U.S. Department of State Background Note
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Algeria, the second-largest state in Africa, has a Mediterranean coastline of about 998 kilometers (620 mi.). The Tellian and Saharan Atlas mountain ranges cross the country from east to west, dividing it into three zones. Between the northern zone, Tellian Atlas, and the Mediterranean is a narrow, fertile coastal plain--the Tell (Arabic for hill)--with a moderate climate year round and rainfall adequate for agriculture. A high plateau region, averaging 914 meters (3,000 ft.) above sea level, with limited rainfall, great rocky plains, and desert, lies between the two mountain ranges. It is generally barren except for scattered clumps of trees and intermittent bush and pastureland. The third and largest zone, south of the Saharan Atlas mountain range, is mostly desert. About 80% of the country is desert, steppes, wasteland, and mountains. Algeria's weather varies considerably from season to season and from one geographical location to another. In the north, the summers are usually hot with little rainfall. Winter rains begin in the north in October. Frost and snow are rare, except on the highest slopes of the Tellian Atlas Mountains. Dust and sandstorms occur most frequently between February and May.
Soil erosion--from overgrazing, other poor farming practices, and desertification--and the dumping of raw sewage, petroleum refining wastes, and other industrial effluents are leading to the pollution of rivers and coastal waters. The Mediterranean Sea, in particular, is becoming polluted from oil wastes, soil erosion, and fertilizer runoff. There are inadequate supplies of potable water.
Ninety-one percent of the Algerian population lives along the Mediterranean coast on 12% of the country's total land mass. Forty-five percent of the population is urban, and urbanization continues, despite government efforts to discourage migration to the cities. About 1.5 million nomads and semi-settled Bedouin still live in the Saharan area.
Nearly all Algerians are Muslim, of Arab, Berber, or mixed Arab-Berber stock. Official data on the number of non-Muslim residents is not available; however, practitioners report it to be less than 5,000. Most of the non-Muslim community is comprised of Methodist, Roman Catholic and Evangelical faiths; the Jewish community is virtually non-existent. There are about 1,100 American citizens in the country, the majority of whom live and work in the oil/gas fields in the south.
Algeria's educational system has grown dramatically since the country gained its independence. In the last 12 years, attendance has doubled to more than 5 million students. Education is free and compulsory to age 16. Despite government allocation of substantial educational resources, population pressures and a serious shortage of teachers have severely strained the system. Modest numbers of Algerian students study abroad, primarily in Europe and Canada. In 2000, the government launched a major review of the country's educational system and in 2004 efforts to reform the educational system began.
Housing and medicine continue to be pressing problems in Algeria. Failing infrastructure and the continued influx of people from rural to urban areas have overtaxed both systems. According to the United Nations Development Program, Algeria has one of the world's highest per housing unit occupancy rates, and government officials have publicly stated that the country has an immediate shortfall of 1.5 million housing units.
Since the 5th century B.C., the native peoples of northern Africa (first identified by the Greeks as "Berbers") were pushed back from the coast by successive waves of Phoenician, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine, Arab, Turkish, and, finally, French invaders. The greatest cultural impact came from the Arab invasions of the 8th and 11th centuries A.D., which brought Islam and the Arabic language. The effects of the most recent (French) occupation--French language and European-inspired socialism--are still pervasive.
North African boundaries have shifted during various stages of the conquests. Algeria's modern borders were created by the French, whose colonization began in 1830. To benefit French colonists, most of whom were farmers and businessmen, northern Algeria was eventually organized into overseas departments of France, with representatives in the French National Assembly. France controlled the entire country, but the traditional Muslim population in the rural areas remained separated from the modern economic infrastructure of the European community.
Algerians began their uprising on November 1, 1954, to gain rights denied them under French rule. The revolution, launched by a small group of nationalists who called themselves the National Liberation Front (FLN), was a guerrilla war in which both sides targeted civilians and otherwise used brutal tactics. Eventually, protracted negotiations led to a cease-fire signed by France and the FLN on March 18, 1962, at Evian, France. The Evian Accords also provided for continuing economic, financial, technical, and cultural relations, along with interim administrative arrangements until a referendum on self-determination could be held. Over 1 million French citizens living in Algeria at the time, called the pieds-noirs (black feet), left Algeria for France.
