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Newsline - September 5, 2007

The European Parliament's foreign affairs committee said in a statement in Brussels on September 4 that support for Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) should depend on Russia's ratification of the EU's Energy Charter Treaty, which Russia signed in 1994 but never ratified, reported. The news agency noted that the European Commission also proposes linking the two issues. The statement added that "the energy partnership between the EU and Russia can only be based on the non-discrimination and fair treatment principle and on equal market access conditions." Brussels wants Russia to agree to basic ground rules on energy policy with the EU as a whole. The charter's Transit Protocol would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8 and 25, February 6, and May 22, 2007). Moscow, however, maintains that the charter is weighted against Russia's interests and prefers to conclude bilateral deals with individual EU member states. In Riga on September 4, Latvian President Valdis Zatlers and Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen called for unity within the EU on energy policy, dpa reported. Zatlers said "the EU has to provide a common energy policy. The countries of Europe must be united in that opinion." He called for a greater diversification of energy supplies by member states. Vanhanen stressed that "the EU has to learn to speak with one voice" on energy policy. A recently leaked European Commission draft report aims at breaking up monopolistic national energy structures in member states. The study also suggests making it harder for non-EU companies to buy energy supply and distribution businesses. That recommendation is widely understood to be targeted primarily at Gazprom. PM

Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono was quoted by Britain's "Financial Times" on September 5 as saying in Jakarta that his government recently concluded $1.35 billion worth of arms contracts with Russia, which are slated to be signed during President Vladimir Putin's one-day visit on September 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). Juwono said that the deals are part of Indonesia's policy of diversifying its arms sources. The United States and EU froze contacts with the Indonesian military in 1999 because of the situation in East Timor. Washington and Brussels continue to ban the sale to Jakarta of "lethal" weaponry, which includes spare parts for some military aircraft. The British daily noted that the Russian-Indonesian deal centers on a $1 billion soft credit repayable over 15 years to buy 10 transport helicopters, five assault helicopters, 20 amphibious tanks, and two Kilo-class submarines. Australia's expressed concern on September 5 that the two submarines could pose a potential threat to Australian shipping. The British daily reported that an additional $350 million loan will cover the purchase of six Sukhoi fighters. The Russian daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" wrote on September 5 that "at the recent MAKS 2007 air show [in Moscow], Indonesia and Russia signed a memorandum of intent for [Indonesia's purchase of] three Su-27SKM and three Su-30MK2 fighter jets." PM

On September 4, about 100 Russian and 87 Chinese elite security personnel began a three-day counterterrorism exercise at an Interior Ministry site near Moscow aimed at practicing their response to a hypothetical hostage-taking in an administrative building on the Russian-Chinese border, news agencies reported. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev said that the two countries are currently expanding cooperation in combating illegal immigration, smuggling, and cross-border crime, Interfax reported. On September 5, the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" headlined its article on the exercise: "Russians and Chinese: Brothers Forever." In mid-August, military personnel from the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- conducted military exercises in the Urals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 17, and 22, 2007). PM

President Putin visited the nuclear submarine base at Vilyuchinsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula on September 5, Interfax reported. He last visited the base in 2004, when it was threatened with closure. On September 5, he praised the progress made since then in "revitalizing" the installation. He recently suggested to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov that a "modern communications infrastructure" be built there. While in Vilyuchinsk on September 5, Putin criticized Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov by name for failing to carry out orders he gave in 2004 to improve the infrastructure there, reported. Putin added that "nothing has been done. The government is unable to set priorities, to sort out this matter. If [the task had been] given to Gazprom, everything would have been built long ago." The media have long speculated that Gref might leave the cabinet sooner rather than later. Kasyanov is currently an opposition politician with presidential ambitions. PM

The Moscow-based publishing house Eksmo has declined to publish a book by opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on September 4. The book, "How Life Imitates Chess," was to be presented at an international book fair in Moscow on September 5. Eksmo press spokeswoman Maria Markova told RFE/RL that the book was not issued because the Eksmo subsidiary that concluded the contract with Kasparov three years ago was shut down last year and no new contract has been drawn up. She insisted there was no political subtext to the matter. The book has already been published in English, German, Dutch, and Chinese. "Of course, we do not have direct evidence that someone called Eksmo and insisted that they not publish the book," Kasparov told RFE/RL. "Or at least that they not issue it in time for the Moscow book fair. On the other hand, it is absolutely clear that the company was interested in the commercial success of the book.... I would say that in today's Russia there is only one reason that could trump economic rationale and that is political pressure." Kasparov said the Russian version of the book is "substantially different" from the English version and that he hopes to find another publisher for it. RC

Basic Element, the holding company of tycoon Oleg Deripaska, has applied to the Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS) for approval to purchase a controlling interest in oil major Russneft, "Vedomosti" and other Russian media reported on September 5, citing FAS official Aleksandr Pirozhenko. Although the size of the stake Base Element is seeking is unknown, sources close to former Russneft President Mikhail Gutseriyev told the daily it is 75 percent and the value of the deal is near $3.5 billion. Gutseriyev, after concluding the deal in principle with Deripaska in July, fled Russia and is believed to be in Turkey. A Moscow court on August 28 issued an arrest warrant for him on charges of tax evasion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). The Federal Tax Service has requested that the courts freeze all of Russneft's shares. In 2006, Russneft produced 14.76 million tons of oil and recorded a profit of 9.9 billion rubles ($386 million). RC

Moscow Savyolovsky Raion Court on September 5 opened hearings in the trial in absentia of tycoon Boris Berezovksy, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. Berezovsky is charged with embezzling more than 200 million rubles ($7.7 million) from Aeroflot when he controlled the firm in the 1990s. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 10 years' imprisonment. Berezovsky, who lives in Great Britain where he has political asylum, faces five different criminal cases in Russia, including three relating to charges of promoting extremist activity and seeking to overthrow Russia's constitutional order. Moscow has repeatedly sought his extradition. RC

Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi was convicted on September 4 of forging a diploma and engaging in illegal commercial activity, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The same day, the court handed down a suspended sentence of one year in prison and a 75,000-ruble fine. Donskoi remains in custody facing charges of embezzlement. Donskoi, 37, claims the charges against him were trumped up at the behest of presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Ilya Klebanov and Arkhangelsk Oblast Governor Nikolai Kiselev in response to Donskoi's declared intention to run for president of Russia in the March 2008 election. "It is clear that a monarchy is being built in Russia now," Donskoi told the court. "Many bureaucrats call Putin a tsar and act accordingly. They behave brazenly, uncouthly, with contempt for the laws and contempt for the constitution." (see "Russia: Mayors In The Crosshairs As 'Power Vertical' Gains Force,", June 21, 2007). RC

Former Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov told on September 4 that representatives of the Great Russia and Party of Russia's Rebirth will participate in the December Duma elections on the electoral list of the Patriots of Russia party. Great Russia is headed by Duma Deputy Gennady Semigin; Patriots of Russia is led by Duma Deputy Dmitry Rogozin; while Seleznyov heads the Party of Russia's Rebirth. The small leftist parties are hoping to combine their electorates in order to compete against the left-leaning, pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party. In January, the Party of Russia's Rebirth was denied registration, making it ineligible to participate in the elections independently. Likewise, Great Russia was denied registration in June. A spokesman for Rogozin told that Rogozin is still negotiating whether he personally will run on the Patriots of Russia ticket. However, "Vedomosti" reported on September 4 that a representative of Patriots of Russia stated the party's list will be topped by Rogozin, Seleznyov, and Duma Deputy Sergei Glazev. Glazev denied the report, telling the daily that participating in the election is pointless and that he intends to focus on working with the executive branch. RC

Former Yukos director Leonid Nevzlin, who lives in Israel, once again confirmed that he intends to finance Russian opposition politics in an interview with "Smart Money" (No. 33) on September 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). Asked if he "wants to finance the opposition," Nevzlin said: "I don't 'want' to; I will. I am now able to invest in Russian civil society. First of all, this will be grants for rights activists, to enable them to continue informing the international community about the legal chaos that is happening in Russia. Second, some resources will go to support the opposition in the run-up to the elections. To whom and how that will go, I won't say. I don't want to sabotage anyone." Nevzlin said that an international arrest warrant issued by Russia has prevented him from testifying in hearings in the United States, Brussels, and Strasbourg. RC

Irek Murtazin, who in the late 1990s served as President Mintimer Shaimiev's press spokesman and is now on the staff of the International Institute for Humanitarian-Political Research, has appealed to Russia's Supreme Court to annul the endorsement by the Russian State Duma of the treaty on the distribution of powers and competencies between Russia and Tatarstan signed earlier this year, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on September 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2006, and February 12, 21, and 22 and July 12, 2007). Murtazin argues that the requirement that the president of Tatarstan should speak both the republic's state languages, Russian and Tatar, constitutes a violation of both the Russian Federation and the Republic of Tatarstan constitutions. LF

A group of militants opened fire early on September 5 using mortars and automatic rifles on a Russian Interior Ministry temporary base on the western outskirts of Malgobek, Russian media and the resistance website reported. The Russian news agency reported that three Russian personnel were injured in the attack, while Interfax quoted an unnamed Russian official as saying an unspecified number of servicemen were killed. LF

The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict will travel to Armenia and Azerbaijan on September 15-17, Noyan Tapan reported on September 4, quoting an Armenian Foreign Ministry official. Following a meeting on September 4 in Brussels with the French and Russian Minsk Group co-chairmen, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that "we talked about how the existing disagreements [between the two sides] can be overcome." Oskanian added that a further meeting this year between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev would make sense only if the co-chairmen succeed during their visit next week in narrowing the differences between the two sides. He said such progress hinges on unspecified "courageous steps" by Azerbaijan. Oskanian's Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov met with the Minsk Group co-chairs in Brussels on September 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). LF

Meeting on September 4 with displaced persons and refugees, Azerbaijan's President Aliyev pledged that all tent camps will be closed by the end of 2008 and residents moved to new and better accommodation, reported on September 5. Some 800,000 people who were forced to flee their homes during the Armenian offensives of 1992-93 were accommodated in 12 tent camps; Aliyev announced the imminent closure of nine, in the Saatli and Sabirabad Raions, which currently house some 19,000 people. In June 2006, Sanan Huseynov, spokesman for the State Committee for Refugees and Displaced Persons, pledged that all tent camps would be closed by the end of 2007, according to on June 21, 2006. LF

OSCE Chairman in Office and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos held talks in Tbilisi on September 4 with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, and Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze, Caucasus Press reported. Those talks focused on Georgian-Spanish relations and on the ramifications of the August 6 incident in which an unidentified aircraft allegedly violated Georgian airspace and dropped a Russian-manufactured missile that landed in a village west of Tbilisi. Moratinos said his personal envoy, former Croatian Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul, is preparing an "objective" report on that incident that will be submitted to the OSCE Permanent Council for discussion. He also said the OSCE will make every effort to effect an improvement in Georgian-Russian relations. Saakashvili for his part hailed what he termed the "serious approach" taken by the European community for the first time in response to the missile incident. Bakradze told journalists that Spanish experts will participate in the work of the commission established to determine the future status within a unitary Georgian state of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia. Also on September 4, de facto South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity met in Moscow with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin to discuss the August 6 missile incident and the recent arrest by Georgian police in the South Ossetian conflict zone of two members of the Ossetian peacekeeping contingent deployed there, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). LF

