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Newsline - April 7, 2008

At what was billed as their last bilateral summit as presidents of their respective countries, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin noted in Sochi on April 6 that Moscow continues to oppose a proposed U.S. missile-defense system, components of which would be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, international and regional media reported. Putin said nonetheless that he felt "cautious optimism" that the two sides can eventually reach agreement and that U.S. confidence-building proposals would be "important and useful" if implemented. He added that differences remain on a replacement for the START nuclear-arms-control treaty but that the presidents have agreed upon a "strategic framework" guiding future U.S.-Russia relations. Bush said he backs Russia's efforts to join the World Trade Organization and that he supports Washington's dropping Cold War-era legislation tying trade with Russia to human rights. Bush also said he formed a positive first impression of Russia's President-elect Dmitry Medvedev and is looking forward to working with him. Bush and Putin nonetheless did not, as many observers had expected, conclude a "legacy agreement" to resolve disputes on missile defense and some other strategic issues before they leave office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, and April 2, 3, and 4, 2008). The BBC commented on April 6 that the two leaders "agreed to disagree" and marked time until their respective successors take office. Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" noted on April 7 that Bush has taken great pains throughout his presidency to treat Putin as an equal. PM

President Putin said in Sochi on April 6 that "one of the most difficult questions [dividing him and President Bush] was, and remains, the antimissile defense in Europe," international media reported. Putin stressed that "the problem is not about the formulation, the diplomatic construction of sentences, but about the essence of the problem.... No change took place in our attitude in principle to U.S. plans." He added nonetheless that "our American partners not only understand our concerns but are sincerely trying to resolve them." Referring to NATO enlargement, Putin argued that the "simple technical enlargement of NATO is a political action in keeping with the old logic, which was [prevalent] when Russia was still perceived at least as an opponent." For his part, President-elect Medvedev told Bush that "in the past eight years, you and...Putin have done a lot to advance the Russian-U.S. relationship. And this Russian-U.S. relationship is a key factor in security in the world. When I officially assume my duties [in May], I would like to make sure that our relationship will continue developing without interruptions using the constructive engagement existing between us." Bush noted that he and Putin "spent a lot of time in our relationship trying to get rid of the Cold War. It's over, it ended. And the fundamental question in this relationship is: Now can we work together to put the Cold War in the past." He added that "we agreed today that the United States and Russia want to create a system for responding to potential missile threats in which Russia, and the United States, and Europe will participate as equal partners. This is a powerful and important strategic vision.... Obviously, we've got a lot of work to do to convince the [Russian] experts that the system is not aimed at Russia. It's really to help deal with the threats with we all are going to face." PM

President Putin said in Bucharest at the April 4 meeting of the Russia-NATO Council that "the appearance on our borders of a powerful military bloc...will be taken in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country. And we cannot be satisfied with statements that this process is not aimed against Russia," international media reported. He added that "what does not help build confidence [between Russia and NATO] is the vagueness of NATO's transformation prospects. I mean the alliance's claims for a global role in providing security, its operations beyond its sphere of geographic responsibility, and spreading its activities to areas such as energy security, cybersecurity, and so on. Besides, the criteria of NATO's use of force and its relations with the UN Security Council are still undefined." He said that a new Cold War is impossible but charged that some NATO members still believe in the "total demonization" of his country. Regarding the proposed U.S. missile-defense program, Putin argued that "we put forward our own initiative that we should, first of all, together analyze missile threats; secondly, together outline the architecture of a future strategic missile-defense system; thirdly, ensure equal, democratic access to system controls by each of the participants: the United States, Russia, and Europe." The Russian leader lambasted the idea that NATO enlargement helps promote democracy, saying that "for me, it's a very strange premise.... If a country is a member of NATO, it can claim to be democratic. And if it is not [a NATO member], is it not democratic then?" He argued that "accession to NATO unfortunately does not automatically lead to democratization of a particular country. It is not an automatic democratizer." Putin said that "Russia does not yet aspire [to become a member of NATO], thank God. We are a self-sufficient country when it comes to ensuring our security. And we are not going to sacrifice any part of our sovereignty in order to create an illusion of strengthening our security." Britain's "Financial Times" on April 5 quoted an unnamed European diplomat as saying that Putin spoke "more in sorrow than in anger." PM