The referendum was held in Algeria on July 1, 1962, and France declared Algeria independent on July 3. In September 1962 Ahmed Ben Bella was formally elected president. On September 8, 1963, a Constitution was adopted by referendum. On June 19, 1965, President Ben Bella was replaced in a non-violent coup by the Council of the Revolution headed by Minister of Defense Col. Houari Boumediene. Ben Bella was first imprisoned and then exiled. Boumediene, as President of the Council of the Revolution, led the country as Head of State until he was formally elected on December 10, 1976. Boumediene is credited with building "modern Algeria." He died on December 27, 1978.
Following nomination by an FLN Party Congress, Col. Chadli Bendjedid was elected president in 1979 and re-elected in 1984 and 1988. A new constitution was adopted in 1989 that allowed the formation of political parties other than the FLN. It also removed the armed forces, which had run the government since the days of Boumediene, from a designated role in the operation of the government. Among the scores of parties that sprang up under the new constitution, the militant Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was the most successful, winning more than 50% of all votes cast in municipal elections in June 1990 as well as in the first stage of national legislative elections held in December 1991.
Faced with the real possibility of a sweeping FIS victory, the National People's Assembly was dissolved by presidential decree on January 4, 1992. On January 11, under pressure from the military leadership, President Chadli Bendjedid resigned. On January 14, a five-member High Council of State was appointed by the High Council of Security to act as a collegiate presidency and immediately canceled the second round of elections. This action, coupled with political uncertainty and economic turmoil, led to a violent reaction by Islamists. On January 16, Mohamed Boudiaf, a hero of the Liberation War, returned after 28 years of exile to serve as Algeria's fourth president. Facing sporadic outbreaks of violence and terrorism, the security forces took control of the FIS offices in early February, and the High Council of State declared a state of emergency. In March, following a court decision, the FIS Party was formally dissolved, and a series of arrests and trials of FIS members occurred resulting in more than 50,000 members being jailed. Algeria became caught in a cycle of violence, which became increasingly random and indiscriminate. On June 29, 1992, President Boudiaf was assassinated in Annaba in front of TV cameras by Army Lt. Lembarek Boumarafi, who allegedly confessed to carrying out the killing on behalf of the Islamists.
Despite efforts to restore the political process, violence and terrorism dominated the Algerian landscape during the 1990s. In 1994, Liamine Zeroual, former Minister of Defense, was appointed Head of State by the High Council of State for a three-year term. During this period, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) launched terrorist campaigns against government figures and institutions to protest the banning of the Islamist parties. A breakaway GIA group--the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC)--also undertook terrorist activity in the country. Government officials estimate that more than 100,000 Algerians died during this period.
Zeroual called for presidential elections in 1995, though some parties objected to holding elections that excluded the FIS. Zeroual was elected president with 75% of the vote. By 1997, in an attempt to bring political stability to the nation, the National Democratic Rally (RND) party was formed by a progressive group of FLN members. In September 1998, President Liamine Zeroual announced that he would step down in February 1999, 21 months before the end of his term, and that presidential elections would be held.
Algerians went to the polls in April 1999, following a campaign in which seven candidates qualified for election. On the eve of the election, all candidates except Abdelaziz Bouteflika pulled out amid charges of widespread electoral fraud. Bouteflika, the candidate who appeared to enjoy the backing of the military, as well as the FLN and the RND party regulars, won with an official vote count of 70% of all votes cast. He was inaugurated on April 27, 1999 for a 5-year term.
