Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - April 22, 2008

Irina Yesipova, a spokeswoman for Atomstroieksport, which is constructing a nuclear power plant for Iran in Bushehr, said in Moscow on April 21 that Azerbaijani customs and border officials halted an unspecified number of Russian trucks carrying a shipment of unspecified "heat-insulation equipment" to the plant two weeks earlier, Russian and international media reported. She noted that the holdup is unlikely to lead to further delays in the start-up of the plant, which is expected to come online in late 2008 at the earliest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20 and 27, 2007, and January 18, 23, and 28, 2008). Yesipova added that Russian officials are holding talks with both Azerbaijan and Iran. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim said that Baku wants more information about the shipment and whether it violates UN sanctions against Iran. "Considering the sensitivity of the situation, we need to know all the details in order to know whether the shipment falls under UN sanctions," he added. On April 22, an Azerbaijani customs spokesman said in Baku that Atomstroieksport needs unspecified "special permission" to ship the cargo across Azerbaijani territory, adding that the goods are being held at the customs office in Astara, Interfax reported. The news agency quoted Anzhela Matiyeva, a spokeswoman for the Russian Embassy in Baku, as saying that "the matter is now being discussed...and we are trying to resolve it. I think we can handle it." She did not elaborate or say at what level the discussions are taking place. Also on April 21, Azerbaijani border guards shot dead two Iranians who sought to cross the Bilusavar sector of the Iranian-Azerbaijani border illegally, reported. PM/LF

The "International Herald Tribune" on April 22 quoted Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich as saying in Warsaw recently that neither the EU nor NATO provides sufficient security guarantees for Poland in relation to Russia. He argued that Poles feel they have "a reduced level of security...provoked by tendencies in Russia over the past few years." Klich said that due to the Russian behavior, Poland has offered to host 10 U.S. interceptors as part of Washington's planned missile-defense system. This, he said, will provide U.S. military backing in addition to security guarantees that are part of NATO and EU membership. Poland also wants U.S. help in modernizing its military. Klich argued that "the distribution of NATO institutions in Europe is not balanced. The majority of NATO and EU institutions are located in the western part of Europe. That is the reason why we began those talks with the Americans over missile defense." Klich noted that a U.S. military presence in Poland could also deter Russia from trying to use energy supplies as a political tool against his country. Several Czech officials said in 2007 and 2008 that Russian threats to target the Czech Republic with missiles if it hosts a missile-defense radar site were counterproductive to Moscow's interests. The Czech officials argued that the Russian threats led Prague to conclude that it truly needs a U.S. military base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, March 7, and April 9, 2008). Some Russian critics of Moscow's foreign policy argue that its unnecessary aggressiveness also impelled Ukraine and Georgia to seek security guarantees through NATO membership, which Russia strongly opposes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). PM

The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on April 22 that "China is on its way to becoming a major arms exporter by shamelessly copying Russian military hardware" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31 and April 9 and 17, 2008, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007 and March 12, 2008). Russian arms sales to China were recently reported to have dropped by 62 percent in 2007 because China's industrial capabilities are beginning to approach those of its neighbor, and because it seeks more sophisticated technology than Russia is willing or able to offer. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on April 22 that "Moscow's hopes to strengthen its position in the Chinese arms market by permitting China to assemble [Sukhoi] Su-27SK [Flanker] fighters under license proved futile. Once it mastered the technology, China produced its own versions by itself...with the aim of selling the fighters to third countries. Russia officially informed China that [the practice]...constitutes a violation of existing agreements, and threatened litigation." The paper wrote that "a major importer of weapons and military hardware from Russia for years, Beijing is on its way to becoming an exporter of what has mainly been copied from Russian originals." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested that "China may actually drive Russia from aircraft markets in third countries and even from the markets of Russia's traditional [customers] Angola, Ethiopia, Syria, and Iran." argued on April 22 that China has "reached a new level of piracy" by copying the design of the Su-27 for its own exports. PM

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov has begun a visit to Sochi, the planned site for the 2014 Winter Olympics, reported on April 22. According to the website, Zubkov on April 21 chaired a meeting of the presidium of the presidential council for preparing for the 2014 Olympics and was set to join members of a visiting International Olympic Committee (IOC) delegation in Sochi on April 22 in inspecting preparations for the games. reported on April 21 that the IOC's 14-member Coordination Commission, led by Jean-Claude Killy, is making its first visit to Sochi on April 22-23 and will, among other things, "see first-hand the sites of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games." The daily "Gazeta" wrote on April 22 that Zubkov's task is "to convince the IOC inspectors that construction will begin in the next few months and that the recent personnel changes in the 2014 Olympics' team of organizers will not prevent that." Earlier this month, Semyon Vainshtok, the former head of the state-controlled pipeline monopoly Transneft, was replaced by Sochi Mayor Viktor Kolodyazhny as the head of Olimpstroi, the state company set up to organize the Olympic Games in Sochi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008 and September 12, 2007). JB

