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Newsline - February 27, 2008

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is the anticipated successor to President Vladimir Putin, said in Ufa on February 26 that the Russian government works with the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and will work with "any administration" that is formed as a result of the November presidential election, RIA Novosti and reported. Medvedev added that the selection of a new U.S. president is the business of the American people alone, which is also Putin's public position. Medvedev said nonetheless that "it is certainly easier to work with a person who has modern positions and is not blinded by the past." He argued that it is simpler to deal with someone who does not always propagate views that border on the moronic. It is not clear to whom he was referring, since all three leading U.S. presidential candidates have criticized Russia. Sergei Markov, a State Duma deputy for Unified Russia and director of the Institute of Political Research, said on February 6 that there is no major difference for Russia as to who wins the U.S. elections, but a victory for Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) would be the "worst-case scenario" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). In an allusion to Bush's now famous remark that he looked into Putin's eyes and saw his soul, McCain has said on several recent occasions that he looked into Putin's eyes and saw the letters "K-G-B." McCain called for expelling Russia from the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries on the grounds that it is not a democracy. U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (Democrat, New York) stumbled over pronouncing Medvedev's name in a televised debate on February 26 and suggested that he is someone "whom Putin can control." Clinton once said that Putin "doesn't have a soul." This may have prompted Putin's remark at his recent annual press conference that "a head of state should have a head." On February 26, U.S. Senator Barrack Obama (Democrat, Illinois) did not pronounce Medvedev's name but noted that Putin has made it clear that he will remain in charge after the Russian March presidential vote. Obama previously called for working together with Russia on arms control and other issues of mutual interest, while not neglecting to speak out on "democracy and accountability." PM

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said in Washington on February 26 that his country will cooperate with Russia in many fields, but that the Czech Republic will make its own decision regarding its internal affairs, the BBC reported on February 27. Topolanek is in Washington for talks with President Bush on the proposed U.S. missile-defense program, which includes the stationing of 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, November 7, and December 6, 2007, and January 11 and February 13 and 14, 2008). Topolanek said that missile defense "is not an issue of one radar installation.... It primarily concerns [our freely chosen willingness] to defend ourselves." He stressed that "our civilization will end if we lack the will to defend ourselves.... We do not want to belong again to the sphere of Russian influence. We do not want to belong to a group of countries which have to ask Russia for permission if they want to ensure their own defense." Topolanek noted that the Czech-U.S. negotiations on missile defense are "almost complete." The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" commented on February 27 that Washington, Prague, and Warsaw want to complete their agreements in time for the NATO-Russia summit in April, which President Putin plans to attend. PM

Officials of the Vladivostok-based regional rescue services said on February that the Russian freighter "Lidiya Demesh," which the North Korean Coast Guard seized on February 23, has been released and is on its way to Vladivostok, RIA Novosti and Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Yevgeny Valkovich, who is the Russian consul in the city of Chongjin, said he reached an agreement with the North Korean authorities on February 25. Valkovich noted that the entire crew of 25 is on board the ship, but did not mention the fate of its cargo of 150 used Japanese cars. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow on February 27 that Russia's fleet of military transport aircraft is obsolete and the country may be left without military cargo planes by 2015, RIA Novosti reported. The news agency suggested that the Russian Air Force has about 300 transport planes in service, most of which date from the 1960s and 1970s. They are unsafe by current standards, although comprehensive upgrading could extend their service life until 2020-25, RIA Novosti added. PM

The Moscow city government has refused permission to the opposition Other Russia coalition to hold a political demonstration on March 3, the day after the Russian presidential election, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on February 27. Other Russia's leaders, Garry Kasparov and National Bolshevik Party head Eduard Limonov, called on supporters to come to the rally despite the ban. Kasparov said the election is a "farce" and a "Byzantine palace intrigue." He said he is inclined to believe First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev will be "a puppet," rather than a full-fledged president. He said the authorities are basing their control on "naked force and the continuing inertia in society." In St. Petersburg, the authorities gave permission for Other Russia activists to gather in a local concert hall. Nonetheless, movement leaders are calling on supporters in that city, as well as in other Russian cities, to take to the streets on March 3. Kasparov told RFE/RL that Other Russia is still considering whether to call on voters to boycott the election. Recently, an election official told journalists that calling for a boycott could entail criminal liability under laws that protect the rights of citizens to participate in elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2008). RC

