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Newsline - October 9, 2007

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is scheduled to hold his first bilateral summit with President Vladimir Putin near Moscow on October 9, was quoted by the state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" the same day as saying that he remains firmly opposed to Iranian nuclear proliferation and wants tougher international sanctions against Iran, a move that Russia opposes. Sarkozy said that "nobody should doubt France's seriousness and resoluteness on the issue" of nuclear proliferation, which he called a threat to international "collective security." He nonetheless called Putin a pragmatist with whom one could do business. In interviews with Russian media prior to the French leader's arrival, several top Russian officials singled out expanding commercial links and setting up visa-free travel for Russian citizens to the EU as promising areas for pragmatic Franco-Russian cooperation, despite policy differences on Iran and some other issues. For its part, France seeks a bigger role in developing Russian energy reserves and in reinvigorating Russia's aerospace industry without, however, giving Russia the blocking role it wants in the European aircraft company EADS. Sarkozy reminded his hosts in his newspaper interview that "it damages trust when Russia, without warning, halts energy deliveries to a part of Europe." Sarkozy recently accused Russia of using its oil and gas to impose its will on Europe. Sarkozy has often been openly critical of Russia as a bully. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, worked closely with Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in active opposition to U.S. policies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, September 18 and 19, and October 4 and 5, 2007). Prior to arriving in Russia, Sarkozy met separately with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, none of whom is known as particularly friendly toward Russia. PM

Aleksandr Kosopkin, who is the presidential envoy to the State Duma, announced on October 8 that that body's planned hearings on a bill submitted by President Putin to impose a moratorium on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty "have been postponed until November," RIA Novosti reported. The state-run news agency added that "the announcement came after a tense conference in Vienna, where NATO member states refused to ratify the amended [treaty] until Russia fully withdraws its troops from Georgia and Moldova, a commitment given by the late President Boris Yeltsin in Istanbul in 1999." In April, President Putin announced the "suspension" of the 1990 agreement, which was amended in 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and September 13, 17, 19, 20, and 24, 2007). Russia argues that the treaty, which limits military deployments in specific regions, is out of date and harmful to Moscow's security interests, partly because not all NATO members have ratified it. Putin's announcement was also widely seen as retaliation for the proposed U.S. missile-defense project. Germany charges that Russia is upsetting a carefully constructed European security system by calling CFE into question and wants an international conference to discuss the matter. PM

Officials from Russia's state-controlled Gazprom and Ukraine are expected to sign an accord in Moscow on October 9 to settle what Gazprom says are $1.3 billion in outstanding debts, Russian media reported. Gazprom recently threatened to halt gas supplies to Ukraine on November 1 unless the matter is resolved (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3 and 4, 2007). A Gazprom statement on October 8 said that its CEO Aleksei Miller and Ukrainian Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko agreed on a schedule for paying the debt. Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych is scheduled to arrive in Moscow on October 9 for further gas talks with Russian officials. Russia's threat has been widely seen as an attempt to put pressure on Ukraine in the run-up to forming a new government. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on October 9 that "Ukrainian authorities think that Gazprom is pursuing two goals in its policy toward Ukraine. First, it is trying to weaken Ukraine before beginning negotiations on the price of gas for 2008 and, second, it is trying to obtain a large share of the gas sales market in the country." On October 7, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is also chairman of the board of Gazprom, said of Ukraine that "negotiations regularly set off disputes that we can't understand. Sometimes even hysterics break out," Interfax reported. He stressed that "it's about time our partners got used to the idea that one has to pay for one's gas on time and in accordance with the contracts that have been signed. This problem will be solved when Russia gets the money." PM

Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), who is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's senior Republican, said on October 8 that the October 12-13 visit to Moscow of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates for talks with their Russian counterparts provides a "window of opportunity" for the administration of President George W. Bush to pursue cooperation with Russia on missile defense, arms control, and nonproliferation, Reuters reported. The veteran senator called the trip the administration's "last, best opportunity to lay the foundation for bold initiatives," particularly regarding the thorny topic of missile defense. Lugar argued that "sharing information gathered by U.S. and NATO systems [with] Russia and possibly linking radar and early-warning systems would be useful in ensuring transparency and reaffirming our cooperative approach." He added that Washington and Moscow should consider setting up jointly manned radar installations and exchanging early-warning data. The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on October 8, however, that "bilateral expert consultations and negotiations won't lead to a breakthrough in the Moscow-Washington confrontation over missile defense. The only chance of changes in the positions of both sides depends on the upcoming presidential elections in the [United States] and Russia in 2008." PM

President Putin on October 6 named former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to head the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Russian and international media reported. Fradkov replaces Sergei Lebedev, who has been selected executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Fradkov's appointment was widely seen as confirmation of the widespread belief that he has a KGB background. The SVR was created in 1991 on the basis of the First Main Directorate of the KGB; its first director was Yevgeny Primakov, who later became prime minister. Political analyst Aleksei Mukhin told "Novyye izvestia" on October 8: "In recent times the mission of the SVR has changed. Now the agency has the goal of collecting information about innovative technologies, and this is a problem that Mikhail Fradkov was engaged in when he was prime minister." Analyst Dmitry Badovsky told the daily that the move could be the first step in a plan to boost the authority and prestige of the Security Council, with the goal of making it the hub of political decision making in the country. RC

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on October 7 signed an order on the division of labor among his two first deputies and three deputies, "Vremya novostei" reported on October 8. Under the order, Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Kudrin will have total authority over macroeconomic policy, including determining economic-development policy, borrowing and lending, insurance and auditing, and antimonopoly policy. As finance minister, he will also have broad authority for the implementation of these strategies. Kudrin will be taking a considerable portion of authority from fellow Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov. Zhukov will now oversee regional policy, sports, and evaluating the work of the government ministries, including the Finance Ministry. The daily noted that Zhukov's political authority in the Kremlin does not measure up to that of his formal subordinate, Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak. Zhukov will oversee preparations for the 2014 Sochi Olympics and manage state property, which was formerly the purview of Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshikin. Naryshikin will oversee the newly reconstituted State Fisheries Committee, foreign trade, and internal security. He monitors the work of the Culture and Mass Communications Ministry and the Emergency Situations Ministry. The status of First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev remains largely unchanged, with Ivanov overseeing the military-industrial complex and technology innovation and Medvedev remaining in charge of the national projects, social policy, agriculture, the media, and justice. He will oversee the new State Youth Committee. Zubkov's decree does not say which of his first deputies will be in charge of the government in his absence. RC

