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Newsline - June 5, 2007

George W. Bush said in Prague on June 5 that "the Cold War is over," news agencies reported. He added that "people in the Czech Republic do not have to choose between being friends of the U.S. or friends of Russia. You can be both." His remarks followed months of belligerent statements by Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian officials seemingly aimed at splitting the EU and NATO. On June 4, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in Washington that Putin's remarks on June 1 about the possibility of targeting Russian missiles at Europe in response to the planned U.S. missile-defense project were "just not helpful, certainly surprising," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 2007). Alluding to the Soviet-style tone of several of Putin's recent statements, McCormack noted that "they have more of the ring of 1977 than they do [of] 2007." He stressed that the missile defense is directed not at Russia but at Iran or North Korea. McCormack said that as Putin himself has said: "the Russian government could easily overwhelm such a missile-defense system. We agree. It's not designed to defend [Europe] against Russia." McCormack noted that Putin's "rhetoric is out of step with the current realities of Russia's relationship with the rest of the world." He added that Washington will continue with its missile-defense program while seeking to dispel any doubts about it in Russia or among NATO allies. Also on June 4, Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Putin's remarks as a "hypothetical" response to a journalist's question. Speaking in Seoul, South Korea, on June 5, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that it is the United States that is engaging in "Cold War behavior" by delivering on "real threats against Russia [while accusing Moscow] of engaging in Cold War rhetoric." In speaking to journalists on June 1, Putin did not respond to a question from the Russian daily "Kommersant" as to whether he is reverting to Soviet-style rhetoric by portraying his own policies as completely peaceful while describing those of Washington as "imperialist." PM

Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra said in Prague on June 4 that Russian President Putin's latest statements about the U.S. missile-defense project, which includes a radar station in the Czech Republic, show that Putin wants to "spread fear" throughout Europe, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on June 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and June 4, 2007). Vondra added that aggressive Russian rhetoric will only serve to strengthen European public opinion against Moscow. He stressed that Putin does not have a "veto" over Czech security policy. In Warsaw on June 5, Poland's Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski compared Putin's remarks to the often bellicose speeches of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, news agencies reported. Poland would host 10 unarmed interceptors under the missile-defense plan. In London on June 4, a spokesman for Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Putin's comments have raised "concerns" throughout Europe. The spokesman noted that the missile shield is not directed against Russia, adding that "the nature of [our] relationship is as much up to Russia as it is to us." In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said that "the only country speculating about targeting Europe with missiles is the Russian Federation. These kind of comments are unhelpful and unwelcome." In Paris, President Nicolas Sarkozy said that he will have a "frank discussion" with Putin at the June 6-8 Group of Eight (G8) summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. Sarkozy stressed that the missile shield does not threaten Russia and that the proper place to deal with it is the NATO-Russia forum. Sarkozy said he acknowledges that Russia has a "troubled history," but added that this does not mean Moscow can do as it pleases. The "International Herald Tribune" wrote on June 5 that both German Chancellor Angela Merkel's office and the German Foreign Ministry, which is controlled by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats, kept silent in the wake of Putin's remarks in the interest of "damage limitation" in Heiligendamm. The "Financial Times" noted on June 5 that "the reaction to Putin's declaration is viewed by many observers -- principally in the U.S. -- as a test of European resolve in dealing with Russia." PM

Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said on June 4 at the Democracy and Security Conference in Prague that democracies should respond to Russia's aggressive rhetoric with a policy of "selective isolation," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and 27, May 25, and June 4, 2007). Ilves stressed that "if it is true that democracies do not go to war with each other, then what the hell is a country that threatens to target its nuclear missiles at Europe doing in the G8, the club of industrial democracies?" Alluding to Russia and the recent "cyberwar" against Estonia, Ilves argued that "a lack of democracy [in some countries] is beginning to threaten our security. We just went through a threat to our security in Estonia, where for a while, my country was isolated electronically because we were disliked." He asked what will happen if "by some small miracle, a country further afield [than Ukraine or Georgia], say in Central Asia, opts for democracy? Will Russia follow the same pattern as it followed for every other [nearby] country that has opted for democracy? And, if so, how do we defend those countries because they are not in NATO, they are not in the EU?" Ilves suggested that "principled, selective isolation should be part of the menu" of options for democratic countries' policies toward Russia. He asked rhetorically, "why should a Russia that is not a democracy, that does not even bother to meet its membership commitments, continue to be a member of [and], indeed, dominate that organization of European democracies, the Council of Europe?" He suggested that keeping Russia as a member of groups of democracies like the Council of Europe and the G8 confers on it a legitimacy it does not deserve. Ilves argued that "Europe's citizens are poisoned, Europe's countries are subjected to cyberwar, their energy deliveries are halted, they are blackmailed and bribed, and now threatened with a retargeting of missiles -- and we say, 'No, we cannot isolate Russia.' We have allowed ourselves, through greed and naivete, to allow our security to become beholden to the policies of an undemocratic petro-state." PM