"Vremya novostei" wrote on April 22 that observers in Sochi are convinced Vainshtok left Olimpstroi because he "realistically assessed the situation" and understood that "without rush work and superhuman efforts" it will be impossible to complete preparations for the Olympics in Sochi. "Mr. Vainshtok noted that preliminary calculations of the needed financial expenditures and time were made very approximately: the planners did not take into account the existing geological conditions or the fact that there is no vacant land in Sochi and that that practically every piece of land for the Olympic facilities will have to be purchased from someone at incredible prices," the paper wrote. "In addition, it will be necessary to bring more than 180,000 workers into the city -- that is, the resort's population will be increased by a third, and so far no one knows where these people will live." "Novaya gazeta" wrote on April 21 that according to "unofficial information," Vainshtok, before stepping down as Olimpstroi head, wrote an "official memo" to President Vladimir Putin "in which he set forth the reasons for his departure: problems with buying land, which will require 85 billion rubles [more than $3.6 billion]; the absence of a general plan for Sochi's development; the uncertainty of the prospects for Olympics construction." JB

Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin fired Dmitry Dovgy as head of the committee's main investigative unit on April 21, Russian media reported. "Vremya novostei" reported on April 22 that Bastrykin's decision to fire Dovgy was based on the results of an internal probe launched at the end March after several other committee investigators alleged that Dovgy was involved in corruption. Specifically, they accused Dovgy and a deputy of taking several multimillion-dollar bribes from suspects in criminal investigations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31 and April 2, 2008). According to "Vremya novostei," the Investigative Committee said its internal probe found that Dovgy had exceeded his authority, failed to carry out his duties and misused official information, but the committee made no mention of Dovgy's alleged involvement in corruption. Dovgy headed the team investigating Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, who was arrested on attempted embezzlement charges in November 2007; Federal Antinarcotics Committee Lieutenant General Aleksandr Bulbov, who was arrested in October 2007 on charges of abuse of office and illegal wiretapping; and Vladimir Barsukov, aka Vladimir Kumarin, the reputed head of St. Petersburg's Tambov organized crime group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). JB

Pyotr Salin of the Center for Current Politics in Russia noted on April 21 in an analysis for the center's website,, that Dovgy was a key member of Investigative Committee Chairman Bastrykin's team, and that observers believed Bastrykin's temporary removal of Dovgy as head of the committee's main investigative unit while he was being vetted was a "diversionary maneuver" to avoid a possible blow from Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, whose office was carrying out its own probe into the Investigative Committee's activities. According to Salin, Dovgy's firing shows that the Investigative Committee's position is weaker than previously assumed. "Earlier, Aleksandr Bastrykin came out against the creation of a unified investigative organ at a time when, according to unofficial information, [President-elect] Dmitry Medvedev looks positively on its formation and an approximate date [for its creation] has been set -- the autumn of this year," he wrote. "In this connection, the chances for Aleksandr Bastrykin to head the given structure are constantly decreasing." Last month, Bastrykin came out against creating a single investigative committee analogous to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008), even though he and the head of the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee, Aleksei Anichin, were being touted as the main candidates to head the new body (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). Chaika has publicly supported the idea of creating a single investigative body. According to many observers, the bureaucratic turf battles between the Investigate Committee and the Prosecutor-General's Office are connected to a larger ongoing power struggle between "liberals" and more hard-line "siloviki," including Bastrykin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). JB

Meeting in Moscow on April 18, senior Defense Ministry officials decided to postpone until after the May 7 inauguration of President-elect Medvedev any decision on the future of the Vostok battalion headed by Hero of Russia Sulim Yamadayev, reported on April 21 quoting Following incidents on April 13 and 14 in Gudermes involving members of Vostok and of Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov's bodyguard, Kadyrov personally accused Yamadayev and his brothers of crimes against the civilian population, and the Chechen parliament adopted an appeal to Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and to outgoing President Putin in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces either to disband Vostok or to replace Yamadayev as its commander (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). on April 21 quoted Kadyrov as saying that 343 servicemen have resigned "voluntarily" from Vostok, but he denied that they have been offered alternative employment in the police force or security bodies. Kadyrov stressed that he has no personal grievance against rank-and-file Vostok members, but that he considers it imperative to apprehend "individual criminals" serving in its ranks. Meanwhile, some 160 weapons confiscated from Vostok members last week are being subjected to a ballistic examination, reported on April 21 quoting an unnamed Chechen Interior Ministry official. LF

The parents of some of the 58 young men currently on trial in Nalchik for their alleged participation in the October 2005 multiple attacks on police and security facilities have addressed a written appeal to Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) President Arsen Kanokov to intervene to curtail efforts by the KBR prosecutor's office to strip Larisa Dorogova, their sons' defense lawyer, of her right to practice law, and reported on April 21. The republican prosecutor has overruled two refusals by the Nalchik city prosecutor to take legal action against Dorogova, who is accused of meeting with one of the defendants in violation of written procedural requirements and of using bad language to a detention facility guard (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2008). LF