President Bouteflika's agenda focused initially on restoring security and stability to the country. Following his inauguration, he proposed an official amnesty for those who fought against the government during the 1990s with the exception of those who had engaged in "blood crimes," such as rape or murder. This "Civil Concord" policy was widely approved in a nationwide referendum in September 2000. Government officials estimate that 80% of those fighting the regime during the 1990s have accepted the civil concord offer and have attempted to reintegrate into Algerian society. Bouteflika also launched national commissions to study education and judicial reform, as well as restructuring of the state bureaucracy.
In 2001, Berber activists in the Kabylie region of the country, reacting to the death of a youth in gendarme custody, unleashed a resistance campaign against what they saw as government repression. Strikes and demonstrations in the Kabylie region were commonplace as a result, and some spread to the capital. Chief among Berber demands was recognition of Tamazight (a general term for Berber languages) as an official language, official recognition and financial compensation for the deaths of Kabyles killed in demonstrations, an economic development plan for the area and greater control over their own regional affairs. In October 2001, the Tamazight language was recognized as a national language, but the issue remains contentious as Tamazight has not been elevated to an official language.
Algeria's most recent presidential election took place on April 8, 2004. For the first time since independence, the presidential race was democratically contested through to the end. Besides incumbent President Bouteflika, five other candidates, including one woman, competed in the election. Opposition candidates complained of some discrepancies in the voting list; irregularities on polling day, particularly in Kabylie; and of unfair media coverage during the campaign as Bouteflika, by virtue of his office, appeared on state-owned television daily. Bouteflika was re-elected in the first round of the election with 84.99% of the vote. Just over 58% of those Algerians eligible to vote participated in the election.
In the years since Bouteflika was first elected, the security situation in Algeria has improved markedly. Terrorism, however, has not been totally eliminated, and terrorist incidents still occur, particularly in the provinces of Boumerdes, Tizi-Ouzou, and in the remote southern areas of the country. In April 2007, a series of bombings in Algiers targeted a government facility and police stations, killing 33 people. In addition, on July 11 a suicide bomber targeted military barracks in the Kabylie region, killing eight soldiers. The alleged mastermind behind the 2007 attacks was killed later in July during a raid led by Algerian security forces.
In September 2005, Algeria passed a referendum in favor of President Bouteflika's Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, paving the way for implementing legislation that will pardon certain individuals convicted of armed terrorist violence. The new Charter builds upon the Civil Concord, and the Rahma (clemency) Law shields from prosecution anyone who laid down arms in response to those previous amnesty offers. The Charter specifically excludes from amnesty those involved in mass murders, rapes, or the use of explosives in public places. The Charter was implemented in March 2006, and the window for combatants to receive amnesty expired in September 2006. Approximately 2,500 Islamists were released under the Charter, many of whom are now suspected of having returned to militant groups in Algeria.
Under the 1976 Constitution (as modified 1979, and amended in 1988, 1989, and 1996) Algeria is a multi-party state. The Ministry of the Interior must approve all political parties. According to the Constitution, no political association may be formed "based on differences in religion, language, race gender or region." Algeria has universal suffrage at the age of 18.
The head of state is the president of the republic. The president, elected to a five-year term, and constitutionally limited to two terms, is the head of the Council of Ministers and of the High Security Council. He appoints the prime minister as well as one-third of the upper house (the Council of the Nation). The prime minister presides over the Council of Ministers and serves as head of the government.
The Algerian Parliament is bicameral, consisting of a lower chamber, the National People's Assembly (APN), with 380 members and an upper chamber, the Council of the Nation, with 144 members. The APN is elected every five years. Legislative elections were held in May 2007. Two-thirds of the Council of the Nation is elected by regional and municipal authorities; the rest are appointed by the president. The Council of the Nation serves a six-year term with one-half of the seats up for election or reappointment every three years. Either the president or one of the parliamentary chambers may initiate legislation. Legislation must be brought before both chambers before it becomes law. Sessions of the APN are televised.
Algeria is divided into 48 wilayates (states or provinces) headed by walis (governors) who report to the Minister of Interior. Each wilaya is further divided into communes. The wilayates and communes are each governed by an elected assembly.
