Rumsfeld affirms ties with Georgia

Defense secretary says U.S. `ready to assist' country


TBILISI, Georgia - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the first senior administration official to visit here since a peaceful, popular revolt forced out the government of Eduard A. Shevardnadze, expressed strong support yesterday for Georgia in the face of rising secessionist sentiment and the presence of Russian troops in its territory.

Rumsfeld was greeted as a friend, and America acknowledged as a principal ally, by the acting leadership of this former Soviet republic. As Georgia tries to rebuild a government, control its borders, improve its economy and battle what one Pentagon official calls "endemic corruption," Georgia's acting president, Nino Burdzhanadze, said his country's relations with the United States "are of principal, main importance for us."

The afternoon visit was meant to "underscore America's very strong support for stability and security and the territorial integrity here in Georgia," Rumsfeld said. "Certainly we stand ready to assist Georgia during the period ahead."

The United States views Georgia as a strategic partner, in part for its location, along an arc of instability in a region thought to be a crossroads for terrorists. A pipeline set to open in 2005 linking Azerbaijan, which Rumsfeld visited on Thursday, and Turkey, NATO's only Islamic member, runs across Georgia as well.

Georgia's leaders, describing the desperate state of their temporary government, said the treasury was so empty that they had asked the United States to consider helping pay soldiers' salaries. Satisfying the armed forces is viewed as important to keeping the peace ahead of Jan. 4 elections.

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