Russian military analyst Pavel Felgengauer wrote in the June 4 issue of the weekly "Novaya gazeta" that Russia has "abandoned arms-control principles." He noted that Russia's "Defense Ministry astonished many [on May 29] by successfully testing an operational-tactical missile and a strategic missile on the same day [that] President Putin said, 'We consider it harmful and dangerous to turn Europe into a powder-keg and fill it with new forms of armaments'" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30 and June 1, 2007). Felgengauer noted that subsequently, "after meeting with the Greek president, Putin referred to the Americans as 'imperialists.' The overall impact was similar to the Cold War era: a verbal confrontation with tests of new weapons to back up the words." The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on June 4 that U.S. President Bush stressed in recent statements that Russia has "nothing to fear" from the missile-defense project, at a time when Putin threatens to target missiles at Europe. The daily "Gazeta" noted that Putin's remarks "stirred up the West, even on a Sunday." The paper quoted one Russian analyst as saying that Putin's statements leave no room for negotiation, whereas a second analyst argued that the Russian leader is testing the West to see how it will react. PM

Russian presidential candidate and Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who holds both Russian and British citizenship, told reporters in London on June 4 that the West should consider expelling Russia from the G8 and similar bodies in response to the 2006 poisoning death of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko in the British capital, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Bukovsky argued that the killing of Litvinenko amounted to an attack on a NATO member state by a foreign power. Bukovsky said he told British authorities that the West must demand that Russia "immediately cancel the law under which they believe they are entitled to kill people abroad, apologize, and collaborate" with British investigators and courts. "If they refuse, you have to kick them out of all institutions where they enjoy equal status like the G8, Council of Europe, trade organizations, whatever," Bukovsky concluded. PM

President Putin told journalists from G8 countries in Novo-Ogaryovo on June 1 that he will not seek to change the constitution to enable him to seek a third term when his current mandate runs out in 2008, reported. He added, however, that the law should be changed at some point after 2008 to extend presidential terms from four to up to seven years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, April 18, and May 29, 2007). Putin declined to speculate as to whether he might run again for president at some unspecified point in the future. The constitution currently limits a person to two consecutive terms, but does not rule out additional nonconsecutive mandates. PM

Some 200 former residents of the village of Borozdinovskaya in northeastern Chechnya congregated on June 4 in the tent camp in Daghestan that is their temporary home to mark the second anniversary of the punitive operation in the village by men believed to be members of the Russian Defense Ministry's Vostok Battalion, reported. One villager was killed during that raid; the attackers apprehended 11 men who have never been found, and the entire male population of the village was beaten. Vostok Battalion commander Sulim Yamadayev has repeatedly denied that his men were responsible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 22, 23 and 24, 2005). The meeting participants on June 4 demanded that those responsible for the attack be identified and brought to account; they also demanded land plots in Daghestan to build new homes. A Moscow District Court threw out in January and February the first claims against the Russian Defense Ministry by Borozdinovskaya villagers for damages inflicted during the operation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007). LF

Serzh Sarkisian predicted on June 4 that the composition of the new government will be clear by June 7, the day when the parliament elected on May 12 is due to convene for its first session, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Talks between Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and its junior coalition partner in the outgoing government, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), began three weeks ago, but as on June 4 it remained unclear whether and on what terms the HHD would join the new government, according to Hrant Markarian, one of the party's leading members (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 2007). Sarkisian said there are likely to be "quite large-scale changes" in the composition of the government, which will include some persons who are not connected with either the HHK, the HHD, or the pro-government Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) party, which has the second-largest parliament faction. He also said that there will be "some things that perhaps have never before existed in Armenian political culture," but declined to elaborate. LF

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos met in Baku on June 4 with President Ilham Aliyev and Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, Azerbaijani media reported. Moratinos reiterated the concern recently expressed by the OSCE High Representative for Media Freedom, Miklos Haraszti, over continuing reprisals against journalists in Azerbaijan, noting that "an independent press is essential for democracy." He affirmed that the OSCE will do all in its power to ensure that the presidential election due in 2008 is free and democratic, reported. Moratinos also expressed the hope that at their meeting in St. Petersburg on June 10, Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian will "take an important step" closer to the signing of a framework agreement on the basic principles for resolving the Karabakh conflict, according to a June 4 press release posted on the OSCE website ( LF