Principal Government Officials
Other Government Officials
Terrorist violence in Algeria resulted in more than 100,000 deaths during the 1990s. Although the security situation in the country has improved, addressing the underlying issues that brought about the political turmoil of the 1990s remains the government's major task. President Bouteflika implemented the Charter on Peace and National Reconciliation on March 1, 2006, as one way to bring closure. Thus far, it has successfully gained the surrender of a number of moderate Islamists, but paradoxically, has emboldened the more hard-core elements, in particular the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which changed its name in January 2007 to Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
In keeping with its amended Constitution, the Algerian Government espouses participatory democracy and free-market competition. The government has stated that it will continue to open the political process and encourage the creation of political institutions. Presidential elections took place in April 2004 and returned President Bouteflika to office with 84.99% of the vote. The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2009.
Algeria has more than 45 daily newspapers published in French and Arabic, with a total circulation of more than 1.5 million copies. There are 20 domestically printed weekly publications with total circulation of 622,000 and 11 monthly publications with total circulation of 600,000. In 2001, the government amended the Penal Code provisions relating to defamation and slander, a step widely viewed as an effort to rein in the press. While the Algerian press is relatively free to write as they choose, use of the defamation laws significantly increased the level of press harassment following President Bouteflika's April 2004 re-election victory, and as a result, the press began to self-censor. In July 2006, President Bouteflika pardoned all journalists convicted of defaming or insulting state institutions. The pardon effectively dismissed the charges against 67 people. Critics point out that according to the criminal code, insulting the president is punishable by prison sentence. Nevertheless, the pardon was widely seen as a significant step toward democracy. The government holds a monopoly over broadcast media; Algerian newspapers are widely seen to be the freest in the region.
Population growth and associated problems--unemployment and underemployment, inability of social services to keep pace with rapid urban migration, inadequate industrial management and productivity, a decaying infrastructure--continue to affect Algerian society. Increases in the production and prices of oil and gas over the past decade have led to exchange reserves reaching $80 billion. The government began an economic reform program in 1994, focusing on macroeconomic stability and structural reform. These reforms aimed at liberalizing the economy, making Algeria competitive in the global market, and meeting the needs of the Algerian people. In 2004, the government announced a $55 billion spending program to improve national infrastructure and social services; subsequent announcements have increased the proposed program to $120 billion.
The hydrocarbons sector is the backbone of the Algerian economy, accounting for roughly 60% of budget revenues, nearly 30% of GDP, and over 97% of export earnings. Algeria has the ninth-largest reserves of natural gas in the world (2.7% of proven world total) and is the fourth-largest gas exporter; it ranks 14th for oil reserves (2006). Its key oil and gas customers are Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. U.S. companies have played a major role in developing Algeria's oil and gas sector; of the $5.3 billion (on a historical-cost basis, according to statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis) of U.S. investment in Algeria, the vast bulk is in the petroleum sector.
Faced with declining oil revenues and high-debt interest payments at the beginning of the 1990s, Algeria implemented a stringent macroeconomic stabilization program and rescheduled its $7.9 billion Paris Club debt in the mid-1990s. The macroeconomic program has been particularly successful at narrowing the budget deficit and at reducing inflation from of near-30% averages in the mid 1990s to almost single digits in 2000. Inflation was at 3.6% in 2004. Algeria's economy has grown by more than 5% in each of the past five years, posting 5.6% growth in 2006. The country's foreign debt fell from a high of $28 billion in 1999 to $5 billion in 2006; in that year Algeria paid off the last of its Paris Club debt. The spike in oil prices in 1999-2000 and 2004, the government's tight fiscal policy and conservative budgeting of oil prices from 2000 to present, a large increase in the trade surplus, and the near tripling of foreign exchange reserves have helped the country's finances.
The government pledges to continue its efforts to diversify the economy by attracting foreign and domestic investment outside the energy sector. The Algerian Government has had little success at reducing high unemployment, officially estimated at 13% in 2006, though international estimates put the figure higher, and at improving living standards.
