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Newsline - February 14, 2008

President Vladimir Putin held the final news conference of his eight years as Russian head of state on February 14. reported that a record 1,364 journalists, including around 200 members of the foreign press, were accredited for the event, which was broadcast live by the state's Channel One and Rossia television channels. quoted Putin as saying he is satisfied with the results of his work as president over the past eight years and that those who elected him president twice were also happy with the results of his work. He added that opinion polls also indicate that Russians are happy with his performance. "I am not ashamed before those who twice voted for me," he said. "During all these years I worked like a galley slave from morning until night. I'm pleased with the results." He added that work in some areas could have been more effective -- such as in the battle with inflation. AP quoted him as saying that 2007 was a successful year economically, with Russia's economy becoming the world's seventh-largest, incomes increasing, and gross domestic product increasing by 8.1 percent. According to AP, Putin responded to the news conference's first question, about his main successes and failures as president, by saying: "I don't see any serious failures. All the goals that were set were reached, and the tasks fulfilled." JB

Asked whether he would like to remain president for a third term, Putin responded that he never had such a desire and long ago decided that he would not violate Russia's Constitution, adding that Anatoly Sobchak, the St. Petersburg mayor for whom Putin worked in the early 1990s, instilled in him a respect for the law, reported. Putin said that while addiction to power is said to be the strongest addiction, he has never experienced it. "If God has granted the good fortune to do some work for the good of a country with which I feel a close connection, then I have to be grateful for that," he said. "This, in and of itself, is a great reward." Putin also said that Russia must be a democratic and law-based state, adding that "this means that all of its citizens must live according to the law." Putin said he is certain Dmitry Medvedev "will be a good president, a worthy president, and an effective leader." There is also the factor of "personal chemistry," he said, adding: "I trust him. I simply trust him. As I said at the Unified Russia congress, there is nothing shameful or frightening about transferring the main levers of control of the country to such a person." Putin said he was happy to support Medvedev's candidacy when it was put forward by Unified Russia and three other parties. "I am simply certain that in his personal and professional qualities, that from the experience he has acquired during his years of work in Moscow -- in the capacity of head of the Russian Federation presidential administration and in the capacity of first deputy chairman of the Russian government -- all of this together is a guarantee that he will also work successfully in country's highest post," he said. According to, Putin described Medvedev as honest, decent, and progressive. JB

Asked during his press conference whether he plans to head Unified Russia after the end of his presidential term, Putin said he has no such plans at the moment, reported. He also said the country needs to achieve the goals included in the plan for Russian development through the year 2020 that he laid out in a February 8 speech (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 2008). "Of course, that will be difficult to do under the existing system of administrative control," he said. Putin said the two main tasks before the country are to diversify its economy and give it an "innovative" character, and to improve the quality of governance at all levels, from municipal to federal. He said that he considers the criticism of these development plans made by members of the opposition to be "unconstructive," reported. "I don't see that this criticism is constructive [or] deep," he said. "No one is offering anything more substantial or realistic. Nevertheless, there is such criticism." JB

President Putin told the February 14 press conference in regard to his recent threat to target Ukraine with missiles that "we are not going to retarget anything at anyone without extreme necessity," Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). He and several top officials previously threatened to aim missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic if they participate in the U.S.-proposed missile-defense system. Putin recently warned Ukraine against ever doing likewise. He argued on February 14 that "our experts believe that [the missile-defense] system threatens our national security and, if it appears, we will be forced to react in an adequate fashion. We will then be forced to retarget some of our missile-defense system toward these objects that threaten us. We didn't start this. We ask for this not to be done, but nobody listens to us." He stressed that "we just warn in advance: if you take this step, then we will be forced to act like that." He lashed out at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for refusing to send observers to Russia's March 2 presidential election. Putin said Russia is fulfilling its obligations as a member of the OSCE and accused the group's Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of trying to "teach" Russia how to behave. He added, "Let them teach their wives to make cabbage soup" instead. Putin said that independence for Kosova would be "immoral and illegal" and that the EU should be "ashamed" for supporting independence for Kosova while denying it to northern Cyprus. In regard to the upcoming U.S. presidential election, Putin promised to "respect the choice of the American people and will work with any president. If he himself [sic] wants that." Putin added that "without Russia's cooperation, the United States would not manage to effectively address and overcome such challenges as the fight against terrorism, the fight for strengthening the regime of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the fight against poverty, and the fight against infectious deceases." PM