The Republic of Adygeya parliament finally approved on April 21 President Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov's most recent proposed candidate for speaker, reported. Under an informal agreement reached under the republic's first president, Aslan Djarimov, the post of parliament speaker was reserved for a Cherkess. Tkhakushinov, however, nominated several consecutive Russian candidates to succeed Ruslan Khadjibiyokov, who quit the post in December 2007 after being elected to the Russian State Duma, but deputies rejected all of them. They finally endorsed the candidacy of Anatoly Ivanov on April 21 after a Cherkess, Aslan Agirov, was elected to head the Adygeya chapter of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, reported. Earlier, on March 26, the parliament failed to approve in the first round of voting President Tkhakushinov's proposed candidate for the newly created post of human rights ombudsman, former republican Prosecutor Mikhail Prikhlenko, reported on April 18, quoting Vladimir Karatayev, head of the NGO Golos. Prikhlenko received only 25 votes of approval, three short of the 28 needed, while alternative candidate Nina Konovalova, who heads the Union of Slavs of Adygeya, received only 16 votes. LF

President Serzh Sarkisian on April 21 named the last remaining members of Prime Minister Tigran Sarkisian's cabinet, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Eleven of the 17 ministers retain the posts they held in the outgoing cabinet; in an indication of the continuing influence of former President Robert Kocharian, his longtime administration head, Armen Gevorgian, was appointed deputy premier and minister of local government, while the previous holder of that portfolio, Hovik Abramian, was named to head President Sarkisian's staff (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). New appointees named on April 21 include Tigran Davtian (Finance), Gurgen Sargsian (Transport and Communications), and Mher Shahgeldian (Emergency Situations). Sargsian and Shahgeldian are both members of Orinats Yerkir, which together with President Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun, and Prosperous Armenia signed a coalition agreement last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). LF

The Armenian authorities have accepted the demands put forward in a resolution passed last week by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) intended to defuse tensions generated by the disputed February 19 presidential ballot, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on April 21, quoting a joint statement by the Council of Europe and the OSCE's Organization for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. Those demands include repealing the amendments to the law on public rallies and demonstrations, and releasing persons detained for their suspected role in the March 1 violent clashes between police and opposition supporters in Yerevan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). Prosperous Armenia lawmaker Aram Safarian told fellow parliamentarians on April 21 that as soon as the process of forming the new cabinet was complete, the authorities would draft a timetable for implementing the demands contained in the PACE resolution in order to "stabilize" the situation before the next PACE meeting in June. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili said in a televised address to the nation on April 21 that he has incontrovertible evidence that it was a Russian MiG-29 that shot down an unmanned Georgian surveillance drone over Abkhazia the previous day, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2008). De facto Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Garri Kupalba, himself an experienced fighter pilot, said earlier on April 21 the drone was shot down by an L-39 training aircraft belonging to the Abkhaz air force, Interfax reported. Saakashvili also said that in a conversation earlier on April 21 with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that he described as "not easy," he demanded that Putin repeal his instructions to the Russian government last week to intensify contacts and cooperation with the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, reported. Putin for his part reportedly countered that the overflights of Abkhaz territory by Georgian spy planes violate the spirit of the May 1994 UN-mediated cease-fire agreement, but he neither confirmed nor denied that it was a Russian MiG that shot down the Georgian drone, "The New York Times" reported on April 22. Putin stressed that the international community has for years advocated measures to expedite the socio-economic rehabilitation of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008). The UN Security Council is to meet on April 23 to discuss the downing of the drone, Caucasus Press reported on April 22. On April 21, the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) released a statement ( implicitly rejecting Georgian allegations of a military buildup of Abkhaz forces in the lower Kodori Gorge and Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion. LF

Nino Burjanadze, who has served since 2001 as parliament speaker, announced during a televised press conference on April 21 that she has withdrawn her candidacy for the May 21 parliamentary election in light of unspecified disagreements within the majority United National Movement over its list of election candidates, which she headed, Russian and Georgian media reported. She said her decision not to run for parliament is final, but added that she will not align with the opposition. At the same time, she said that "serious tactical changes" are needed in government policy to correct "unspecified mistakes." President Saakashvili on April 21 expressed "dissatisfaction" with Burjanadze's decision, but at the same time praised her as a "patriot," and "a symbol of stability, calm, political intellect, and honor," Caucasus Press reported. Former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, whose resignation three years ago Burjanadze helped to bring about, was quoted by on April 22 as saying that Burjanadze's decision reflects "a clear crisis" within the country's leadership. April 21 was the deadline for the three blocs and nine individual parties participating in the May 21 ballot to unveil their lists of candidates, and the opposition National Council argued that the National Movement should be disqualified from the ballot because it failed to submit an up-to-date list of candidates after Burjanadze's announcement and before the 6 p.m. deadline, reported. LF