Two Moscow district courts on February 26 ruled against Communist Party petitions claiming that First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev has been given an unfair advantage in airtime on the national television channels, "Kommersant" reported on February 27. According to the complaints, Medvedev received 70 percent of the election coverage in December and 88 percent in the first three weeks of January, while Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov received only 11 percent in December and 2 percent in January. The Ostankino District Court ruled that Channel One has not violated Zyuganov's rights because election law does not define the term "equality of the candidates in campaign time in the mass media." As a result, the court ruled that the lack of a definition means that statistical analysis of the coverage is not admissible, and the only thing that matters is that all the candidates received some coverage. According to Communist Party lawyer Andrei Klychkov, the court's ruling means that a candidate's right to "equal coverage" can only be regarded as having been violated if a media outlet refuses to mention him or her at all. The Savyolovsky District Court, which ruled against the party's complaint regarding Rossia television, declined to give any reason for its rejection. The party plans to appeal both decisions. RC

Gazprom and the Siberian Coal-Energy Company (SUEK) have agreed to create a $20 billion joint venture that will combine the electrical-generating and coal-supplying assets of the two companies, reported on February 27. According to a joint press release by the two companies' boards of directors, the deal should be finalized by August 31, 2008. First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev is chairman of Gazprom's board and approved the new venture, which will control more than half of the country's electrical plants and their supplies of coal and natural gas. Under the deal, SUEK will issue additional shares that will be purchased by Gazprom subsidiaries until the gas monopoly controls 50 percent of SUEK. According to analysts, Medvedev's plans contradicts the government's domestic energy policy, which is purportedly based on the "privatization" of the state electrical monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES). For that reason, EES head Anatoly Chubais has objected to the Gazprom-SUEK venture, as have former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Energy and Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko. RC

Moscow police, in apparent response to a spate of racially motivated killings this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008), have begun randomly photographing and fingerprinting young men stopped in the metro system, "Vremya novostei" reported on February 27. Police carried out such an operation at the Arbatskaya metro station on February 25. A spokesman for the city police denied that any such campaign is under way and said such actions are local initiatives. RC

Natalya Morar, a "Novoye vremya" correspondent with Moldovan citizenship who was barred in December 2007 from entering Russia for security reasons, was again refused entry on February 27, Ekho Moskvy reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2008). Morar was stopped at Moscow's Domodedovo airport and detained, pending deportation back to Moldova. Igor Yakovenko, the general secretary of the Union of Journalists, told Ekho Moskvy that the Morar case is "a huge [cause for] shame." "A large, strong country is afraid of a small journalist," he said. "The big, strong special services think a young, talented journalist is a threat to Russia. I am ashamed of the actions of the Russian authorities." RC

Some 50-70 Ingush, including relatives of Makarsharip Aushev and Magomed Yevloyev, staged a picket on February 26 outside the pretrial detention center in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, where the two men are being held on charges of organizing an abortive mass meeting in Nazran on January 26, to demand their release, and reported. Yevloyev was taken into custody on February 13 and Aushev the following day; they were immediately transported to Nalchik (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14 and 15, 2008). Meanwhile, in Nazran, Magomed Khazbiyev, tasked with organizing further mass meetings following the arrest of Yevloyev and Aushev, formally notified the Republic of Ingushetia government on February 26 that the opposition plans to stage a protest in Nazran on March 12 against corruption and human rights violations in Ingushetia, reported. LF

Addressing some 10,000 supporters in Yerevan on February 26, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who according to official results won the February 19 presidential election with almost 53 percent of the vote, appealed to his defeated rival candidates and their supporters to cooperate, and possibly form a coalition government, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. "One of my aims is to use all constructive forces for the sake of Armenia's development," he affirmed. In an allusion to disparaging comments by former Prime Minister Hrant Bagratian about Armenians born and brought up in the then-Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast when it was a constituent part of the Azerbaijan SSR (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2008), a group that includes both Sarkisian and outgoing President Robert Kocharian, Sarkisian warned against dividing society "into 'our own people' and 'strangers,'" and he expressed regret that some voters "have unwittingly become tools for a few individuals' political ambitions and penchant for revenge," a clear allusion to those who for the past week have rallied in Yerevan in support of his defeated rival, former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. LF