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington on February 13 that President Putin's recent attempts to bully Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic into not participating in the proposed U.S. missile-defense system are "reprehensible," Britain's "Financial Times" reported on February 14. Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that "the Soviet gone forever, and I hope that Russia understands that. We are absolutely devoted to the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine and of other states that were once a part of the Soviet Union." She said that she intends "to appoint, and we are looking for, a special energy co-coordinator who could especially spend time on the Central Asian and Caspian region. [Energy] is a really important part of diplomacy. In fact, I think I would go so far as to say that some of the politics of energy is warping diplomacy in certain parts of the world." PM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner failed on February 13 in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, to reach a last-minute understanding on Kosova's status, Interfax and other Russian media reported (see Part II and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). She told Lavrov that the EU intends to "make a decision" on Kosova's future, meaning it will recognize Kosova's independence. Lavrov said that Russia will not retaliate against the EU. He added that "this [very] suggestion [of possible retribution] sounds a bit wild. Russia does not have any punitive measures for anybody in the arsenal of its foreign-policy tools." He noted nonetheless that "we are convinced that if there is a unilateral proclamation of Kosovar independence, it will be a mistake." PM

Private Roman Rudakov, who was the apparent victim of a hazing incident in late 2006, died in Moscow's Burdenko Military Hospital on February 13 while awaiting an intestine transplant, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, August 4, and October 13, 2006, and January 17, 2007). Tatyana Znachkova, chairwoman of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, was quoted by Reuters as saying that up to 3,500 Russian soldiers die each year from "various accidents and suicides." In January 2007, then-Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov charged that Rudakov's health problems were the result of a medical condition and not of bullying, which angered many Russians. The issue of hazing in the military has been prominent in the media since early 2006, following a particularly gruesome incident at the start of that year. PM

Reporters Without Borders released its annual report on press freedom on February 13. The report places Russia among those countries where press freedom is under the greatest threat: indeed, as the daily "Kommersant" reported, the Paris-based international media watchdog specially invited one journalist from Zimbabwe and another from Russia to a presentation of its annual report in Berlin in order to underscore that "press freedom is exposed to the greatest danger in those countries." The Russian journalist invited who was invited to Reporters Without Borders' Berlin presentation is actually a Moldovan citizen who works for a Russian magazine -- "Novoye vremya" correspondent Natalya Morar, who was barred entry into Russia in December for reasons of state security. Morar has written about the personal finances of top government, a purported secret fund that the Kremlin uses to finance political parties, and the unsolved 2006 murder of Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 2007, and January 18, 2008 ). JB

Reporters Without Borders' annual report, which was posted on the group's website,, details actions taken by Russian authorities last year against journalists attempting to cover demonstrations organized by the Other Russia opposition coalition. Among them was Nikolai Andrushenko, co-founder of the St. Petersburg weekly "Novy Peterburg," who was given a two-month prison sentence after writing that he would march with the demonstrators and for printing the opposition's manifesto. Earlier this month, law enforcement authorities raided the offices of the weekly, which has since been renamed "Minuty veka" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). According to Reporters Without Borders, at least two journalists were forcibly sent to psychiatric hospitals in 2007, marking the revival of what the annual report describes as "a frequent practice during Soviet days to discredit those with 'undesirable' views and to discourage people from openly opposing the regime." An international campaign led to the release of the two journalists -- opposition activist Larissa Arap and independent journalist Andrei Novikov -- who were held for six weeks and 11 months, respectively. Elsa Vidal, who heads the Europe and former USSR desk at Reporters Without Borders, told RFE/RL: "What we have witnessed [in Russia] during the year 2007 is that much pressure was exerted on independent media with journalists being arrested during opposition demonstrations, independent newspapers being shut down, and some journalists being sent to psychiatric hospitals as punishments. All these events seem to us to be very bad omens with the upcoming presidential election." JB