Sberbank CEO Andrei Kuzmin was dismissed on October 8 and named to head the Federal Postal Service, Russian media reported. Kazmin's removal from Sberbank has been widely predicted in the media amid speculation that former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref will be tapped to head the state-owned savings bank. RC

President Putin on October 7 named former Eurasian Economic Community General Secretary Grigory Rapota to be his envoy to the Southern Federal District, Russian media reported. Rapota replaces Kozak, who was named regional development minister last month. "Vremya novostei" on October 8 described Rapota as a "technical envoy," and suggested that his appointment signals that the institution of presidential envoys will be revamped and subsumed by the expanding Regional Development Ministry. The daily reported that Rapota is little-known in the volatile North Caucasus region and that local analysts had expected a "leader of one of the southern silovik structures or of the central apparatus of the Interior Ministry" to be named to the post. RC

The Central Election Commission has approved the party lists of all 14 parties taking part in the December 2 State Duma elections, Russian media reported on October 9. The unregistered Other Russia movement submitted a list of candidates for the polls, but the submission was not considered. Now that the lists have been approved, parties may drop candidates from the list, but cannot add any new ones without convening another national congress. Parties now have until November 11 to publish their party platforms, "Vremya novostei" reported on October 8. RC

President Putin on October 7 spent his 55th birthday in the Kremlin in the company of the country's leading security and military officials, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on October 8. Putin earlier told journalists that he felt he should spend his last birthday as president in the Kremlin, adding, "I feel like marking this occasion in a circle of close friends." The daily said that among those attending the festivities were Prime Minister Zubkov, First Deputy Prime Ministers Ivanov and Medvedev, presidential-administration head Sergei Sobyanin, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, newly appointed SVR chief Fradkov, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, and Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov. The commanders of the main military districts and fleets also attended the ceremony. RC

An unspecified number of demonstrators protested on October 5 outside the Israeli Embassy in central Baku, Turan reported. The demonstrators, most of them activists from the Center to Protect Freedom of Religion and Consciousness, staged a picket to mark International Quds (Jerusalem) Day. Following the end of the demonstration, police assigned to the embassy detained Fuad Muxtarov, a journalist for the "Dayarlar" newspaper and reportedly confiscated his camera. After his transfer to a police station, Reza Adil, the editor of the same newspaper, was brought in for questioning by police. It was not clear why the police detained the two men and what connection the newspaper had to the demonstration. A second demonstration was also held on October 5 to commemorate the day, with about 1,000 residents of the town of Nardaran and surrounding villages protesting against "the occupation of Jerusalem" and demanding the withdrawal of the "occupying troops from Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Azerbaijan." The protesters chanted anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans and Haji Alikram Aliyev, a Nardaran resident and former leader of the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan, blamed both the United States and Israel for all "problems faced today by Muslims across the world," adding that "Israeli Zionism is torturing all Muslims," Trend reported. RG

On an official visit to Baku, Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov met on October 8 with his Azerbaijani counterpart, General Safar Abiyev, Trend reported. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Akhmetov affirmed Kazakhstan's commitment to deepening ties with Azerbaijan, adding that "we should boost our cooperation in the field of military personnel and hold joint training." Akhmetov also noted that Kazakhstan is actively engaged in the procurement of the "latest-generation" weapons and said that if other countries showed interest, Kazakhstan would carefully consider the issue. During the meeting, the ministers also signed a new agreement on military cooperation, which included measures aimed at bolstering naval cooperation in the Caspian Sea, according to the APA news agency. RG

A closed trial of a group of 16 defendants accused of working with Iran opened on October 8 in Baku's Court for Serious Crimes, according to Turan. The defendants face treason charges and are accused of receiving money and training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to establish an Islamic state in Azerbaijan. The men allegedly formed a secret organization called the "Northern Mahdi Army" and "cooperated with foreign intelligence services." One of the group's main leaders, Said Dadasbayli, entered a plea of not guilty during the opening session, according to APA. The group was first detained in January 2007 after an investigation by the National Security Ministry. RG

During a cabinet meeting in Tbilisi, President Mikheil Saakashvili announced on October 4 the creation of a new "special anticorruption commission" empowered to "oversee and check" the activities of senior government officials, Imedi TV reported. According to Saakashvili, the new state body, to be accountable only to him and parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, was necessary following the escape of Iason Chikhladze, a former Defense Ministry official wanted on suspicion of involvement in an alleged money-laundering scheme connected to former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili reported to the cabinet that Chikhladze "eluded law enforcement and fled to Russia" from Turkey. RG

Presiding over a cabinet meeting, President Saakashvili reviewed on October 4 a series of reports on recent economic developments, according to Imedi-TV. Addressing the meeting, Finance Minister Nikoloz Gilauri announced plans to abolish several customs fees and simplify several "outdated" regulations" as part of a broader effort to reduce "regulatory red tape" in government ministries. Gilauri added that the Georgian economy posted economic growth of some 12.5 percent for the first six months of 2007 and projected that the double-digit growth would only continue, adding that improved tax administration will increase state revenue. Saakashvili also announced that, in light of rising prices for natural gas, electricity, public transport, and flour, the country's "most vulnerable groups -- pensioners and teachers" -- would receive "special government assistance to offset the growing cost of living," promising that they will receive a onetime payment to cover electricity and gas payments. Saakashvili also proposed to restore the special apprenticeship program first implemented in 2006. RG

Speaking to reporters in a Tbilisi press conference, Georgian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nika Gvaramia announced on October 8 that former Defense Minister Okruashvili pleaded "partially guilty" in a recent hearing and "began cooperating with the investigators" after the Tbilisi City Court ruled to grant his release on bail of 10 million laris ($6.5 million), ITAR-TASS reported. Okruashvili was freed early on October 9, and was reportedly escorted home by police. Unconfirmed reports the same day indicated that he may have left the country. Okruashvili was arrested late on September 27, two days after leveling corruption allegations against President Saakashvili, and charged with extorting bribes, money laundering, and abuse of his official position while serving as a government minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and October 2, 3007). RG