Just hours after Sarkisian's appeal for cooperation, former President Ter-Petrossian told a far larger gathering of supporters in Yerevan that both Sarkisian and outgoing President Kocharian should resign, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Speaking the same day on national television, Kocharian warned that the authorities will not permit the unauthorized mass protests by Ter-Petrossian's supporters to continue indefinitely. Meanwhile, visiting Finnish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Ilkka Kanerva congratulated Sarkisian on his election win and praised the Armenian authorities for showing "restraint" in the face of the mass protests, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kanerva also met on February 26 with Ter-Petrossian, but no details of that meeting were divulged, and with Bako Sahakian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic (NKR). Kanerva and Sahakian both stressed that the Karabakh conflict can and should be resolved by exclusively peaceful means; Sahakian also argued that the NKR should be formally represented at the ongoing OSCE-mediated talks on the search for a formal solution to the conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Following talks between the Georgian authorities and representatives of the nine-party opposition National Council, the Georgian parliament selected on February 26 from a shortlist of 27 candidates the nine new members of the board of trustees of Georgian Public Television, and Caucasus Press reported. Those nine must now elect a board chairman and a new director-general of Public Television to replace Tamar Kintsurashvili, whose resignation the National Council has been demanding for weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). Also on February 26, parliament passed unanimously amendments to the constitution formalizing the status of regional governors, who are named by the president, creating the post of first deputy prime minister, and providing for ministers simultaneously to hold the rank of deputy prime minister, reported. Deputies also voted by 183 votes in favor and none against to hold parliamentary elections in May of this year, reported. But the parliament postponed a vote on several other key constitutional amendments, including extending the term of the new parliament from four to five years, which opposition deputies reject, and abolishing the existing winner-takes-all system for electing parliament deputies under the majoritarian system. LF

Kazakh Environmental Protection Minister Nurlan Iskakov met on February 25 in Astana with Adriaan van der Meer, the head of the European Commission's delegation to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, to discuss environmental cooperation between Kazakhstan and the EU, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Iskakov noted that the discussion is in line with Kazakhstan's "need for assistance from the [commission] to develop renewable energy sources in compliance with the EU standards, establish a solar center and introduce environmental taxes based on the German experience." He also briefed van der Meer on preparations for hosting a planned conference on the environment and sustainable development set for 2010 to be attended by various ministers from countries of the Asia-Pacific region. Accompanying van der Meer, the deputy head of the European Commission Secretariat-General's unit for enlargement and interaction, Anne Bjuri, welcomed "Kazakhstan's dynamic development" and its "achievements in promoting ideas of sustainable development." RG

A Kazakh delegation led by Deputy Defense Minister Bolat Sembinov met on February 26 with senior U.S. military officials during an official visit to Washington, D.C., Kazakhstan Today reported. In a meeting at the Pentagon with U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, and army Chief of Staff General George Casey, the delegation was formally thanked for Kazakhstan's deployment to Iraq and support for international stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. The U.S. officials also hailed the Kazakh "role in strengthening global and regional stability." The delegation also met with U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) and discussed the course of bilateral relations, defined as a "strategic partnership" between the United States and Kazakhstan. Sembinov also led talks with U.S. military planners over the implementation of a five-year military cooperation program, with an added focus on training for the Kazakh Army's peacekeeping brigade, Khabar TV reported. Sembinov also presented a request for $70 million in assistance to finance the "technical modernization of military equipment" and the expansion of international exercises conducted in Kazakhstan. On February 13, Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Serdyukov, met in Moscow to discuss plans to expand bilateral "cooperation in military training and science" and to finalize an agreement for Russia to provide the Kazakh armed forces with "arms and military hardware on preferential terms" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2008). Kazakhstan is actively engaged in a broader effort to expand, train, and modernize its armed forces, reflecting a strategic goal of emerging as an "advanced military power" by 2012 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). RG

At a press conference in Almaty, Layla Akhmetova, the head of the Women's Public Association of Intellectual Workers, presented on February 26 a book highlighting the problem of child labor in Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Akhmetova hailed the "contribution" of the Prosecutor-General's Office to the project, and noted the holding of "special training" to "identify employers using child labor and bring them to account." The release of the book, part of a public awareness campaign stressing the extent of child labor in the country, was accompanied by a public presentation by the representative of the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Kazakhstan, Zhanna Zhantaeva, reporting on efforts within the ILO's International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor and noting that the main problems of child labor in Kazakhstan centered on their use in tobacco and cotton harvests in rural areas. She also noted that there are growing signs of children becoming involved in prostitution in the cities, adding that most studies estimated that roughly 3 percent of children under the age of 14 years are forced to work. RG