The daily "Moskovsky korrespondent" noted on April 7 that Russian "analysts are skeptical about President Putin's speech at the Bucharest summit. Dmitry Yefremov from the Evrazia website says, 'It's entirely futile to try figuring out what Putin meant, since none of the objectives he mentioned have actually been achieved.' Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Merkator Group, argued that 'all of Putin's rhetoric is primarily intended for domestic consumption and used to repair the damaged national self-image of Russian citizens. It has nothing to do with real politics, if only because Russia has no leverage with NATO. Putin is soon to leave office, and NATO very humanely permitted him to save face, politely postponing membership for Ukraine and Georgia until the post-Putin era.'" The government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on April 7 quoted German Russia analyst Alexander Rahr as saying that "Germany and France do not consider it possible to build a pan-European security architecture without involving Russia. In other words, Old Europe believes in strategic partnership with Moscow. Now this idea has to be put into practice, in projects such as European missile defense," regardless of the views of the United States and "some European states." Rahr added that the Bucharest summit also showed that "Ukraine will not join NATO in the next 10-15 years. But if this does happen, the European continent would see a very severe chill in relations between the West and Russia. It is very hard to imagine eastern Ukraine, with its centuries-old cultural and civilizational ties to Russia, being part of a military bloc that is in conflict with Moscow. If Ukraine wants to be a NATO member, its only solution is to consider the possibility of joining NATO together with Russia." PM

"Russian Newsweek" reported in its issue dated April 8 that President-elect Medvedev will follow essentially the same policies toward the West as President Putin, differing only in matters of style. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" argued on April 7 that "Russia's present-day status is not based on its powerful economy. It is largely determined by the actions of the outgoing president. We still have plenty of vulnerable areas. That's why Medvedev will not be automatically granted the status of a strong leader of a strong country" but must work to attain that status. The daily "Kommersant" suggested on April 7 that "Moscow has only one option: improving relations with its neighbors and with NATO, rather than an all-out fight with them. Then the Euro-Atlantic integration of Kyiv and Tbilisi will no longer be perceived as a tragedy in Moscow." PM

Britain's "The Guardian" reported on April 7 that Estonia is preparing for a repeat of the cyberattacks it suffered one year ago as the first anniversary of those attacks approaches. It is widely believed in Estonia that the attacks came from Russia, but Moscow denies the charge (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2008). "The Economist" reported on April 3 on apparent Russian electronic espionage projects near Estonia's frontiers, including one possibly aimed at eavesdropping on the Western communications satellite Inmarsat 4-F2. PM

Leading members of Russia's liberal opposition gathered in St. Petersburg on April 5 to discuss prospects for creating a united opposition front, Russian media reported. reported on April 7 that no documents or agreements were signed at the event, which was attended by former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, United Civic Front leader Garry Kasparov, Union of Rightist Forces leader Nikita Belykh, and Yabloko youth leader Ilya Yashin, among others. Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky did not attend the conference and last week issued a statement warning party members not to attempt a merger with "supra-party structures." St. Petersburg Yabloko leader Maksim Reznik, who was jailed on what are widely believed to be politically motivated charges following the March 2 presidential election and who was released pending trial on March 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008), addressed the gathering. Conference participants pledged to continue meeting to discuss the form of a "broad coalitional, sociopolitical movement." Left-leaning oppositionists held a similar gathering in Moscow on April 6, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported the same day. Participants agreed to form a "National Assembly" that would serve as an alternative policy-discussion forum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). The first session of that body is set for May 17-18. RC

As of April 7, accredited journalists have been barred from free access to the main government office complex in Moscow, "Kommersant" reported on April 7, citing a White House press official. Press officer Aleksandr Zharov told the daily that from now on all official press communications will be distributed by fax and e-mail and published on the government's official website. As a result, journalists do not need physical access to the building, Zharov said. The daily noted that government press releases have long been distributed by these means, adding that the new restrictions are intended to cut off "unofficial" communications between officials and journalists. Under the new rules, journalists will only be allowed into the White House for official events and will be limited in their movements to the fifth-floor press center. "Kommersant" cited journalists as speculating that the changes in the White House are connected with the transfer of officials from President Putin's administration to the government in anticipation of his expected appointment next month as prime minister. RC

President-elect Medvedev told the 12th annual Russian Internet Forum on April 3 that the government must "take a calm, fair position" in relation to Internet users, "The Moscow Times" reported the next day. The speech came amid concerns that the government is stepping up efforts to monitor and control electronic communications and the Internet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 14, 2008). Medvedev has publicly stated that he is an avid user of the Internet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). Nonetheless, Medvedev told the Internet forum that the government must consider "the delicate question of the relationship between freedom of speech and responsibility." RC

In a meeting with local officials, Daghestan President Mukhu Aliyev warned on April 3 that "destructive forces" engaged in an "extra-political fight for power" threaten to destabilize the southern Russian republic, reported on April 4. Aliyev urged local authorities to work together with civic institutions to combat "the criminal plots of destructive forces," and stressed that the main problems facing Daghestan center on "religious-political extremism and the state of ethnic relations." Aliyev noted the challenge of a continuing wave of bombings and killings, including a failed assassination attempt against deputy Eduard Khidirov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007) and the assassination of the leader of the Daghestani branch of the Yabloko party, Farid Babayev, outside his home in Makhachkala (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 27, and 29, 2007). Aliyev, a former chairman of Daghestan's parliament, became president of the republic in February 2006. Daghestan has a complex ethnic makeup and is home to some 50 different nationalities, including the Avars (28 percent), Dargins (15.5 percent), Kumyks (12.9 percent), and Lezgins (11.5 percent), as well as Russians, Laks, Tabasarans, Azeris, Chechens, Nogais, Tats, Rutuls, Agurs, and Tsakhurs (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," July 15, 2005). RG