Former Defense Minister Okruashvili withdrew on October 8 his earlier accusations that President Saakashvili is corrupt and ordered the killing of an influential businessman, Civil Georgia and Interfax reported. In a personal statement to investigators and later broadcast on television, Okruashvili claimed that he made the statements last month to "gain political dividends." Reacting to the televised confession, his lawyer, Eka Beselia, dismissed his remarks as a result of "pressure" and added that "he is not in his right mind," according to Rustavi-2 television. RG

After Okruashvili withdrew his earlier accusations against President Saakashvili, a number of leading deputies on October 8 spoke out on the case, Imedi TV reported. Pro-government deputy Vakhtang Balavadze accused Okruashvili of attempting to "blackmail the authorities" and argued that only "when he saw that it was not working, he decided to confess and tell the truth." Balavadze also dismissed suggestions that the minister's confession was forced, adding that it is "laughable to speak about any kind of pressure," noting that Okruashvili was about to be released on bail. Opposition deputies Davit Zurabishvili and Zviad Dzidziguri added that although they did not necessarily stand behind the former minister or his accusations, the case demonstrated "the violence that is being perpetrated in the country." RG

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Astana on October 8 and obtained a pledge from Nazarbaev not to revise the contract with the Italian energy company Eni for the development of the offshore Kashagan oil field, Interfax-Kazakhstan and ITAR-TASS reported. In comments during a subsequent bilateral economic forum in Astana, Prodi said he was "very happy" to receive Nazarbaev's assurances that "Kazakhstan has no intention to change the contracts signed or terms agreed, and that Kazakhstan will continue fulfilling its contractual commitments fully." After a separate meeting with Prodi on October 8, Prime Minister Karim Masimov said he believes that the two countries have "great potential" for developing trade and economic cooperation, adding that "cooperation should be of a mutually beneficial nature." In August, the Kazakh government suspended work at Kashagan for three months due to alleged violations of environmental-protection laws, as well as repeated delays and cost overruns by Eni (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Relations between Nazarbaev's government and the Eni-led consortium have also been strained by the consortium's decision to push back the start of production at the oil field from 2008 to late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007). The projected total cost for developing the oil field has more than doubled from initial estimates of $57 billion to $136 billion. The Kashagan field holds between 7 billion and 9 billion tons of proven reserves, making it the largest oil field discovered in the last three decades and the fourth- or fifth-largest deposit in the world. RG

A CIS summit hosted by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon ended on October 5 in Dushanbe with delegates adopting plans to "further develop" the organization, Asia-Plus reported. Summit participants also formulated new measures designed to coordinate labor migration in Central Asia, and agreed to bolster legal and social protections and guarantee the right to free movement for migrants. Other agreements included a decision to create a free-trade zone and expand a coordinated customs system. In a closing statement, Kazakh President Nazarbaev, whose country holds the rotating CIS presidency, announced that Kyrgyzstan will assume the rotating CIS chairmanship and Bishkek will host the next annual CIS summit set for September 2008. It was also announced that the head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergei Lebedev, has been appointed as the new CIS executive secretary, replacing Vladimir Rushailo. One point of disagreement at the summit was Georgia's and Turkmenistan's refusal to sign a new document outlining development goals for the CIS. Georgian President Saakashvili said he would not sign the agreement because a "100 percent economic, commercial, transport, and often visa embargo is applicable to Georgia." The summit then resolved to go ahead and adopt the agreement, but agreed that only signatory states would be bound by its terms. RG

Following the CIS annual summit in Dushanbe, a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec) opened on October 6 in the same city, Asia-Plus reported. In his official address to the meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Tajikistan will formally take over as the rotating chair of the organization in 2008, with Tajik President Rahmon serving as the chairman. The announcement also follows the appointment of Tair Mansurov, a governor of the North Kazakhstan region and a former Kazakh ambassador to Russia, as the new secretary-general of Eurasec, replacing Grigory Rapota, who has headed the organization since October 2001. Eurasec delegates adopted a document on budget policy, providing the basis for a proposed new customs union and supporting the planned formation of a single economic and transport space, as well as a common energy market. The delegates agreed to hold the next meeting of the Intergovernmental Council of Eurasec in Moscow in May or June, while Russia proposed selecting a permanent site for future summits. Representatives from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia signed a package of agreements on the formation of a customs union commission and on establishing a common customs area. The initial concept of the Eurasian Economic Community was first proposed in October 2000, as a successor to the CIS Customs Union, when Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan signed a treaty on broad economic and trade cooperation. The organization was formally created with the ratification of that treaty in May 2001. The initial five-member group was further expanded in May 2002 when Moldova and Ukraine were granted observer status, and again in April 2003, when Ukraine and Armenia gained observer status. RG

As representatives of the CIS and the Eurasian Economic Community met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on October 6 hosted another one-day summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Asia-Plus reported. Participants of the CSTO meeting, chaired by Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, adopted a set of 20 documents and agreements, including on the formation of a new coordination council on illegal migration and extraordinary situations, the legal basis of peacekeeping activities, and additional measures related to military and technical assistance among CSTO member states. Bakiev also announced that Kyrgyzstan will hand over the rotating presidency of the organization to Armenia next year, and noted that the next CSTO summit will convene in Moscow in May or June 2008, timed to coincide once again with the annual summit of Eurasec. Addressing the meeting, Tajik President Rahmon called on the organization to play a more active role in strengthening the peace process in Afghanistan. Russian President Putin also pledged that CSTO members will continue to be able to buy Russian weapons and military equipment at reduced Russian domestic-market prices, and noted that the summit achieved "significant concrete results...mainly in the sphere of military and technical supplies." The regional security organization was initially formed in 1992 for a five-year period by the members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty (CST) -- Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, which were joined by Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Belarus the following year. A 1994 treaty "reaffirmed the desire of all participating states to abstain from the use or threat of force," and prevented signatories from joining any "other military alliances or other groups of states" directed against members states. The CST was then extended for another five-year term in April 1999, and was signed by the presidents of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. In October 2002, the group was renamed as the CSTO. RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on October 8 dismissed his national security minister and interior minister, according to the opposition website and official Turkmen government websites. National Security Minister Geldimukhammet Ashirmukhammedov and Interior Minister Khojamyrat Annagurbanov face unspecified "criminal charges." In an official announcement released in Ashgabat, Charymyrat Amanov and Orazgendy Amanmyradov were named as the new ministers for national security and the interior, respectively, but were to be appointed to "probationary" six-month terms. RG