In Dushanbe, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi met on February 26 with the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Conflict Prevention Center, Herbert Salber, to discuss plans to deepen bilateral cooperation, Asia-Plus reported. Zarifi informed Salber that his government welcomes the recent OSCE decision to step up its involvement in the "restoration" and stabilization of neighboring Afghanistan, describing it as "a significant contribution to ensuring security and stability in the region." RG

On February 25 in Ashgabat, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov welcomed a delegation of German businessmen led by Minister for Economy and Technology Michael Glos, Turkmen Television reported. Berdymukhammedov hailed the "participation of German companies in projects in various sectors of the country's economy" and noted that Germany continues to be one of Turkmenistan's major trading partners, with bilateral trade reaching $193 million last year. He also briefed the German delegation on the status of the country's economic reform and development programs and highlighted its still expanding energy sector. He specifically invited German companies to consider investing in projects in the Awaza national tourist zone on the Caspian Sea, adding that Turkmenistan has already invested some $1 billion in the project as part of a broader plan to develop tourism. RG

U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey welcomed on February 26 the recent releases of Belarusian political prisoners and expressed the hope for the permanent release of Alyaksandr Kazulin, an imprisoned former presidential candidate who has been granted three days' leave to attend the funeral of his wife (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2008). "It is important that his release be made permanent and unconditional," Casey said in a statement posted on the State Department's website. "Should Mr. Kozulin's release be made permanent, all internationally recognized political prisoners would have been released, and we would be prepared to begin a dialogue with Belarus on further steps to improve bilateral relations," he added. The same day, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed a similar hope, saying that granting Kazulin the bereavement leave "is not only a manifestation of humanity but also ranges among the release of five political prisoners earlier this year." The Belarusian authorities recently released youth activists Zmitser Dashkevich and Artur Finkevich, journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou, former legislator Andrey Klimau, and businessmen Yury Lyavonau and Mikalay Autukhovich. Autukhovich's prison sentence was changed to corrective labor at his home. Kazulin, who was arrested during the antigovernment demonstrations that followed the March 2006 presidential election and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison for organizing events that disturbed public order, is serving his term in a high-security correctional facility near Vitsebsk. AM

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on February 26 that Belarus may agree to some compromises in relations with its neighbors, the United States, and the European Union, but this does not mean a change of its foreign policy, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "There is no force today that could have us trembling, begging, and groveling," Lukashenka said. "We have created this state and we should defend it, although there will be pressure from every direction." Lukashenka said that the government follows a "balanced and careful foreign policy." "Although we may agree to compromises somewhere, as has been the case with the European Union lately, I would not say that we have changed the vector of our foreign policy and are trying, as some say, to make advances to the West," he added. AM

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said on February 26 in Moscow that the Russian gas monopoly might reduce gas supplies to Ukraine by one-quarter if it fails to sign necessary agreements or pay off debts for gas already delivered, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "If all the necessary documents are not signed, then because of [Ukraine's] debt, gas supplies to Ukrainian consumers will be reduced by 25 percent starting at 10 a.m., on March 3," Kupriyanov said. In a telephone conversation about Russia's gas supplies to Ukraine the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly told Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko that the payment made by Ukraine for consumed gas does not cover the entire debt and therefore it cannot be regarded as a sufficient measure to secure further uninterrupted gas supplies. Putin suggested that Gazprom might reduce gas supplies starting on February 27. After that conversation, Yushchenko criticized the Ukrainian government for failing to fulfill the agreement on paying off the debt he recently reached with Putin, and he sent Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko a note ordering a report early on February 27 on the implementation of the deal he reached with Putin. Gazprom demanded Ukraine pay $1.5 billion for gas consumed in last months of 2007. Ukrainian First Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Turchynov said on February 26 that the government paid in full the gas debt incurred in late 2007. Turchynov accused the intermediary companies UkrGazEnergo and RosUkrEnergo of failing to notify Gazprom of the fact that debts were paid off. Turchynov also said that the government intends to continue its policy aimed at excluding intermediaries and "opaque criminal schemes" from the Ukrainian gas market. AM

Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Prodan said on February 27 that the presidential directive to pay off gas debts incurred to the Russian gas giant Gazprom is being carried out, the "Ukrayinska Pravda" website ( reported. "Within two days -- today and yesterday -- we have transferred nearly 2.4 billion [hryvnyas ($474 million)]. We are today going to close the issue of the UkrGazEnergo debt incurred in the last year," Prodan said. Ukraine currently receives Russian natural gas through two intermediary companies: RosUkrEnergo delivers gas to the Russian-Ukrainian border and UkrGazEnergo supplies it to Ukrainian consumers. Prodan also said that there are some issues regarding Ukraine's gas debt that are questioned by the government. "According to my calculations, except sums that are not confirmed by Ukraine, we are today going to pay off the debts in full," he added. AM

Mirko Cvetkovic, who is Serbia's minister of finance, said in the mainly Serbian northern part of Mitrovica on February 26 that the Belgrade authorities want to integrate the financial and tax structures of the Serbian-populated areas of Kosova with those of Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," August 30, 2007, and February 13, 2008). He stressed that the relevant Serbian ministries will make efforts to provide both financial and moral support for the Serbian minority in Kosova. Miodrag Djidic, who is a state secretary in the Finance Ministry, noted in northern Mitrovica on February 26 that the former Prishtina regional tax office, which was moved to Belgrade after Serbian forces left Kosova in 1999, will soon be relocated to northern Mitrovica. The UN, EU, NATO, and the government of Kosova have warned against attempts to partition Kosova in practice by setting up or expanding "parallel structures" in the north. The Martti Ahtisaari plan, on which Kosova's new constitution is based, provides for some "transparent and public" financial links between Belgrade and Kosova's Serbs. On February 26, Kosova's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said in Recak that "we will not allow the territorial integrity of Kosova to be compromised.... I am constantly in contact with NATO to prevent anyone from touching even one inch of Kosova's territory." On February 26, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that Serbian Economy Minister Mladjan Dinkic recently visited northern Kosova to discuss possible investments by Belgrade in the area. The paper argued that Serbia's goal is to set up a Serbian "entity" in Kosova on the model of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina, even though Serbs make up about one-third of Bosnia's population but only about 5 percent of that of Kosova. The daily noted that Serbian President Boris Tadic first raised the idea of setting up a Serbian entity while on a visit to Moscow on November 15, 2005. He developed the notion the following day at a convention of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Karlsruhe. The SPD controls Germany's Foreign Ministry. PM

Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski announced in Warsaw on February 26 that the cabinet agreed to recognize Kosova as an independent state, international media reported. According to the website, Poland is the 25th country to do so. The first was Costa Rica on February 17, the day that Kosova declared independence, followed on February 18 by the United States, France, Afghanistan, Albania, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. PM

About 10,000 people attended a peaceful demonstration in Banja Luka on February 26 to protest Kosova's recent declaration of independence, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and Reuters reported. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said that "the message we want to send from here is very clear. We tell you peacefully that as long as we live here we won't accept any act of violence that separates Kosovo from Serbia. Written on the badge I'm wearing on my chest is 'Kosovo is Serbia.'" In a course of events reminiscent of a recent incident in Belgrade, a smaller number of people then broke off from the peaceful gathering and sought to attack the U.S. Consulate with stones and firecrackers (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13 and 25, 2008). The violent protesters also broke windows of Croatian-owned shops. PM

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has warned that Turkey's military operation against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) could destabilize the entire region. While that is true, it is more likely that a prolonged operation could exacerbate tensions between the Kurdish region and Baghdad and lead to a deterioration in Iraq's domestic security situation.

Turkey's incursion has gained cautious support from the international community. The United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and Germany have urged that Turkey exercise extreme caution and complete the operations as quickly as possible. While Western states say they prefer to see a diplomatic resolution to the dispute, none have condemned the incursion, which is expected to last another 10 days.

But some observers have warned that a protracted military operation could give rise to clashes between Iraq's Kurdish peshmerga forces and the Turkish military. Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i said on February 25 that the longer Turkish forces remain inside Iraq, the greater the chance that a clash could take place. "We need to avoid this at any cost. This has very serious consequences even if this happens by accident," Reuters quoted him as saying.

One of the most pressing concerns is that a ground incursion could force mass displacement as villagers flee their homes along the Turkish border for areas farther south. Iraq's Kurdish region is already overflowing with displaced people who have left homes in Mosul, Baghdad, and other "insurgent hotbed" areas for the relative tranquility of the north.

