING...
A joint session of Kazakhstan's parliament passed amendments to the country's constitution in the first reading on May 16, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The amendments, proposed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev as part of a political reform package, would reduce the president's term in office from seven to five years, starting in 2012 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). The changes would also increase the number of deputies in the lower house of parliament from 77 to 107, and the number of lawmakers in the upper house from 39 to 47. In the lower chamber, 98 deputies would be elected from party lists. At present, only 10 deputies are elected on party slates. Nazarbaev told lawmakers, "It's time we laid a legal basis to ensure the success of the liberal reforms that we have begun, to switch to a new balance of state and public interests, a new system of checks and balances," AP reported. DK
...WINNING PRAISE FROM KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER
Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the head of Kazakhstan's National Social Democratic Party, told journalists in Astana on May 16 that the proposed changes "inspire optimism," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Tuyakbai said, "The authorities intend to go for serious political reforms." But in a statement the same day published by the zona.kz website, Tuyakbai objected to plans to pass the amendments within a week, instead advocating a longer, broader discussion of reform issues. DK
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT TAKES A WALK IN THE PARK
President Kurmanbek Bakiev made an unscheduled visit to a park in Bishkek on May 16, where he voiced objections to the construction of elite housing there and fired the city official responsible for the neighborhood, akipress.org reported. During a visit to Ataturk Park, Bakiev expressed displeasure with the officials who allowed housing to be constructed there. Bakiev summoned Bishkek Mayor Arstanbek Nogoev to discuss the matter, and fired Tilek Akambaev, the official responsible for Pervomai District, where the park is located. Bakiev also inspected Erkindik Boulevard, and said he was dissatisfied with its condition. DK
TAJIKISTAN REPORTS 5.9-PERCENT GDP GROWTH
Tajikistan's GDP rose 5.9 percent in the year to May 1, 2007, reaching 2.78 billion somonis ($808 million), Interfax reported on May 16, citing new data from the State Statistics Committee. GDP growth for the year to May 1, 2006, was 4.7 percent. Inflation for the first four months of 2007 stood at 2.8 percent, while the country's foreign trade deficit for January-April 2007 was $196.6 million. DK
TURKMEN PRESIDENT SEEN AS CONSOLIDATING POWER
Arkady Dubnov, a long-time observer of Turkmen politics, wrote in Russia's "Vremya novostei" on May 16 that the recent dismissal of Akmurat Rejepov as head of the presidential guard is only part of broader moves by President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to consolidate power. Dubnov noted that Murad Agaev, a business owner and an associate of Rejepov, was recently arrested in Ashgabat, and that references to former President Saparmurat Niyazov in the country's state-controlled media are becoming less frequent. Dubnov quoted sources in Turkmenistan as saying that Berdymukhammedov is appointing residents of his native village, Goektepe, to posts in the security services and other agencies. Also on May 16, the online opposition newspaper "Turkmenskaya iskra" published an unconfirmed report that Geldimuhammed Ashirmuhammedov has been relieved of his post as head of the National Security Service. DK
UZBEKISTAN PLANS TO BOOST GAS EXPORTS
Shavkat Mazhitov, head of the state-run oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz, told a press conference in Tashkent on May 16 that Uzbekistan plans to boost its 2007 natural-gas exports by 14.6 percent to 14.5 billion cubic meters, Interfax reported. Russia and Kazakhstan together will receive 13 billion cubic meters, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will receive 1.5 billion. The report noted that Uzbekistan produced 59.69 billion cubic meters of gas in 2005 and 62.74 billion in 2006. DK
BELARUSIANS PROTEST RECONSTRUCTION OF MONASTERY IN MINSK
Several hundred people gathered in front of the 17th-century Bernardine monastery complex in Minsk on May 16 to protest planned reconstruction work to convert the monastery into a hotel, Belapan reported. The baroque-style complex, located near Belarus's main Orthodox cathedral, includes a former monastery and a former Roman Catholic church, which currently houses state archives. The protest coincided with Solidarity Day, which has been observed by the Belarusian democratic opposition on the 16th day of every month since September 16, 2005, with the intention of expressing solidarity with the families of missing politicians and political prisoners in Belarus. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT, PREMIER FAIL TO AGREE ON DATE OF EARLY POLLS
President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on May 16 failed to agree on a date for early parliamentary elections, Ukrainian media reported. The working group they created a week earlier to deal with the current crisis failed to supply them with the unanimously approved package of bills needed for preterm elections. National Security and Defense Council head Ivan Plyushch, who attended the Yushchenko-Yanukovych meeting together with First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, told journalists that the president and prime minister proposed that the working group continue to seek agreement on a more coordinated package of bills. The anticrisis working group was reportedly joined by Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president. Later the same day, some 20,000 supporters of Yanukovych and the Verkhovna Rada rallied on Independence Square in Kyiv. Yanukovych, who was expected to address the rally, did not show up. Yushchenko and Yanukovych are expected to meet on May 17 to discuss their further course of action. "Kommersant-Ukraina" wrote on May 17 that if the meeting fails to produce satisfying results, Yushchenko may decide on "extreme measures" during a session of the National Security and Defense Council on May 18. JM
U.S. WILL NOT ACT UNILATERALLY ON KOSOVA...