Belarus's Supreme Court on October 8 rejected an appeal by the opposition Youth Front against the denial of its attempts at registration, Belapan reported. In August, a similar appeal was rejected by the Minsk City Court. In explaining its ruling, the Supreme Court said that some of the Youth Front's founders have faced administrative and criminal prosecution and hence cannot act as founders of a nongovernmental organization. These people "were convicted for acting on behalf of an unregistered organization. Nevertheless, we are denied the opportunity to obtain registration yet again.... This is a vicious circle," Anastasiya Loyka, a representative of the Youth Front, argued before the court. "Denying registration to a nongovernmental organization on the grounds that its founders were prosecuted for acting on behalf of an unregistered organization in the past is absurd. It's absolutely clear that this decision is politically motivated," former Youth Front leader Pavel Sevyarynets told the agency. The Youth Front is reportedly planning to take its case to international organizations, including the UN Human Rights Committee. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on October 8 said representatives of the parties that won seats in the September 30 snap elections should agree on a future ruling coalition and prime minister by the end of this week, Ukrainian media reported. "I call on all political [forces] who won seats in the Ukrainian parliament to begin consultations and political negotiations and make proposals both on the format of the coalition and a candidate for prime minister within five days," Yushchenko said at a meeting with leaders of the Party of Regions, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense, the Communist Party, and the Lytvyn Bloc. In an interview with the French daily "Le Figaro" last week, Yushchenko said that Yulia Tymoshenko could become prime minister provided that the Party of Regions, led by current Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, gets some ministerial posts in a new cabinet. JM

President Yushchenko also said at a meeting with leaders of the parties that won seats in the September 30 elections that all security agencies in Ukraine should be subordinated exclusively to the president, Ukrainian media reported. "I insist on all parts of the security apparatus being subordinated to the head of the state to avoid excesses such as occurred with the Interior Ministry troops [in May]," he said. In May, presidential bodyguards scuffled in the Prosecutor-General's Office in Kyiv with a riot-police unit from the Interior Ministry, after Yushchenko fired Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, 2007). The incident marked the peak of a political confrontation between Yushchenko and the cabinet headed by Yanukovych. Yushchenko has direct control over the Defense Ministry. Potential changes to institute presidential control over the Interior Ministry would require a vote in parliament and possibly a change to the constitution. JM

Prime Minister Yanukovych told journalists in Kyiv on October 8 that his Party of Regions aspires to forming a new government after the September 30 elections, Ukrainian media reported. "We are ready to assume responsibility. We have the right to do it as the winners of this parliamentary race. If that happens, the [prime minister's] chair will be taken by the Party of Regions. If it doesn't happen, our only option is to work in opposition," Yanukovych said. He added that no coalition will be officially formed in parliament until the Central Election Commission (TsVK) announces definitive election results. According to preliminary results published on the TsVK's website ( last week, the Party of Regions obtained 34.37 percent of the vote, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc 30.71 percent, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense 14.15 percent, the Communist Party 5.39 percent, the Lytvyn Bloc 3.96 percent, and the Socialist Party 2.86 percent. These results unofficially give the Party of Regions 175 seats, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc 156 seats, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense 72 seats, the Communist Party 27 seats, and the Lytvyn Bloc 20 seats. JM

EU officials delivered an unequivocal message of concern at Macedonia's progress during Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski's three-day visit to Brussels in early October. "Macedonia lost a lot of time in the 2006 election campaign, in the formation of the coalition, and in domestic political battles," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told reporters after meeting with Crvenkovski on October 3. A Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) between the EU and Macedonia, a first step toward membership of the 27-member bloc, came into force in April 2004, but Rehn said the EU needs "words [to be] translated into concrete deeds" before it starts the next step, opening talks on accession. Crvenkovski said, "it's our ambition to start negotiations for membership in 2008," adding that "I believe we have a national consensus on that issue." The EU stressed the need for better dialogue across the political spectrum, a message it has issued throughout the year but one that has gained new salience in the wake of a dispute between ethnic-Albanian parties that turned violent in late September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27 and October 2, 2007). The EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, joined Rehn in saying that Macedonia must ensure there are no repeats of such breakdowns in dialogue. Other issues facing Macedonia include reform of the police, the judiciary, and the civil service. The European Commission is due to issue its latest report on Macedonia's progress in November. AG

Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis on October 7 reiterated Greece's threat to veto Macedonia's attempt to join NATO unless it changes its position in its dispute with Greece over its constitutional name. "Macedonia's road to NATO passes through an agreement with Greece over its name," Bakoyannis told the daily "Eleftherotypia." Parliamentary elections held in Greece in September raised the possibility of a change in Greece's position, as some in the opposition argued for a change in official policy. However, the conservative government was returned to power and Bakoyannis to the Foreign Ministry. Macedonia hopes to be invited to join NATO when the alliance holds a summit in Romania in April 2008. However, Macedonia's efforts to reform its military and its contributions to military missions in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq, and Lebanon were overshadowed by political issues when Macedonian President Crvenkovski met with NATO's secretary-general, Jaap De Hoop Scheffer, in Brussels on October 4. De Hoop Scheffer echoed the EU's call for greater political dialogue, warning that for Macedonia to become a member of NATO "a mature political culture should be established." AG

International leaders could meet to resolve the status of Kosova in a meeting similar to the Dayton conference that ended the war in Bosnia, the EU's mediator in Kosova talks, Wolfgang Ischinger, told the Serbian paper "Vecernje novosti" on October 7. However, Ischinger said it is more likely that a "conference-style meeting" would involve just Serbia and Kosova and the "troika" of current mediators. The two negotiating teams and the mediators are next due to meet on October 14. Ischinger indicated that, if a Dayton-style conference were organized, it could be held in late November or early December. Kosova holds elections on November 17 and the mediators are due to submit a report on the talks to the UN secretary-general on December 10, a date viewed by Kosova, the EU, and the United States as marking the end of direct negotiations. AG