Kurdish villagers inside the region began to flee in August 2007 after both Turkey and Iran began shelling border areas. At the time, Foreign Minister Zebari said hundreds of families were forced to leave their homes. The influx of displaced people has further burdened the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) as it tries to house, feed, and provide aid for them. The situation also brings enormous social strains as cities try to cope with the influx of people and their demands for housing and jobs.

Businessmen in the northern Kurdish governorate of Dahuk told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on February 25 that they are worried that the incursion will damage trade between the KRG-administered areas and Turkey. According to media reports, the border area remains open for the time being.

Some 80 percent of foreign investment in Iraq's Kurdish region comes from Turkey, and a protracted military operation would also ultimately damage Turkish interests. In Dahuk, the seven largest infrastructure and investment projects are being built by Turkish construction companies, "The New York Times" reported on November 7. Turkish ventures include hotels, an overpass, a museum, and housing projects.

The incursion could also further strain tensions in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies just outside the Kurdish autonomous area. Kirkuk's Turkoman population is sympathetic to with the Turkish government. Turkomans, who are ethnic Turks, rely on Turkey's patronage and support in their struggle against Iraq's Kurds for control over Kirkuk. Both groups believe Kirkuk is historically theirs.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Arabs, many of whom were moved to Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein's 1980s Arabization campaign, view Kirkuk as inherently Iraqi, not Kurdish, and they stand firmly opposed to the governorate's inclusion in the Kurdish region. The battle over Kirkuk has put the Kurds at a real disadvantage vis-a-vis their Arab and Turkoman brethren, with the latter two groups viewing Kurdish designs on Kirkuk as greedy, and ultimately linked to the issue of oil.

A referendum on the status of Kirkuk was slated to be held in December 2007. When the referendum was delayed, Kurdish leaders saw it as an affront to their "legitimate rights."

The Turkish incursion also threatens to strain relations between the KRG and Baghdad. Kamal Kirkuki, deputy speaker of the Kurdish parliament, told Al-Sharqiyah television on February 24 that the Kurds "believe Turkey's aims go beyond what is said in the Turkish media." Kirkuki expressed frustration with the central government, saying Baghdad should have pressed the issue at the United Nations. Instead, the central government "did not move," he said. Assessing the reasons why, he said the Iraqi position is weak with regards to Turkey, and Baghdad could probably not convince Turkey to change its course.

Regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani also criticized Baghdad in a February 24 press briefing in Irbil. Commenting on Turkey's bombing of civilian infrastructure, Barzani said: "We believe this demonstrates that despite its stated aims, Turkey is targeting the [Iraqi] Kurdistan region itself. I am surprised by Baghdad's weak response to this clear violation of Iraq's sovereignty."

Indeed, Baghdad has aligned with the Turkish, U.S., and European position that the PKK is a terrorist organization. As such, it has reportedly coordinated with the United States and Turkey on the current operation. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel told the press on February 22, "There's an ongoing dialogue between Iraqis and leaders in Turkey about how to best confront the threat of the PKK." He said the U.S. and the Iraqi governments were notified simultaneously about the Turkish military operation. "We urge [Turkey] to work directly also with the Iraqis, including Kurdish government officials, in determining how best to address the threat of the PKK," he added.

Iraq's leaders, including Kurdish leaders in the central government, have thus far adopted a pragmatic approach to dealing with the Turkey-PKK issue. A statement posted to the Iraqi Foreign Ministry's website on February 22 said Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi summoned the Turkish charge d'affaires in Baghdad to express the government's concerns that a "military buildup on the border...could lead to a deterioration of the security situation in the region and affect the stability [in Iraq], and that any military action on the border by the Turkish Army will be intruding" on Iraq's national sovereignty.

Meanwhile, President Jalal Talabani, who is a Kurd, last week accepted an invitation by Turkish President Abdullah Gul to visit Turkey . The visit is expected to take place in April.

For the time being, it appears that the situation will remain stable as long as Turkey adheres to its stated goals, namely to carry out a limited operation targeting the PKK. Should the Turkish Army venture farther south, stability could be affected to a greater degree. If that happens, Turkey may also be subjected to harsh criticism from the international community. But for now, Turkey appears to have the green light from Baghdad and the international community to rein in the PKK.

Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay has urged parliament to keep the 2,500 Canadian troops in Afghanistan until 2011, warning that an earlier withdrawal may lead its NATO allies to leave Afghanistan as well, AFP reported on February 26. Opening a debate in parliament on extending Canada's mission in Afghanistan, MacKay said, "The consequences of pulling Canada's military out of Afghanistan could have a domino effect on others." Seventy-eight Canadian soldiers and a senior diplomat have died in Afghanistan since 2002. MacKay said that Canada does not want to abandon the Afghan people or turn its back on the international community. "Now is the time, and Afghanistan needs us. Stabilizing Afghanistan is a noble and essential cause," he said. AT

A car carrying a police commander, his son, and three nephews -- all of them policemen -- plus his 9-year-old son, was blown up by a remote-control bomb on the outskirts of the eastern city of Khost, AFP reported on February 26, citing Yaqubi district chief Lutfullah Babakarkhail. Although no one claimed responsibility, Babakarkhail said the attack was the work of allies of the Taliban. AT

After a two-year hiatus, Ariana Afghan Airlines resumed flights to Germany on February 26, Asia Pulse reported the same day. Zabihullah Esmati, the head of the state-owned airline, said that Ariana flights were previously banned in European countries because of an obsolescent fleet. Esmati called on President Hamid Karzai and other Afghan officials for support and to help the airline regain its former status among airlines. AT

An 11-year-old boy has escaped the captivity of Taliban militants, who he said intended to use him to carry out a suicide attack on troops in the Chenar village of the Ander district in the southern Ghazni Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on February 25. Allah Mohammad told Pajhwak that he and his friend were kidnapped by five militants and were persuaded to commit a suicide attack on the district administration's headquarters. When they refused, the militants tied their hands and ordered explosive vests for them, he said. When left alone, Mohammed ran away, but his friends did not. District chief Abdur Rahim Daisewal confirmed the incident and said that his forces will attempt to rescue the other boys. AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said at a February 26 meeting with members of the Assembly of Experts -- the body of clerics that ostensibly supervises Khamenei's office -- that Iran has "attained a great success" with the February 22 release of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) report on its nuclear program, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media. He thanked President Mahmud Ahmadinejad for his contribution. The report broadly terminated months of cooperation between Iran and the IAEA intended to clarify Iranian activities, but concluded it could not definitively qualify Iran's program as strictly civilian, as Iranian officials claim. Khamenei said that "those same people who were calling for an end to Iran's nuclear activities" are now conditionally accepting its "progress." He added that "the president's personal role and resilience" in the issue was "outstanding." VS

Diplomats from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany met in Washington on February 25 to discuss the imposition of punitive sanctions on Iran for its refusal to end sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities, news agencies reported. The United States hopes that the Security Council will quickly approve a third UN sanctions resolution targeting Iran's nuclear program. Great Britain and France formally presented the Security Council with the latest sanctions text on February 21 or 22, agencies reported. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on February 25 that the United States expects "a vote soon on the draft sanctions resolution currently being discussed in New York," CNN reported. He said the diplomats who met on February 25 agreed to continue the dual-track approach -- pressure coupled with incentives -- to force Iran to halt fuel production. CNN also reported, citing unnamed U.S. and EU diplomats, that representatives of the five-plus-one powers on February 22 discussed tightening financial or banking restrictions on Iran, independently of UN sanctions. Iran's envoy at the UN, Mohammad Khazai, said in New York on February 25 that there is no legal case for the UN Security Council to debate Iran's nuclear program, and another resolution would discredit the IAEA, AFP reported. He said Iran would not comply with another UN resolution, which he said would be based on "allegations," not the recent IAEA report. VS

Judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi has asked Iran's Supreme Court to reexamine the case of Zahra Bani-Yaqub, a 27-year-old medical student who died in custody in western Iran last year, Radio Farda reported on February 26. Bani-Yaqub was arrested on October 12, 2007, after she was found to be with a man -- who turned out to be her fiancee -- in a park in the city of Hamedan. Officials announced two days later that she had hanged herself in prison. Her family rejected this version and complained. The case may now be taken from the Hamedan judiciary to the Supreme Court if it agrees to review it, AFP reported on February 26. Shirin Ebadi, a prominent lawyer representing the Bani-Yaqub family, told Radio Farda in January that there were discrepancies in reports about Bani-Yaqub's death and testimony by some of the agents who arrested her (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2008). She observed that in contrast with Bani-Yaqub, who graduated in medicine from Tehran University, the militiamen who arrested her were illiterate and had signed the interrogation report with their fingerprints. VS