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said on May 16 that Washington will not unilaterally recognize Kosova as an independent state, AP and Balkan media reported the same day. "We see no advantages whatsoever of taking action outside of the [UN] Security Council, we see only disadvantages in every way. A Security Council resolution in this matter is better," Fried told journalists during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said on April 16 that Washington will "support a declaration of independence by the people of Kosovo," even if the UN Security Council does not, AP reported on April 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). On other points, Fried reiterated longstanding U.S. views, saying that "it's probably the case that independence is coming one way or another," and that the alternative to independence is "more chaotic, more bloody, more of a mess for everyone," AP reported. On May 15, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow for talks that, Fried said, failed to reconcile the two countries' deep differences over the future status of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). Though nominally still a Serbian province, Kosova has been administered by the UN since 1999. The Russian news agency RIA Novosti on May 16 quoted a senior aide to President Putin, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, as calling a UN proposal to grant "supervised independence" to Kosova an "exceptionally dangerous...experiment." AG
...AND DISPELS RUMORS OF BUSH VISIT TO KOSOVA
U.S. officials in Kosova on May 16 dismissed speculation that U.S. President George Bush will visit Prishtina on June 9-10 to announce U.S. recognition of Kosova as an independent state, Radio-Television Kosova reported the same day. The rumor was aired on Croatian television on May 15 during its coverage of the formation of the Serbian government. Its reporter said the "news [was] leaked by Western diplomatic circles" in the final hours of the debate on the new government. Bush is due to visit neighboring Albania on June 10 during the Balkan leg of a European tour before and after a summit of the world's leading industrialized states, the Group of Eight (G8). The summit will be held in Germany on June 5-6. AG
KOSOVAR GOVERNMENT'S NOMINEES FOR PUBLIC COMPANIES REJECTED
The Kosovo Trust Agency, which oversees the management and privatization of publicly owned companies in Kosova, on May 14 rejected most of the government's nominees to the boards of public companies, local media reported the same day. The agency's head, Paul Acda, said most of the nominees lacked the qualifications needed. Acda is one of four international directors on the agency's eight-member board. The daily "Kosova sot" reported on May 15 that some of those rejected are political figures. Public companies are a major source of employment in a region where unemployment officially runs at 40 percent, and where, according to a report published in April by the UN Development Program, the public sector as a whole accounts for nearly half of gross domestic product (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). AG
EU RELAXES VISAS FOR SERBS
In the first sign of a rapprochement between Serbia and the EU since Serbia's democratic parties formed a government, Brussels and Belgrade on May 16 signed an agreement easing visa requirements for Serbs, Serbian media reported the same day. The visa agreement was due to be signed in April, but was postponed at the last minute (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12, 2007). EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, who signed the agreement, hailed the formation of the government on May 16 as a "fresh start, and the government has a fresh chance to take Serbia into Europe," Serbian state television reported the same day. Reuters also quoted Rehn as saying he expects the EU to resume preaccession talks with Serbia "very soon, when we see the program of the government is rigorously being implemented concerning cooperation with the ICTY," the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Reuters reported that the comment disappointed Serbian officials, as Rehn had said on May 11 that Serbia can now "immediately" rejoin the stabilization and accession process, which provides a framework for cooperation and greater integration. Rehn's earlier comments appeared to decouple the issue of cooperation with the ICTY from the resumption of talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). The EU in May 2006 suspended talks because of Belgrade's failure to capture and transfer indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic to the ICTY. "We were all expecting something better," an unnamed member of one of the ruling parties told Reuters, "or why would he pay the money for the plane ticket and come to say the same old thing?" U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Fried on May 16 urged the EU "to reach out to Serbia, which deserves a place in Europe. Serbs need to see a European future as a counterpoint to the vision of the past that the nationalists keep offering, and which has had such disastrous consequences for Serbia." Fried made his comments, which were carried by AP, during a stopover in Brussels to visit NATO officials. AG
