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Newsline - August 8, 2007

The head of the Russian Arctic 2007 expedition to the North Pole, Artur Chilingarov, was met by welcoming crowds at Moscow's Vnukovo-3 airport on August 7, Russian media reported. Chilangarov told the crowd that "we're happy that we reached the bottom of the ocean at the North Pole, where no human being had been for millions or billions of years, and placed the Russian flag there. And I don't care one bit what any foreign leader has to say about it" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26 and August 3 and 6, 2007, and "Russia: Heroes' Return For North Pole Explorers,", August 7, 2007). Chilingarov, who is a polar explorer, Hero of the Soviet Union, and deputy State Duma speaker, added that "if someone doesn't like this, let them go down themselves...and then try to put something there. Russia must win. Russia has what it takes to win. The Arctic has always been Russian." He and his colleagues were greeted by organized pro-Kremlin youth activists, who held signs reading, "No step backward, only forward, now the Russian people are in the Arctic!" Later, President Vladimir Putin told the explorers that "it is necessary that the results of your expedition serve as the basis for Russia's position" on its claims to the North Pole as an extension of Russia's continental shelf. Putin added that "the work was very interesting, very weighty, very important for [our] country, and dangerous. This is a great breakthrough for science and the people who took part in it." Currently, no country has exclusive jurisdiction over the Arctic. Canada, Denmark (through Greenland), Norway, Russia, and the United States each control a 320-kilometer economic zone beyond their shores. Russia's broader claim has received little support abroad and clear opposition from the other claimants. Russia's state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on August 8 quoted one of the polar "heroes" as saying that the 90 minutes he spent on the ocean floor were "the most complex dive I've ever made." Another participant said that the samples of water and soil the crew brought back from the ocean floor will now be analyzed by scientists, and a small sample will be presented to Putin. "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote on August 3 that Russia's achievement marks "the start of a new redivision of the world." PM

A spokesman for the Russian Navy told news agencies on August 7 that a ballistic missile was successfully fired from the Delta III-class nuclear submarine "Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky" in the Pacific Ocean "for testing purposes." He added that the missile later came down at the Chizha testing range on the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea. There are four Delta III-class submarines based with the Pacific Fleet, and each is armed with 16 SSN-18 Stingray missiles. PM

On August 7, General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, told President Putin that Russia hopes to have over 20 divisions equipped with a new updated version of the Soviet-designed S-400 surface-to-air missile unit by 2015, RIA Novosti reported. On August 6, the military unveiled the new air-defense system for Moscow, which is based on the new S-400 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). On August 8, RIA Novosti quoted Colonel General Aleksandr Zelin, who heads the Russian Air Force, as repeating recent claims by other military leaders that Russia is developing a "fifth-generation air-defense missile system" based on the existing S-300 and S-400 systems. Zelin stressed that "the new missile system will combine elements of air, missile, and space defense.... The enhancement of electronics will allow the systems to see farther and higher and react quicker, which will significantly expand the range of their capabilities, including repelling strikes from space." On August 7, the Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote that the S-400 is a great success for the Russian defense industry, and not the only one. The paper stressed that "for the first time in post-Soviet history, Russia has designed and built a new top-grade modern weapon." The daily said the S-400 "can destroy any modern cruise missile at a low altitude.... Russia is a world leader in missile-building, especially supersonic designs. The United States does not have any missiles [like the S-400], but we have a whole arsenal." PM

In Russia's latest apparently politically motivated economic measure against Estonia, the state agricultural inspection agency, Rosselkhoznadzor, announced on August 7 that it has restricted poultry imports from the Baltic state, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and 24, 2007). The agency justified the measures as a response to "an outbreak of Newcastle disease in Estonia," referring to a highly contagious poultry virus. On August 7, the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote that the recent Kremlin ban on exporting Russian goods via Estonia has badly hurt Russian businesses. The Kremlin has used economic measures as a means of exerting political pressure on several of Russia's neighbors, including Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. PM

On August 7, the St. Petersburg City Court handed down sentences on seven men convicted of stabbing antiracism activist Timur Kacharava to death, and injuring his friend, Maksim Zgibai, in November 2005, Interfax and RIA Novosti reported. Aleksandr Shabalyn, who was found guilty of murder, was sentenced to 12 years in prison. The other six people, convicted on charges of fueling ethnic hatred, received sentences ranging of two to three years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 16, 2005, and August 1, 2007). PM