The leader of the opposition Industrialists parliament faction, Zurab Tkemaladze, on September 4 walked out of a session of the parliament's finance and budget committee that was to discuss the nominations of Nika Gilauri as new finance minister and of Davit Tkeshelashvili as labor and social services minister, Caucasus Press reported. Tkemaladze claimed the proceedings were invalid due to lack of a quorum. The opposition New Rightists (aka New Conservatives) rejected the same day an invitation to meet with the new ministerial candidates. Speaking in Marneuli in southeastern Georgia on September 4, President Saakashvili dismissed as "amateurish" opposition criticisms of the government's new, amended program, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). Meanwhile, parliament speaker Burjanadze on September 4 expressed resentment that she was not consulted over the cabinet reshuffle and questioned the competence of former Finance Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili to take over as chairman of the National Bank, Caucasus Press reported. The two met behind closed doors later the same day; no details were divulged. Opposition Republican party leader Davit Usupashvili noted that this was by no means the first time Burjanadze has been "humiliated," while Zviad Dzidziguri of the opposition Conservative Party said Burjanadze's complaints only serve to underscore the lack of unity within the Georgian leadership. LF

Addressing businessmen at a roundtable discussion in Astana on September 5, Karim Masimov singled out as a key priority working closely with the National Bank and Agency for Financial Supervision to preserve macroeconomic balance, the website reported. He said the government has stepped up the monitoring of financial markets and will continue to implement a "moderately strict" monetary and budget policy, and he ranked as "zero" the risk of a banking crisis this year. Masimov said economic diversification will continue, as will measures to improve the quality of public education and health care. Masimov further characterized as feasible meeting President Nursultan Nazarbaev's call at the September 2 opening session of the new parliament to raise per capita gross domestic product (GDP) to the equivalent of $13,000 by 2012 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). Per capita GDP in 2006 was over $5,000. LF

A poll conducted between August 29-September 2 by the Center for Social Technologies found that 63.6 percent of an unspecified number of respondents disapprove of the fact that the Nur Otan party headed by President Nazarbaev is the sole party represented in the new parliament elected on August 18, Interfax reported on September 4. Respondents argued that opposition parties should likewise have parliamentary representation, with 55.2 percent advocating the representation of the Social Democratic Party and 35.1 percent that of Aq Zhol. According to official returns, those two parties polled 4.6 percent and 3.25 percent of the vote, respectively; members of the Social Democratic Party subsequently claimed that an analysis of some two-thirds of all precinct protocols suggests the party polled at least 10 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2007). The minimum threshold to qualify for parliamentary representation was 7 percent. LF

Parliament speaker Marat Sultanov accused unspecified media outlets on September 4 of seeking to discredit the legislature by circulating, on orders from persons or agencies he did not identify, erroneous or distorted reports of its proceedings, the website reported. Earlier on September 4, some Kyrgyz media misquoted a statement by parliament deputy Dooronbek Sadyrbaev, who claimed that an attempt was made the previous night to kill him by an unnamed "criminal authority." Sadyrbayev was quoted as saying that in the event of his death, a fellow parliamentarian would be responsible; Sadyrbayev later denied having implied that the parliamentarian is the criminal authority in question. LF

Kyrgyzstan's opposition Ata-Meken Socialist Party released a statement on September 5 warning of "attempts to build harsh authoritarianism and to strengthen pro-government parties by using administrative resources, presidential protection, and dishonest political struggle," the website 24,kg reported. The statement claimed that the opposition constitutes the last remaining bastion of democracy in Kyrgyzstan, and appealed to the people to defend "the right to live in a democratic and free country." LF

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev criticized the government on September 4 for failing to take timely measures to prevent a steep rise in the price of bread and flour, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). On September 5, the government released some 1,900 tons of grain from the strategic reserve for transportation to Naryn Oblast and the city of Jalal-Abad, reported. The municipal authorities in the city of Osh in southern Kyrgyzstan introduced a ban on September 4 on the export of flour to neighboring Uzbekistan, which has likewise been hit by rising prices that have resulted in a bread shortage. A kilogram of flour now costs $1 in Uzbekistan, more than in Kyrgyzstan. LF

A court in the city of Salihorsk on September 4 issued an official warning to 16-year-old Ivan Shyla for acting on behalf of the unregistered opposition organization Youth Front (Malady Front), RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The judge reportedly took into consideration that Shyla is unemployed and a minor, and therefore did not fine or jail him. The prosecutor in the Shyla trial argued that the case is not politically motivated. "We would even prosecute a member of an unregistered organization of hamster lovers," the "Nasha Niva" weekly website ( quoted the prosecutor as saying at the hearing. The same day, an 18-year-old girl, Nasta Azarka, who was tried in the city of Nyasvizh on the same charge as Shyla, was fined 1.2 million rubles ($580). In October 2006, Youth Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich was sentenced to 18 months in a correctional institution on charges of heading an unregistered organization. Five other Youth Front activists were fined or warned for acting on behalf of an unregistered organization in May 2007. The Youth Front has repeatedly tried to register with the Justice Ministry, but without success. JM

Police detained 11 youth activists in front of a courthouse in Salihorsk on September 4 during the trial of their associate Ivan Shyla, Belapan reported. "Many were hit in the back, in the kidneys. I had all my clothes torn. As we learned, this was done by Minsk policemen who had been brought to Salihorsk for the occasion," Franak Vyachorka, one of the detainees, told Belapan. Juvenile demonstrators were subsequently released, while those aged 18 and older were charged with violating regulations regarding mass events. The detainees are reportedly due to stand trial in the coming days. JM

Prosecutors in Hrodna on September 4 issued official warnings to two journalists, Yan Raman and Natalia Makushyna, in connection with their work for foreign radio stations without accreditation, Belapan reported. Raman is a reporter for Germany's Deutsche Welle, while Makushyna reports for Radio Racja, which broadcasts into Belarus from Bialystok in Poland. Raman and Makushyna were also warned against writing "biased" articles that could damage the country's image in the international arena. JM

Legislators backing the cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych passed two bills at a controversial session in Kyiv on September 4, Ukrainian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). The first bill amends the law on Ukrainian lawmakers, stripping them of some financial benefits and privileges. The second bill calls for the removal of constitutional clauses guaranteeing immunity from prosecution for Verkhovna Rada deputies and the president. In order to become law, the second bill must be endorsed by the Constitutional Court and approved by at least 300 votes at another parliamentary session. It is not clear whether the bills will have any legal or practical meaning, because President Viktor Yushchenko considers the current Verkhovna Rada illegitimate and refuses to sign any bills passed by the body after June 5, when he issued his third decree on preterm parliamentary polls. "I condemn the organization of this gathering.... It is sad that the prime minister thoroughly supported this idea," Yushchenko told journalists after the September 4 votes. JM