A group of State Duma deputies from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) sent a parliamentary inquiry to Central Election Commission head Vladimir Churov on February 13 charging that three federal television channels -- Channel One, Rossia, and TV-Tsentr -- devoted 85.1 percent of their airtime in January to the activities and election campaign of Dmitry Medvedev. "Kommersant" reported on February 14 that according to the letter to Churov, which was signed by 30 Duma deputies from the KPRF and LDPR, the three channels devoted only 7.2 percent of their January airtime to Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR leader and presidential candidate; 5.3 percent to Gennady Zyuganov, the KPRF leader and presidential candidate; and 2.4 percent to Andrei Bogdanov, the presidential candidate and Democratic Party leader. According to "Kommersant," the inquiry said the unequal television coverage raises doubts about "the legitimacy of the entire election campaign as a whole" and it called on the Central Election Commission to examine the issue and adopt a resolution stipulating specific measures "for bringing officials of the three federal channels to account." In a report on media coverage of the presidential campaign during the period from January 10 to February 1, the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations found that Medvedev received more airtime on all monitored television channels than the incumbent president and that four of the five monitored channels gave Medvedev some 50 percent of their prime-time news coverage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2008). JB

Some 30 security personnel snatched 39-year-old Magomed Yevloyev, a resident of the village of Ekazhevo in Ingushetia's Nazran Raion, on the street in Nazran at midday on February 13 in the immediate vicinity of the local office of the human rights organization Memorial, Russian media reported. Memorial personnel were holding a press conference there at the time to summarize the conclusions of their recent report on developments in Ingushetia in 2007. Ingushetian police intervened to prevent the security detachment from transferring Yevloyev (not to be confused with the eponymous owner of the independent website to neighboring North Ossetia, and instead took him Magas. Some 300 people, many of them Yevloyev's relatives, congregated that evening in Nazran and set out for Magas to demand his release, but were intercepted on the outskirts of the capital. First Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Selivestrov took several of them to meet with Interior Minister Colonel Musa Medov, who reportedly assured them that Yevloyev would be released by 10 a.m. local time on February 14. But Yevloyev was not freed by that deadline, whereupon members of the Yevloyev clan began to converge on Ekazhevo to stage a new protest, reported. LF

The commission formed last month to investigate the circumstances under which hundreds of contract servicemen from Daghestan were prematurely demobilized reported on February 12 in Makhachkala on the findings of its meetings with the command of the Russian military base at Khankala near Grozny, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). Daghestan's military commissar Lieutenant General Magomed Tinamagomedov told journalists that the servicemen from Daghestan were dismissed for a variety of reasons, including termination of their contracts, violating discipline, or their unsuitability for service. A Russian officer from the Khankala-based division, Oleg Kryokov, added that the servicemen's allegations that they were dismissed on ethnic grounds are unfounded. At the same time, he admitted that eight senior officers demanded bribes from dismissed Daghestanis to reinstate them, for which those officers have been court-martialed. LF

During a ceremony in Yerevan, Armenian Transport Minister Andranik Manukian; the general director of the Russian South Caucasus Railway company, Aleksandr Kuznetsov; and the president of Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin, signed on February 13 an agreement formally ceding management of the Armenian railway network to the Russian company, Mediamax reported. Under the terms of the agreement, Armenia granted Russia's South Caucasus Railways a 20-year contract to manage and operate the Armenian railway network for $57 million, with an additional option to extend the contract for another 20-year period. In addition, the Russian firm also agreed to invest in modernizing the railway, renovating the infrastructure and buying new rolling stock. RG