SERBIAN MEDIA MUSE ON FORMATION OF NEW GOVERNMENT
Serbian commentaries on the new government have so far focused on its birth rather than its future. The right-wing daily "Glas javnosti" wrote on May 16 that the government was conceived after a "one-of-a-kind political coitus interruptus" on the part of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who withdrew from coalition talks to elect an extreme nationalist as parliamentary speaker before finally settling in bed with his party's coalition partners, the Democratic Party and the G17+ bloc. "Vecernje novosti" described the political drama, which ended just 15 minutes before a constitutional deadline to form a government, as a "real political thriller." However, some papers found the thrills largely in external events that temporarily upstaged proceedings in parliament. The tabloid "Kurir" in particular lingered on the "panic" of the would-be ministers when news emerged of a police operation to capture Ratko Mladic, and on a "bitter" debate between deputies on the party-political preferences of Marija Serifovic, the winner of the Eurovision song contest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). Serifovic appeared in the parliamentary chamber during the debate, leading to an unscheduled recess in the Serbian parliament's most important debate for some time. "Blic" on May 16 said that politicians "scrapped" to be photographed with Serifovic when she entered the chamber. Addressing events on the actual political stage, several media noted that the prime minister-elect, Kostunica, mentioned cooperation with the ICTY only briefly in his lengthy speech. Pink TV, a privately owned station, on May 15 calculated that Kostunica devoted 12 minutes to Kosova, seven minutes to social and economic issues, six minutes to EU integration, four to crime, and "no more than three or four sentences" to cooperation with the ICTY. AG
BOSNIAN MINISTERS URGED TO SPEED UP REFORMS
Bosnia-Herzegovina's prime minister, Nikola Spiric, on May 15 said he has called on every minister to speed up the introduction of laws that will push forward reforms demanded by the EU, local media reported the same day. EU Enlargement Commissioner Rehn in early May again voiced disappointment at the pace of reform in Bosnia, warning it may fail to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU this year. The second-most senior representative of the international community in Bosnia, Raffi Gregorian, on May 10 said Bosnia's chances of concluding the SAA this year are "virtually gone" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2007). In a speech to the UN Security Council on May 16, the international community's high representative to Bosnia, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, said political reforms have been blocked for over a year owing to a "hostile political environment" created by a "resurgence of nationalist rhetoric" and the "long, difficult process" of forming a government following elections in October 2006. In the speech, which is posted on the website of the Office of the High Representative, Schwarz-Schilling said Bosnia's politicians are finding it a "difficult learning experience" to take "ownership" of government, and called for them to "step up to the plate." Concern at the pace of reform was one reason why the far-reaching mandate of the high representative was extended by a year in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). Schwarz-Schilling will be replaced in July by Miroslav Lajcak, a Slovak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). AG
CROATIA SAYS RETURN OF WAR REFUGEES A KEY PRIORITY
Croatian President Stjepan Mesic said on May 15 that the return of war refugees, most of whom are ethnic Serbs, is vital to Croatia's national interests and is a key state priority, Croatian media reported the same day. Mesic also described facilitating the return of refugees as a moral obligation; he said that the majority of Serbs expelled during the 1991-95 conflict were not war criminals, but victims of the idea of a Greater Serbia promoted by Serbia's late President Slobodan Milosevic, the news agency Hina reported. Mesic made his comments at a presentation of a survey for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that found that 120,000 registered refugees have officially returned to Croatia since the end of the war. Around 300,000 Croatian Serbs are thought to have left Croatia during the war. The survey found that 43 percent of the 120,000 have resettled in their prewar homes. Almost the same proportion, 40 percent, returned to filee property claims and claim other rights but still live abroad. The status of another 6 percent is unresolved, and 11 percent have died since registering. AG
IRAQ'S KURDISH REGION UNDER INCREASING THREAT
Two high-profile bomb attacks targeting Kurdish institutions this month have drawn attention to security in the region, which had escaped much of the violence plaguing other areas in Iraq. But threats against the Kurds from Al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups have been growing.