Following the final cabinet meeting of his presidency, President Robert Kocharian on April 4 reiterated his criticism of Armenia's opposition, repeating accusations that the postelection demonstrations that culminated in an open and violent clash on March 1 between riot police and protesters were "organized" as part of an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow his government, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Armenian Public Television reported. Kocharian also called on the opposition to refrain from making statements that "exploit the Nagorno-Karabakh origin of the country's top leaders." He hinted that such statements should be criminalized, arguing that "the interests of ethnic minorities are protected, racial discrimination is a crime, but the dissemination of hatred among various sections of the Armenian people is not punishable." During his final cabinet meeting, Kocharian hailed the country's progress, saying that "large-scale reforms in all directions have been implemented," while asserting that "the quality of life of our citizens has apparently improved" over the past decade. However, he warned that there were "many things to be done in future." Turning to the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Kocharian said that "there can be no concessions from the Armenian side," and called on the next president to be even "more resolute." RG

Speaking to reporters in Yerevan, Armenian Environmental Protection Minister Aram Harutiunian announced on April 4 that Russian officials will turn over to Armenia extensive Soviet-era data on uranium deposits in Armenia, Arminfo reported. The classified Russian data, dating from the so-called "Gromov expedition" of the 1950s, claims to have discovered eight or nine uranium deposits in the southern Syunik region containing an estimated 30,000 tons of uranium ore. Despite the potential uranium reserves, Armenia agreed in January 2007 to hand over exploration rights to Russia in an agreement reached between President Kocharian and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a summit in Sochi. RG

Speaking to reporters in Baku on April 4, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Anne Derse expressed concern about the poor state of media freedom in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. Commenting on the ongoing hunger strike by a group of opposition journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2008), Derse noted that the United States supports an unbiased, independent, and free media, which she said are crucial for democracy. She said citizens must be afforded "opportunities to obtain information and play an active role in society," while stressing that independent media also serves an important role in "supervising" the power of the executive and other state bodies along with independent legal and legislative authorities. RG

Azerbaijani Interior Minister General Ramil Usubov issued a decree on April 5 dismissing a group of senior police officers and officials, APA news agency reported. The firings follow a secret internal investigation that targeted senior police figures in Baku as part of a broader probe of corruption and abuse of power within the municipal police force. The dismissed officers and officials include Murad Abdullayev, the retired former deputy chief of the police department; Ceyhun Valiev, a senior narcotics officer; and Tazaxan Damirov, the head of an investigative unit. All face criminal prosecution. RG

After allegedly undergoing an eight-hour interrogation, Azerbaijani opposition journalist Agil Xalil was forced to recant his accusations of assault against several security officers, Turan reported on April 5. Xalil, a journalist with the opposition "Azadliq" newspaper, was stabbed in the chest by unknown assailants in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2008). In late February, he was assaulted by unknown assailants in Baku (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2008). His boss at the newspaper, Azer Ahmedov, claims that Xalil has recently received death threats and been subject to surveillance by security officers. Ahmedov added that the security personnel demanded that he drop his accusations against the officers and sought to coerce him into signing an affidavit accusing "his colleagues or homosexuals" of assaulting him. RG

Speaking to reporters in Tbilisi, Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia announced on April 4 that President Mikheil Saakashvili has agreed to dispatch military instructors to Afghanistan to train Afghan soldiers, Interfax reported. In a proposal during the recent NATO summit in Bucharest, Saakashvili also offered to host Afghan military personnel and to have Georgian military instructors provide training at Georgia's Sachkhere mountain training center. Kutelia explained that two companies of Georgian peacekeepers will be sent to Afghanistan to conduct a training mission with Dutch and French troops. A separate Georgian "special-purpose detachment" is also to deploy to Afghanistan and work closely with U.S. troops on an unspecified assignment. In separate comments the same day, parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze explained that the mission represents "Georgia's contribution to strengthening peace and stability in Afghanistan." She added that it is "a sign that Georgia is not a country that is only waiting for support from others," but is "able to participate actively in the resolution of international problems." RG

Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office spokesman Saparbek Nurpeisov announced on April 3 the dismissal of the head of the state railway company, Zhaksybek Kuleleev, after police in Almaty charged him on April 1 with accepting a $100,000 bribe, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kuleleev, a former deputy head of the state-owned oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz, was the target of a criminal investigation that also resulted in the arrest of his deputy, Nurabai Zhanai, for extorting a 295,000-tenge (about $2,460) bribe, Kazakhstan Today reported on April 4. Following the dismissal of Kuleleev, President Nursultan Nazarbaev on April 4 named Astana Mayor Askar Mamin to replace him and then appointed Imangali Tasmagambetov as the new mayor of Astana. Prior to the appointment, the 52-year old Tasmagambetov, a former prime minister who resigned in 2003 to become the head of the presidential administration until December 2004, when he was appointed the mayor of Almaty. Akhmetzhan Yesimov was then named the new mayor of Almaty. Prior to this appointment, the 57-year old Yesimov served as agriculture minister, a post he held since January 2006, and was a three-time former deputy prime minister as well as serving as the governor of the southern Almaty region. RG

A spokesman for the Kazakh Emergency Situations Ministry announced on April 4 that 32 dead seals have been discovered along the Caspian Sea shoreline in the western Mangystau region, according to ITAR-TASS. The dead seals were discovered by local workers near the Kalamkas oil deposit the day before. Local residents in the same region found some 928 dead seals over a period from March to May last year (see "Caspian Sea: Seal Deaths Highlight Species' Predicament,", April 13, 2007). Although the exact cause of the seals' deaths remains uncertain, the already decreasing population of Caspian seals has long been victim to illegal hunting and energy-related pollution and the species has declined to only about 10 percent of its numbers from a century earlier. RG

At a press conference in the southern city of Osh, Kyrgyz Emergency Situations Ministry Kamchybek Tashiev announced on April 1 that the planned relocation of his ministry to Osh has been completed on schedule, the website reported. Tashiev added that he and three of his deputy ministers, along with a support staff of 65 ministry officials, are now fully based in the southern town, with one deputy minister and some 45 officials remaining in Bishkek. Late last month, a group of legislators formally proposed to move the capital from Bishkek to Osh, according to a two-stage plan consisting of an initial transfer of some government ministries and state agencies followed by a subsequent complete move of the capital by 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2008). The move is a part of a government plan to address "social problems" in the southern region and seeks to counter a population decrease, as well as boosting efforts to reduce potential conflicts in the nearby Ferghana Valley. Some local Osh residents reacted to the start of the relocation plan with skepticism, noting that emigration from the southern region has been so significant that any attempt to address the demographic imbalance at this stage will be too late, Kyrgyz Television reported. RG

Kyrgyz police in Bishkek on April 5 arrested prominent human rights activist Maksim Kuleshov during a very brief demonstration in front of the main government building, the website reported. The demonstration, which lasted 10 minutes before police forcibly dispersed the protesters, was organized to sarcastically show support for "dictatorship and tyranny" in Kyrgyzstan, with leaflets asking for donations for the "tyrant and dictator," referring to President Kurmanbek Bakiev by name. A separate, unrelated demonstration was held the day before in the Issyk-Kul region, with about 300 people in the town of Cholpon-Ata protesting on April 4 the decision by local officials to move a large central market well outside the town, ordering its relocation to a vacant and isolated area near the region's old airport, AKIpress reported. RG

A day after his speech to the NATO summit in Bucharest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2008), Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov met on April 4 with U.S. President George W. Bush and discussed bilateral relations, as well as cooperation in the energy sector and the fight against global terrorism, Turkmen Television reported. Berdymukhammedov welcomed U.S. plans to expand relations and pledged his commitment to an energy strategy aimed at diversifying export routes for Turkmen natural gas. For his part, Bush offered to expand a program allowing Turkmen students to study in U.S. universities and promised to deepen ties with Turkmen specialists in the education and science sectors. Berdymukhammedov also stressed the recent opening of a UN regional center for preventive diplomacy in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, adding that it would "help to consolidate common efforts" to counter extremism and terrorism in Central Asia. He also reiterated Turkmenistan's granting of over-flight rights for humanitarian aid and noncombat cargo for U.S. and Western forces involved in stabilization operations in nearby Afghanistan. RG

In an announcement during the close of the NATO summit in Bucharest, Uzbek President Islam Karimov offered on April 4 special over-flight rights and railway access through Uzbek territory to NATO for the transport of "nonmilitary cargo" into Afghanistan, ITAR-TASS and AKIpress reported. He said that "Uzbekistan is ready to discuss and sign an agreement with NATO on the passage of nonmilitary cargo through its territory over the Termiz-Khayraton bridge, which is practically the only railway link with Afghanistan," while stressing that "at the same time, the country's sovereign security interests should be ensured, and our legislation should be observed." He also noted that he is committed to efforts to stabilize and secure Afghanistan, which he defined as the main "factor of security opening up great opportunities to solve vital problems of stable social and economic development in the entire Central Asian region." In addition to offering to sign an agreement with NATO on providing a land-transit corridor and over-flight rights, Karimov also said that Uzbekistan is ready to discuss other aspects of cooperation with NATO, including efforts to combat terrorism and drug trafficking and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. RG