The European Union is set to warn Montenegro that its unilateral adoption of the euro as its national currency contravenes EU law, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on October 7. The paper says that, according to a draft of a statement to be issued on October 9, EU finance ministers will say "unilateral 'euroization' is not compatible with the treaty [on monetary union], which foresees the eventual adoption of the euro as the endpoint of a structured convergence process within a multilateral framework." They are not, however, expected to demand that Montenegro abandon the euro. Montenegro has been using the euro since 2002, when it was still part of the same state as Serbia. Montenegro is expected to take a first step toward EU membership on October 15 by signing a SAA. Montenegro already meets the economic requirements for adoption of the euro -- a budget deficit of 3 percent or less of gross domestic product (GDP) and a public debt of 60 percent of GDP or less. AG

Doctors in The Hague have expressed concern over the health of Zdravko Tolimir, a Bosnian Serb suspected of war crimes. "Tolimir has given various reasons for refusing medical care, ranging from religious beliefs to asserting that he is, in fact, in good health," the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) said in a statement issued on October 5. "There is a very real and serious risk of the accused experiencing a life-threatening episode at any time and without warning," the ICTY said. Tolimir's "grave, fragile, and highly alarming" health condition is attributed to his refusal to take medicine to lower his blood pressure and against an aneurysm in his brain. Tolimir, who was a close colleague of the Bosnian Serbs' military commander Ratko Mladic, has refused to cooperate with doctors since being transferred to The Hague on June 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 2007). Tolimir's condition is raising questions about his ability to represent himself in court, as he plans to do. The ICTY last year decided to force Vojislav Seselj, the nominal head of Serbia's largest party, the Serbian Radical Party, to take an attorney, a decision that was rescinded on appeal. AG

Two of the seven men who escaped in August from the Dubrava high-security prison have been captured, Kosovar police told the media on October 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20, 22, 23, and 31, and September 5, 2007). However, police said that the most dangerous of the fugitives are still on the run. The two were named as Faton Hajrizi and Burim Basha, both of whom were arrested in Prishtina. Basha recently informed a Kosovar newspaper that he was in hiding in Skopje, the capital of neighboring Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 2007). Four people suspected of aiding the fugitives were also arrested. They include Hajrizi's sister, who is a police officer. The men who remain at liberty include Ramadan Shiti, a Saudi also wanted on murder and terrorism charges in neighboring Macedonia, and Lirim Jakupi, whom the Serbian authorities have accused of attacks in southern Serbia and is a suspected leader of the Albanian National Army (AKSh). The AKSh emerged somewhat from the shadows on October 3 when footage of it was aired on Kosovar television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2007). Some in Macedonia have speculated that the Dubrava fugitives have been behind a number of security incidents in the country, while Serbian President Boris Tadic said on September 27 that Serbian intelligence believes the group is planning attacks on southern Serbia from Macedonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 2007). Kosovar media reports say Hajrizi is suspected of committing a number of robberies while on the run, helped by police uniforms supplied by his sister. AG

Serbian police arrested roughly 30 members of a neo-Nazi group in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, police said on October 7. According to local media reports, police moved in after the neo-Nazis, who belong to the Nacionalni stroj (National Front), lobbed bottles and stones at an antifascist rally. The Nacionalni stroj itself originally planned to hold a meeting the same day, but the police banned it, citing fears that the meeting would incite racial hatred (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, May 4, September 20, and October 2, 2007). Nacionalni stroj called the meeting in support of Serbia's effort to retain control of Kosova, but its date -- on the anniversary of the birth of the Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler -- added to fears that the meeting would assume a racist character. AG

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, one of the men instrumental in the overthrow of the late Slobodan Milosevic, said on October 5 -- the anniversary of Milosevic's ouster -- that the dispute over the future of Kosova is the greatest challenge that Serbia has faced since Milosevic's decade-long rule was ended. Kostunica said Serbia now faces a concerted effort by the United States to breach international law and divide Serbia by force. In a written statement released to the media, Kostunica emphasized that the removal of Milosevic in 2000 was an effort by Serbs to defend the country's dignity -- and said that Serbia's attempt to retain sovereignty over Kosova is similarly motivated by the desire for national dignity. Kostunica and his party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, have repeatedly stated that Western support for Kosova's bid for independence is prompted by the United States, which allegedly wants Kosova to be a "puppet state" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 20, 21, and 24, and September 4, 2007). NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer issued a statement of his own on October 5 in which he stated that NATO has no wish to rule Kosova. AG

Russia is in the throes of another election cycle, and it seems certain the country's retreat from democracy will continue and accelerate. The seemingly inevitable result of the upcoming legislative and presidential elections is likely to be a huge pro-Kremlin majority with impeccably antidemocratic credentials facing a tiny, equally antidemocratic Communist opposition. The humiliation of the liberal Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and Yabloko parties in the December 2003 legislative elections will be institutionalized this year as the parties seem destined barely to register among the also-rans.

The downward spiral of Russia's liberals since 1991 has been truly spectacular. "Liberal democratic forces have steadily lost ground in Russia since the 1993 Duma elections," Nixon Center analyst Nikolas Gvosdev wrote in "The International Journal Of Security Affairs" in late 2006. "The 2005 Moscow city elections should have been a wake-up call. The liberals tried to make this ballot a 'referendum' on democracy, yet, in the richest, freest, most liberal, best-educated city in the country, under conditions far less onerous than those in 1990, when the demokraty were swept into power, these forces received just one-fifth of the vote. It was not a particularly ringing endorsement of the notion that liberals are waiting in the wings."

The fact that this decline is not just a Putin-era phenomenon -- and in view of Russia's millennium-long history of totalitarian rule -- has led Gvosdev and others to speak of a "democracy paradox" in Russia. That is, given a free choice, a majority of Russians would choose some sort of antidemocratic form of government. The term "democracy paradox" was originally applied primarily to countries in the Middle East and elsewhere where religiously conservative majorities, given the chance to express their will, would in many cases choose profoundly antidemocratic regimes. It therefore seems strange to use the term in Russia, which is hardly known for the domination of religious conservatism (although the semi-official Russian Orthodox Church is profoundly conservative and nationalist).