The Kurdistan region government's (KRG) Interior Ministry was attacked by a truck bomb on May 9, killing 14 people and wounding more than 80. Insurgents then targeted the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) office in Makhmur on May 13, killing 33 people and wounding 60 others. Makhmur is a Kurdish-populated town lying just outside the Kurdistan region.
The Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for both attacks in Internet postings. In a statement on the May 9 attack, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group said the attack came "in response to the participation of the apostate peshmerga forces with the Safawi [a reference to the Shi'ite-led government in Iraq] government of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri] al-Maliki in the so-called 'Baghdad law enforcement plan.'"
Addressing Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the group promised more attacks, adding, "We will not stop attacking you until you withdraw your mercenaries from the Baghdad province and cease to support the Crusaders [U.S.-led coalition forces] and the Safawis."
The Islamic State of Iraq first warned Kurdish soldiers against taking part in the Baghdad security plan in January. "We tell you that the martyrs brigades of the Islamic State of Iraq, particularly the Ansar martyrs [a reference to the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam, whose bases in Kurdistan were crushed by a U.S. bombing campaign in the opening days of the war] cannot wait to confront you as to speed your arrival in hell," an Internet statement said.
The Kata'ib Kurdistan (Kurdistan Brigades), a group that pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in March, also claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted to the Ansar Al-Islam website, the news website Kurdish Aspect reported on May 10. The brigades are reportedly part of Ansar Al-Islam, which is aligned with Al-Qaeda.
According to Kurdish Aspect, a source from within the Kurdish peshmerga said that Ansar Al-Islam and the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army are reorganizing their ranks and deploying their forces along the Iran-Iraq border. Kurdish leaders have also attributed recent attacks against Kurdish forces in the town of Penjwin to Ansar Al-Islam, saying the group moves freely across the Iran-Iraq border.
Kurdish security sources told local media that the KRG was on alert for a terrorist attack in the days preceding the two incidents, based on intelligence that included detained terrorists' confessions, as well as the discovery of weapons caches.
The offices of Kurdish political parties in the nearby Mosul Governorate have come under increasing attack in recent months, particularly offices belonging to the KDP, which is Kurdistan region President Barzani's party. KDP official Khasro Goran said insurgents are trying to goad the Kurds into a sectarian war, "Al-Zaman" reported on May 1.
Kurdish officials in Irbil undertook new security measures in all three governorates in mid-April following the attacks along the border. One of the measures was the construction of a tunnel and security barricades to segregate Irbil from Kirkuk and Mosul, "Gulf News" reported.
In an apparent response to the Irbil attack, the KRG dispatched 1,000 troops to the Iranian border to help drive out Ansar and Al-Qaeda militants stationed there, according to May 10 media reports. Meanwhile, local residents told newspapers that the militants have threatened non-Muslims. Leaflets circulated in towns inside Al-Sulaymaniyah Governorate said the militants are "hunting down those who have converted" to Zoroastrianism and Christianity.