The Uzbek Justice Ministry announced on April 5 in Tashkent that it plans to revoke the official accreditation of Abe David Gurevich, the chief rabbi of the ultraorthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement in the Central Asian region, contending that he is in violation of several local laws, Interfax reported. A ministry official explained that Gurevich's organization is skirting laws on local registration and failed to meet legal requirement for submitting regular financial and accounting reports to the ministry. RG

The U.S. Embassy in Minsk has once again suspended the acceptance of visa applications from Belarusian citizens, Belapan reported on April 4. In a statement posted on its website (, the embassy links the new suspension of visa services to the Belarusian government's demand for a further reduction of the diplomatic mission's staff. "As you are aware, only last week, our embassy reduced the number of American staff by half. We consider these [new] demands by the Belarusian government to be unwarranted and unjustified," the statement says. The embassy suspended its visa services on March 19 and resumed them on April 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 1, 2008). JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told a forum called the "Fifth Meeting Of The World Movement For Democracy In Kyiv" on April 7 that Ukraine could become an associate member of the European Union by the end of this year, Interfax reported. "It is possible that we could sign the political part of the new Ukraine-EU agreement this September and anchor Ukraine's associate membership in the European Union for the first time ever. France made the suggestion to the European Commission, and the latter conveyed it to EU member countries," he said. "In that case, we will have prospects for EU membership, just as we acquired NATO-membership prospects several days ago." Speaking on the Inter television channel the previous day, Yushchenko said that Ukraine's "political sovereignty and membership of NATO are synonymous." He also expressed his conviction that a referendum in Ukraine on NATO membership could be held in 2010, following a "discussion among the nation." JM

Filip Vujanovic won reelection on April 6 for a second five-year term as Montenegro's president with about 52 percent of the votes in a first-round victory, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported on April 7. Andrija Mandic of the Serbian List finished second with just over 19 percent of the votes, Nebojsa Medojevic of the Movement for Changes came in third with about 17 percent, and Srdjan Milic of the Socialist People's Party finished fourth with about 11 percent. The results are preliminary, but election officials said there is little doubt of the outcome. Vujanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS), whose leader is Prime Minister and former President Milo Djukanovic, has wielded power in Montenegro for nearly two decades. After declaring victory, Vujanovic said that "we won for ourselves, for our Montenegro, for a better future for all of us.... I want to express my respect to those who gave their trust to my political opponents and helped Montenegro to show that it is democratic." PM

U.S. President George W. Bush said in Zagreb on April 4 that he welcomes Croatia to NATO membership and hopes that Macedonia will take its place in the alliance soon, international and regional media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 4, 2008). Bush noted that "the invitation to join NATO that Croatia and Albania received this week is a vote of confidence, [that] if you will continue to make necessary reforms and become strong contributors to our great alliance. Henceforth, should any danger threaten your people, America and the NATO alliance will stand with you, and no one would be able to take your freedom away." Bush said that he salutes the people of Croatia "for your courage and willingness to help the young democracy in Afghanistan not only thrive but succeed. I appreciate the friends who have stared evil in the face and understand there's a better tomorrow." He noted "the fact that you have an open government, an honest government, [and] a transparent government, which will help attract foreign capital, [and] well-educated, hard-working people that will help attract foreign capital as well." Referring to the perennial name issue that Greece used to block an invitation for Macedonia to join NATO at the April 2-4 Bucharest summit, Bush said in the presence of Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski and Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski that the "NATO allies declared that as soon as this issue is resolved, Macedonia will be extended an invitation to join the alliance. America's position is clear: Macedonia should take its place in NATO as soon as possible." Bush stressed that "the NATO alliance is open to all countries in the region. We welcome the decisions of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro to take the next steps toward membership called Intensive Dialogue. And we hope that soon a free and prosperous Serbia will find its rightful place in the family of Europe and live at peace with its neighbors." PM

The security situation in the Al-Tharthar area in the central Salah Al-Din Governorate has stabilized since Al-Qaeda in Iraq was driven out of the region, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported on March 30. It said that one of the main reasons behind the improved security in Al-Tharthar was the presence of local awakening councils.

Awakening councils are coalitions of mostly Sunni tribes that have been established in eight governorates in an effort to root out terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Some of the groups involved in the awakening movement had previously fought in the insurgency against U.S. troops.

The movement began in the western Al-Anbar Governorate in 2006 when several Sunni tribes, fed up with Al-Qaeda in Iraq's tactics of indiscriminate bombings and killings, formed a loose coalition called the Al-Anbar Awakening Council. Within a year, Al-Qaeda had been driven out of the governorate.

The formation of awakening councils to combat Al-Qaeda has proven to be one of the most effective counterinsurgency campaigns by the U.S. military in Iraq. The fighters are entirely on the U.S. payroll and often work closely with U.S. and Iraqi forces. Last year, U.S. President George W. Bush singled out the formation of the Al-Anbar Awakening Council as the main reason the governorate was now essentially free of an Al-Qaeda presence.