Following a presentation by the head of the Finance Ministry's Customs Service, Kozy-Korpesh Karbuzov, President Nursultan Nazarbaev on April 21 praised his work, but stressed that greater efforts must be made to combat corruption, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev told reporters that "a great deal has been done in a short time," and noted that customs officials face "great opposition to the process of establishing order," which he warned is unacceptable. Karbuzov presented a report showing that his department has initiated a thorough internal probe of corruption, resulting in 62 criminal cases being brought against customs officers. He added that a total of 58 customs officials were "dismissed for shortcomings" since the probe was launched last year. Similar progress in rooting out corruption was also reported on April 21 by the Interior Ministry officials, who revealed that over 200 traffic police were fired and another 49 demoted after being found guilty of bribery and corruption-related ethics violations in 2007. In a separate meeting on April 21, Nazarbaev warned a group of senior university officials and rectors that they need to fight bribery in the country's institutions of higher education. Nazarbaev holds the power to appoint and dismiss the heads of universities and has recently prioritized the implementation of education reform and the improvement of educational testing and standards. RG

In a report to the Kazakh parliament, Environmental Protection Minister Nurlan Iskakov vowed on April 21 that the environmental damage from the country's extensive energy exploration and development will be reduced in the next two-three years, Kazakh Television reported. Iskakov noted that Kazakhstan faces significant problems with pollution, and admitted that the current "system of environmental monitoring" has "turned out to be imperfect or simply out-of-date." He also criticized foreign energy firms for not implementing sulfur-waste-recycling programs at a level sufficient to address environmental concerns, and singled out the Tengizchevroil consortium in particular for failing to deal with toxic sulfur. He warned that the consortium, led by the U.S. energy company Chevron, may be fined 37 billion tenges (about $300 million) for violations of environmental laws. RG

Kyrgyz opposition Asaba (Flag) party leader Azimbek Beknazarov resigned unexpectedly on April 19 at a meeting of the party's senior leadership, the website reported on April 21. Beknazarov later told reporters that his resignation "should not be commented on," and attempted to downplay suggestions of an internal party conflict. He led the party for nearly six years and was replaced by Sovetbek Jamaldinov, who was named as the new party chairman. RG

The Minsk City Executive Committee has denied permission for opposition activists to rally in downtown Minsk on April 26, the 22nd anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, Belapan reported on April 21. The organizers planned to assemble in front of the National Academy of Sciences and march along Independence Avenue, Minsk's main thoroughfare. However, city officials suggested on April 21 that the march should instead run from the National Academy of Sciences to Bangalore Square on the outskirts of the city. Ihar Rynkevich, one of the organizers of the march, told Belapan that the organizers had assured the officials that they would bear all responsible for preventing disorder during the demonstration. Under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, marches marking the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster have become an occasion for massive protests staged by opponents of the government. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko on April 21 told the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" that President Viktor Yushchenko has effectively blocked "by decree" around 20 government initiatives aimed at boosting transparency and fighting corruption. "I think the reason is that the president is thinking hard about the...[2010] presidential election and sees me as a competitor," Tymoshenko said. "But this competition should not stop transparency and reforms in my country." Yushchenko earlier this month issued a decree to cancel the sale of four regional electricity producers, claiming that the sale of key state-owned enterprises is unconstitutional. "Personally, I think the ban on strategic privatizations is ruining the investment climate in Ukraine," Tymoshenko said. AM

Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, the leader of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS), has said that the recent actions of the grouping's coalition partner, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), "pose a real threat to the territorial integrity and the state independence of Ukraine, which can be defended only by effective presidential power at the current stage of the country's development," UNIAN reported on April 21. Kyrylenko was apparently commenting on the BYuT's plans to introduce constitutional change that would transform Ukraine into a parliamentary republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2008). "Today the BYuT, the Party of Regions, and the Communists want to seize authority from the president and transfer it to the factions of parliament and a kind of 'chancellor' who would be appointed by the factions. In practice, that would mean creating a system of collective impunity and absolute power for the parliamentary-oligarchic clans," Kyrylenko said. AM

