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Uzbekistan Tests U.S. Policy Goals

Bush's aim of spreading democracy appears to clash with need to keep strategic military bases.

June 13, 2005|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In its struggle with Islamic extremism, the United States has had few better friends than President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, who has provided both intelligence and military facilities. But Karimov's government has emerged as one of the toughest tests of the Bush administration's campaign to promote democracy, especially in the Muslim world.

In the month since Uzbek armored personnel carriers rolled into the town of Andijon and troops opened fire on protesters, Karimov's authoritarian government has refused U.S. calls for an independent international investigation.

Nonetheless, the Bush administration has been tepid in its criticism. Karimov's record on democracy and the economy has been worsening in recent years, but he rules the most populated of the Central Asian nations and one of the most strategically located, and allows the United States to use its military bases.

The Uzbekistan case pits one of President Bush's stated top priorities, demanding that dictators begin reforms that would defuse support for Islamic extremism, against one of his key military concerns, securing access to bases to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan.

Moreover, were Karimov to fall, he could be succeeded by a radical Islamic government that would be even less to U.S. liking, analysts said.

However, the United States is considering taking Uzbekistan to the United Nations for a human rights investigation, State Department officials said.

"We are considering all of our diplomatic options, including at the U.N.," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week.

The United States has been talking to other countries to drum up support for an international investigation, he added.

Karimov has allowed the U.S. military to use the Karshi Khanabad airfield and other bases in southeastern Uzbekistan for special operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

But critics say Uzbekistan under Karimov also illustrates the "freedom deficit" that the Bush administration cites as a root cause of terrorism.

Karimov has not lived up to pledges he made to increase democracy in a 2002 agreement he signed with Bush, and is using terrorism as an excuse to crack down on domestic opposition, critics charge.

On the other hand, Karimov has released some prisoners and allowed the International Committee of the Red Cross access to some of Uzbekistan's notorious prisons for the first time.

Karimov has portrayed the crackdown in Andijon, which his government says left 173 people dead, as a response to a revolt by Islamic extremists. However, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, says most of the protesters were unarmed and that the death toll could be as high as 750.

The U.S. Embassy's reporting is consistent with the findings of Human Rights Watch, said a State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The New York-based rights group last week called the Andijon killings "a massacre."

Making matters more awkward is that the Pentagon is in negotiations with Uzbekistan for long-term access to its bases. The U.S. has paid Uzbekistan $15 million since 2001 in "reimbursement of services" for use of the Karshi Khanabad airfield, according to the Pentagon.

U.S. officials said there was no conflict in the Pentagon negotiating with the Uzbek government at the same time the State Department was pushing for an investigation of Andijon.

"It's certainly not a contradiction to say that you will talk to them about access to a base, while not establishing a double standard with respect to democracy and human rights," a senior State Department official said.

The International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and the rights group Freedom House wrote a letter Thursday to Bush calling on him to suspend negotiations over the bases until Karimov agreed to an international investigation of the Andijon killings.

The U.S. has demanded a "credible, transparent and independent investigation." It has rejected a move by the Uzbek legislature, seen as a rubber stamp for Karimov, to conduct the investigation itself.

Increasing the pressure on Bush, four Republican and two Democratic senators sharply questioned U.S. military and diplomatic policy toward Uzbekistan in a letter last week to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The administration hasn't decided on its strategy for getting Uzbekistan to agree to an international investigation of the crackdown.

"It could be a [U.N.] resolution, it could be a statement by the Security Council, it could be an action that the secretary-general himself takes -- or something else," said the senior State Department official.

If the United States were to sponsor a U.N. resolution it is unclear whether Russia and China, two permanent members of the Security Council that support Karimov, would agree.

Analysts predicted that if the Bush administration has to choose between security and promoting democracy, it will choose security.

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