A leading Azerbaijani nongovernmental organization on February 13 called for greater transparency and open accounting by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), Turan reported. Zohrab Ismayil, the head of the Center for Assisting Independent Economy, told a press conference in Baku that while studying SOCAR's financial history for 2006, his group uncovered a series of questionable accounting reports and argued that SOCAR "deliberately hid from the public some important information on how its income is formed and on some expenses." He further contended that SOCAR is engaged in hiding profits from several of the firm's subsidiaries, mainly derived "from selling oil products and gas in the domestic market and from leasing property and special equipment, including offshore installations and supply ships. SOCAR representative Vaqif Mustafayev rejected the charges, but told reporters at the press conference that SOCAR plans to adopt new "international accounting standards" and will "present more information in its future public statements." RG

British police announced on February 14 that initial postmortem examinations indicate that Badri Patarkatsishvili died of natural causes, but that his body will undergo toxicology testing for traces of poison, international media reported. The Georgian tycoon and opposition leader died at his mansion in Surrey, southwest of London, late on February 12 at the age of 52, and initial reports attributed his death to heart failure. In comments to reporters, Georgian opposition leader Giorgi Khaindrava said on February 13 that he believes Patarkatsishvili "fell victim to harassment," blaming unidentified members of the Georgian government for indirectly causing the death, Interfax reported. Khaindrava claimed that President Mikheil Saakashvili and others "slandered" and "harassed" the late businessman and argued that "this had an impact on Badri Patarkatsishvili and his heart failed." In separate comments, former Foreign Minister and current opposition figure Salome Zourabichvili said on February 13 that she is "convinced" that Patarkatsishvili was "killed" because of his opposition to the Georgian government, Georgian Television reported. Nestan Kirtadze, a leading member of the opposition Labor Party, also directly blamed Saakashvili for the death and charged that it "was a political murder committed by Mikheil Saakashvili and this government." RG/MS

Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov met on February 13 with his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, during a visit to Moscow to discuss plans to expand bilateral military cooperation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to a press release issued by the Kazakh Defense Ministry, they reviewed steps to deepen "cooperation in military training and science," as well as in securing a Russian commitment to provide the Kazakh armed forces with "arms and military hardware on preferential terms." Russia has also pledged to conduct "joint operational training courses" and "short-term courses" for elite Kazakh Army units in Russian military academies. During the Moscow visit, Akhmetov also met on February 13 with Anatoly Isaikin, the director-general of Russia's Rosoboroneksport state arms exporter, to initiate negotiations on the purchase of Russian weapons systems over the next two years. RG

In a report to the Kyrgyz cabinet in Bishkek, Industry and Energy Minister Saparbek Balkibekov announced on February 13 the suspension of electricity supplies to Tajikistan, AKIpress reported. Balkibekov explained that the cutoff was the result of Tajikistan's failure to agree to the terms of the sale of some 11 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. On February 12, Uzbekistan announced that it has resumed electricity supplies to Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). In a separate decision during the same cabinet meeting, Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Minister Kamchybek Tashiev said that new measures have been adopted to bolster the security of storage facilities housing radioactive and toxic waste, according to the website. Tashiev said that the improved security measures and related containment steps are part of a 1.52 billion-som ($42 million) state-funded program covering the country's 92 storage sites. RG

Speaking to reporters in Bishkek, Prime Minister Igor Chudinov confirmed on February 13 that Russia's Gazprom natural-gas monopoly has agreed to invest about $300 million in the country's gas sector, ITAR-TASS reported. Chudinov said that Gazprom intends to explore and develop new gas deposits in several potential sites in southern Kyrgyzstan. Chudinov added that the government will grant an exclusive license to Gazprom shortly, allowing it to begin exploration in the next few months. Senior Gazprom officials are due in Bishkek within two weeks to negotiate the terms of the agreement. The gas deal was first raised during a January meeting in Moscow between Chudinov and Gazprom executives. RG