At its sitting in Kyiv on September 4, the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) chaired by President Yushchenko resolved to dismiss Transportation Minister Mykola Rudkovskyy and Emergency Situations Minister Nestor Shufrych, UNIAN and Interfax-Ukraine reported. At the same time, the RNBO charged Prime Minister Yanukovych with implementing the resolution. Yushchenko commented after the RNBO session that Rudkovskyy and Shufrych are responsible for "failures" in ensuring safety on the Ukrainian railways and dealing with natural disasters. However, the RNBO's duties are not clearly defined in Ukrainian legislation, and are therefore often questioned by political opponents of the president. Yanukovych said at a cabinet meeting on September 5 that the RNBO resolution is politically motivated. "Such [RNBO] meetings do not secure stability; they are linked with the usurpation of power by one of the political forces, and with the violation of laws and the constitution," Yanukovych said. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Oleksandr Lavrynovych claimed that the RNBO is an illegitimate body. "Consequently, all resolutions endorsed there are illegitimate," Lavrynovych said at the September 5 cabinet meeting. JM

Following a court ruling, the Central Election Commission on September 4 revoked the registration of political candidates from a splinter group of the Pora Party, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The candidates had been registered to run in preterm elections scheduled for September 30. The Pora Party was initially part of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense (NUNS) bloc, but a group of dissenters led by Yaroslav Hodunok managed to register a separate list of candidates under the party's name on August 28. The NUNS bloc subsequently challenged the registration of the Pora Party list in court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30, 2007). JM

The EU envoy mediating talks on the future of Kosova, Wolfgang Ischinger, visited Belgrade on September 3-4, marking the start of a new phase of shuttle diplomacy in efforts to achieve a breakthrough. The first full talks in the latest round of negotiations were held on August 30 in Vienna. Over the coming weeks, international mediators will begin to pave the way for direct talks between Serbian and Kosovar officials. Russia's envoy, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, told the Russian paper "Vremya novostei" on September 4 that face-to-face talks would mark "a key shift in the negotiating process." Direct talks are expected to begin in late September. According to Serbian media, Serbian President Boris Tadic told Ischinger he would like face-to-face discussions to start as soon as possible. In an interview with the Austrian daily "Der Standard" on August 31, Ischinger was pessimistic about the prospects of achieving a breakthrough, saying that "the chances are rather small," even though, in his view, "an agreed solution would be a thousand times better than an imposed solution." Ischinger said that it is already "expressly accepted" by the two other mediators, Botsan-Kharchenko and the United States' Frank Wisner, that "the European Union -- and, therefore, I as a representative of the European Union -- play the role of 'primus inter pares'" because the future of Kosova "is a European problem, which needs a European solution, and because "it is the European Union that has to worry about the outcome." Ischinger is expected to address EU foreign ministers when they meet in Portugal on September 7-8. AG

The editor of Montenegro's first privately owned newspaper, "Vijesti," was beaten by unknown assailants on September 1. Zeljko Ivanovic had just left a celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of the newspaper's establishment when he was set upon by, he said, three men carrying wooden batons and iron rods. His assailants do not appear to have given a motive for the attack, but Ivanovic suggested it was prompted by his newspaper's investigations into the business dealings of a former prime minister and president, Milo Djukanovic. Djukanovic faces charges from Italian prosecutors of large-scale cigarette smuggling during the 1990s, at a time when Yugoslavia was subject to international sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3 and 7, 2003, and June 25, 2007). Djukanovic responded on September 3 by threatening to take Ivanovic to court for his "unfounded" accusations. "Ivanovic wants me to be his opponent, as he believes that will provide him with the public importance he lacks," Djukanovic told reporters. Surveys suggest "Vijesti" is Montenegro's most trusted newspaper. Ivanovic appeared unfazed by the threat, challenging Djukanovic to "try to prove his truth in the public arena and not through courts, prosecutors, criminals, and spokesmen" and warning that "Djukanovic should be aware that everyone's luck runs out eventually," the news agency Mina reported on September 3. "I don't see anything new in my words," Ivanovic added. "I just repeated something that everyone knows -- that he is the chief of the criminal family that rules Montenegro and decides everything, even about human lives." Djukanovic remains the leader of his party, the Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), but he has no ministerial post in the DPS-led coalition government. This is the most serious attack on a Montenegrin journalist since Dusko Jovanovic, the editor of a rival newspaper, "Dan," was killed in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). A novelist, Jevrem Brkovic, was also the target of an assassination attempt in October 2006, an attack that Brkovic linked to a novel set in an underworld where crime and politics come together. AG

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica gave a very positive assessment of the first 100 days of his government, telling parliament on August 30 that the government has not forgotten its priorities "and is fulfilling its promises." Kostunica said the government's priorities are to keep Kosova part of Serbia, to further cooperation with the UN war-crimes tribunal, to integrate Serbia more closely with the EU, to bolster the economy, and to curb crime. "By coordinating our policies with Russia,... we have managed to permanently remove the danger of the Security Council adopting any resolution that would lead to Kosovo's independence," Kostunica said. He rated this as his government's greatest achievement. He warned, however, that there is a "real danger" that Kosova's government might still declare independence unilaterally. He said his coalition government is doing its "utmost" to renew talks with the EU and to meet its obligations to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and pointed to the 8.7 percent expansion in Serbia's economy in the first six months of the year as a significant success. The three-party government was formed in mid-May, almost four months after the parliamentary elections. In an August 29 interview with the daily "Danas," Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said that negotiations with the EU are now "back in fifth gear," and that the government hopes to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU by the end of this year. Jeremic also credited an "energetic" diplomatic drive involving visits to 20 countries that resulted in the transformation of the "firm" view held by "a good share of the international community...that negotiations [on Kosova] had ended with the submission of Martti Ahtisaari's report to the UN Security Council," in which the UN envoy called for independence for Kosova, into a " the international community about the need to launch new negotiations." AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's central government, the Council of Ministers, on August 30 decided to bar entry to the country for 42 people listed by the EU as possible aides to suspected war criminals. The head of the cabinet, Nikola Spiric, also indicated that the government might soon also decide to freeze the assets of supporters of the war-crimes indictees, the daily "Oslobodenje" reported on August 31. Bosnia has yet to freeze the assets of the indictees themselves, despite calls by the Office of the High Representative, which has been charged with overseeing Bosnia's postwar development (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Four men indicted by the ICTY remain on the run: the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic; Stojan Zupljanin, a commander of the Bosnian Serbs' police force during the war; and Goran Hadzic, a wartime leader of the Croatian Serbs. AG