President Boris Tadic, who is widely regarded as Serbia's leading pro-Western official, said in a text released at the UN on April 21 that Serbs in Kosova should participate in local and parliamentary elections on May 11, all of which will be organized by Belgrade, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 1, 10, 15, and 18, 2008, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13, 2008). He stressed that "we believe it is important that everywhere in Kosovo, where [Serbian] citizens recognize the Republic of Serbia as their state, they choose in a democratic way their own municipal, as well as parliamentary, representatives." Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin endorsed Tadic's statement. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said that it would be "unhelpful" and "illegal" for Belgrade to organize the local vote. He added that Tadic's statement "is unacceptable. President Tadic, efforts to conduct these municipal elections are a provocation, and I call on you not to proceed with them" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10 and 15, 2008). Khalilzad noted that "we are also concerned by Belgrade's actions to pressure Kosovo Serbs from cooperating with authorities in Pristina or from interacting with their Albanian neighbors. Belgrade's position runs contrary to the principle of multiethnicity that the UN has sought to foster in Kosovo." British Ambassador to the UN John Sawers argued that Joachim Ruecker, who heads the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), believes that "elections now, especially elections on an ethnic basis, would be divisive and unhelpful. We look to Serbia to reverse its decision to try to hold these ethnically based elections inside Kosovo." Kosova's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci told the Security Council that his government respects local Serbs' right to hold dual citizenship, but added that it would be "illegitimate" for Serbia to organize local elections on Kosova's territory. He called Kosova a "country of opportunity" that wants to join the EU and NATO. UNMIK officially does not "support or hinder" Serbia from holding parliamentary elections in Kosova. PM

EU Regional Aid Commissioner Danuta Huebner said in Brussels on April 21 that Serbia risks not being able to access all of the $1.6 billion that the bloc has allocated between now and 2013 if the Belgrade authorities do not sign a EU Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), Reuters reported. She added that she will soon go to Belgrade with the message that "the EU needs Serbia, and Serbia needs Europe." President Tadic is willing to sign an SAA, but Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and the leaders of the opposition Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which is by far Serbia's largest, refuse to have any official dealings with the EU unless it recognizes that Kosova is part of Serbia, which it is unlikely to do. The question of linking the status of Kosova to relations with the EU led in March to the fall of the shaky coalition government and the calling of parliamentary elections for May 11. Kostunica has said repeatedly that any signature by Tadic on an SAA would be "meaningless." He and the SRS also accuse the EU of meddling in the Serbian election campaign by allegedly linking issues such as funding and visa-free travel to support for pro-EU candidates, such as Tadic. RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Belgrade on April 21 that many Serbs believe that the Radicals and Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) recently signed a pact aimed at forming a governing coalition after the May 11 vote. Both parties deny the reports, but the broadcast noted that there are no important political differences dividing the SRS and DSS, which would make it easy for them to join forces. According to the broadcast, Kostunica would keep the premiership in such a coalition, while SRS leader Tomislav Nikolic would become parliament speaker. Polls suggest that the SRS would emerge from the vote as the largest party in the new parliament but would need a partner or partners to form a majority government. PM

As the foreign ministers of Iraq's neighboring states meet in Kuwait this week, they can expect increased U.S. pressure to support Baghdad as a counterbalance to growing Iranian influence in Iraq and the wider region.

The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, told reporters in Washington on April 10 that both he and the State Department's top counterterrorism official, retired General Dell Dailey, have pressed Arab states in recent months to increase their diplomatic presence in Iraq and to help stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq.

Other senior diplomats, as well as military and intelligence officers, have visited more than a dozen Middle Eastern countries in an effort to curtail the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, Petraeus said. Dailey told "The Washington Post" on April 10 that he visited Saudi Arabia, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt between November and February. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, met again with Saudi officials on April 14 and 15 to press the issue.

On April 22, foreign ministers from Iraq's neighboring states, along with Egypt and Bahrain, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and other Group of Eight (G8) major industrialized states met in Kuwait to discuss the security situation in Iraq.

The meeting comes on the heels of a two-day gathering on security cooperation held last week in Damascus. That meeting was also attended by Iraq's six neighboring states as well as representatives from Egypt, Bahrain, the Arab League, the UN, the permanent members of the Security Council, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the European Union, and the G8.

The issue of foreign fighters in Iraq weighed heavily on that meeting, and Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi stressed what he suggested was Iran's destructive role in Iraq in recent months.

Arabic press reports on the Damascus conference indicated that an argument broke out during a closed-door meeting between Iraqi and Iranian representatives. Iraqi officials who attended the meeting told the pan-Arabic daily "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" that the Iraqis talked openly about the flow of Iranian weapons into Iraq and about operations to fund armed groups.

Officials have said in recent days that the extent of Iranian interference in Iraq became more apparent during the recent security operations against militants in Al-Basrah. Iranian-made weapons have flooded the city, and officials say "regional quarters" -- shorthand for Iran and possibly Syria -- are funding militias such as Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The Iranians have countered by claiming in interviews that they have played a constructive role in Iraqi security.

The U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus, Michael Corbin, noted the destructive role of neighboring states in a statement at the Damascus conference. "Terrorist facilitation networks operating throughout the region continue to be a significant threat to the stability of Iraq and, by extension, the entire region," Corgin said. "The influx of foreign-made weapons used by and seized from criminal militia elements involved in fighting Iraqi security forces, which was thrown into stark relief during the recent flare-up of violence in Basrah, the southern provinces, and Baghdad, is another serious threat which this group should address."