Georgian parliamentarians on June 4 accused the leadership of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia of "antihuman acts," including deliberately depriving the population of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, and of surrounding, Georgian-populated villages of water supplies, Georgian media reported. But a joint Georgian-Ossetian team that investigated the situation under the aegis of the local OSCE office established that the north-south water main that runs from Java via the Georgian-populated villages to Tskhinvali "is large enough to sustain a good flow for all," in contrast to a pipe carrying irrigation water, which has sprung large leaks, according to an OSCE press release. The Georgian parliament plans to adopt a formal statement condemning the South Ossetians' use of water supplies as a means of "blackmail," reported on June 4, quoting Kote Gabashvili, chairman of the parliament commission on foreign relations. Also on June 4, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze categorically rejected the possibility of a meeting between Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and the de facto leader of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, to seek a political solution to the ongoing conflict, Caucasus Press reported. Speaking at a news conference in Moscow on June 4, Kokoity and Sergei Bagapsh, de facto president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, pledged mutual support in the event of a military attack by Georgian forces on their respective republics, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Zviad Dzidziguri, one of the leaders of the Democratic Front opposition parliament faction, told journalists on June 4 that the faction has received a written complaint from one of the 850 Georgian servicemen currently deployed as part of the international peacekeeping force in Iraq, Caucasus Press reported. The unnamed serviceman said the heat and other conditions are intolerable, and asked the parliament not to give the green light for the deployment of some 1,200 more servicemen to Iraq. Georgian Defense Minister Davit Kezerashvili, however, told journalists in Tbilisi later on June 4 that the information contained in the letter is untrue, and no Georgian serviceman could have written it, Caucasus Press reported. LF

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation that spent the last week in May in Tbilisi meeting with government officials presented its conclusions at a press conference on June 1, Caucasus Press reported. Delegation members lauded the "impressive" economic growth registered in 2006 despite the Russian ban on imports of Georgian wine and mineral water, but at the same time noted that annual inflation totaled 8.8 percent in 2006 and has already reached 7.6 percent by May 2007. At an earlier meeting with Georgian officials, delegation head John Wakeman-Linn advocated reducing government spending and cutting the budget deficit in order to preclude a further rise in inflation, according to "The Messenger" on May 30. Two weeks earlier, on May 18, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli announced that planned government expenditure for 2007 will be increased by 648 million laris ($386.29 million). Noghaideli expressed confidence that the annual inflation rate will nonetheless be no higher than 8.5 percent. Parliamentarians recently rejected National Bank President Roman Gotsiridze's explanation of factors that contributed to the 2006 inflation rate, which they blamed instead on faulty monetary policy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). LF

The Moscow-backed head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, on June 4 awarded Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev the order of Akhmat Kadyrov, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. During his visit to Astana, Kadyrov told reporters that he presented Nazarbaev with the order on behalf of the Chechen people for "the fraternal, friendly relations and support he showed us during the years of the deportation of the Chechen people, support we feel up through the present day." Many Chechens were forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan during World War II. Kadyrov also said that he held meetings with Kazakh businesspeople in Almaty, Karaganda, and Astana, promising that Kazakh investors will soon send representatives to Chechnya to explore investment opportunities. DK

Marat Sultanov, the speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, told journalists in Bishkek on June 4 that service personnel at the U.S. air base outside the Kyrgyz capital should be stripped of their diplomatic immunity, reported. At the same time, Sultanov noted that the agreement between the United States and Kyrgyzstan on the U.S. base was signed by the two countries' governments, and the Kyrgyz parliament can only recommend a course of action, but cannot cancel the agreement. Several parliamentary committees have recommended reviewing the agreement on the base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). A number of issues have marred Kyrgyz-U.S. relations over the base, including a shooting at the base in December 2006 that killed a Kyrgyz citizen. Sultanov urged talks, saying, "We should review this agreement from all sides, since it is a particular foreign policy issue, and we shouldn't let emotions hold sway." DK

Parliament speaker Sultanov rejected the idea of a confederation between Kyrgyzstan and Russia, recently proposed by Kyrgyz opposition leader Feliks Kulov, the website reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 2007). Sultanov said, "We shouldn't avoid unions like the European Union. But a union and a confederation are two different things." Sultanov noted that "if anyone wants to live in Russia, they are welcome to do so," adding, "We have the institution of dual citizenship," ITAR-TASS reported. DK

Kori Udovicki, a UN assistant secretary-general and assistant administrator of the UN Development Program (UNDP), says the UN will close the Tajikistan Office of Peace-Building on July 31, Interfax reported. Speaking in Dushanbe on June 4 after meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Udovicki said: "There is a risk that the situation could deteriorate in every country that has undergone a conflict similar to the one in Tajikistan. However, countries should not be dependent on assistance." She said "Tajikistan can ensure its own security by itself," adding that "the international community should provide assistance to the country in its future development," Avesta reported. She noted that the UNDP plans to allocate $30 million in 2008 for education and health-care programs in Tajikistan. DK

A district court in Minsk on June 4 sentenced six students to jail terms from three to five days, finding them guilty of participation in an unauthorized demonstration, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Alyaksandr Barzenka, Pavel Chumakou, Pavel Viltouski, Vadzim Baravik, Pavel Vinahradau, and Pavel Markevich were arrested on June 1 when some 100 students marched in downtown Minsk to protest the government's plans to abolish state benefits for some social groups, including the students' privilege of only having to pay half of the fare for a ticket on public transport. The crowd carried a coffin-like object with the word "benefits" written on it. Belarus's lower house, the Chamber of Representatives, passed a bill in May abolishing benefits for some parts of the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). JM

Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree on June 5 scheduling early parliamentary elections in Ukraine for September 30. The decree instructs the Central Election Commission to prepare and conduct the elections, and the government to finance them. In another decree, Yushchenko annulled his decree of April 26, in which he called for early elections on June 24. Both decrees are published on Yushchenko's presidential website ( JM

Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz said at a session of the Verkhovna Rada on June 5 that those lawmakers from the opposition Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc who withdrew last week did so in violation of relevant procedures, Ukrainian media reported. According to last month's deal between the president, the prime minister, and the speaker, the opposition lawmakers were to withdraw to make the Verkhovna Rada illegitimate, thus paving the way for its self-dissolution and early polls in the fall. Moroz said the pullout of lawmakers should have been announced in the session hall and confirmed by him. "But this has not been done since, firstly, many deputies were absent and, secondly, there are absolutely substantiated doubts that the resignation statements were signed by the people named in them," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( quoted Moroz as saying. "Unless the Central Election Commission signals to us that there is no one to replace those [deputies] who pulled out, and that those who pulled out have been stripped of their deputy powers, parliament will continue to work," he added. Moroz also asserted that nearly 40 lawmakers from Our Ukraine actually do not want to give up their parliamentary seats, UNIAN reported. JM

Families of the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre filed a civil lawsuit against the UN and the Netherlands on June 4, Bosnian and international media reported the same day. Bosnia-Herzegovina Radio 1 reported that around 240 relatives of the victims accompanied the lawyers and subsequently demonstrated outside the Dutch parliament. The Dutch legal team representing some 6,000 families says the plaintiffs want the Dutch Supreme Court to force the UN and the Dutch government to accept responsibility for failing to prevent the slaughter in Srebrenica, which had been declared a UN-protected safe area for civilians and was under the watch of Dutch UN peacekeepers. AP reported that, in this initial suit, lawyers will demand that the Dutch government pay 10 mothers $34,000 in compensation. The UN's top court, the International Court of Justice, in February ruled that the massacre of roughly 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys was an "act of genocide," reinforcing an earlier judgment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This is the first legal case brought against the UN for its role in the events leading up to the killings. The Dutch government has, by contrast, found itself under close scrutiny in recent years. In 2002, the damning conclusions of a six-year study by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation triggered the resignation of the Dutch government, and this April, a court ordered the Dutch Defense Ministry to grant one of the Srebrenica widows access to its archives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). The UN's former secretary-general, Kofi Annan, who was responsible for UN peacekeeping operations in 1995, has acknowledged "errors of judgment" in the UN's handling of the crisis in Srebrenica. AG

In his first appearance before the ICTY, General Zdravko Tolimir, a Bosnian Serb war crimes indictee captured on May 31, said that his arrest was illegal, international media reported on June 4. Tolimir claimed that he was captured not in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as reported, but in Serbia and that his rights were violated when he was taken across the border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 2007). Tolimir, who is accused of playing a key role in the Srebrenica massacre, did not enter a plea to charges of genocide, extermination, persecution, and inhumane acts, the BBC reported the same day. Tolimir appeared in bad health, which he attributed to having suffered three strokes. Some reports in the Bosnian media have said he is suffering from cancer. Tolimir was one of seven deputy commanders of the Bosnian Serb army in the 1992-95 conflict. The Serbian official charged with liaising with the ICTY, Rasim Ljajic, said in an interview published in the Serbian daily "Blic" on June 4 that, after the war, Tolimir assumed responsibility for organizing efforts to hide Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military commander. He also said that Serbian officials believe the two may have shared the same hideout at some point, but added that the two men have not been together recently and that it is still unclear whether Tolimir's capture will hasten the arrest of Mladic. The EU has made Mladic's arrest a critical point in its relations with Serbia, though the transfer of Tolimir was enough for Brussels to promise on June 2 to reopen preaccession talks with Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 2007). The timing of the talks is contingent on an assessment of Belgrade's cooperation with the ICTY by the court's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, who is currently on a four-day visit to Serbia. AG

The Indian steel magnates Vinod and Pramod Mittal will invest a total of $1.1 billion in Montenegro, the Indian publications "Business Standard" and "Economic Times" reported on June 1. Global Steel Holdings, an offshore investment vehicle of the Mittals' Ispat Industries, will spend around $600 million on reopening old brown-coal mines and opening new mines near the northern town of Berane and $500 million on building a power plant. The "Economic Times" reported that the acquisition has just been agreed, though the first reports of a deal appeared in the Montenegrin paper "Vijesti" in late April. The reports say Global Steel has not disclosed how much it paid for the mines and right to build the power plant. Global Steel has made four other acquisitions in the Balkans and also has ties with a Montenegrin company that recently bought steelworks in the town of Niksic. Vinod and Pramod Mittal are the brothers of Lakshmi Mittal, the owner of the world's largest steel group, Arcelor Mittal. This major investment has attracted little attention in Montenegro, where the focus in recent months has centered on Russia's increased interest in the country, with politicians divided about the possibility of selling the country's only aluminum plant, a power plant, and two coal mines to the Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). AG