Russia's highest court ruled on August 7 to uphold a Moscow City Court ban on the National Bolshevik Party under recent legislation against political extremism, news agencies reported. Party officials said later that they will take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, as many Russians have done (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). The controversial party has played a key role in organizing recent Marches of Dissent to protest President Putin's policies and style of rule. Critics have long charged that the legislation against "extremism" enacted in recent months is designed to intimidate or ban the opposition. The National Bolsheviks and their offshoots subscribe to a curious mixture of communist and fascist ideas and trappings, reminiscent in some ways of the left-wing currents in Nazism and fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, which inspired Benito Mussolini's short-lived fascist republic at the end of World War II (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16 and April 20, 2007). PM

The recent killing of a Russian Army officer stationed in Armenia prompted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin to discuss the case on August 7 with his Armenian counterpart Gegam Garibdzhanian in a telephone conversation, ITAR-TASS reported. Garibdzhanian said that the investigation is a priority for the Armenian government and promised to keep Russian officials informed of progress in the probe of the August 6 shooting death of Russian Lieutenant Dmitry Yermolov. According to unnamed officials from the Armenian Prosecutor-General's Office, the killing occurred in the village of Arindzh on the outskirts of Yerevan and stemmed from an altercation between two armed Armenians and a vehicle carrying five Russian servicemen in the early morning hours of August 6. The altercation escalated and the Russian servicemen were reportedly beaten before their vehicle was fired upon by the armed Armenians, killing Yermolov and wounding another passenger in the car. RG

The leader of the Armenian Social Democratic Party, Lyudmila Sarkisian, called on August 7 for opposition parties to unite behind one candidate for the February 2008 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Armenpress reported. At a Yerevan press conference, Sarkisian, whose party is the oldest political party in Armenia, also said that her party may support former President Levon Ter-Petrossian as the opposition's single candidate if he "shows his will for victory," noting that the former leader has "learned lessons" from his "mistakes" and can "appear in a new image." Although some segments of the opposition have called on Ter-Petrossian to run for president, he has not indicated any interest in trying to make a political comeback nine years after his forced resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, July 9 and 18, 2007). RG

President Mikheil Saakashvili visited on August 7 the site of a reported Russian air-to-surface missile attack on the small village of Tsitelubani, about 60 kilometers west of Tbilisi, Rustavi-2 television reported. Georgian officials announced on August 7 that two Russian military aircraft overflew the area on August 6 and fired a guided missile, which failed to explode and left no one injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). Accompanied on the visit by a group of foreign diplomats accredited to Georgia, Saakashvili condemned the incident as an "act of provocation" aimed at "disrupting Georgia's peace and stability" and called for "a strong international reaction," stressing that "it is a wider issue and poses a major risk to European security." He added that "maintaining unity and remaining cool and calm" will be Georgia's "only response to air assaults on its sovereign territory." Prior to their departure with the president, the Tbilisi-based diplomats were briefed by Deputy Foreign Minister Nikoloz Vashakidze and were provided with "evidence" -- which Georgia says is "irrefutable" proof, including air-traffic control data -- that reportedly confirmed that a Russian military SU-24 combat aircraft was involved in the attack. According to Georgian military reports, the aircraft was traced to a Russian air base near the North Ossetian town of Mozdok. Russian officials have strongly denied any involvement in the attack, however. RG

Responding to Georgian condemnations of what it says was a Russian military attack on Georgian territory on August 6, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin said on August 7 that Russia is "very concerned" over the incident but "wants to find out the truth" because "Georgian claims don't quite fit the reality," ITAR-TASS reported. Karasin explained that the incident differs from the Georgian account and that, according to their information, actually involved "an unidentified plane" that entered Georgian airspace "from the east, which means the territory of Georgia" and "randomly fired a missile." He then argued that "a thorough investigation showed that Russian planes did not make any flights in that area," noting that "we have checked all the records and radar information." Although Karasin also hinted that the Georgian Air Force also has the relevant SU-24 aircraft in its inventory, he did not go as far as South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity, who accused Georgia on August 7 of carrying out the incident itself as "a well-planned provocation." RG

Kazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Baghdat Kozhakhmetov confirmed on August 7 that the body of television presenter Anastasia Novikova, who has been missing since 2004, has been found in a remote area of southern Kazakhstan, according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax-Kazakhstan. Novikova worked for NTK television, part of the Alma-Media group, which until recently was co-owned by President Nursultan Nazarbaev's former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliev. Kozhakhmetov said that investigators are considering the possibility that Aliev, who reportedly had a personal relationship with Novikova, was involved in her disappearance. Aliev, who until recently served as the Kazakh ambassador to Austria, remains in Vienna pending an Austrian decision on his possible extradition to Kazakhstan to face criminal charges of corruption, money laundering, and kidnapping (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, 13, and 19, 2007). RG

President Nazarbaev met on August 7 with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev in Astana and discussed several joint economic projects, including the transport of energy resources and Kazakhstan's inclusion in the construction of a Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway line, according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax-Kazakhstan. Following the meeting, Aliyev announced that a new agreement has been signed providing Kazakhstan with access to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to transport oil to the Black Sea and on to Europe, ITAR-TASS reported. A second memorandum of understanding was also signed establishing formal "strategic cooperation" between Kazakhstan's state oil and gas company, Kazmunaigaz, and the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR). The two presidents also promised to consider measures aimed at boosting bilateral trade to $1 billion, an ambitious target in light of the 2006 level of bilateral trade, which was $233 million, according to Turan. Aliyev's two-day visit is his second official state visit to Kazakhstan as president, although he said that he made "a working visit" and "participated in events" in the country prior to becoming president, AKIpress reported. RG

Speaking to a Bishkek meeting of the Kyrgyz Investment Council, President Kurmanbek Bakiev on August 7 called for a sweeping review of all laws and regulations in order to improve business development, and demanded new legislation aimed at attracting foreign investment in the country, AKIpress reported. Bakiev also ordered the Investment Council to create a new "interdepartmental commission" empowered to present a list of all laws and statutory regulations that are to be "repealed immediately" if they fail to demonstrate positive benefits on business and investment. Bakiev promised to submit new legislation to parliament in order to "establish the necessary requirements and norms to regulate businesses." Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, presidential-administration head Medet Sadyrkulov, and officials from the Economic Development and Foreign ministries, and representatives from international donor organizations are all taking part in the meeting of the Kyrgyz Investment Council. The council was established by presidential decree in February 2007, and serves as a consultative and deliberative body for the president in areas regarding the "business sphere and investment climate" in Kyrgyzstan and "attracting investments needed for increasing social and economic development of the country." RG

The Tajik Supreme Court on August 7 convened the trial of two former inmates at the U.S. military facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Supreme Court Justice Musammir Uroqov said that the defendants, Mukit Vohidov and Ruhniddin Sharopov, are accused of illegally crossing the Tajik border into Afghanistan in early 2001 to join fighters of the outlawed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Both men were detained in Afghanistan in 2002 by U.S. Army Special Forces and were repatriated to Tajikistan from Guantanamo in March 2007. In a case last March, a Tajik court sentenced Ibrohim Nasriddinov, also a former Guantanamo inmate, to a 23-year prison term on murder and weapons charges and charges of belonging to both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). According to the Tajik Foreign Ministry, about 10 Tajik citizens have been sent home from Guantanamo in recent years, Asia-Plus reported. RG

The U.S. State Department has extended its list of Belarusians banned from entering the United States under a presidential order of 2006, the U.S. Embassy to Belarus's website ( reported on August 7. The order deals with sanctions on officials deemed responsible for policies or actions that threaten Belarus's transition to democracy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006). The expanded list includes officials at or above the deputy-minister level or equivalent; any prosecutor-general or deputy prosecutor-general; Interior Ministry officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel; KGB officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel; ideology officers of the Minsk City Executive Committee and regional executive committees; the head and deputy heads of the presidential administration; members of the Central Election Commission; the chairs of the regional election commissions; the chief judges of Belarus's district and regional courts; the chairman of the Constitutional Court; the directors and deputy directors of state-owned companies; and the spouses of any official or employee listed above. Regarding the expanded travel-ban list, the U.S. Embassy said that "in the year since President [George W.] Bush issued Presidential Proclamation 8015 concerning Belarus, the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenka has continued to imprison and harass persons for speaking out in favor of democracy, holding peaceful demonstrations, and opposing the repressive policies of the regime." JM

Minsk will have to take reciprocal measures in response to Washington's "unilateral unmotivated act" to ban new categories of Belarusian officials from entering the United States, Belapan reported on August 7, quoting Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Vanshyna. "We have repeatedly said that such decisions are counterproductive and hopeless. This policy has played itself out. It is a thing of the past century," Vanshyna said. "The consistent restriction of contacts by the American government in the era of globalization is not and cannot be a measure conducive to the achievement of mutual understanding and the development of bilateral relations," she added. JM