Kyrgyz Minister of Culture and Information Sultan Raev announced on February 13 in Bishkek that a hunger strike by workers at the National Television and Radio Broadcasting Corporation (UTRK) has ended, AKIpress reported. He said that the hunger strikers decided to end their protest after reaching a compromise with UTRK's management, who in turn promised to allow the return of the employees without punishment. The hunger strike was organized to demand the resignation of the director of the UTRK, Melis Eshimkanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). Eshimkanov is a former opposition politician whom Bakiev named to head the broadcaster in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007). RG

Lluis Maria de Puig, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), on February 13 reiterated the rights body's demand that Belarus release all political prisoners, including former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, Belapan reported. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said the previous day that the authorities have released "some prisoners for whom the West has special feelings," and that he regards the issue as "closed" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). De Puig said that the recent release of youth activists Artur Finkevich and Zmitser Dashkevich "has not gone unnoticed," and that he hopes the move is part of "a pattern of conclusive and consistent signs that the Belarusian leadership is prepared to get closer to Europe." De Puig said he is disappointed that an amnesty law adopted by Minsk in November 2007 did not provide for the release of any political prisoners. "I am convinced that many ways can be found to give freedom back to those who are detained for their political views, amongst whom the most outstanding case is certainly former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin," de Puig said. Kazulin, who ran in the March 2006 elections, was arrested during antigovernment demonstrations that followed the polls and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed the public order. AM

President Lukashenka has issued a decree authorizing Deputy Foreign Minister Valery Varanetski to sign an agreement on the establishment of a European Commission office in Minsk, Belapan reported on February 13. The European Commission has been trying to open a Minsk office since 2005. Lukashenka on December 5 authorized Varanetski to sign the draft agreement and engage in further negotiations with the Commission. "We are taking steps to open the office for one purpose -- stepping up relations with the European Union, above all, in the spheres of mutual interest," Varanetski said, adding that Belarus is ready to sign the agreement "at any moment." AM

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on February 13 that the outcome of gas talks between Ukraine and Russia held over several days in Moscow represents a "victory for the entire democratic team," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reached agreements on the conditions for Ukraine to pay its debts to Russian gas monopoly Gazprom and on further gas supplies to Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). Tymoshenko said that during Yushchenko's visit to Moscow, "decisions were made on removing all intermediaries from the Ukrainian gas market, including those that are shady and corrupt." She continued: "Our government will join the work on signing new direct agreements on gas supplies from Gazprom and will do everything to restore the capacity of [Ukraine's state-owned gas operator] Naftohaz Ukrayiny." AM

The leaders of Kosova's parliament decided on February 13 to hold a legislative session on February 15 that might precede a formal declaration of independence over the following weekend, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). The government has appropriated about $1.5 million for independence celebrations. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner failed on February 13 in Brdo Pri Kranju, Slovenia, to reach a last-minute understanding on Kosova's status (see Part I). The UN Security Council will meet on February 14 to hear Serbia's concerns about the probable declaration. The Serbian government is slated to meet the same day to finalize plans for possible retaliation against countries that recognize the new state. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said in statements on February 12 and 13 that his government will "annul" any declaration of independence for a "fictitious state" issued by a leadership made up of "convicted terrorists." He called on members of Kosova's Serbian minority to "remain in their homes, their province, and their Serbia. It is our duty to do absolutely all we can to secure normal living conditions for our people in the province." His government's "action plan," which has not been made public, is expected to include diplomatic and legal measures against countries that accord recognition to Prishtina. An economic blockade of Kosova and travel restrictions on its ethnic Albanians have also been discussed. Regional and international media point out that economic sanctions, including the cutting off of power and water supplies to the province, would affect Kosova's Serbs as well as the majority Albanians. Serbian critics of an economic blockade recall that Austria-Hungary imposed punitive economic measures on Serbia from 1906-11, with the result that Serbia diversified its exports and markets to the detriment of Vienna's influence in Belgrade. PM