Priority areas are banking and judicial reform, improving the investment environment, partial or complete privatization of state enterprises, and reducing government bureaucracy. The government has privatized certain sectors of the economy and embraced joint venture investment opportunities with traditionally state owned and operated entities. In 2001, Algeria concluded an Association Agreement with the European Union, which was ratified in 2005 by both Algeria and the EU and took effect in September of that same year. The government is working toward accession to the World Trade Organization.
Algeria's armed forces, known collectively as the Popular National Army (ANP), total 138,000 active members, with some 100,000 reservists. The president serves as Minister of National Defense. Military forces are supplemented by a 60,000-member national gendarmerie, a rural police force, under the control of the president and a 30,000-member Sureté Nationale or Metropolitan Police force under the Ministry of the Interior. Eighteen months of national military service is compulsory for men.
Algeria is a leading military power in the region and has demonstrated remarkable success in its struggle against terrorism. The Algerian military, having fought a decade-long insurgency, has increased expenditures in an effort to modernize and return to a more traditional defense role.
Due to historical difficulties in acquiring U.S. military equipment, Algeria's primary military supplier has traditionally been Russia, and to a lesser extent China; Algeria recently made large purchases of advanced weaponry from the former. Algeria has, however, in recent years, begun to diversify its supplies of military equipment to include U.S.-made airborne surveillance aircraft and ground radars.
Algeria has traditionally practiced an activist foreign policy and in the 1960s and 1970s was noted for its support of Third World policies and independence movements. Algerian diplomacy was instrumental in obtaining the release of U.S. hostages from Iran in 1980. Since his first election in 1999, President Bouteflika worked to restore Algeria's international reputation, traveling extensively throughout the world. In July 2001, he became the first Algerian President to visit the White House in 16 years. He has made official visits to France, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Germany, China, Japan, Portugal, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Latin American countries, among others, since his inauguration.
Algeria has taken the lead in working on issues related to the African continent. Host of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Conference in 2000, Algeria also was key in bringing Ethiopia and Eritrea to the peace table in 2000. In 2001, the 37th summit of the OAU formally adopted the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) to address the challenges facing the continent. Algeria has taken a lead in reviving the Union of the Arab Maghreb with its neighbors.
Since 1976, Algeria has supported the Polisario Front, which claims to represent the population of Western Sahara. Contending that the Sahrawis have a right to self-determination under the UN Charter, Algeria has provided the Polisario with support and sanctuary in refugee camps in the southwestern Algerian province of Tindouf. UN involvement in the Western Sahara includes MINURSO, a peacekeeping force, UNHCR, which handles refugee assistance and resettlement, and the World Food Program (WFP). Active diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute under the auspices of the United Nations Secretary General are ongoing.
Algeria's support of self-determination for the Polisario is in opposition to Morocco's claim of sovereignty. The dispute remains a major obstacle to bilateral and regional cooperation. Although the land border between Morocco and Algeria was closed in the wake of a terrorist attack in 1994, the two have worked at improving relations, and in July 2004, Morocco lifted visa requirements for Algerians. Algeria reciprocated with the lifting of visa requirements for Moroccans on April 2, 2005. Algeria has friendly relations with its other neighbors in the Mahgreb, Tunisia and Libya, and with its sub-Saharan neighbors, Mali and Niger. It closely monitors developments in the Middle East and has been a strong proponent of the rights of the Palestinian people, as well as a supporter of Iraq's democratic transition.
Algeria has diplomatic relations with more than 100 foreign countries, and over 90 countries maintain diplomatic representation in Algiers. Algeria held a nonpermanent, rotating seat on the UN Security Council from January 2004 to December 2005. Algeria hosted 13 Arab leaders at the Arab League Summit, March 22-23, 2005.