The Belarusian government has repaid its $456 million debt to Russian gas monopoly Gazprom for gas deliveries in the first half of 2007, Belapan reported on August 8, citing Gazprom's press service. Last week Gazprom threatened to cut gas supplies to Belarus by 45 percent over the unpaid debt. Belarusian First Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka told journalists on August 8 that Belarus is now going to pay for Russian gas deliveries in full and in a timely manner. "It will be difficult for us. But the honor, dignity, and reputation of our country should be above all," Syamashka noted. JM

The Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc gathered for a convention in Kyiv on August 7 to approve its election manifesto and candidates for the early parliamentary elections on September 30, Ukrainian media reported. The top five on the bloc's candidate list are People's Self-Defense leader Yuriy Lutsenko, Our Ukraine People's Union leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, and European Platform for Ukraine leader Mykola Katerynchuk. The convention was attended by President Viktor Yushchenko, who hailed the unification of democratic forces in Ukraine into a single election bloc. "You have made a real step into the future.... I am with you. We are an indivisible team. A single force. The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc is going forward with us," Yushchenko said. "Our ideal is a powerful state, a single people, a single official language, a single Christian Orthodox Church, and a single nation," he said. Yushchenko also approved of the bloc's announced intention to form a new party after the elections. "The new party will not be seeking cushy jobs. It will work for the benefit of the nation, the individual; it will operate effectively in power and in the opposition," he said. The election program of the bloc, titled "For People, Not For Politicians," calls for abolishing parliamentary immunity, canceling privileges for lawmakers, setting up a national anticorruption bureau, and forming an independent body to vet all judges. JM

The head of Bosnia-Herzegovina's federal government, Nikola Spiric, has indicated that he will reshuffle the Council of Ministers after the summer recess, local media reported. Speaking to Bosnian reporters on August 3, Prime Minister Spiric said he would act if a pending review of each ministry's performance shows "that the work of ministers has not been satisfactory." The government was formed only this year, but Spiric and other ministers have repeatedly criticized the functioning of the government, which is obliged under the constitution to bring together ministers from the country's main ethnic groups. Tensions peaked in March, when Spiric accused the government's Muslims of adopting "autistic" policies, a comment specifically triggered by disagreements over relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church and the sale of the oil industry in the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). Current tensions are primarily between Spiric, an ethnic Serb, and Republika Srpska politicians on the one side and Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj on the other. Spiric in late July accused Alkalaj of harming the country's interests, an assertion subsequently supported on August 3 by Republika Srpska President Milan Jelic, the news agency SRNA reported. Criticism of Alkalaj has this year related principally to his handling of the question of a dual-citizenship agreement with Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). A comment by Spiric that Alkalaj, as a minister from the ranks of "others," does not even represent Bosnian Muslims was criticized by members of the Bosnian Muslim-led party to which Alkalaj belongs as being anti-Semitic. However, the leader of Bosnia's small Jewish community, Jakob Finci, on August 4 told the daily "Nezavisne novine" that Spiric's criticism of Alkalaj was "a case of political sniping and nothing else." AG

Miroslav Lajcak, the international community's representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, on August 2 voiced concern at the failure of the Bosnian parliament to ratify the Central Europe Free-Trade Agreement (CEFTA) before it went into recess for the summer. "Free trade means jobs and investments -- this is a lesson from CEFTA's founding members, all of whom are now members of the EU and all of whom enjoy standards of living that are incomparably higher than they were a decade ago," Lajcak said, according to a statement on the website of the Office of the High Representative. The vote was postponed at the instigation of a Bosnian Muslim party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which also urged the government to improve the terms of the CEFTA for Bosnian farmers. Farmers are concerned that CEFTA regulations could compound the problems they currently face, which include the probability that a drought will hurt harvests this year. Bosnia's government signed the CEFTA in December 2006. The CEFTA, which replaces the network of bilateral agreements across the region, was seen as a precursor to EU membership by its founders, all of whom have since joined the EU. AG

Officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina have rejected claims by Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader that the country's firefighters did too little to prevent forest fires from spreading to the outskirts of the historic city of Dubrovnik, local media reported. "Our people invested superhuman efforts in putting out every fire that could be put out, and nobody can say with certainty where the fire started," Stanko Sliskovic, head of Bosnia's Civil Defense Force, told reporters on August 7. The fire began in Bosnia, possibly on the border of the country's two autonomous regions, before being carried by fierce winds through pine forests and across swamps towards the port city, which is recognized as a World Heritage site by the UN's cultural arm, UNESCO. However, the fire was brought under control before it could wreak much damage to the city's suburbs or reach the largely stone buildings in the city's historic center. Around 1,000 firefighters and two planes were involved in the operation; reports indicate that 26 emergency workers were hurt. According to the Croatian news agency Hina on August 7, Sliskovic in turn accused Croatia of doing too little to contain the fire when it reached the Croatian border over the weekend. Sanader portrayed Croatia's efforts very differently, saying, in comments carried by Hina on August 6, that "our Canadairs [firefighting planes] crossed the border to put out fires in Bosnia, but without firefighters on the ground, a fire can't be put out." AG

Torrential rains on August 4-5 helped put out wildfires that have devastated Macedonia's forests over the past two weeks. Reports in the Macedonian media indicate temperatures also plunged in some areas, with a mountain resort, Solunska Glava, reporting sub-zero temperatures and the return of snow. Parts of Croatia also saw a sharp drop in temperature, with a cold front that arrived on August 5 pushing temperatures down as low as 7.5 degrees Celsius, Hina reported. Storms and flooding were also reported in Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania, all of which have recently seen vast areas of forests combust in intense summer heat. Albania has also been affected by the heat, prompting the International Monetary Fund to issue a warning on August 6 that the resulting energy crisis will likely have affected the country's economic growth and "could create a hole in this year's budget," the Balkan Insight news service reported. Heavy demands on Albania's aged energy infrastructure frequently result in blackouts in winter and in summer, but the impact this year has been particularly severe, prompting the government to send public-sector workers home three hours early each day in an effort to lessen the impact of energy shortages on the general public, the ATA news agency reported. On some days, electricity supplies have been cut off for 16 hours. Albania's energy minister, Genc Ruli, has said that flows of water to the country's critically important hydroelectric power plants are at their lowest in 60 years, according to Reuters. Moldova has also reported an increased incidence of fires in the capital, Chisinau, and across the country, Moldova's IPN reported, and has called for international aid to reduce the impact of the drought (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2007). Hina reported on August 6 that Croatian Prime Minister Sanader said he will "probably" ask the European Commission to establish "a regional center" in Croatia to "coordinate operations in the event of emergencies in Southeast Europe." AG

Prime Minister Sanader has rejected the notion of holding a referendum on NATO membership, arguing on August 6 that no vote is required by the constitution, the Hina news agency reported the same day. Sanader's comment was a response to a commitment by the main opposition party, the Social Democrats, to put the issue to the electorate if it wins parliamentary elections to be held in November. Sanader dismissed the Social Democrats' move as "a cheap election-campaign trick and demagogy." Croatia hopes NATO members will invite Croatia to join the alliance when they meet in Bucharest in April 2008. Croatia is coordinating its bid for membership with Albania and Macedonia. AG

Albanian police have arrested three men in connection with the killing of six National Guardsmen in the town of Cerrik in May 1997, the daily "Albania" reported on August 5. The arrests follow the reported emergence of new evidence over the past six months. Six members of the elite force were killed and another dozen injured when Sali Berisha, the country's president at the time and currently its prime minister, dispatched special forces to search for arms in central Cerrik as part of a broader effort to end months of anarchy. Prosecutors have reportedly also announced plans to reopen investigations into violence in a range of other cities in 1997. "It is never too late to see that justice is done," Majlinda Bregu, a government spokeswoman, told reporters. The unrest in 1997 was prompted by the collapse of a series of financial pyramid schemes in which a vast number of Albanians had invested. During the resulting breakdown in law and order, bandits roamed the countryside, ordinary Albanians stormed arms depots, and armed gangs seized a number of cities. In response, Berisha imposed a state of emergency and the United Nations sent in troops to help direct relief efforts and support police efforts. Berisha was voted of power in elections that summer. AG

The UN Security Council will consider in the coming days a draft resolution put forward by Britain that calls for an expanded UN mandate in Iraq. The current UN mandate on Iraq is set to expire on August 10. The proposed mandate, which is expected to be ratified by member states next week, would pave the way for the largest UN mission on the ground in Iraq since 2003.

That year, the UN pulled its expatriate staff from the country following the August bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 22 others.