The conference reportedly endorsed 13 recommendations that will be forwarded to the foreign ministers' meeting in Kuwait. The recommendations were not made public, but at least one Arabic daily, "Al-Hayat," claimed to have seen them. Perhaps the most notable recommendation reported by the London-based paper is the affirmation that border security is the "joint responsibility" of all. Iraq's neighbors had previously argued that Iraq should bear the weight of responsibility for controlling its borders. Another key recommendation "emphasized the need to take measures to prevent the use of the territories of Iraq or of any of Iraq's neighboring countries for training purposes or orchestrating acts of terror against other countries or their nationals, and to solve such problems through diplomatic means," according to "Al-Hayat."

The recommendations also stressed the need to follow up on commitments made by neighboring states at previous meetings. Delegates in Damascus pledged to fulfill promises made at the November security meeting in Kuwait and to "quickly name the liaison officers [on border security] who have not yet been named, to exchange information, and to hold another meeting on the sidelines of the [upcoming] interior ministers' meeting in Amman" in October. The statement highlights the snail's pace at which recommendations are carried out, if they are carried out at all.

While it is difficult to expect that the April 22 meeting will result in any concrete commitments by Iraq's neighbors, it is clear that neighboring Arab states have become more concerned about Iranian encroachment over the past year. The question is whether they are concerned enough to intervene.

Moreover, Arab states share key concerns over Iraq that have yet to be addressed. First and foremost is the Iraqi government's commitment (or lack thereof, as Arab states see it) to a pan-Arab vision and ideology. Since it came to power in 2005, the Shi'ite-led Iraqi government has been seen as an Iranian-backed regime that cares little for the preservation of Arab traditions and culture.

The reason for this is twofold. First, Iraq's ruling Shi'ite parties had close ties to Iran and, in some cases, were funded by Iran before the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Second, the Sunni Arab-majority neighboring states have always had trouble viewing Shi'a -- whether in Iraq or in their own states -- as part of their own. The fact that Shi'a helped unseat Hussein and then pushed the Sunnis from power following Hussein's fall was a disturbing turn of events for Arab leaders, many of whom fear a similar fate -- even though most other Arab states do not have a sizable Shi'ite population. The fact that Kurds are arguably the second-most-powerful group in Iraq today is also not lost on Iraq's Arab neighbors.

Although there was little sympathy for Hussein among regional Arab leaders, the impact of regime change in Iraq and the displacement of Sunni Arabs from power significantly impacted Arab leaders. Moreover, it profoundly impacted the psyche of the Sunni Arab world in terms of identity and honor in ways that will take years to understand. If Arab regional leaders engage in Iraq at a time when U.S. forces remain on the ground there, they will face severe criticism at home for their efforts, which will largely be interpreted as contributing to the occupation of Iraq.

The fact that Iraqi leaders have made little progress in forging national reconciliation only compounds the problem. Last week's decision by Sunni Arab parties to end their boycott and return to government may help assuage some of the neighbors' concerns, but they are likely to want to see more progress in this area before they fully commit to reengaging with Iraq, particularly on the diplomatic level.

There is no doubt that Iran's encroachment in the region is a troubling development for Arab states. In theory, it should prompt them to commit to greater security cooperation to push Iran back. Again, the question comes down to how convinced Arab states are that Iraq is with them and not Iran, and how committed they are to putting words to action.

President Hamid Karzai on April 21 rejected calls to abolish capital punishment in Afghanistan, but said: "I am very slow in approving the orders for executions. I prefer life sentencing because that would serve as a better lesson," AP reported on April 21. However, Karzai said that in cases such as kidnappings and killing innocent people, he would follow Islamic law, which authorizes capital punishment. The Taliban, the Islamist movement that conducted public executions when it ruled Afghanistan, has demanded a halt to executions, because some of its captured fighters are believed to be on death row. Last week, the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch urged Karzai not to sign the execution orders for about 100 prisoners due to concerns over fair trial standards (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2008). AT

Javier Solana, the European Union's high representative for common foreign and security policy, arrived in Kabul on April 21 for a one-day visit, Reuters reported the same day. Poor security and the lack of good governance are the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan, Solana said. "When we talk about challenges, we have to talk about difficulties that prevent everything that is is security and that is important...for the development of the country," Solana told a joint news conference with Karzai. "The second thing is governance. The ownership of the process belongs to the country...but together with ownership comes accountability, comes responsibility, and comes good governance," he added. Solana said his visit comes at a "particularly important time of renewed commitment by the international community" to the country at a NATO summit in April and ahead of a Paris meeting of Afghan donors in June, AFP reported. AT