Moldova's Communist Party won local elections held across the country on June 3, local media reported on June 4. Around 30 percent of votes remain uncounted, but, according to preliminary results announced by the Central Election Commission on June 4, the Communists lead their closest rival by over 15 percentage points. The party, which has headed the national government since 2001, won 31 percent of the vote in mayoral contests and 35 percent of the vote for local councillors. The second-largest party, the Our Moldova Alliance, secured 15 percent of the vote in the 898 mayoral races and 19 percent in the battle for 12,000 council positions. The Democratic Party of Moldova came third, with 10-13 percent. While convincing, the Communists' victory is less definitive than in 2003, when it won around 50 percent of the votes cast for councillors and 40 percent for mayors. The Communist Party faces a tough battle in the capital, Chisinau, where its candidate, Veaceslav Iordan, faces a runoff against the Liberal Party's Dorin Chirtoaca. No Communist has governed the capital since 1991, though Iordan is the acting mayor and enjoyed the Communists' support even before he became the party's official candidate. Iordan polled 29 percent in the first round, while Chirtoaca won 25 percent. Nine percent of the vote remains to be counted. Turnout was low, with 48 percent voting nationwide and only 36 percent voting in Chisinau and Balti, the two largest cities (excluding Tiraspol, capital of the breakaway region of Transdniester). Turnout could play a critical role: Chisinau has not had an elected mayor since 2005, as elections following the mayor's resignation failed to achieve the mandatory 33 percent turnout. The government has since lowered the required threshold to 25 percent. AG

International observers said on June 4 that the local elections offered Moldovan voters "a genuine choice" and that the vote was "generally well-administered," but also concluded that "other aspects of the electoral process...fell short of some international commitments on democratic elections." In a statement issued on June 4, the Council of Europe said that intimidation of some candidates was one of the major shortcomings. Officials from the Council of Europe's Congress of Local and Regional Authorities were among the 200 international monitors; others came from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Dieter Boden, who headed the ODIHR mission, said "there were a number of cases throughout the country where candidates faced pressure or dismissal or suspension from their jobs as a result of their political activities." Susan Bolam, head of the Council of Europe team, said that "the wide choice of candidates and the turnout in some parts of the country demonstrate the confidence that local democracy is generating, despite a continuing bias in the media toward the government party and inconsistencies in the administration of the election." Other issues highlighted by international monitors included problems with the registration of candidates, voter lists, the handling of complaints, and the vote count. A team of local observers, the Civic Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, noted additional failings, such as campaigning on election day, voting without identification documents, and bias in electoral commissions. It concluded that the elections were neither free nor fair. In additional comments reported by the news agency IPN, Mihai Godea, the head of the Civic Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, said there were more violations in these elections than in the parliamentary elections in 2005. AG

Leaders of Iraq's Christian community estimate that over two-thirds of the country's Christian population has fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. While exact numbers are unknown, reports suggest that whole neighborhoods of Christians have cleared out in the cities of Baghdad and Al-Basrah, and that both Sunni and Shi'ite insurgent groups and militias have threatened Christians.

The gravity of the situation prompted Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani two weeks ago to ask Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi to take steps to protect the Christian community. Sunni imams in Baghdad have made similar statements to their congregations in Friday Prayer sermons. Fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr last week warned Christians in Baghdad to wear the veil or face grave consequences.

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq is responsible for the majority of attacks on Christians from the northern Kurdish region to Baghdad.

Insurgents laid siege to the Al-Durah neighborhood of Baghdad earlier in May and demanded that Christians living there pay jizya, a head tax on non-Muslims living under Muslim rule, to the mujahedin or else convert to Islam. The Islamic State also hung posters throughout Al-Durah calling on Christian women to veil their faces. Locals report that nearly 200 Christian families have fled the neighborhood recently with just the clothes on their backs.

In other cases, families have been given 72 hours to pack their belongings and leave. Some have fled to Kurdistan, but the majority have left for Syria and Jordan, Christian leaders say.

"Al-Bayyinah" reported on May 10 that there are some 200 Saudi gunmen holed up in Al-Durah. According to a May 22 "Al-Sabah" editorial, the gunmen demanded that each Christian pay 50,000 dinars ($40) to the mujahedin as the price for maintaining their religion. Residents were told that "if they refuse to pay the tribute, they have to convert to Islam and marry their daughters to the mujahedin. If they choose to leave the city, their properties and belongings will be confiscated by the terrorists," the daily reported.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State has demanded Christians pay 250,000 dinars (about $200, the average monthly salary) to stay in their homes, according to on May 25. The website reported on May 18 that those who do flee Al-Durah must pay an "exit" fee of $200 per person or $400 per car.

Church leaders have also been targeted by insurgents. Over the past year, six Chaldean priests were kidnapped in Baghdad. In March, two elderly Chaldean nuns in Kirkuk were killed by insurgents as they slept. There are unconfirmed reports that a Christian teenager in Al-Basrah was crucified in October.