The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) was established in June 2004. By then, the UN had allowed a small staff of no more than 35 expatriate workers to return to Iraq. However, the staff size and lack of security largely prohibited the UN from carrying out much of its mandate.

Despite the lack of any significant presence inside the country, the mandate has been renewed each year, and the UN has taken small but worthwhile steps toward reestablishing its presence on the ground, by supporting efforts to draft a new constitution, observing elections in January and December 2005, and supporting Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's 24-point national-reconciliation initiative.

Together with the Iraqi government, the UN launched the International Compact with Iraq in July 2006. The initiative sought to "bring together the international community and multilateral organizations to help Iraq achieve its national vision" over five years. The program would work to institutionalize good governance while addressing outstanding political, economic, and security issues.

Through the participation of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the Iraqi government would develop a strategy for economic reform and regeneration that would help reintegrate Iraq into the broader region and, by extension, the international community.

The official launch of the project was delayed for several months due to security issues in Baghdad, as well as reluctance from neighboring Arab states to support the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government. The Arab states -- with primarily majority Sunni populations and Sunni Arab leadership -- fear a Shi'ite government in Iraq and the possible consequences of the relations that government may have with Iran.

On May 3, representatives of Iraq's neighboring states, as well as the UN and the United States, gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for a conference in support of the compact. Representatives from more than 50 countries and international organizations attended the meeting.

In an effort to elicit Arab regional support for the compact, a key article in the conference's final declaration noted that participating states would support the Iraqi government as long as it ensured "the basic right of all Iraqi citizens to participate peacefully in the political process through the country's political system."

Arab states signed the compact, albeit grudgingly, but largely ignored their commitments in the months that followed. Unfortunately, the current state of relations among Iraqi political parties does little to prompt Arab states to do more.

Rather, the decision of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front this week to withdraw its ministers from al-Maliki's cabinet is likely only to worsen Iraq's relations with neighboring Arab states. And although regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia committed this week to reopen its embassy in Baghdad, it is unlikely to follow through with the commitment anytime soon.

The ability of the UN successfully to expand its role in Iraq will largely depend on its ability to encourage regional states to engage constructively with Iraq in terms of political and economic initiatives. While the United States has worked actively to encourage such engagement, persuading regional states to engage will require a more proactive approach from other Western nations, particularly the EU.

The new draft UN resolution calls for an extension and expansion of the current mandate for one year and would authorize UNAMI to facilitate regional dialogue, including on border-security issues, energy, and refugees, according to AP, which viewed the draft. It also paves the way for the UN to help facilitate national dialogue and political reconciliation, resolve disputed internal boundaries, and advise and assist in a constitutional review and a national census.

The draft also calls on the UN mission to help plan, fund, and implement reintegration programs for former combatants, signaling that a deal may be nearing between the Iraqi government and nationalist insurgent groups. The UN has tried to support talks with native insurgent groups, largely composed of disaffected Iraqis who lost their military or technical jobs following the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003.

Russia and Afghanistan on August 6 signed an agreement relieving Afghanistan of 90 percent of its $11 billion debt to the Kremlin, with the potential to write off the remaining balance, AP reported. The debt write-off is expected to help boost the Afghan economy. Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and his Afghan counterpart, Anwar al-Haq Ahadi, signed an agreement stating that the remaining debt is to be restructured and paid over 23 years. However, it states that if Kabul successfully implements reforms under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPC) of the International Monetary Fund, the remaining $1 billion could also be forgiven. Afghanistan met the qualifications to participate in the HIPC in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). Russia is by far the largest creditor nation for Afghanistan and is owed nearly 95 percent of Kabul's total foreign debt, due to massive weapon sales during the Soviet era. JC

Defense Secretary Des Browne traveled to southern Afghanistan on August 7 at the start of a two-day visit with troops and local leaders, AFP reported. According to a Defense Ministry press statement, Browne arrived at the British military base near Gereshk district in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, where he met with some of the 7,100 British troops stationed there. The soldiers serve with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), fighting the Taliban insurgency alongside Afghan security services, and participate in development projects as part of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). Browne commended the dual strategy, praising Britain's efforts to deliver "security hand-in-hand with development and representative governance," according to the statement. "There is no military solution on its own here," he said. Brown also met with local Afghan leaders in Lashkar Gah to discuss security and reconstruction issues, Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Mayo told AFP. JC