About 1,000 students continued on February 26 a protest at Shiraz University in southern Iran begun on February 24 over restrictive campus conditions and "cultural policies" at the university, Radio Farda reported. Student Mohammad Mehdi Ahmadi complained to Radio Farda on February 26 of "pressures" the university chief, whom he identified as Dr. Sadeqi, was imposing on the campus. He said these included the disqualification of 108 students who had sought to run for seats in a student council, the expulsion of various students from dormitories, the closure or evacuation of dormitories for married students, and pressures on student journals and activists. "These all became a trigger for the...protests," he said. University employees and teaching staff reportedly backed the students. Citing unnamed activists, Radio Farda reported other ongoing protests or sit-ins in Shahrud University in northeastern Iran and the Teacher Training University in Tehran. Ahmadi told Radio Farda that specific issues were merely triggers for protests in Iran's increasingly restricted campuses. "The atmosphere the...government has created in universities is [one] of protest, and the slightest issue can trigger large protests," he said. VS

An unnamed Iranian official was quoted on February 26 as saying that Iran is shutting its borders to Turkish troops and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants currently fighting in northern Iraq, and "would not allow its territories to be used for the interest of either side in the conflict," Peyamner, a Kurdish news agency in northern Iraq reported. The unnamed official said the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps is on alert to defend Iranian territory and prevent the entry of any combatants from northern Iraq. VS

The pan-Arabic satellite news channel Al-Arabiyah aired video footage on February 26 of a man claiming to be one of five British citizens taken hostage in Iraq on May 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2007). In the video, the man, who identified himself as Peter Moore, appealed to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, saying he and his companions could be exchanged for nine Iraqis held in coalition custody. "All I want is to leave this place. I tell Gordon Brown the matter is simple: release their prisoners so we can go. It's as simple as that. It's a simple exchange of people. That is all they want -- their people and we can go home," Moore said. The Foreign Office issued a statement criticizing the footage. "We condemn the release of videos such as this, which are greatly distressing to the families of those involved," the statement noted. "We urge those holding the group to release them immediately. We are in close contact with the Iraqi authorities and doing everything we can to try and secure a swift release." KR

Iraq's Council of Ministers issued a statement on February 26 condemning Turkey's incursion into northern Iraq, Iraqi media reported. "The Council of Ministers hereby urges Turkey to withdraw its troops at once and bring its military interference to an end," the statement said. "The council stresses that unilateral military action is not acceptable and threatens the good relationship between the two neighboring states." The cabinet said it has a "sincere and genuine interest" in joint cooperation with Turkey to end the "joint threat posted by the terrorist" Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). On February 21, Turkey launched a ground operation against PKK militants in northern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2008). KR

The Turkish General Staff issued an update on the operations in northern Iraq on February 26, saying heavy snowfall has "partially restricted the units' maneuvering capability." The statement confirmed that two soldiers were killed by PKK gunfire. "The terrorists were silenced with concentrated light and heavy fire," the statement noted. The General Staff said it could not confirm PKK casualties because of the adverse weather conditions. The statement claimed that the Turkish military has received information that PKK fighters are being treated in northern Iraqi hospitals, a charge the Kurdistan regional government denied in a February 27 statement. It further accused the PKK and sympathetic media outlets of issuing false reports on PKK casualties. The statement also accused Kurdish media outlets of airing footage of helicopter wreckage that dates to May 1997. The PKK claimed earlier this week that it downed a Turkish Cobra helicopter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). Turkey confirmed the loss of a helicopter, but did not say whether it was shot down. The Kurdish news website "Awene" reported on February 26 that the PKK said it found the bodies of three airmen from the downed helicopter. Meanwhile, Turkish State Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said on February 26 that Turkey has "neutralized" 158 PKK fighters since February 21, the Anatolia news agency reported the same day. The PKK claimed on February 25 that it has killed 81 Turkish soldiers. The website of Iraq's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan reported that heavy casualties were inflicted on both sides on February 26. KR

Some 9 million people are expected to converge on the holy city of Karbala this week, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on February 26, citing an administrative source for the holy sites in Karbala. Shi'a will commemorate Arba'in, which marks the 40th day of the mourning period that follows the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. Al-Iraqiyah reported that 5 million people have already entered the city, including 70,000 Arab and foreign visitors. KR