Observations of websites and forums frequented by insurgents in Iraq and their supporters suggest that indeed, the Islamic State of Iraq and Ansar Al-Islam/Sunnah are attempting to gain a foothold in areas in the north. Apart from their stated claim of seeking retribution against the Kurds, their presence in the north would provide them with a valuable gateway for foreign fighters and supplies through the porous Iran-Iraq border.
While Kurdish military officials have in recent days openly acknowledged insurgent traffic across the border, KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani reportedly raised the issue of insurgents crossing the Iran-Iraq border during his visit to Iran, which included a meeting with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Kurdistan TV reported on May 11 that during Barzani's trip, the KRG and Iran formed a joint committee to address security issues, as well as the possible KRG purchase of electricity from Iran.
The resurgence of insurgent activity in Kurdistan is reflected in the plethora of statements appearing on insurgent websites and forums in recent weeks, and Kata'ib Kurdistan has issued at least one video documenting its attacks.
Moreover, Kurdish-language statements have appeared on forum websites with increasing frequency, suggesting insurgents may be trying to recruit Kurdish fighters to join their cause.
The frequency of attacks against Kurdish targets both in the Kurdish region and neighboring governorates to the south suggest that Kurds will remain potential targets for some time to come. The potential consequences of an Al-Qaeda/Ansar campaign would be devastating to the region's economy, stability and governance.
It could prompt Turkey to carry out plans for a large-scale incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan to hunt down PKK militants based there. Or worse yet, Turkey might take steps to secure Turkoman control over Kirkuk, a move that would evoke a violent reaction from Iraqi Kurds.
Moreover, any instability may prompt the Kurds to rethink their hospitality to thousands of Iraqi Arabs, both Sunnis and Shi'a, who have sought refuge in recent months from conflict areas farther south. According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, more than 5,000 Iraqi families, or 30,000 people, have registered as refugees in the city of Irbil over the past two years, "The Christian Science Monitor" reported on April 17.
Should the KRG decide to no longer host its Arab brethren, the displaced will be hard-pressed to find refuge. Newspaper editorials suggest growing public pressure on the KRG to do just that.
TWO AFGHAN JOURNALISTS SENTENCED TO PRISON TERMS
Two employees of private Kabul-based Tolo Television have been sentenced to prison terms on charges of violating the mass media law and disobeying orders of the attorney-general, state-run Afghanistan National Television reported on May 16. General Abdul Fatah, director of the national security prosecution office of the General Prosecution Department, told Afghanistan National Television about the arrests. Armed policemen raided the Tolo offices on April 17 after Attorney-General Jabbar Sabet ordered them to summon reporter Hamid Haidary for allegedly misquoting him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19, 2007). The attorney-general later demanded that Tolo apologize for the alleged misquote, but the television station refused to do so. A press release issued by Tolo on May 16 accused Sabet of "again" attempting "to intimidate the media in Afghanistan through the Afghan police." According to the statement, Tolo director general Sidiq Ahmadzada was summoned by the Attorney-General's Office along with Haidary. Tolo's statement points to an "erosion of the rights of the media and journalists" since "about the time Minister Karim Khurram became the minister of information and culture," in August 2006. The current Afghan media law is under review at the National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), and reports indicate that some lawmakers seek to make the revised law more restrictive. AT
ISAF EXPECTS PAKISTAN TO INVESTIGATE SHOOTING INCIDENT...