Approximately 75 Taliban insurgents on August 7 launched a failed attack against a coalition base in southern Afghanistan, leaving 20 militants dead, a coalition statement said. The militants, armed with grenades and rockets, attacked on foot from three sides in an attempt to overwhelm Firebase Anaconda in Oruzgan Province, AP reported, citing military sources. Afghan and U.S. forces responded with mortars and air support, killing 20 insurgents and wounding two Afghan soldiers and two girls. Coalition spokeswoman Captain Vanessa Bowman said the failed attack by the Taliban was a testament to the "ineffectiveness of their fighters." A direct attack on a U.S. or NATO base by insurgents on foot is uncommon. Insurgents typically fire rockets from a distance, or utilize roadside and suicide bombs to target Western forces, as they are aware they cannot match Western militaries in conventional battle, military officials say. JC

The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) on August 6 said that Afghanistan's grain production has more than doubled since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, AP reported. Despite persistent violence and war, officials expect Afghanistan's grain output to reach 4.6 million tons in 2007, compared with 2 million tons in 2001, the FAO said in a statement. Increased production is due mainly to good weather and development efforts by aid organizations, including the creation of an Afghan seed industry, which helps restore irrigation systems and provide crops to substitute for the cultivation of opium poppies. Afghanistan is largely self-sufficient in food production, but will still need to import 700,000 tons of cereals in the next year to meet demand. The majority will be purchased on the world market and the rest provided as food assistance. JC

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a press conference in Algiers on August 7 that terrorism is "the ugliest phenomenon" and the work of "godless" people and states, ISNA reported. When states or individuals pay little heed to religious worship and respect for human dignity, they begin to entertain "murderous" ideas, he said. Ahmadinejad also called certain powers "the root of terrorism" for resorting to any and all means to attain their aims. "Today you see the ugliest terrorist conduct" in Israel, he added, referring to a state Iran does not recognize. He said Algeria and Iran have both been "injured" by terrorism, and agree that it must be uprooted. He also said the two states have ample fossil-fuel reserves and could cooperate on the "production, processing, and management of energy in the world." Ahmadinejad repeated his assertion that Iranians will not retreat from their nuclear rights, including the production of nuclear fuel for a civilian energy program. VS

A deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Abdulreza Rahmani-Fazli, told IRNA on August 7 that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) should respond to Iran's renewed cooperation with the agency by helping to prevent the UN Security Council from issuing another set of sanctions against Iran. The Security Council has already imposed two sets of sanctions designed to curb Iran's nuclear program, which Western states warn could be used to produce weapons. Rahmani-Fazli urged the EU's top nuclear negotiator with Iran, Javier Solana, as well as the EU, the 5+1 grouping of the permanent Security Council members plus Germany, and the IAEA to tell the United States that its efforts to impose new sanctions on Iran will only harm Iran's cooperation with the IAEA. He dismissed the idea of Iran talking directly with the United States, and said Iran could negotiate with the 5+1 powers. But he said that "Tehran will not accept any idea that somehow includes suspension" of uranium enrichment, a key part of the fuel-making process that Western states want stopped. Rahmani-Fazli said Iran rejects a proposed suspension of uranium enrichment in exchange for a suspension of sanctions, but he said that "if they mean we should continue our activities at some level while continuing to negotiate with them, that is a different matter," IRNA reported. VS

The Supreme National Security Council's Rahmani-Fazli said U.S. charges that Iran is involved with some insurgent groups in Iraq are "just publicity work." Reversing the U.S. charges, he said that "Tehran has evidence that the Americans are not seriously cooperating with Iraq's legal government and are working at times to provoke and arm various groups and tribes against [Iraq's] government." He stressed the need for a timed withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. He said it is difficult to foresee where three rounds of conversations between Iranian and U.S. diplomats on Iraqi security will lead, due to what he called the "insincerity" and "inconsistent conduct" of U.S. forces in Iraq, IRNA reported. VS

A court in Sanandaj, western Iran, ordered 11 workers whipped and imprisoned after they were arrested at a May Day gathering and prosecuted, Radio Farda reported on August 6. The workers have been sentenced to 91 days in prison and are to be given 10 lashes each for taking part in an "illegal gathering and provoking...disorder and mayhem." Describing the May 1 protest, labor activist Jafar Azimzadeh told Radio Farda that the gathering did not cause a disturbance, and that regardless of the protesters' actions, police were at the spot beforehand to break up the protest. He said police moved to disperse the gathering as an activist began to read out a statement "in the first minutes of the ceremony." Azimzadeh said the charge of disrupting the peace against the workers was barely credible. He claimed workers were beaten in detention after their arrest, and that a sentence of lashes is an "innovation" in Iran in such a case. VS

