ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld stopped in the Central Asian steppes Wednesday to laud Kazakhstan as what he termed a model for international disarmament.
Rumsfeld sought to compare Kazakhstan, which willingly dismantled its nuclear arsenal years ago, with Iraq -- despite the fact that the latter did not possess nuclear weapons.
"It's interesting when one thinks about the problem of Iraq and their unwillingness to disarm that Kazakhstan stands as an impressive model of how a country can do it," Rumsfeld told reporters at the Ministry of Defense building here, known locally as the Pentagon after its American counterpart despite its rectangular shape.
"Had Iraq followed the Kazakhstan model after 17 U.N. resolutions and disarmed the way Kazakhstan did, there would not have been a war."
As the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Kazakhstan was one of four former Soviet republics -- along with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine -- that possessed nuclear weapons. All but Russia disarmed voluntarily, but Bush administration officials said Kazakh President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev dismantled with fervor the world's fourth-largest nuclear arsenal, the second-largest nuclear test site and the largest anthrax production facility.
The nation of 15 million people, spread across a Central Asian landmass the size of Western Europe, could have used its nuclear arsenal to raise its international profile and serve as a regional counterbalance to Russia.
Rumsfeld singled out Kazakhstan as the Bush administration continued to struggle with persistent criticism over its failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. At stops in Iraq, Uzbekistan and here as part of a six-day tour, Rumsfeld -- asked about the failure to find such weapons -- has maintained that it was Saddam Hussein's violation of United Nations resolutions, and not the immediate threat of banned weapons, that led to the armed ouster of the Iraqi president's regime.
"He chose unwisely," Rumsfeld said. "The world is a vastly better place with Saddam Hussein in prison and the Iraqi people free."
Rumsfeld thanked Kazakhstan's defense minister, Gen. Mukhtar Altynbayev, and 27 combat engineers who recently returned from a six-month mine-clearing mission in Iraq.
Although its military contribution to the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq is small, Kazakhstan's participation is a boost to the Bush administration's effort to broaden the coalition to include Muslim nations. Kazakhstan, a majority Muslim nation, has sent 27 more troops to Iraq.
Like some allies in the Bush administration's counter-terrorism efforts, Kazakhstan's relatively authoritarian government has been accused of rights abuses. Nazarbayev won a seven-year term in a 1999 election seen as falling short of international standards.