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington on February 13 that the United States offers Serbia its friendship and hopes it will "move forward" by accepting the Kosovars' decision for independence, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. She added that she knows that Serbia faces very difficult times because of the loss of Kosova. Britain's "Financial Times" reported on February 14 from Brussels that EU officials do not anticipate violence in Kosova in the coming days. The paper noted that the EU will soon authorize for Kosova a "law-and-order mission [that] will comprise about 3,000 people, including 1,000 local...staff and almost 2,000 police, judges, prosecutors, customs officials, and other administrators, mostly from EU states, with a few from Croatia, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, and the U.S.." The daily noted that "a first wave of about 15 senior EU staff may arrive in Kosovo by the end of February. Most of the 1,500 police will get there between March and mid-June, as the United Nations operation that administers the province winds up its work and is replaced by Kosovo's government and the EU mission, which is expected to cost $277 million in its first 12 months." The paper quoted unnamed senior EU officials as saying that the mission "may take a couple of years, but hopefully we won't stay there forever.... [We want to] see Kosovo developing into a democratic, multiethnic, sustainable part of Europe...with rule of law, and the economy starting to hum along on the basis of its attractiveness to foreign investment" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4, 11, and 12, 2008). PM


Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants international aid, especially from Muslim countries, to build more Islamic schools, saying at an education conference in Kabul that parents would rather have their children study in Afghanistan than abroad, AP reported on February 12. Education Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar told the conference that when Afghan schools are forced to close because of violence and instability, the students often go to Pakistan to study, and then risk being recruited as terrorists. He added that Afghanistan is building a "modern system of madrasahs." There are 336 madrasahs in Afghanistan, attended by some 2 percent of Afghanistan's 5.8 million students. A U.S. commander at the conference, Lieutenant Colonel David Acceta, said that the U.S. military has built two educational facilities and is building five more. He said that while some Afghans may call the schools madrasahs, they offer a balanced curriculum including religious studies. AT

Taliban militants kidnapped 21 Afghans and Arabs in Farah Province in western Afghanistan on February 10, but released them three days later, AP reported on February 14. Abdul Rashid, a deputy provincial police chief, said the men were kidnapped while hunting for rare birds, and were robbed of their money, weapons, and other belongings. Rashid said local elders secured their release. He added that a Taliban commander, Mullah Khodaidad, was thought to be behind the kidnappings, AP reported. AT

Seven Afghan security personnel have been killed oadside bombs have killed over the past two days in two incidents, AP reported on February 13. Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said three Afghan soldiers lost their lives and four were wounded in a roadside bombing in the Musa Qala district of southern Helmand Province, the heart of Afghanistan's opium-poppy-producing region. Taliban insurgents were pushed out of Musa Qala late last year by coalition and Afghan troops after holding the region for more than 10 months. In eastern Khost Province, four Afghan guards who were working for the U.S. military were killed by a roadside bomb on February 12, according to Wazir Pasha, a spokesman for the provincial police chief. AT

The U.S. State Department on February 12 rejected a statement attributed to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar claiming that the United States has been "defeated" in Afghanistan, AFP reported. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that coalition forces are working to improve the lives of the people of Afghanistan, and invited Mullah Omar to make his statement directly to NATO and U.S. forces. The statement released on February 11 said that because the United States has gotten "trapped" in Afghanistan, the military is asking for more help from its international partners. It continued that the United States has "invaded" and "occupied" Afghanistan, and the Taliban is trying to free Afghanistan from the occupation. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2008). AT

The Iranian Foreign Ministry on February 13 condemned the car-bomb killing the previous day of Imad Mugniyah, a senior member of Hizballah, the Lebanese militia supported by Iran, Radio Farda reported, citing news agencies. Tehran and Hizballah blamed Israel for the killing, which took place in Damascus, though the Israeli government denied involvement. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran that the "terrorist operation" was "another blatant example of the organized state terrorism" of Israel, IRNA reported. He said Mugniyah devoted his life to fighting "the occupying aggressors" -- meaning Israel -- and free nations will not forget his achievements. Mugniyah was thought to have planned truck-bomb attacks on the U.S. Marines barracks and a French military base in Beirut in 1982, which killed hundreds, and to have organized kidnappings in Beirut in the 1980s, among other violent activities; he was Hizballah's security chief at the time and sought by Western security agencies, AP reported on February 13. U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told the press in Washington on February 13 that the world "is a better place" without Mugniyah and that "he was a cold-blooded killer." VS