Moreover, 27 churches have been destroyed since 2003. Dozens of other churches and monasteries have been abandoned after threats were made.

Some Christian leaders have likened the targeting of Christians to an ethnic-cleansing campaign. "Christians in Iraq are on their way to extinction, cut off from the country's political process," said Father Bashar Warda, the rector of St. Peter Major Seminary, IRNews reported on May 25. He blamed the continuing crisis on the "indifference of Iraqi leaders," saying, "They do not consider us as belonging to this nation."

Recent incidents in Mosul have drawn attention to the targeting of other minorities. Following reports last month that a Yezidi teenager who eloped with a Muslim man and converted to Islam was killed by her family, the Islamic State announced that it would retaliate.

Insurgents from the group then stopped a busload of textile workers heading home from a Mosul factory on April 22. After checking the identification cards of the passengers, which indicate their religion, the group pulled the Yezidis from the bus and shot them dead. The incident demonstrates the sort of attacks on the Yezidi population by Al-Qaeda in recent months.

According to an Internet statement this month, Yezidi leaders have formed a militia to protect their community. "According to the present circumstances in the Sheykhan area of evilness and aggression toward the Yezidi sect, the burning of their cultural and religious centers...and the silence that accompanied the aggression from those who sold their religion to the masters of material and power.... We have formed a troop of the brave and faithful from the Yezidi clan called the Malik Al-Tawus [King Peacock] troop," the statement said. The troop is "completely independent" from all parties and is charged with protecting the land and secret places of the Yezidis in both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, the May 3 statement added.

The daily "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" reported on May 15 that the Sabaean community has been threatened as well.

Shi'ite militias have also targeted the Christian community. Fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr last week warned Christians in Baghdad to wear the veil or face grave consequences, reported on May 30. A statement issued by al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army rationalized that since the Virgin Mary wore a veil, present-day Christians should too. The statement claimed that the militia has formed committees to monitor Christians and enforce the veiling decree.

The statement, signed by the People's Foundation for the Master Al-Mahdi Army, referred to the writings of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (Muqtada's father) who the group claimed ruled, presumably through a fatwa, that women who did not veil themselves were adulteresses who should be locked up by their husbands if they refuse to veil their faces.In a Friday Prayer sermon on May 25, Muqtada al-Sadr vowed that he was committed to protecting Iraq's Christian community, telling his followers: "I will not forget to say the blood of Sunnis and Iraqi Christians are prohibited to be shed by Iraqis as they are either our brothers in religion or in the homeland. They have sought our refuge, and we announce our readiness to defend them."

Continuing, he said: "What Al-Nawasib [a derogatory term for Sunni insurgents] are doing in order to compel [Christians] to convert to Islam is ignominious, and contradicts the Koran, as God says, 'Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error.' I tell the Christian brothers so that they can know that Islam serves the needs of the minorities, and that it is the religion that always calls for interfaith dialogue."

Meanwhile, al-Sadr spokesman Hasan al-Zarqani claimed in a May 25 interview with Al-Jazeera television that the Chaldean community in Iraq has said the Al-Mahdi Army "was the only side that protected Christians in Al-Durah."

The Iraqi government two weeks ago expressed its "solidarity" with the Christian community, and that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet discussed the threats and expulsions of Christian families and vowed to provide assistance to families displaced or adversely affected by insurgent attacks.

But it appears there has been little concrete support for Iraq's Christian community. Until Iraqi security forces can clear Al-Durah of Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents, the few Christians still living there will remain under threat. Those who have joined the millions of refugees and displaced, will be forced to continue living in limbo until an acceptable solution can be found.

There is little question that the targeting of minority communities has had an adverse impact on Iraq, a country that historically was known for its diversity. Already by some estimates, only 400,000 of the 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq in 2003 remain. For Iraq's Christians, many of whom trace their presence in the country to their Assyrian ancestors, the impact of such displacement is immeasurable.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ordered the body of slain Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah to be handed over to his fellow Taliban militants in exchange for the release of five kidnapped Afghans, an Afghan official said on June 4, AP reported that day. Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for the Public Health Ministry, said Karzai told "relevant authorities" to exchange the body of Dadullah, who was killed on May 12 in a U.S.-led military operation in Helmand Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007) for a doctor, three nurses, and a driver kidnapped on March 27. The slain commander's brother, Mansur Dadullah, who currently heads the Taliban's militant operations in southern Afghanistan, had demanded the exchange. The Afghan president previously ordered the return of the militant's body to his family, but his orders apparently were not carried out (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2007). Fahim did not specify when the exchange will take place. JC