During the recent reconciliation conference held in Baghdad on March 18-19, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki heaped praise on the awakening movement, saying they had defended "Iraq against terrorism." However, members of the various awakening movements have voiced displeasure over how they have been treated by the U.S. military and the Iraqi government.

The pan-Arabic newspaper "Al-Hayat" reported on March 22 that an awakening movement in the town of Al-Taji, to the north of Baghdad in the Salah Al-Din Governorate, threatened to cease all activity until they were paid. Colonel Sa'ad Aziz Sulayman, the leader of the awakening council in Al-Taji, complained that his fighters have not been paid their salaries, approximately $300-$700 each, for nearly two months.

A similar report appeared in "The Guardian" on March 24 saying leaders of several awakening councils in central Iraq threatened to go on strike because the United States had not paid them regularly. The British daily said thousands of fighters would go on strike unless their salaries of $10 per day resumed.

Abu Abd al-Aziz, the head of the council in Abu Ghurayb, said nearly 500 of his fighters have quit, and he accused U.S. forces of using the awakening councils and later abandoning them. "The Americans got what they wanted. We purged Al-Qaeda for them and now people are saying why should we have any more deaths for the Americans," he said. "They have given us nothing."

Moreover, there been several recent incidents where U.S. military operations have ended up killing and wounding awakening-council fighters. The most recent incident occurred on March 22 when a U.S. air strike near the central town of Samarra killed six members of a local awakening council who were manning a checkpoint. Abu Furuq, a leader of the awakening council in Samarra, expressed his dismay at the attack, and noted that the fighters were wearing reflective vests, clearly identifying them as members of the awakening council.

Many in the awakening movement have also expressed their frustration with the Iraqi government and its slowness in integrating the fighters into the security forces. While al-Maliki has repeatedly praised the movement, he only begrudgingly agreed in December 2007 to incorporate some of the Sunni fighters into the police and army.

The Shi'a-led government has kept a wary eye on fighters from the awakening movement, some of whom were previously part of the insurgency. The vetting process has been extremely slow, some would say deliberately so.

In what will certainly anger members of the awakening movement, "Al-Azzam" reported on April 1 that Prime Minister al-Maliki honored the militias aligned with the two top Shi'ite parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, the Al-Da'wah Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). They were lauded for fighting alongside Iraqi forces against Muqtada al-Sadr's militia in Al-Basrah, and approximately 10,000 fighters from the two militias were absorbed into the security forces.

From the perspective of the Sunni-dominated awakening movement, there is clearly a sectarian motivation involved. The Shi'ite fighters seemed to have been granted instant entrance into the army and police, while the Sunni fighters, who have expelled Al-Qaeda from several governorates, continue to be forced to wait.

Furthermore, seeing Shi'a being given preferential treatment only underscores the sense of collective marginalization felt by the Sunni Arab community. Such actions will certainly not assuage Sunni fears that they have no place in the new Iraq.

One of the major problems facing both the Iraqi government and the United States is what to do with the approximately 80,000 fighters that comprise the awakening movement. The government said it would eventually absorb only 25 percent of them into the security forces. The remaining 75 percent likely face a bleak future of unemployment.

This would be a disastrous scenario that would eerily parallel the disbanding of the Iraqi Army by the Coalition Provisional Authority, arguably one of the biggest U.S. miscalculations in Iraq. The dissolution of the army left thousands of unemployed, alienated, and armed men with no hopes for the future and holding a huge grudge. They along, with the disbanded Ba'athists, formed the backbone of an extremely tenacious and deadly insurgency.

Likewise, casting off thousands of armed Sunni fighters once they are no longer needed could leave them ready recruits for insurgent groups. It should not be forgotten that some of the groups that joined the awakening movement formerly belonged to the anti-U.S. insurgency. Therefore, in desperate circumstances where unemployment is high and opportunities few, a cash offer may be the only recruiting method insurgent groups need to lure the fighters back.

According to the Afghan Interior Ministry, police arrested Taliban commander Abdul Jabar in the southern province of Kandahar on April 5, Reuters reported the next day. Jabar was arrested as he was returning to Pakistan. He was the deputy of Mullah Mansur Dadullah, an important Taliban commander who was captured in Pakistan in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2008). Jabar "was involved in Taliban insurgent operations against the Afghan state and coalition forces," the ministry said in a statement. In addition, 15 insurgents were killed in two clashes about 40 kilometers west of Kandahar city on April 5, the Defense Ministry said. AT