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced on May 16 that it expects a "full investigation" of a shooting incident in Pakistan on May 14 in which a U.S. serviceman attached to ISAF was killed. A statement on ISAF's website quoted spokeswoman Lieutenant Colonel Maria Carl as saying the incident took place as a joint ISAF and Afghan delegation was traveling to Pakistan in order to reduce tensions between the two countries, after Kabul charged that Pakistani forces had violated its border. As the delegation was departing, "an individual reported to be wearing a Pakistani Frontier Corps uniform" fired at the delegation. Immediately after the incident of May 14, Afghan sources identified the shooter as a Pakistani soldier, but ISAF said the delegation was "ambushed by unknown assailants" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). AT
...AMID INCONCLUSIVE NEWS FROM PAKISTAN
Pakistani military spokesman Major General Wahid Arshad said on May 16 that he is aware of the ISAF statement on the shooting incident, but that "our investigations are not yet concluded," AFP reported. Islamabad will respond to ISAF once its investigation is complete, Arshad said. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Arshad categorically rejected Afghan charges that a Pakistani soldier fired on the delegation, and instead blamed unidentified "miscreants" for the attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2007). Meanwhile, Lahore's "Daily Times" quoted a source wishing to remain anonymous as saying on May 16 that a paramilitary soldier, who was deployed "for the security of American and Afghan military officials, opened fire" and was himself killed in the crossfire. Arshad told the daily that he had "no information" about a Pakistani paramilitary being involved in the shooting, and said he does not have the "preliminary results" of the investigation. AT
AFGHAN PRESIDENT ORDERS RETURN OF TALIBAN COMMANDER'S BODY
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in western Afghanistan's Herat Province on May 16 that he has ordered authorities to return the body of slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah to his family, AFP reported. Karzai said that "although [Dadullah] was behind beheadings and other crimes," Kandahar Province Governor Asadullah Khaled has orders to "hand over his body with respect to his relatives." Dadullah was killed in Helmand Province on May 12, and his body, after being shown to the media, was buried in Kandahar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Hours before Karzai's announcement, his National Intelligence Department had issued a statement in Kabul saying that "Dadullah was the one who barbarically beheaded our countrymen. So let the grave of this wild man remain unknown." Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar on May 16 warned of "serious consequences" if Dadullah's body is not returned to his family. AT
IRANIAN LEADER SAYS IRAN TO REMIND U.S. OF DUTIES
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on May 16 that Iran's planned talks with the United States over Iraq are intended merely "to remind the Americans of their responsibility and duties regarding security in Iraq," Radio Farda and agencies reported. Khamenei told a gathering of clerics in Mashhad, northeastern Iran, that in spite of the planned meeting, Iran's basic policy of rejecting dialogue and ties with the United States stands, and the Foreign Ministry agreed to talk to U.S. officials mainly to present them with an "ultimatum." He said the United States, as "the occupying government" of Iraq, has "tied the hands" of the Iraqi government, backing "terrorists" and failing in its duty to maintain Iraq's security, Radio Farda reported. Khamenei continued, "The Americans are saying that aside from Iraq, they will not talk about any other subject, but we say to them, even Iraq is not your business. The talks are about the occupiers' duties regarding Iraqi security." He added that those who believe Iran is rethinking its "solid, logical, and entirely defensible" policy of spurning ties with the United States are "gravely mistaken." This policy will continue, he said, until the "policies of the arrogant government change," Radio Farda reported. VS
IRANIAN MINISTER QUESTIONED IN PARLIAMENT
Iran's Education Minister Mahmud Farshidi won sufficient votes at a May 16 parliamentary interpellation to remain in his post, Radio Farda and agencies reported. Iranian teachers protested in March and April over their wages and working conditions, and put forward demands that included Farshidi's dismissal. This led some lawmakers to present a motion for a formal interrogation that might have led to Farshidi's dismissal on May 16. The motion cited his "weak" response to teachers' demands, the slow pace of planned reforms in the primary and secondary education system, and Farshidi's extensive changes in his ministry as some of the problems with his performance. Farshidi told legislators he is taking measures to resolve the problems. He was accompanied at the session by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who spoke in his defense and said the education sector is "leading the way" in defending Iran's ideals, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 17. Out of 238 lawmakers voting at the session, 132 voted in Farshidi's favor, Radio Farda reported. VS
RIGHTS GROUP DEPLORES IRAN INDECENCY ARRESTS...