Indeed, although studies have shown that Russians have a weaker adherence to many typical democratic values, the lack of support is not nearly as profound as it is in most of the countries to which the term "democracy paradox" is normally applied. Just this week, the Pew Research Center issued a global opinion study showing not-insubstantial support for what the study calls "core democratic values": Thirty-four percent said they think the ability to criticize the authorities freely is important, while the same percentage agreed that it is important to maintain civilian control over the armed forces; 40 percent oppose media censorship; 41 percent value fair, multiparty elections; 45 percent consider freedom of religion important; and 70 percent think having an impartial legal system is important. While these results are far below what one would find in democratic countries and even below the average among the 35 developing and transitioning countries included in the Pew study, they seem fairly impressive in the current Russian context.

Last month, a poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that just 26 percent of Russians think the central government should be further strengthened, although 51 percent favor President Vladimir Putin's aggressive foreign policies. Thirty percent said Russia needs further democratization, free elections, and independent media. Again, in the Russian context, these are solid numbers that belie the fact that the liberal SPS and Yabloko parties are likely to poll just 1 or 2 percent in December's elections.

What is "the Russian context" and how might the collapse of liberal political forces be explained? Speaking at an RFE/RL conference devoted to the first anniversary of the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya on October 4, a deputy editor at "The Economist," Edward Lucas, said the killing "was a symptom of a process that probably started, in a way, back in 1991 when they failed to liquidate the KGB." As the rise of Putin and the siloviki -- officers and agents of the secret services -- has shown, that process has been the dominant (although for years, little noticed) trend of Russia's political development through the post-Soviet period.

One important characteristic of Russia's managed political system -- both at the federal and the local level -- is the nearly universal practice by executive-branch incumbents to use all means at their disposal to prevent the emergence of credible alternatives to their administration. Boris Yeltsin -- increasingly as his term in office wore on -- was guilty of this, and he tolerated it among regional leaders. As a result, post-Soviet Russian elections generally have presented voters with a choice between the status quo and a fragmented collection of unknowns, some of whom were clearly planted "opponents" carrying out precisely scripted political functions for the incumbent.

In addition, the emerging silovik-dominated system has largely successfully managed to reduce most public political choices to one between stability and chaos. This tactic was wildly successful during Yeltsin's 1996 reelection campaign, and was reapplied in the 2000 transition election. Although it proved less necessary during the reelection year in 2004, there are signs that fear mongering is making a comeback in the current cycle. Russian media have produced a steady stream of materials accusing the West of meddling in the political system to steal Russia's natural resources or even to break the country up, while various themes -- corruption, extremism, foreign-based bugbears such as Boris Berezovsky and Leonid Nevzlin, purportedly impending international crises such as a conflict involving the United States and Iran, etc. -- are often used to argue or imply that a firm hand is needed in the Kremlin.

All this has been accompanied by concerted and partially successful efforts to discredit liberal-democratic ideas. These efforts, of course, were greatly facilitated by the incompetence, arrogance, and avarice of many representatives of the liberal camp, as well as the often-counterproductive role of the West during the 1990s. Unexposed and unreconstructed siloviki in business circles, in the Duma, in the media clearly played a role in undermining liberal initiatives and attributing their failures to democrats and their ideas.

The fact that one-third to two-fifths of Russians still adhere to liberal-democratic values in the face of all the events of the last 15 years is remarkable. And the siloviki also seem to feel their success has been tenuous. In recent years, the government has reacted harshly to even the most hopeless manifestations of opposition. The nascent political efforts of Mikhail Khodorkovsky were quashed; when Berezovsky tried to set up the Liberal Russia party, it was hounded and its charismatic leader, Sergei Yushenkov, was shot dead in Moscow in 2003; when Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi announced a quixotic bid for the presidency, he suddenly faced a barrage of attacks and criminal charges.

In short, the "democracy paradox" in Russia -- the collapse of a realistic liberal-democratic alternative and the strong public support for firm central rule -- is a product of a profoundly undemocratic political environment. It is an illusory paradox in the same way that Russia is an illusory democracy, and it is important that observers in Russia and the West resist the Kremlin's predictable effort to cast the coming landslide for the status-quo Unified Russia party and for Putin's handpicked successor as a popular mandate for authoritarianism.

Afghan officials announced on October 8 that 15 men have been executed for crimes including murder and rape, in the second confirmed group of executions since the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001, AFP reported. The men were executed by firing squad at Afghanistan's largest prison, Pul-e Charki, according to prison chief Abdul Salaam Asmat. The UN Mission in Afghanistan, headed by UN special representative Tom Koenigs, expressed disappointment over the executions and said the UN strongly supports the moratorium imposed on the death penalty by President Hamid Karzai in 2005. While the last executions in Afghanistan were reported in April 2004, other people are believed to have been executed in secret, Supreme Court spokesman Wakil Omari said, without providing details. Radio Television Afghanistan, the country's primary broadcaster, said the executions were carried out in accordance with Islamic Shari'a law, and were intended to serve as a warning to would-be criminals who are "taking advantage of the security conditions of the country." A local judge said 300 people are on death row for crimes such as murder, rape, armed robbery, kidnapping, and "political crimes" such as bombings and antigovernment activities. JC

Police in Afghanistan's southern Ghazni Province on October 6 opened fire on a moving car, killing a woman and injuring a child, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Ghazni security chief Colonel Mohammad Zaman said police officers shot at the taxi as the vehicle passed by police headquarters in the provincial capital. The officers signaled the driver to stop three times before opening fire, Zaman said. But an eyewitness to the incident, whose name was given as Hayatullah, claimed the driver was unable to hear the police warnings through the closed windows, and said they should not have opened fire on the cab without identifying the passengers. Afghans sometimes choose not to stop at checkpoints and security posts due to the possibility that the checkpoint is fake, set up by Taliban militants posing as police officers who then kidnap the travelers when they stop. Those drivers who speed through checkpoints, ignoring police warnings, are at risk of coming under police fire. JC