U.S. President George W. Bush has expressed concern about "the efforts of...Syria, Iran, and their allies, to undermine Lebanon's democratic institutions through violence and intimidation," in a letter written to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, AFP reported on February 12. Bush called for the immediate election of a Lebanese president, given that the last one stepped down last November; pro-Western groups and factions backed by Iran and Syria have failed so far to reach a consensual presidential choice. Lebanese lawmakers are to meet again on February 26, apparently for the 15th time in recent months, to select a president. The letter, delivered to Siniora by visiting U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric Edelman, conveyed the United States' support for the "the democratically elected parliamentary majority's efforts" to resist pressure, presumably from Syria and Iran. The majority is led by Saad Hariri, and supports the Siniora cabinet. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt separately told a Lebanese television station on February 12 or 13 that there can be no "coexistence" in Lebanon with Hizballah, which he accused of "invading" Lebanese territory on Iran's orders. He said Hizballah is trying to carve itself a mini-state in the southern half of the country, and is buying land "because Iran has decreed that south of the road to Damascus, there will be a Hizballah state," the daily "L'Orient-le Jour" reported on February 13. He said Syria will continue to commit "bombings and murders" in Lebanon as long as its "regime lasts." Iran, he added, is governed by "a regime of monsters" and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad "is a madman who thinks he is God." Reformist former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, on the other hand, was "excellent. He believed in pluralism," Jumblatt said. VS

Some of the reformist applicants initially banned from competing in the mid-March parliamentary polls have now been reinstated by the Guardians Council, the 12-member body that has the decisive say in electoral matters in Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 11, 12, and 13, 2008), news agencies reported. The reinstated candidates included Ali Eshraqi, a grandson of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and reformists Abdollah Naseri, a former IRNA chief, and Morteza Haji, an education minister in the reformist Khatami government. The strict vetting and mass disqualifications of reformists and other hopefuls by electoral agents and supervisory boards have prompted criticism from politicians of various stripes in recent days, and the reinstatement may be a move to defuse discontent. The Guardians Council usually states that it merely applies the law and is not swayed by politics. Former chief nuclear negotiator and conservative parliamentary candidate Ali Larijani welcomed the reinstatements on February 13 as contributing to a positive electoral atmosphere, AFP and ISNA reported. Larijani will likely compete for a parliamentary seat in Qom Province, south of Tehran. He was initially reported as being on the list of 30 right-wing candidates for Tehran proposed by the United Front of Fundamentalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2008). VS

Iranian President Ahmadinejad appeared in parliament on February 13 to defend the government's proposed budget for the Persian year to March 20, 2009, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. The chamber approved the outlines of the text, with 168 members present voting for the text, 47 voting against, and 19 abstaining. Legislators have criticized the new budget format, which has been radically simplified and no longer includes detailed money allocations to specific agencies or departments. The new format gives the government a freer hand in allocating spending, though lawmakers have said this will remove parliamentary scrutiny over expenditure of public money. Ahmadinejad assured lawmakers that spending will still be supervised, by the law and by the state auditing body. The budget approved was worth 293 trillion tumans (over $293 billion), 62 trillion tumans more than the previous budget, Radio Farda reported. VS

President Ahmadinejad proposed Alireza Ali-Ahmadi as the new education minister, in a letter sent to parliament on February 12, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel told parliament on February 13 that the chamber will begin to consider his candidacy on February 20. Ahmadinejad proposed Ali-Ahmadi in 2005 as cooperatives minister, but he failed to win parliamentary approval; Ahmadinejad appointed him instead to head the state Payam-i Nur University, Radio Farda reported. The last education minister, Mahmud Farshidi, resigned in December 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). VS