Three Bosnian Serbs have been arrested in recent days for war crimes committed in 1992 near the town of Kalinovik in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. The arrest of Ratko Bundalo, a colonel in the Republika Srpska Army during the war, came two days after a guard at a detention camp near Kalinovik, Djordjislav Askraba, was taken into custody and three days after the arrest of a former police commander, Nedjo Zeljaja. They are the first people to face prosecution for the murder and rape of Bosnian Muslims near Kalinovik, which is the hometown of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander, Ratko Mladic. In July, relatives of the roughly 260 victims marked the 15th anniversary of the killings. The killings in Kalinovik were just some of numerous war crimes committed in the district of Foca. AG

In two separate operations, German and Austrian police have arrested two men suspected of war crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. German police on September 1 seized an ethnic Serb, Zeljko Vrljanovic, who is suspected of committing war crimes against Croatian civilians in 1991. Vrljanovic was detained while en route from Belgrade, via Munich, to his home in the United States. The same day, Austrian border police arrested a Dutch citizen of Bosnian descent on Austria's border with Slovenia. The man's identity has not been disclosed. The Austrian broadcaster ORF said he is wanted for murder. AG

The Montenegrin authorities on August 31 filed charges against a senior police official, Sreten Glendza, for suspected involvement in war crimes. Glendza, who is currently in charge of criminal investigations in the coastal town of Ulcinj, is accused of arresting and deporting refugees back to Bosnian Serb-dominated territory in May 1992. Six other senior Montenegrin police officials have been under investigation for similar crimes since February 2006. One of them, Damjan Turkovic, a police official from Herceg Novi, has since died. About 80 Muslim and Serbian refugees were deported. The fate of most of the Muslims remains unknown. AG

Macedonia's smaller ethnic communities and the country's diaspora will be reserved 13 seats in parliament under a plan unveiled by the Macedonian government on August 30, the news service Balkan Insight reported. Ethnic Turks will be guaranteed four seats, Roma two seats, and Serbs two seats, while Bosnian Muslims and Vlachs will each have the right to one seat. Government spokesman Ivica Bocevski also said the Macedonian diaspora will be granted three seats, with one representative each from Australia, Europe, and the United States. All the seats will be new, increasing the number of seats in the Macedonian parliament from 120 to 133. It is unclear when the bill will be presented to parliament. Macedonia's largest minority, ethnic Albanians, already have considerable powers under the terms of the Ohrid agreement that ended a six-month separatist conflict in 2001. AG

Ljubisa Georgievski, the speaker of the Macedonian parliament, survived a vote of no confidence on August 31 with the support of the governing parties. Sixty-three of the Macedonian parliament's 120 members voted against the motion, while 24 backed it. The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a small opposition party, brought the motion on August 10 arguing that Georgievski, a member of the largest ruling party, has turned the parliament into a source of permanent political crisis, but the specific trigger was parliament's decision in August to strip a former prime minister, Vlado Buckovski, of immunity from prosecution. Investigators believe Buckovski is implicated in a fraudulent defense deal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 6 and 21, 2007). The LDP was subsequently joined by Buckovski's party, the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia (SDSM), and the largest ethnic-Albanian party, the Democratic Union of Integration (BDI). According to the news agency MIA, LDP member Andrej Zernovski told parliament that Georgievski "promised there would no theatrics [in parliament], but there are at every session; he promised that he would not polemicize, which he does at every session; he promised that he would not retort to deputies, but does so at every session." According to the news agency Makfax, another critic, Jani Makraduli of the SDSM, accused Georgievski of introducing "turbo-folk kitsch into parliament." Georgievski rounded on his critics, dismissing the no-confidence motion as partisan, and accusing the opposition of attempting "to rescue oligarchs under the veil of democracy," and of obstructing the functioning of parliament. "You accuse me of obstructing the parliament's work, but you are the ones who submitted 3,000 amendments," MIA quoted him as saying. "What parliament could be operational with 3,000 amendments?" The same day as the vote, Macedonia's Public Prosecutors Office published the indictment against Buckovski, paving the way for a court case, local media reported. AG

Special forces attached to Macedonia's Interior Ministry on September 2 recaptured Xhemail Iseini, a convicted terrorist who escaped from prison in August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). According to local media, Iseini, who escaped while attending his mother's funeral, was seized at his home in the northeastern village of Lojane, near Kumanovo. Police found a grenade launcher and six grenades during the raid, but stated that Iseini did not resist arrest. Iseini was a local commander of ethnic-Albanian guerrillas during the separatist conflict in 2001, during which he adopted the moniker Jamie Shea, after NATO's then spokesman. Iseini was serving a seven-year jail term for bombing a mainline railroad and for planting a bomb in the center of Kumanovo in 2003, attacks that were seen as an attempt to trigger a fresh confrontation with Macedonia's central authorities. The Macedonian government has sacked the head of the prison in which Iseini was serving his sentence. Iseini was accompanied by just two guards when he was given leave to attend his mother's funeral. The television station A1 reported on August 24 that Iseini phoned to protest his innocence and to warn that he has "very powerful friends" who would ensure his escape from prison if he were recaptured. AG