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is aiding the Afghan Ministry of Education in training education professionals in response to the persistent shortage of qualified teachers, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on October 6. Years of underinvestment in teacher training in Afghanistan have led to a decline in the number of teachers and teaching standards, requiring a reform of Afghanistan's college curriculum in education. UNICEF is supporting the ministry's efforts to train 80 master trainers and 16,000 female teachers from 11 provinces. UNICEF representative Catherin Mbengue said the campaign to increase the number of female teachers and improve teaching standards is aimed at ensuring continued education for girls and reducing the overall drop-out rate. According to a UNICEF press release, the organization and its partners have assisted in training 40,000 teachers. JC

Officials on October 8 said an Australian soldier was killed in a bomb blast in Afghanistan's southern Orugzan Province, AFP reported. The soldier was the 181st international serviceperson to die in Afghanistan this year, and the second Australian to die in Afghanistan since 2001. Another Australian soldier was wounded in the incident, the Australian Defense Department said on its website. Meanwhile, police announced on October 7 that Taliban militants have attacked a road construction company in Ghazni Province's Qarabagh district, killing three guards. In the same district, police discovered the bodies of two brothers allegedly killed by Taliban militants "over spying charges," district chief Khwaja Ahmad Sidiqi said. Sidiqi added that the men were not employed by the government. JC

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad addressed a select audience of students in Tehran University on October 8, while a group of disgruntled students protested outside the speaking venue, chanting "Death to the Dictator," Radio Farda reported, citing reports from Tehran. Ahmadinejad was speaking at the university's Allameh Amini Hall on the occasion of the new academic year to an audience of students selected by the Science and Research Ministry, which oversees higher education. Outside, some 1,000 students opposed to his government's policies and restrictions on the freedom of speech demonstrated and called for the release of imprisoned students and the reinstatement of some recently retired or dismissed academics. Student Vahid Abedini told Radio Farda that the protest was called by the Office to Consolidate Unity (DTV) student grouping. Abedini said protesters asked how the president was prepared to face a critical audience at Columbia University in New York, but not answer questions from Iranian students. He said the Science Ministry invited no members of the DTV or Tehran University's Islamic Association of Students. Ahmadinejad spoke instead to student members of the Basij, a national militia of government supporters. Radio Farda reported tight security arrangements in and around Tehran University in the run-up to the president's speech. Ahmadinejad was heckled by some students when he spoke in December 2006 at Tehran's Amir Kabir University (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," December 21, 2006). VS

President Ahmadinejad spoke on some of his favorite themes at Tehran University: the significance of history and the United States' purported enmity with the Islamic Republic of Iran. He said history was effectively the setting for an enduring confrontation between good and evil, "God worshippers and self-worshippers, oppressors and those who seek justice," ISNA reported. This, he said, is the essential dynamic behind numerous political and interstate rivalries. He accused the U.S. or Columbia University authorities of planning a disorderly or hostile meeting at the university on September 24 to ensure he would not be able to convey his message to a student audience. Ahmadinejad told his audience that "today's materialist world" and the liberal democratic system are approaching their end, and have done little for humanity. Nobody, he said, seems able to resolve the problems of Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. He said the United States' threats against Iran are now "ineffective" and it is accusing Iran of seeking nuclear weapons when there are "hundreds" of uses associated with nuclear energy, ISNA reported. VS

A court in Yasuj in the western Kohgiluyeh va Boyrahmad Province has sentenced writer Yaqub Yadali to a year in prison for the allegedly offensive content of some of his fictional works, but may suspend nine months of his prison term if he writes articles on cultural life as a penalty, Radio Farda reported on October 7, citing ISNA (see "RFE/RL Newsline, August 13, 2007). Yadali's lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, told ISNA on October 7 that this is an unprecedented sentence for the charge of "publishing false reports." He said the court ruled that Yadali may have part of the sentence suspended if he writes four A-4-length articles on "cultural personalities" over two years, and have them published in the local press at his own expense. He is to present the judiciary with two copies of every article, to be published every six months. Nikbakht did not elaborate on the cultural personalities, but they will likely be writers or thinkers acceptable to Iran's Islamic establishment. Yadali has defended his writings as strictly fictional. All his books have been published with the permission of the Iranian Culture Ministry, Radio Farda noted. VS

On October 8, Iran opened five border crossings on its frontier with Iraqi Kurdistan, which it had closed in protest at the arrest of an Iranian in Iraq, and possibly also to stop cholera crossing over from Iraq, Radio Farda reported, citing news agency reports. The reopening, which follows a visit to Tehran by a delegation from Iraqi Kurd authorities, has allowed a resumption of road traffic and border trading, AP reported on October 8. U.S. forces arrested three Iranians in the Kurdish town of Al-Sulaymaniyah on September 20. They released two and held one, named as Mahmud Farhadi, accusing him of being a member of Iran's Quds Force, a military corps the United States has accused of aiding insurgents in Iraq, Radio Farda reported. The head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, told IRNA on October 7 that the Iranian Supreme National Security Council's decision to reopen the frontier was reasonable, but he urged Iraqi Kurd officials to "take necessary measures" to allow border trade to flourish and prevent "interference" by "occupying forces." VS

Hamid Purvosuqi or Purvosuq, a member of the Iran Teachers Association, has been given a four-year prison term, suspended for four years, for his part in teachers' protests earlier this year, ISNA reported on October 8, citing Purvosuqi's lawyer, Hushang Purbabai (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). A branch of the Tehran Revolutionary Court convicted Purvosuqi on charges of taking part in assemblies and collaborating to disrupt national security, ISNA reported. Separately, a prominent lawyer and feminist, Shadi Sadr, has been summoned to a security department of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, and is reportedly charged with acting against Iran's domestic security, her lawyer Mohammad Mostafai told ISNA on October 8. "Her case is to do with her taking part in the protest outside the Revolutionary Court," he said, referring to women's protests in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15 and 20, 2007). Also on October 8, the son of cleric Hadi Qabel, a member of the reformist Participation Front party arrested in Tehran on September 12, told ISNA by phone that he has no idea where his father is, or of the charges against him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14 and 25, 2007). Ruhollah Qabel said he last spoke to his father by phone on October 3, but that his father said nothing about his whereabouts or the charges against him. VS