Malalai Joya, a female Afghan legislator who was expelled from parliament last year for insulting fellow lawmakers, said on April 5 that she has filed a petition for reinstatement, AFP reported. Joya was kicked out after she described fellow deputies in the Wolesi Jirga, the parliament's lower house, as "worse than donkeys and cows" in a television interview in May 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9 and December 3, 2007). "The parliament's move was not only against freedom of speech and democratic values, but it was fully against the constitution," Joya told reporters in Kabul. Joya, 29, has attracted attention for her stand against warlords responsible for past atrocities who now dominate the National Assembly in which she had a seat. Referring to her May 2007 interview, she said, "The comments I had made were even an insult to animals." When asked why she did not appeal earlier, Joya said: "I had two reasons: first, it was because of security, and second, I didn't have enough money to hire a lawyer." AT

President Hamid Karzai told a news conference on April 6 that he may run for a second term, AP reported the same day. Karzai said that he has achieved some of his goals since he was elected in 2004, but there is still more work left to be done. He added that he prays that the Afghan people are happy with his time in office and that they will allow him to "complete the work that I have begun...if they were to vote for me." He did not elaborate. Karzai's term is scheduled to end in 2009. This is the first time that he has suggested he intends to run for reelection. AT

Military officials have said that a Canadian soldier was killed on April 5 when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported the same day. Canada has 2,500 troops in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, most of them are stationed in Kandahar Province, which is one of the worst areas affected by the Taliban insurgency. The soldier's death brings to 37 the number of foreign troops who have died so far this year in Afghanistan. AT

Iran's ambassador in Riyadh, Mohammad Hosseini, met on April 6 with the governor of the Riyadh district, Prince Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, and both stressed the need for closer ties to prevent the efforts of "enemies" to sow discord among Islamic states, IRNA reported. Hosseini said regular consultations are necessary given the "mischief of enemies to divide regional states." He said these states could ensure Middle East security without foreign help. Separately, Iran's ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Hamid Reza Asefi, told Mehr news agency on April 6 that an Iran-U.A.E. joint committee will meet in Tehran around April 9-11 to discuss bilateral ties and cooperation. He said that the U.A.E.'s foreign, finance, and justice ministers may travel to Tehran for the first meeting of this committee, formed, he added, following a 2007 visit to the U.A.E. by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. An unnamed deputy foreign minister of the U.A.E. and a technical delegation arrived in Tehran on April 6 to prepare the agenda and documents for the meeting, Asefi said. He added that the "misunderstanding" over three Persian Gulf islands claimed by both states will not stop the expansion of ties. He said trade and investment between the two states rose from $12 billion to $14 billion in "recent years," Mehr reported. VS

Government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham rejected on April 5 unconfirmed reports that Iranian Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari has been dismissed or resigned, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Some Iranian agencies and websites have carried unconfirmed reports in recent days that President Ahmadinejad will reshuffle his cabinet in the coming weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2008). Some have speculated that there are policy disagreements especially between Danesh-Jafari and Ahmadinejad. Elham told the press on April 5 that the media are looking for a sensational story after more than two weeks' holiday following Iran's New Year on March 21, or trying to distract the public from government economic policies. VS

Iranian authorities released trade unionist Mahmud Salehi on April 6, after about a year's detention on charges of acting against state security, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2, 2008). Salehi's lawyer and relatives had recently been pressuring the judiciary to have him released from the jail where he was kept in Sanandaj, in the western Kurdistan Province, as he had served his term. He founded a bakers' union in the nearby town of Saqqez. International labor rights groups also followed his case during his detention. VS

Iranian parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said in parliament in Tehran on April 6 that the "Muslim masses" should boycott Western goods as "Westerners have proved they are the slaves of dirhams and dinars and change their conduct when their economic interests are threatened," Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Haddad-Adel was speaking at the first parliamentary session after the Iranian New Year holidays. He referred to the West's insulting attitude to religion, citing a recent Dutch-made film insulting the Koran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). VS

Parliament voted on April 6 to forbid members of the Guardians Council, a body of jurists and senior clerics, to hold other state positions, in a bid to end months of controversy over officials holding several jobs, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. The move may affect government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham, who is also a jurist on the Guardians Council, minister of justice, and head of a state antitrafficking body. Opponents and supporters of such restrictions have argued for months or even years about what in legal terms constitutes an executive or state-sector post. Officials with several posts often argue their "other" positions are advisory or honorary or unpaid, and do not strictly constitute posts. Parliament voted on April 6 to approve an "urgency" motion; it was not immediately if the motion was passed or would be debated as a priority item. It indicated in any case their decision to clarify the issue, though the Guardians Council will have to approve the motion as constitutional once it is formally ratified. It was presented as an addendum to a 1994 law banning persons from holding more than one public-sector post. The addendum banned Guardians Council members from being in any of the three branches of government or in state-sector or state-affiliated institutes or centers. Another Guardians Council member who may be affected is Ibrahim Azizi, who was appointed vice president for management and human resources development in late 2007. That post was created after the president ordered dissolved the state economic planning and budgeting body. VS