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on June 4 that Iranian weapons are flowing into Afghanistan, specifically into the hands of Taliban militants, although he admitted it is unclear if the Tehran government is involved, AP reported the same day. During a news conference at the presidential palace in Kabul, Gates suggested that some weapons smuggled into Afghanistan may be destined for criminals involved the Afghan drug trade, along with those that wind up with Taliban fighters. President Karzai however disagreed, saying that there is no evidence that the Iranian government is aiding the Taliban. "Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today," Karzai added. U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Tehran may be involved in arming the Taliban after coalition forces intercepted Iranian weapons entering Afghanistan in April this year (see "RFE/FL Newsline," April 17, 2007). Coalition forces in Kabul on May 26 found a powerful explosive device of a type previously seen in roadside bombs in Iraq, AP reported on June 3. Major John Thomas, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said the bomb was an explosively formed projectile (EFP), a type of weapon used in Iraq and known for its ability to pierce armored vehicles. Thomas said there is no evidence to identify a certain manufacturer or country as the source of the weapon, although Iran and Al-Qaeda elements in Iraq or Pakistan are possibilities. NATO immediately sent out a warning to international and Afghan troops to stay alert for EFPs, an uncommon action by the organization. The device, according to the warning, was of a lower quality than those found in Herat Province near Afghanistan's Iranian border in April. JC

An Afghan soldier and nine militants were killed in several incidents between June 3 and 4 in a new wave of violence led by Taliban insurgents, officials said on June 4, AFP reported. Paktia Province police chief Abdul Rahman Sarjang said that six insurgents were killed during a clash with NATO-led coalition troops in the eastern province on June 4. Eighteen suspected Taliban supporters were detained after the incident. Three other militants were killed on June 3 by their own improvised explosive device in Laghman Province, also in eastern Afghanistan. In Zabul Province, an Afghan soldier was killed and another injured by a remote-controlled bomb, according to army General Rahmatullah Raufi. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Angela Billings of ISAF told AFP that Taliban-led insurgents ambushed a group of ISAF soldiers in Kandahar Province on June 3, wounding eight of them. JC

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on June 3 renewed assertions of his hatred of Israel, and said it is heading for destruction, Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. Speaking in Tehran at a ceremony to commemorate the 1989 death of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ahmadinejad reportedly told a group of foreign dignitaries that the world will soon witness Israel's destruction. He cited Lebanon as one of several Middle East countries that has observed and emulated the "revival of the spirit of self-belief" displayed in Iran's 1979 revolution, and thus "defeated" Israel last year, initiating a "countdown" to Israel's destruction. He was referring to Israel's unsuccessful bid to destroy the Hizballah militia in Lebanon during a month of air strikes in July 2006. Radio Farda observed that Iranian officials, including Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, have recently sought to downplay, or even deny, Ahmadinejad's earlier threatening or incendiary remarks about Israel. VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a crowd in Tehran on June 4 that faith, "perception," and "conscious resilience" will safeguard the country's rights, and not the favor of great powers, IRNA reported. He told a crowd gathered to commemorate the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's death that "a nation's rights will not be realized by begging the imperialists and retreating and through flexibility before them, but [through] hard work and firm resilience." He said Iran's future lies in the "true identity of the path set out by" the late Ayatollah Khomeini -- the path of popular sovereignty and innovations "based on Islam." He said the resilience of Iranians has led "the world's forceful powers" to conclude that Iranians do not compromise over their rights. "The Iranian people's method is not to beg and plead with the imperialist powers to attain nuclear power and other rights," he said. Khamenei said that the late Ayatollah Khomeini created the most stable political system in the Middle East, and one that continues to gain acceptance among youth and the "Muslim masses." He said Iran is not just a Shi'ite republic, but appeals as much to "the Sunni Palestinian" as the "Shi'ite youth" in Lebanon, IRNA reported. VS

Khamenei said Iran is a political system in which the people's will and votes are decisive "within the framework of God's religion," and the state cares for the family, moral values, and the material needs of the people. "The lslamic system rejects [government] based on the mistaken and failed foundations of the West's liberal democracy, because people have no role in the despotic and dictatorial structure of Western systems," he said. Khamenei said the "new empire of arrogance" intends to present a distorted picture of Iran and sow division inside the country, especially in the run-up to the next parliamentary elections. Khamenei also denounced religious fanatics as the instruments of Muslim discord. "The enemies of Islam," he said, have formed a "bigoted and rigid group ignorant of the world's realities and of spirituality," and are spreading war among Muslims. "On the basis of the opinions of the true scholars of Islam, those who dirty their hands with the blood of Muslims commit an unpardonable sin, and in reality this goes outside Islam," IRNA quoted him as saying. VS

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Spanish daily "El Pais" in New York on June 4 that he is very concerned by Iran's failure to comply with two UN Security Council resolutions calling on it to halt sensitive nuclear activities. Ban expressed dismay at the apparent lack of significant progress in recent talks between Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1 and 4, 2007). Ban said he has repeatedly stated that Iran must abandon uranium enrichment, a key part of nuclear-fuel production with possible military applications in advanced stages. Iran refuses to halt its uranium enrichment work. Ban said he hopes Iran will continue to negotiate even if it faces more UN sanctions. He noted that he is working to coordinate the positions of the permanent members of the UN Security Council with that of the International Atomic Energy Agency, adding that council members must again decide whether to impose more sanctions on Iran. He also urged all countries in the region to "fully cooperate" to bring security to Iraq. Iran, he added, plays a key role in the Middle East and should be seen as having a "constructive" role, "El Pais" reported on June 5. VS