President Ahmadinejad may retain his caretaker oil and industry ministers, respectively Gholamhussein Nozari and Ali Akbar Mehrabian, and formally present them to parliament as his proposed ministers, Vice President for Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Ahmad Musavi told the press in Tehran on October 7. Musavi said they will be presented at the end of the period the president is allowed before he must present ministerial nominees, without specifying when, "Iran" reported on October 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). VS

. Prime Minister Gordon Brown told the House of Commons on October 8 that Britain will have cut its troop levels in Iraq by half in spring 2008. Brown earlier announced that Britain will pull 1,000 troops from Iraq by the end of the year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 2007). Brown said that Britain has trained police and army recruits and expects to have between 30,000 and 35,000 Iraqi security forces on the ground in southern Iraq by June 2008. Britain has a two-stage strategy to hand over control of Al-Basrah Governorate. The first stage calls for training and mentoring Iraqi security forces, securing supply routes and policing the Iraq-Iran border, and backing up Iraqi security forces on a need-only basis. Brown said that British forces expect to move to the second stage, dubbed an "overwatch" stage, by the spring, "where the coalition would maintain a more limited reintervention capacity and where the main focus will be on training and mentoring." He said he expects Iraq to assume full control over Al-Basrah Governorate within two months' time. KR

Prime Minister Brown told the House of Commons on October 8 that Britain will also provide financial assistance to current and former Iraqi staffers. He said Iraqi staff employed for 12 months or more will be able to apply for financial aid to resettle elsewhere in Iraq or outside the region, "or, in agreed circumstances, for admission to the U.K." Former staff members who worked a similar length of time can also apply for assistance. Brown said Britain will continue to support southern Iraq's development through reconstruction and private-sector development assistance. He said the newly established Al-Basrah Development Commission will bring "national, regional, and international business knowledge together to provide advice on how to increase investment and economic growth." One of the commission's tasks will be to "coordinate projects to strengthen Al-Basrah's position as an economic hub," including the development of Al-Basrah International Airport and the renovation of the Umm Qasr Port. KR

Some 6 million Iraqi children will return to school this week, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) announced on October 8, calling it a "remarkable achievement." UNICEF's Iraq representative, Roger Wright, said Iraq's schools are in need of urgent support "both in terms of access to schooling and the quality of learning children receive." Violence and displacement forced 220,000 school-age children to flee their homes since early 2006. Only 40 percent of students passed their high-school exit examinations during the first examination session of 2007, compared to 60 percent last year, UNICEF said, citing Education Ministry figures. The ministry calculated that only 28 percent of graduation-age students sat for the exam. A UNICEF-supported 2006 survey carried out by the Iraqi government found that one in six Iraqi children did not attend primary school. UNICEF said it appears that number has further decreased due to insecurity and threats against teachers. To compensate, UNICEF will sponsor a home curriculum for children unable to attend school during this academic year. KR

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr forged an agreement on October 6 that ostensibly brings hostilities between followers of the groups to an end. Al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and the SIIC have been embroiled in a bitter competition for power and influence over Iraq's Shi'ite community since 2004, which has led to a campaign of assassinations and bloodletting across central and southern Iraq in recent months. According to a statement posted to the SIIC website, the agreement recognizes the need to protect Iraqi blood "under all circumstances," and calls on both groups to spread the spirit of amity and rapprochement and avoid engaging in acts that would sow discord between the groups. The groups said they will form joint committees in all governorates to work toward ending sedition and defusing political tensions. Meanwhile, an ongoing government investigation into the August attack on the two holy shrines in Karbala has found that the Al-Mahdi Army bears the most responsibility for the melee, which left dozens of pilgrims dead, "The Washington Post" reported on October 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). KR

Harith al-Dari, the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, told Al-Jazeera television on October 5 that Iraqis should work toward reconciliation with Al-Qaeda in Iraq. "We have rejected [Al-Qaeda's] actions, but Al-Qaeda is from us and we are from it because most of Al-Qaeda's members are Iraqis and not foreigners," contended al-Dari, who is currently living in Jordan. Al-Dari alleged that 90 percent of Al-Qaeda in Iraq's members are Iraqis. "We can hold dialogue with them. We can correct them.... It is impermissible to fight them as the occupation forces are fought," he said. Asked about the commitment by some Iraqi tribes to fight Al-Qaeda, al-Dari said: "This action is not positive.... Joining the occupying enemy, which is the root cause of the problem and which brought us all these evils through Al-Qaeda and others, is rejected on the national and Islamic level." As for the security situation on the ground, al-Dari said it was expected that some areas would appear secure following U.S.-Iraqi operations, because fighters routinely change their location to avoid capture. He referred to U.S. attempts to secure peace with the tribes as an act of buying the consciences of money-hungry people "who would work with anyone who pays them more," adding that the agreements were a "temporary phenomenon." Al-Dari said that those tribal leaders who reconcile with the United States are not from "genuine" Arab tribes. KR

Sunni and Shi'ite Arab leaders in Iraq criticized al-Dari's call for support of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, saying the cleric, who reportedly has close ties with some insurgent groups operating in Iraq, has gone too far. Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i, a leader of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, told Al-Jazeera on October 5 that al-Dari should reconsider his position, which "encouraged Al-Qaeda to commit more crimes over the past period. Hence, the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Sunni [Arab] people and tribes are convinced that Al-Qaeda operations serve foreign plans and aim to burn down the whole of Iraq." Shi'ite parliamentarian Hadi al-Amiri also criticized al-Dari's statements. "We asserted from the beginning that Sheikh Harith al-Dari has close ties to Al-Qaeda. However, many people said we should not talk in this manner and that the sheikh is innocent," al-Amiri said. "The recent statement clearly shows the relations of this sheikh with Al-Qaeda and the killers of the Iraqi people," state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on October 8. Al-Amiri said al-Dari is to blame for the blood spilled in Iraq, adding: "Let the Iraqi people know who Harith al-Dari is. This man joins hands with those who shed the blood of Iraqis." KR