According to the aid group Care International, only 35 percent of the students in Afghanistan's schools are girls, AP reported on April 21, and while enrollment numbers are increasing overall, that for girls is not. Care said a lack of female teachers, boys-only schools, and cultural obstacles are keeping girls out of school. Citing data from the Education Ministry, Care said only 35 percent of the 5.4 million Afghan students are girls, though it is uncertain what percent of all children attend school. A shortage of female teachers "inhibits girls' participation in education, as parents are reluctant to have teenage girls being taught by a male teacher. Likewise, parents are hesitant to send their girls to schools far from their homes," said Care in a statement. Jamie Terzi, assistant country director for Care in Afghanistan, said Islamic teachings might persuade parents to let their girls go to school. "One way to increase female enrollment is to discuss the importance of education under Islam with girls' parents," she said. AT

The abductors of Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistan's ambassador to Afghanistan, have demanded the release of 12 prisoners, including suspects in former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination, in exchange for Azizuddin's release, PTI reported on April 21. According to the BBC, the kidnappers demanded the release of Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz, Tehreek-e Nifaaz-e Shariat Muhmammadi chief Maulana Sufi, five Afghan Taliban, and three men arrested on charges of allegedly plotting Bhutto's assassination. Maulvi Umar, spokesman for the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, told the BBC that the organization was not involved in the kidnapping of the envoy and that they have no knowledge of his whereabouts. AT

An Iranian court has handed journalist and women's rights activist Nasrin Afzali a six-month suspended prison sentence and ordered that she be punished by whipping, apparently for disturbing the peace outside a Tehran courtroom last March, Radio Farda reported on April 20. Afzali was one of 32 activists who sought to enter the courtroom where a colleague was being tried on March 3, but the activists were first blocked by police and then arrested after waiting for several hours outside the courthouse. She was acquitted of charges of threatening state security, disobeying police instructions, and taking part in an illegal gathering, Radio Farda quoted her lawyer Mohammad Mostafai as saying. Mostafai said Afzali is completely innocent, and that the group of activists merely waited quietly in the street outside the court. He added that the sentencing court, a branch of the Tehran Revolutionary Court, is not authorized to process a public disorder charge, and that he intends to appeal. Another jurist, Nasrin Sotudeh, told Radio Farda that the prosecution contravened Iranian law because Afzali was tried without a jury present. She added that the whipping sentence was intended as a humiliation for Afzali and her fellow women's rights activists, Radio Farda reported on April 20. VS

The head of Iran's state inspectorate, Mohammad Niazi, said in Tehran on April 21 that his organization has not found any "economic mafia obstructing the government's work," as alleged by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Mehr reported. Ahmadinejad has repeatedly suggested, most recently during a speech in Qom, north-central Iran, earlier this month, that unspecified people are blocking economic progress (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2008), while observers have noted that the state is lagging in implementing privatizations stipulated by Article 44 of the constitution. Niazi said the inspectorate in the coming months will identify the agencies that are making unsatisfactory progress in the implementation of Iran's privatization program. Niazi said the state inspectorate will also investigate why consumer prices are sharply rising and publish its findings, Mehr reported. The head of Iran's property registration body, Hossein Ali Amiri, has separately written to Ahmadinejad asking him to provide evidence or documents to back his allegations of corruption or cronyism, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 22. Amiri expressed "surprise and regret" that the president listed the property registration body as among several state-sector agencies in which he claimed criminal elements are active, and which he accused of discriminatory conduct. Amiri said that Ahmadinejad should be mindful of the demoralizing impact that the use of the word "mafia" would have on Iranian civil servants. VS

Iranian Vice President for Executive Affairs Ali Saidlu claimed on April 20 that "economic mafia elements" are trying to mislead public opinion regarding the government's anticorruption fight, "Iran" reported on April 21. Saidlu said the government of President Ahmadinejad has made fundamental administrative changes that have reduced bureaucracy, among other positive results. Saidlu is considered a close ally of Ahmadinejad, and was apparently echoing the president's recent comments. He said social policy in Iran requires "serious surgery," especially in the economic sector, and "this will certainly face obstruction from mafia gangs." He said that "powerful networks of economic corruption" are trying to block reform, and stressed that the government will fight them through administrative and structural changes. VS

President Ahmadinejad is expected next week to nominate Mohammad Reza Rahimi, the head of the state auditing court, as the acting interior minister, the Fars news agency reported on April 21. Outgoing Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi is expected to stay in his post until after a second round of voting for some parliamentary seats on April 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2008). Fars separately reported on April 21 that Ahmadinejad has asked former Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari, who was recently removed from his post, to become his economic adviser, although the minister has not yet said whether he will accept. Media reports in Iran indicate that the two differ on some aspects of economic policy. VS

Suleiman Jafarzadeh, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in Tehran on April 21 that the Middle East has not seen any peace "since America came to Iraq," and that the United States has prevented Iraq's stabilization, ISNA reported. "Every time Iraq's situation has become more peaceful and [began] giving results, the Americans came up with new plots to sow discord among all Iraq's ethnic groups," Jafarzadeh said. He added that the United States is trying to sow fear of Iran among Persian Gulf states and unite them against Tehran. He accused the United States of dividing Sunnis and Shi'ites, and trying to "reduce the role of Shi'ites in the region." Iran, he said, "is a powerful and capable country" and "will not remain indifferent to regional security issues, especially [with regard] to its neighbor. It will strengthen...its diplomacy in international settings," in spite of U.S. pressure, he said. VS