There are mixed reports from Macedonia about an alleged clash between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces on August 31. A former member of parliament and leader of a local group of ethnic-Albanian guerrillas during the 2001 separatist conflict, Xhezair Shaqiri, told local media on August 31 that he and his supporters drove back police after they tried to enter the border village of Tanusevci. The police on August 31 denied any exchange of fire. "We have information that around 10 shots from automatic weapons have been heard from the area of Tanusevci, but we do not know who fired them," a police spokesman, Ivo Kotevski, told the news service Balkan Insight on August 31. A1 television reported another version of events, saying villagers saw Shaqiri and his group fire shots into the air, but that the police did not return fire. On August 23, Shaqiri said that Tanusevci is preparing a referendum on seceding from Macedonia and uniting with neighboring Kosova, arguing, according to an August 24 report in the daily "Fakti," that "the government is showing absolutely no interest in this part of the country." Shaqiri said Macedonian police would no longer be welcome in the village. Shaqiri is reportedly currently wanted by the police for the kidnapping of a local mayor during the 2001 conflict. Shaqiri has denied speculation in the Macedonian media that Tanusevci, a mountainous village, is being used as a hideaway by two ethnic-Albanian militants who escaped from a high-security prison in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20 and 22, 2007). The country's largest ethnic-Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), in August accused the police of harassing former separatist commanders, but has not commented on the Tanusevci incident. AG

The Verkhovna Rada gathered for a session on September 4, despite having been formally disbanded by President Viktor Yushchenko. Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz said he wants parliament to address the issue of stripping parliamentary deputies and senior government officials of their immunity from prosecution and other privileges before preterm elections on September 30.

Yushchenko called the session illegitimate and politically meaningless, but Moroz assured those present in the session hall that their gathering was fully lawful and constitutional. According to Moroz, the Ukrainian parliament is constitutionally obliged to open its fall session on the first Tuesday in September.

Moroz also cited another constitutional provision requiring that the legislature remains operational until newly elected lawmakers take their oath of office. However, Moroz failed to mention the constitutional provision stipulating that the Verkhovna Rada is a full-fledged legislative body only when it has no fewer than 300 deputies.

It was Moroz himself who, with President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, struck a political deal in May to disband the Verkhovna Rada and hold early elections, following the voluntary resignation of deputies from the pro-presidential Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine. The subsequent resignation of pro-presidential lawmakers brought the number of deputies in the 450-seat legislature below 300, allowing Yushchenko to issue two decrees, on June 5 and August 1, scheduling early polls for September 30.

In April, Yushchenko issued two other dissolution decrees, justifying them by what he saw as the ruling coalition's illegal push to revise the results of the 2006 elections by expanding the ruling majority to 300 deputies. The ruling coalition objected vociferously to the decrees, arguing that the constitution does not provide for the dissolution of parliament on such grounds.

There were 269 deputies from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party registered in the session hall on September 4. Moroz's argument that the legislature is fully legitimate apparently does not hold water.

The Verkhovna Rada gathered on September 4 with the declared aim of stripping parliamentarians and senior government officials of their immunity from prosecution and other privileges.

Abolishing parliamentary immunity became a key slogan in a hitherto lackluster election campaign, with Yushchenko, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc as the main proponents of the move. Yushchenko and his 2004 Orange Revolution allies proposed that parliamentary immunity be canceled after the September 30 polls.

In what appears to be a clever public-relations move, the ruling coalition took the opposition up on this idea and proposed to implement it ahead of the polls, at a legislative session in September. Yanukovych went so far as to propose canceling immunity and privileges not only for lawmakers, but also for all senior government officials, including the president, the prime minister, and judges. In other words, the coalition put the opposition's intentions to the test.

As expected, the opposition deputies did not show up at the session. Yushchenko said in a televised address to Ukrainians on September 3 that the session is a provocation intended to derail the early polls, adding that any potential resolutions will have "no practical force of law or political effect."

Despite Yushchenko's statements, the Verkhovna Rada on September 4 endorsed a bill on stripping lawmakers of immunity from prosecution. Since parliamentary immunity is a constitutional provision, its cancellation requires endorsement of the bill by the Constitutional Court and another parliamentary approval by no fewer than 300 votes.

If the session was objectionable from a legal point of view, and without any practical meaning, was it actually worth holding for the ruling coalition? According to Moroz, it was necessary to open the session within the constitutionally prescribed terms. "We cannot disregard the risk of preplanned chaos in governance, in which, following undesirable election results gained by some participants in the election campaign, the newly elected Verkhovna Rada would not be able to become legitimate," Moroz said.

In this somewhat cryptic manner, Moroz appears to have expressed the fear shared by many observers of the Ukrainian political scene that the September 30 election results could be contested in court by any party dissatisfied with its election performance. They warn that it will be easy to cast doubt on the election results due to procedural mistakes and legal irregularities in the electoral process.

Thus, if the elections fail to receive official recognition, Moroz may hope for the continued existence of the current legislature, in which his Socialist Party has more than 30 lawmakers. Current opinion surveys in Ukraine suggest that the September 30 polls may consign the Socialist Party to political oblivion. Its current support is well below the 3 percent threshold required for parliamentary representation.

The Yanukovych-led Party of Regions, currently supported by some 30 percent of Ukrainians, is widely expected to receive the most votes. But according to polls, the combined result of the Orange Revolution camp -- the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense -- may equal that of the Party of Regions, thus replicating the situation after the March 2006 elections.

If that happens, Ukraine will most likely witness another tortuous process of building a ruling coalition. Some surveys suggest that the Bloc of Lytvyn, which is led by former parliament speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, can overcome the 3 percent threshold and assume the role of kingmaker in a new parliament, similar to the role performed by Moroz's Socialists in 2006.

It does not seem likely, as Yushchenko has repeatedly suggested, that the early elections will constitute a new political beginning for the country and enable it to make clean break with at least some of its political vices. Instead, Ukrainians must be prepared to see more of the same.