In July 2001, President Bouteflika became the first Algerian President to visit the White House since 1985. This visit, followed by a second meeting in November 2001, a meeting in New York in September 2003, and President Bouteflika's participation at the June 2004 G8 Sea Island Summit, is indicative of the growing relationship between the United States and Algeria. Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, contacts in key areas of mutual concern, including law enforcement and counter-terrorism cooperation, have intensified. Algeria publicly condemned the terrorist attacks on the United States and has been strongly supportive of the international war against terrorism. The United States and Algeria consult closely on key international and regional issues. The pace and scope of senior-level visits has accelerated. In April 2006, then-Foreign Minister Bedjaoui met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
In 2006, U.S. direct investment in Algeria totaled $5.3 billion, mostly in the petroleum sector, which U.S. companies dominate. American companies also are active in the banking and finance, services, pharmaceuticals, medical facilities, telecommunications, aviation, seawater desalination, energy production, and information technology sectors. Algeria is the United States' 3rd-largest market in the Middle East/North African region. U.S. exports to Algeria totaled $1.2 billion in 2005, an increase of more than 50% since 2003. U.S. imports from Algeria grew from $4.7 billion in 2002 to $10.8 billion in 2005, primarily in oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG). In March 2004, President Bush designated Algeria a beneficiary country for duty-free treatment under the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP).
In July 2001, the United States and Algeria signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, which established common principles on which the economic relationship is founded and forms a platform for negotiating a bilateral investment treaty (BIT) and a free-trade agreement (FTA). The two governments meet on an ongoing basis to discuss trade and investment policies and opportunities to enhance the economic relationship. Within the framework of the U.S.-North African Economic Partnership (USNAEP), the United States provided about $1.0 million in technical assistance to Algeria in 2003. This program supported and encouraged Algeria's economic reform program and included support for World Trade Organization accession negotiations, debt management, and improving the investment climate. In 2003, USNAEP programs were rolled over into Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) activities, which provide funding for political and economic development programs in Algeria.
Cooperation between the Algerian and U.S. militaries continues to grow. Exchanges between both sides are frequent, and Algeria has hosted senior U.S. military officials. In May 2005, the United States and Algeria conducted their first formal joint military dialogue in Washington, DC; the second joint military dialogue took place in Algiers in November 2006. The NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander, U.S. European Command, General James L. Jones visited Algeria in June and August 2005, and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Algeria in February 2006. The United States and Algeria have also conducted bilateral naval and Special Forces exercises, and Algeria has hosted U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ship visits. In addition, the United States has a modest International Military Education and Training (IMET) Program ($824,000 in FY 2006) for training Algerian military personnel in the United States, and Algeria participates in the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP).
The United States has implemented modest university linkages programs and has placed two English Language Fellows, the first since 1993, with the Ministry of Education to assist in the development of English as a Second Language (ESL) courses at the Ben Aknoune Training Center. In 2006, Algeria was again the recipient of a grant under the Ambassadors' Fund for Cultural Preservation. That fund provided a grant of $106,110 to restore the El Pacha Mosque in Oran. Algeria also received an $80,000 grant to fund microscholarships to design and implement an American English-language program for Algerian high school students in four major cities.
Initial funding through the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has been allocated to support the work of Algeria's developing civil society through programming that provides training to journalists, businesspersons, legislators, Internet regulators, and the heads of leading nongovernmental organizations. Additional funding through the State Department's Human Rights and Democracy Fund will assist civil society groups focusing on the issues of the disappeared, and Islam and democracy.
In August 2005, then-Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard G. Lugar, led a Presidential Mission to Algeria and Morocco to oversee the release of the remaining 404 Moroccan POWs held by the Polisario Front in Algeria. Their release removed a longstanding bilateral obstacle between Algeria and Morocco.
The official U.S. presence in Algeria is expanding following over a decade of limited staffing, reflecting the general improvement in the security environment. During the past three years, the U.S. Embassy has moved toward more normal operations and now provides most embassy services to the American and Algerian communities.
Principal U.S. Officials
The U.S. Embassy is located at 4 Chemin Cheikh Bachir El-Ibrahimi, Algiers; tel. 213 (21) 691255; fax: 213 (21) 693 979.
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
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Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Further Electronic Information
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Revised: Oct. 2007