Iraqi security forces on April 6 clashed with members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army in the vast Shi'ite slum of Al-Sadr City, leaving at least 22 people dead and more than 50 wounded, Iraqi and international media reported. Local police and hospital officials said that women and children were among those killed. The U.S. military said it backed up Iraqi forces with targeted air strikes. In a statement, the U.S. military said it carried out air strikes that killed "nine criminals in Al-Sadr City." In the past, U.S. military officials have said their attacks were aimed at solely at Iranian-backed "special groups," which are breakaway factions of the Al-Mahdi Army that have refused to abide by a cease-fire declared by al-Sadr in August 2007. On April 3, al-Sadr called on millions to travel to the holy city of Al-Najaf on April 9 to participate in a massive anti-U.S. demonstration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2008). The demonstration will coincide with the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad to U.S. forces. SS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government issued a decree on April 5 calling on all militias to disarm before provincial elections scheduled for October 1 can commence, Iraqi and international media reported. In a 15-point statement issued by the Political Council for National Security, which includes the prime minister, president, and leaders of parliamentary blocs, all parties are called on "to immediately disband their militias and hand over their weapons to the a condition for their participation in the political process and elections." While the statement does not mention al-Sadr's militia by name, there is no question that the decree is squarely aimed at the Al-Mahdi Army, following its battles with Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq and Baghdad. "We want the Sadrists to disband the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Just freezing it is no longer acceptable," said Sadiq al-Riqabi, a senior adviser to al-Maliki. "The new election law will prevent any party that has weapons or runs a militia from contesting elections." It is well-known that other Shi'ite political parties, most prominently the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), have links to armed militias. In response, Sadrist lawmaker Hasan al-Rubay'i acknowledged on April 6 that the call by the government puts the movement in a difficult position. "We, the Sadrists, are in a predicament," al-Rubay'i said. "Even the blocs that had in the past supported us are now against us and we cannot stop them from taking action against us in parliament." SS

Iraqi security forces on April 6 freed 42 university students who were abducted by armed gunmen in the northern city of Mosul, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. The students were traveling in two buses, one carrying male students and the other only female students. The bus carrying the female students managed to get away from the attackers, but the male students were captured and taken hostage. Ninawa Governorate military spokesman Brigadier General Khalid Abd al-Satar did not offer any details as to how the hostages were freed. However, several local police officials said the incident might have been a result of mistaken identity. They told Al-Jazeera that the kidnappers probably thought the male students were policemen or police recruits. Once the kidnappers realized they were students, they released them. SS

Unknown gunmen on April 5 shot and killed an Assyrian Orthodox priest in central Baghdad, international media reported on April 6. Adil Yusif, a priest at St Peter's Church, was killed when gunmen shot him near his home in the Al-Karradah neighborhood of Baghdad. This is the latest attack targeting Iraq's Christian community. On February 29, Mosul Archbishop Bulus Faraj Rahhu was kidnapped outside the Holy Spirit Church in Mosul and his body was discovered two weeks later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3 and 13, 2008). Shortly after Yusif's killing, Pope Benedict XVI issued a statement mourning the slain priest. The pope "prays that all people will follow the ways of peace in order to build a just and tolerant society in the beloved land of Iraq," the Vatican said in a statement, signed by Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh issued a statement on April 5 saying that the contract of the private U.S. security firm Blackwater was renewed only after close consultations with the Baghdad government, international media reported on April 6. The U.S. State Department announced on April 4 that the contract for Blackwater has been renewed for another year. "The demands of the Iraqi government have been taken into consideration and Blackwater will follow the Iraqi government's laws," al-Dabbagh said. "An agreement was reached with America on changing the rules of engagement and use of force in a way not offending Iraqi citizens." Iraqi officials have long accused Blackwater of employing highly aggressive and sometimes deadly tactics that have led to the deaths of civilians. The most infamous occurred on September 16, when Blackwater contractors killed 17 Iraqis in a shoot-out in Baghdad's Al-Nusur Square. The firm said its contractors acted in self-defense. The FBI is currently conducting an investigation into the Al-Nusur Square incident. SS

The U.S. military announced on April 6 that a mass grave containing six bodies was discovered north of the town of Al-Miqdadiyah in the central Diyala Governorate. All the bodies showed signs of torture and U.S. forces handed the bodies over to the Iraqi police. This is the third mass grave discovered in the area in the past 11 days. On March 29, a mass grave was discovered containing 14 bodies, and two earlier later, another mass grave was found containing 37 bodies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 31, 2008). U.S. military spokesman Major Mike Garcia said the discovery of the graves "shows the importance of the work" U.S. and Iraqi forces are doing in the area. "This northern Diyala river valley used to be a stronghold for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Since January, we have been working closely with our partners in the Iraqi security forces and 'Sons of Iraq' to ensure that [Al-Qaeda] will never again terrorize the local population of this area," he said. SS