The foreign ministers of Iraq's six neighboring states as well as Egypt and Bahrain on April 22 opened the third expanded ministerial conference of Iraq's neighbors in Kuwait City. Iraqi officials said ahead of the meeting that they will push Arab states to increase their support for Iraq, including on the diplomatic front by reopening embassies in Baghdad. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is heading the Iraqi delegation, called on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar to forgive some $67 billion in Iraqi debt incurred by Saddam Hussein's regime. Al-Maliki told reporters in Baghdad before leaving for the conference on April 21 that Iraq has emerged from its security crisis, and expects Arab states to assist the country in moving forward. Regarding Arab diplomatic representation, al-Maliki said Arab states "have not taken a single step thus far in this respect." He added that interference by Iraq's neighbors "in domestic affairs at the media, political, military, and public levels" will also be high on the conference's agenda. Representatives of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and the UN itself, as well as of Canada, Italy, Japan, the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference, also attended the conference. The Kuwait news agency reported on April 21 that the conference's final draft statement was approved by participants during a closed door meeting, but it did not provide details of the draft. KR

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and several prominent politicians have announced plans to form a new political bloc, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 21. Shi'ite Ayatollah Husayn al-Mu'ayyad told reporters that participants are in the process of planning a preparatory conference that will establish the new national front, which will participate in the coming elections "in defense of the Iraqi national scheme." In August 2007, Al-Mu'ayyad established the Iraqi National Trend, which he has described as a political organization "based on national foundations apart from sectarianism and ethnicity." He opposes militias and Iranian interference in Iraq, and reportedly has good relations with influential Sunni Arab leaders. Allawi told the press conference that the new bloc will work to establish an Iraq for "all Iraqis, be they intellectuals, professors, tribal chieftains, moderate clerics, or Iraqi men of letters or politicians who do not believe in narrow schemes." Parliamentarian Adnan al-Pachachi was also present at the public announcement. KR

The Badr Organization said in an April 20 Internet statement that it is not a militia and does not carry out armed attacks. The Badr Organization was established in 2004 out of the remnants of the Badr Corps, the former armed wing of the Shi'ite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. The statement said the group's late leader, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, decided before the Badr Corps entered Iraq from its base in Iran in May 2003 that the resistance group would transform itself into a "civilian-political organization that contributes to building the new Iraq." "From the first day on which the Badr members entered Iraq -- together with the Badr members who were already in Iraq -- all of them laid down their arms and turned to civilian work," the statement said. "Despite that, they were the target of a campaign of distortion and false allegations that lacked any proof...and they were fought by numerous sides, both internal and external." The organization challenged "any side or quarter to produce any real evidence of Badr's involvement in any of the acts of violence that are being perpetrated in Iraq." "The Badr Organization never attacked, not once, any of the state's military, security, or civilian establishments, and never installed itself as a trustee over the Iraqi people," it said. KR

The Badr Organization also addressed claims by members of a rival militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, that its members joined state security institutions following the fall of the Hussein regime. The Al-Mahdi Army claims the Badr Organization continues to act as a militia working under the cover of legitimate security organizations. "It was natural for Badr members to join state establishments according to their areas of specialization, and not only the army and the police. In doing so, they are exercising their natural rights as citizens who have the same rights and duties as ordinary Iraqi citizens," the statement noted. "However, what is important here is that joining the establishments of the Iraqi state should be coupled with loyalty to that state, and that is what has happened with all Badr members who were merged into the establishments of the Iraqi state. The aim of the merger decision issued under the Iraqi Governing Council was to honor the struggle of the national forces and to assimilate the popular forces that fought against the Saddamist regime into the new state bodies." The statement added that other parties have also joined the government, including Kurdish parties, the Islamic Al-Da'wah Party, the Communist Party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi National Congress, the Iraqi National Accord Party, and Hizballah-Iraq. The statement noted the differences between the parties that work for the benefit of the state and those militias formed in 2003 that continue to challenge the state, a clear reference to al-Sadr's Al-Mahdi Army. KR

Iyad Allawi told reporters in Baghdad on April 21 that he is working to end the standoff between the Imam Al-Mahdi Army and Iraqi-backed coalition forces, the Aswat Al-Iraq website reported the same day. Allawi said he was asked to intervene by lawmakers representing the so-called Al-Sadr Trend, and that he has been holding negotiations with U.S. troops to end the fighting between U.S. forces and the Sadrist movement. Allawi reportedly criticized unnamed Iraqi political blocs for their sectarian positions, which he said result from armed militias' infiltration into government forces, a reference to the Badr Corps. KR