In a May 16 statement, New-York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) sharply criticized the detentions of thousands of Iranians in recent weeks in a police drive to enforce Iran's public modesty and clothing regulations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007), Radio Farda reported. The police initiative has included detentions of women with loose headscarves, including many targeted in airports, and people who have allegedly bothered family groups in public spaces. In the statement on its website, hrw.org, the group said the police drive threatens "basic rights to privacy." It quoted witnesses who said that police and militiamen on May 10 broke up a private birthday party in a flat in Isfahan, central Iran, and arrested 87 people, some of whom were beaten. Some of the arrested may be charged with homosexual conduct at the party, a criminal offense in Iran, HRW said. The rights body contrasted the arrests of thousands for alleged indecency with a recent Iranian Supreme Court ruling that released convicted murderers who had killed several people for allegedly immoral behavior in 2002. HRW quoted Joe Stork, deputy director of the group's Middle East division, as saying, "In Iran, the walls of homes are transparent and the halls of justice are opaque." VS
...AS TEHRAN POLICE VOW CRIME CRACKDOWN
Tehran police chief Ahmad Reza Radan on May 16 promised an "aggressive and firm" response to "louts" in Tehran, and told the Fars news agency that people out to cause trouble "can be sure" police will continue their drive against disorderly or criminal elements in the capital. Radan asked Tehran residents to call a telephone hotline to inform police of the whereabouts of people he categorized as "very dangerous trouble-making" elements, their "minions," and others "bothering the public." Iranian authorities say the nationwide drive against people deemed to be indecently dressed or disorderly is intended to enhance security and public decency on the streets. He said "special judges will deal with the louts referred to them" by police. Separately, Iran's prosecutor-general, Qorban Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, urged cooperation between state agencies and the use of modern technology and intelligence techniques by Iran's antinarcotics police to fight the production and transit of drugs in Iran, ILNA reported on May 16. "I declare as the state prosecutor-general that the judiciary will not compromise over the people's rights," he said, adding that the judiciary will give traffickers the "punishment they deserve." VS
THOUSANDS OF U.S., IRAQI TROOPS SEARCH FOR MISSING U.S. SOLDIERS
Some 4,000 U.S. and 2,000 Iraqi soldiers continue to comb areas south of Baghdad in search of three missing U.S. soldiers, international media reported on May 17. The soldiers have been missing since their patrol was ambushed on May 12. Four U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter were killed in the attack in Al-Mahmudiyah. The U.S. military distributed leaflets on May 16 announcing a $200,000 reward for information on the soldiers' whereabouts. KR
IRAQIS COMMEMORATE FIRST MASS GRAVES DAY
The Iraqi government marked Mass Graves Day for the first time on May 16, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Iraqis observed a minute of silence at midday. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki marked the occasion by saying that Iraqis should not forget the legacy of Saddam Hussein's regime, which killed some 300,000 Shi'a and Kurds. Al-Maliki compared the current conflict in Iraq to the Hussein regime, saying terrorists create mass graves through their suicide bombs and killings that target innocent civilians. He vowed that "the crimes committed in the era of the former oppressive regime will not recur" in the new Iraq. KR
IRAQ ASKS JORDAN TO EXTEND GRACE PERIOD FOR NATIONALS
The Iraqi government has reportedly asked Jordan to allow its nationals holding S-series passports to remain inside the kingdom until year-end, Amman's "Al-Dustur" reported on May 16. Jordan said earlier this year it will no longer allow Iraqis carrying outdated passports to remain in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007). However, the Iraqi government has been slow to issue new G-series passports. Iraq's ambassador to Jordan, Sa'd Jasim al-Hayyani, said that 7,000 applications received at the embassy to date and 3,000 passports have been issued. Al-Hayyani said Iraqi officials first requested an extension until September 30, and then until the end of the year. Neither request has been answered by Jordan. KR
IRAQI POLICE CHIEF REMOVED AFTER REFUSING ORDER FROM BAGHDAD
The Interior Ministry has dismissed Kirkuk police chief Major General Sherko Shakir and replaced him with Major General Jamal Tahir, Peyamner reported on May 17. Shakir refused a May 2 ministry order to demote Kurdish officers in Kirkuk earlier this month. At the time, Shakir said the order was politically motivated. He said the demotion would affect 266 officers. Shakir has since said he will abide by the order, though he believes the officers are competent, according to press reports. According to the "Kurdish Globe" website, the order to demote the officers came from Deputy Interior Minister General Ayden Khalid Qadir, a Turkoman. KR