February 14 marks one year since the start of the law enforcement plan aimed at crushing insurgent activity across Iraq. The plan began with the launch of the Baghdad security plan, and an eventual troop surge of some 30,000 U.S. forces by summer. The plan has restored relative stability return to Baghdad. Also, the decision by tribal leaders in Al-Anbar Governorate to join the fight against Al-Qaeda has made an enormous impact on security, allowing Iraqi and coalition forces to turn their focus to the north, first in Diyala, and now in Mosul, where a large-scale security operation similar to that in Baghdad is on the verge of being launched. Awakening councils, formed by local tribesmen to model the Al-Anbar success, have joined the fight in some eight other governorates, from Ninawah in the north to as far south as Dhi Qar. Since June, terrorist attacks nationwide have decreased by 60 percent. KR

The latest U.S.-Iraqi operation to target Al-Qaeda in Iraq, dubbed Phantom Phoenix, was launched on January 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told reporters at a February 13 press briefing in Baghdad: "Although Al-Qaeda has been disrupted by the collective efforts of the Iraqi and coalition security forces and the citizens of Iraq, the terrorists still constitute a deadly threat to the people of Iraq by murdering innocent civilians and the destruction of essential services and infrastructure. From Operation Phantom Phoenix's inception in early January through February 8 of this year, Iraqi and coalition forces have conducted 32 battalion-level operations, detained 1,825 terrorists and killed 241 others, destroyed 933 stockpiles of munitions, and found and cleared over 900 improvised explosive devices." According to the U.S.-led coalition's website, Operation Iron Harvest, which was launched on December 24, as of February 10 has led to the detention or killing of 70 high-value detainees, and the killing or capture of hundreds of "enemy fighters." Four-hundred and thirty weapons caches have been recovered, and 653 homemade bombes, 42 house bombs, 35 car bombs, and three bomb factories cleared. KR

Awakening councils operating throughout Baghdad Governorate have formed the Baghdad Awakening Central Council to coordinate efforts among awakening-council commanders and to make their needs known to U.S. and Iraqi forces, Al-Jazeera television reported on February 13. The council said in a statement that it is disappointed by the positions of both the government and U.S. forces towards the councils, and the marginalization of these councils despite their efforts to maintain security, according to Al-Jazeera. The statement further accused the Iraqi government of reneging on pledges to the tribal leaders who head the councils. Baghdad Awakening Central Council spokesman Muhammad Abd al-Aziz told Al-Jazeera: "We believe that we are not given real opportunities and the political parties that failed in the [recent months] are now trying to [use our efforts] to their advantage. In addition to that, the U.S. administration did not keep its promises, although we granted it a very important chance -- namely, that the lives of U.S. soldiers have become considerably safer." Tribal leaders in Diyala and Al-Anbar have demanded greater participation in local governance and in the security forces in recent weeks. That demand has led to friction with Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated security forces and political parties keen on maintaining exclusive control over local governance (see "Iraq: Sunni Groups Vie For Control Of Western Region,", February 12, 2008). KR

The Al-Anbar Awakening Movement, the newly established political wing of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council, on February 13 elected council Chairman Ahmad Abu Rishah to a one-year term as head of the movement, Iraqi media reported. The movement intends to compete in governorate-council elections this year, and in the next parliamentary elections. In addition to Abu Rishah, key leaders of the movement include Secretary-General Sheikh Mu'ayyad Ibrahim Humaysh, First Deputy Speaker Sheikh Rafi al-Fahdawi, and Deputy Secretary-General Latif Ubayd Iyadah, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on February 13. KR

An Iraqi interpreter for U.S.-based CBS News was freed on February 13, three days after being abducted from his hotel in Al-Basrah (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2008). A Western journalist working for CBS abducted alongside the Iraq is still being held. Representatives of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr claimed to be negotiating the release of the two men on February 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). KR