Taliban militants in Afghanistan on September 4 once again vowed to continue kidnapping foreigners, citing the recent abduction of 23 South Korean aid workers and the negotiations for their release as proof of the effectiveness of kidnapping as a tool against the government, AFP reported. "Through the kidnapping of the Koreans we gained worldwide media coverage," Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said. He said that the direct negotiations with the South Korean government showed Kabul that the Taliban controls parts of Afghanistan, despite claims by President Hamid Karzai's administration to the contrary. The Taliban earlier vowed to abduct more foreigners shortly after the last remaining South Korean hostages were released on August 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). Kabul acknowledged the group's threat and advised all foreign nationals to register with the police, minimize their travel, and inform authorities of their movements. JC

Two South Koreans held hostage by the Taliban for 26 days in Afghanistan recounted their experiences in captivity on September 4, AP reported. Speaking at a hospital south of Seoul, Kim Gina and Kim Kyung-ja told reporters that they were threatened with guns and were constantly afraid for their lives. "We thought we might be killed when we were moved to another location at night," related Kim Gina, who, along with Kim Kyung-ja, was released on August 13 as a goodwill gesture by the Taliban rebels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 2007). Kim Gina said the group's captors separated the hostages into smaller groups and moved them up to 16 times during the ordeal, at one point prompting a hunger strike by a few of the hostages protesting their separation from their fellow aid workers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2007). Kim Gina's group included 29-year-old Shim Sung-min, who was later killed by the militants. Shim constantly tried to comfort the others right up until the moment he was taken from the group on July 31 and shot dead, Kim recalled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2007). Neither of the two women knew that Shim had been killed until they were released, as the rebels told the remaining hostages at the time that he had returned home. Kim said that some of their captors were kind, in spite of their threats. After two male hostages were killed and two women released, the remaining 19, who were held for six weeks, were released at the end of August following direct negotiations between their Taliban captors and South Korean officials. The direct talks prompted a flurry of criticism from Western governments (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). JC

Afghan security forces on September 3 killed a Taliban commander thought to be the mastermind behind the July 19 kidnappings of the 23 South Korean aid workers in Ghazni Province, AFP reported. Police chief Ali Shah Ahmadzai said Taliban commander Mullah Mateen was among 22 insurgents killed in an overnight clash with Afghan police in Qarabagh district of Ghazni Province, near where the hostages were abducted, Reuters reported. Ahmadzai told Reuters by telephone that police knew from "reconnaissance colleagues on the ground" that Mateen was involved in the kidnapping. Ghazni Deputy Governor Kazim Allayar said the commander was involved in telephone negotiations with the government, adding that Mullah Abdullah Jan, another Taliban leader connected to the kidnappings, remains at large. Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said that just seven insurgents were killed in the fighting, and denied any knowledge of a commander called Mullah Mateen. JC

The Afghan government on September 4 downplayed western concerns following a BBC report that Chinese weapons are reaching Taliban militants, AFP reported. The BBC reported that Britain privately protested to Beijing that Taliban fighters are using Chinese-manufactured weapons to wage a growing insurgency, claiming that Chinese arms have been recovered on several occasions after rebel attacks on British and American troops. Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said the ministry has no evidence of Chinese arms being supplied to Taliban militants. However, President Karzai's senior spokesman, Homayun Hamidzada, told a media briefing that while he has no information on how Chinese weapons are entering the country, the arms might be trafficked by groups known to support "the enemies of Afghanistan." Hamidzada said there are people "in our neighborhood" who are providing "not only Chinese but all types of weapons," an apparent reference to extremists operating in Pakistan. U.S. officials have previously alleged that Iran supplying weapons to the Taliban, although Tehran denies involvement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19 and June 5, 2007). JC

Representatives of the Nonaligned Movement, including some ministers, met in Tehran on September 3 and 4 to discuss human rights and cultural diversity, Iranian media reported. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad held meetings on the sidelines with the foreign ministers of Syria, India, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Oman, and Belarus, as well as with the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told his Cuban counterpart Felipe Perez Roque on September 4 that the presence of more than 50 ministers from Nonaligned Movement countries showed that the grouping is in good shape, IRNA reported. He said developing countries have agreed on the need for greater cooperation in response to attempts to "marginalize" groupings of developing states since the end of the Cold War. He said this marginalization is linked to the emergence of a single world superpower. Roque said the results of the conference should be discussed and "pursued in the future" at the United Nations, IRNA reported. VS

"Etemad-i Melli" on September 4 called the attendance at the Nonaligned Movement conference "lackluster," and suggested that fewer ministerial delegations arrived than expected. Citing IRNA, it reported attendance by some 100 delegations, 56 of which were led by ministers. On September 3, Foreign Minister Mottaki told Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim that the United States took "certain measures" to impede or discourage ministers from attending the conference, though he gave no details. Addressing the conference on September 3, President Ahmadinejad called for a redefinition of human rights, ISNA reported. He said the veto power enjoyed by some states and "violators of human rights" at the UN Security Council is "the most blatant" indication of discrimination in this area. Human rights, he added, include the right to "be eternal" -- suggesting the right to practise religion -- as well as certain "material and moral rights." Ahmadinejad criticized Western countries for establishing "secret prisons" and kidnapping "their opponents from airports in various countries to torture in these prisons." He said "they control the telephones of their own citizens and sell off their people's dignity in the interests of their companies." And yet, he said, "forceful powers" use the rights mechanisms of the UN to "target independent states." Foreign Minister Mottaki also criticized what he called the West's double standards toward human rights, as shown, he said, by the violation of the rights of Palestinians and of religious minorities in Western states. He said Iran has proposed forming a human rights center run by Non-Aligned Movement members. VS