France's Socialist Party has issued a statement condemning violations of the rights of students, workers, and women in Iran, Radio Farda reported on June 4. Karim Pakzad, a French Socialist Party member charged with Iranian affairs, told the broadcaster the same day that France's socialists have always promoted the full social and political rights of Iranians. "Whether we are in power or not," he said, rights are a priority for the party, and "we are not indifferent to the affairs of Iran and other countries." He said the Socialist Party believes that political and social conditions have worsened in Iran since President Ahmadinejad's 2005 election, and Iranian officials are now afraid "of the slightest move" by Iranian citizens. He attributed this in part to Tehran's "mistaken" nuclear policies, which isolate the country internationally. He told Radio Farda that Iran's government must "implement accepted international values" if it wants to be an accepted member of the international community. VS

Iran's former President Mohammad Khatami on June 4 told a Tehran seminar that the concept of human dignity is being overlooked "at a time when human rights slogans have become deafening," ILNA reported. He said many people living today "not only have no dignity, but are deprived of the most basic rights any creature must have." He said the injustice done to humans around the world is "sometimes called safeguarding human rights." Khatami deplored the "human calamities" caused by the intervention of certain powers in the "internal affairs of other countries," and made specific reference to Iraq and the Palestinian territories, ILNA reported. Such interventions, he said, constitute "the clearest instance" of disrespect for "human dignity." VS

Turkish Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul met with EU officials in Ankara on June 4 to discuss a number of issues, including a possible Turkish incursion into Iraq, Anatolia news agency reported the same day. Gul told reporters following the talks that he conveyed Turkey's position on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels holed up across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan. "Turkey attaches importance to Iraq's territorial integrity and does not have any secret agenda. I have also clearly remarked that Turkey has the right to take any kind of measure in case of any move or terrorist attack on its border," he said. Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters, "I did not get the impression that Turkey would launch a cross-border military operation from what [Gul] told us." The Turkish military has been massing troops along the Turkish-Iraqi border for several weeks in anticipation of a possible military incursion against PKK militants in Iraq. KR

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq said in a video posted on the Internet on June 4 that it has killed three U.S. soldiers it abducted in May. The U.S. military confirmed on May 24 the identification of the body one of the three soldiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2007). A speaker in the video said the U.S. military ignored the group's warning not to search for the missing soldiers. "Out of fear on the part of the Islamic State that the occupation forces might go too far in hurting its subjects [civilians during the search for the soldiers] and that [the military] might continue the search...which will only harm our Muslim brethren, including women, children, and old people, [the Islamic State] decided to end the issue and it announced news of their killing.... Thus, [the captives] became dead bodies." KR

The Islamic State of Iraq blamed U.S. President George W. Bush and the U.S. military for the fate of the kidnapped soldiers in the June 4 video. The speaker in the video claimed that "The U.S. Army alone bears responsibility for what happened to the three soldiers," adding that if the U.S. military cared about the mothers of the three soldiers, it would not have "disobeyed" the Islamic State's warnings. Addressing the mothers and wives of the U.S. soldiers, the speaker said Bush "and his aides could have not sent your sons to a fierce war. They could have saved them and not made their death faster through their search and random raids." The video showed the identification badges of the abducted soldiers. It also showed "booty" taken from the soldiers including credit cards, arms, and money. KR

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi met with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa in Cairo on June 4, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, al-Hashimi said that Iraq's national-reconciliation plan is a "good plan," but cautioned that more time is needed to achieve the desired results. "We still have a long way to go before we can achieve a real reconciliation based on good intentions and strong will," al-Hashimi said. Asked about the International Compact with Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 3, 2007), al-Hashimi said, "The international compact needs a national compact." As for Arab support for Iraq, or the lack thereof, Musa told reporters: "Arab action and Arab attention to [the Iraq issue] is not confined to the presence of embassies in Baghdad.... The Arab League has a representative office and a charge d'affaires [in Baghdad] and Arab contacts take place through this office." He added that "intensive talks are taking place" among regional leaders, but declined to give details. Al-Hashimi arrived in Cairo on June 4 for three days of talks. The Cairo-based, government-funded "Al-Ahram" claimed on June 4 that Sunni leaders in Iraq have welcomed Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's call to form a coalition "despite the concerns that continue to surround [al-Sadr's] character" (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," May 24, 2007). KR

British forces in Iraq will be reduced to 2,000 soldiers or less by year-end, the "Financial Times" reported on June 4, citing speculation by military analysts. The Defense Ministry has said no decision has been made to date, and troop decisions will be based on security requirements. Britain had some 7,000 soldiers in Iraq at the start of 2007. Its mid-year rotation, due to get under way in July, is expected to reduce the number of troops on the ground to 5,500. KR