Iranian Deputy Trade Minister Mehdi Ghazanfari, who also heads the Iran Export Development Organization, said in Tehran on August 7 that Iran's trade with other Middle Eastern states amounted to $16 billion last year, IRNA reported. It was not clear if he meant 2006, or the Persian year to March 20, 2007. Ghazanfari said trade with Persian Gulf states reached $15.5 billion, of which he said $5.3 billion represented Iranian non-oil exports, and $10.2 billion imports from those states. He said 27 percent of Iran's trade last year was with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates, which was Iran's chief trading partner. He valued Iranian trade in the same period with Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco at $656 million, of which $352 million consisted of Iranian exports to those states. He did not say if this figure was part of the $16 billion cited earlier. Ghazanfari said, however, that the trade figures were not satisfactory, given the proximity of the other gulf states to Iran. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed that Baghdad will work with Ankara to end attacks on Turkey from Iraq by Turkish-Kurdish fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), international media reported on August 7. "There is an agreement between us about cooperation against the PKK and other terrorist organizations in the future. The PKK and similar organizations are not allowed to maintain a presence on Iraqi soil and we will not permit them to do so in the future. We are in favor of launching cooperation in that field without any delay," al-Maliki told reporters at a press briefing with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, the Anatolia news agency reported. Al-Maliki added that Iraq and Turkey are drafting a number of agreements in the economic and security spheres. He said that trade between the two countries stood at $950 million in 2003. In 2006, the volume of trade exceeded $3 billion. Al-Maliki welcomed additional Turkish investment in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki told Tehran's Arabic-language news channel, Al-Alam, in an interview broadcast on August 6 that his administration will not tolerate its officials being propped up by regional neighbors who want to interfere in Iraq's affairs. "Definitely, we will have a decisive stance. We have to put an end to this phenomenon -- being in the government but moving in line with regional schemes to harm Iraq and the political process," he said. "We respect all neighboring states. We hope to have good relations with them. We do not want to interfere in their affairs, but we will allow neither them nor [our] partners in the political process to have a hand with us and a hand with terrorism, or a hand with the government and a hand with the outside world," al-Maliki continued. He added, "Politicians must make up their mind: to either be with or against the [Iraqi] government, and they are free" to choose. Asked about U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraqi security, al-Maliki told Al-Alam, "I sense a desire and seriousness by both sides to help Iraq to get out of this crisis." KR

Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi called on Prime Minister al-Maliki to reform the State Ministry for National Security Affairs, in a statement posted on the Iraqi Islamic Party's website on August 7. Al-Hashimi claimed the ministry has expanded beyond the size specified when it was created, with branches in every governorate, and is financed by unknown sources. Al-Hashimi contended that according to the Iraqi Constitution, the ministry is to have no more than 17 employees, noting it currently employs 1,400 people. "I have major reservations about the formation of the units that are in charge of security, and also over how the security file is being run. Many violations are being carried out, and agreements that were reached before the formation of the government are being breached," al-Hashimi said in the statement. He claimed he presented a study on the security file that called for the ministry to be run jointly -- presumably by Sunnis and Shi'a -- but received no response from al-Maliki. KR

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari is set to declare the formation of a new political front that will challenge Prime Minister al-Maliki's position, the London-based "Al-Hayat" reported on August 7. Sources told the daily that the front, which will reportedly be called the National Reform Grouping, will push to replace the parliamentary system with a presidential-parliamentary system similar to the French system, giving greater power to the presidency. According to "Al-Hayat," al-Ja'fari has refused to acknowledge the results of the Al-Da'wah Party conference in May that elected al-Maliki secretary-general of the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14, 2007). Since that time, al-Ja'fari has been working to distance his wing of the Al-Da'wah Party from al-Maliki's. Al-Ja'fari's new front will seek to contest upcoming governorate elections separately from the Al-Da'wah Party, the United Iraqi Alliance, and the soon-to-be-announced Moderates Front. Al-Ja'fari claims that several other parties will be joining his grouping, including the Iraqi Islamic Party, representatives of the Al-Sadr trend, the National Congress Party, Al-Fadilah Party, the Union of Iraq's Turkomans Party, the Turkoman Democratic Party, and the National Democratic Movement. He also boasts of support from Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish tribes and veteran secular political forces, as well as neighboring states, the sources said. KR