The deputy chief prosecutor of Tehran for security affairs, Hasan Haddad, said in Tehran on September 4 that investigations are continuing into the case of Kian Tajbakhsh, an Iranian-American detained on subversion-related charges. Haddad sugested that Tajbakhsh will be released on bail once the investigation is complete, Radio Farda reported, citing state television or radio. Haddad said "the arrest order will change once the case is complete." Tajbakhsh is an urban-planning consultant with the Open Society Institute and an adviser to the World Bank, Radio Farda reported. He was arrested about three months ago and accused of working to gradually overthrow Iran's political system, Radio Farda added. Haleh Esfandiari, another Iranian-American arrested around the same time, was released on bail at the end of August and left the country on September 2. Meanwhile, Radio Farda reporter Parnaz Azima, who faced similar charges and had her passport confiscated, has now received permission to leave Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). Another Iranian facing subversion charges, Ali Shakeri, remains in detention, and officials have not recently commented on his case, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs Alireza Sheikh-Attar told ISNA on September 2 that Germany, until recently an important trading partner for Iran, "is no longer our trading partner, and domestic companies are inclined to transfer economic relations from Europe to other countries." He said China is now Iran's largest trading partner, and that last year the volume of trade between the two states reached $15 billion, three times the level achieved with Germany. He said Iranian firms are now looking to replace Germany, France, and Britain as the three main suppliers of industrial goods to Iran, with "new markets such as Spain and northern European states, Italy, and even outside" Europe, ISNA reported. Sheikh-Attar said there is no need for a "ratified decision" to reduce trade ties with states "that keep making political problems for our country," as companies naturally seek partnerships with states "that treat us better." He said the Iranian Finance Ministry has paid off the debts of several banks, including Bank Sepah, to reduce their exposure to punitive economic measures by Western states. Sepah is one of several entities subject to UN sanctions for its alleged links to Iran's contested nuclear program. The daily "Etemad-i Melli" observed on September 3 that Germany was Iran's second-largest trading partner in the Persian year to March 20, 2007, receiving $352 million in Iranian nonoil exports, and exporting $5 billion in goods to Iran. VS

Health Minister Kamran Baqeri-Lankarani said in Tehran on September 4 that no cases of cholera have been reported in Iran, even though outbreaks were reported in neighboring Iraq, IRNA reported. He said medical teams on Iran's western borders are on high alert, and referred to "active" quarantine programs in those areas. He added that five Iraqis have been taken to Iran for treatment. Baqeri-Lankarani urged Iranians to follow certain precautionary hygiene and dietary rules, including avoiding consumption of water, ice, or vegetables of suspect provenance. "If all safety measures are respected, no danger will threaten people in this country," he said. VS

An Iraqi appeals court issued a ruling on September 4 upholding the death sentence against Ali Hasan al-Majid, a former Ba'ath Party official and a cousin of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, for his role in the killing of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1988, international media reported. The court also upheld the death sentences of two other defendants: former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai and Hussein Rashid Muhammad, the former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces. According to Iraqi law, the executions must be carried out within 30 days. On June 24, the Iraqi High Tribunal convicted al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," al-Tai, and Muhammad of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for their roles in the 1988 Anfal military campaign that killed more than 180,000 Iraqi Kurds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). SS

Representatives of Iraqi Shi'ite and Sunni factions on September 4 wrapped up a four-day meeting in Finland to discuss ways to achieve a lasting peace in Iraq, the BBC reported. The meeting was organized by the Crisis Management Initiative, a conflict-prevention organization led by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari. It was chaired by Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, of the Sinn Fein party, and former South African government minister Roelf Meyer. Among the Iraqi delegates at the talks were Adnan al-Dulaymi, the leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc, and representatives of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The Crisis Management Initiative issued a statement on September 4 indicating that the participants "agreed to consult further" on a list of recommendations, including resolving political disputes through nonviolence and democratic processes. "Participants committed themselves to work toward a robust framework for a lasting settlement," the statement said. SS

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the head of day-to-day U.S. military operations in Iraq, said on September 4 that the next three or four months will be crucial in determining U.S. troop levels in Iraq, international media reported. "I think if we can continue to do what we are doing, we'll get to such a level where we think we can do it with less troops," Odierno said. He indicated that the number of attacks in August was the lowest in 13 months, but gave no details. Odierno said the period leading up to and including the holy month of Ramadan, starting on September 13, will be a key indicator in determining any sort of trend in the reduction of attacks. In the past three years, violence has escalated significantly during Ramadan. Odierno's comments came a day after U.S. President George W. Bush's surprise trip to Iraq, during which he raised the possibility of U.S. troop cuts in Iraq if the security situation continues to improve. SS

The Iraqi Parliament reconvened on September 4 after a month-long recess, the independent Voices of Iraq reported. The session began with parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani calling for an update on the state of the nation from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. "The parliament members demanded [that al-Maliki]...acquaint the lawmakers with the latest political and security developments in the country, particularly the results of his visits to Iran, Syria, and Turkey, and with the security operations that took place in Karbala, Sinjar, and elsewhere," al-Mashhadani said. The session reconvened with 164 members and adjourned after approximately 90 minutes when lawmakers asked for time to read 10 bills that had been presented to them. The bills do not include any of the so-called "benchmark" legislation. SS

A report released on September 4 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Iraqi government has failed to meet 11 of 18 benchmarks for political and security reforms set by the U.S. Congress, international media reported. "Overall, key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds," the GAO report concluded. The report found that only three benchmarks were fully met: the establishment of political committees in Baghdad; setting up neighborhood security stations in Baghdad; and ensuring the rights of minority political parties. The findings come just days before General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are to present a much-anticipated progress report to Congress assessing the success of the current strategy in Iraq. That report, along with a progress report the White House must present to U.S. lawmakers by September 15, is expected to determine the next phase of U.S. military involvement in Iraq. SS

The UN announced on September 4 that Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki is scheduled to co-chair an international conference on Iraq's future with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on September 22, KUNA reported. Among those scheduled to attend the conference are representatives of the UN Security Council, the Group of Eight group of industrialized countries, the EU, Iraq's neighbors, Bahrain, and Egypt. A UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the conference will try to shore up support for Iraq, find ways of ending the violence, and expand the UN's role in Iraq. The conference will be similar in intent to the one held at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 3. SS