U.S faces quandary in relations with Uzbekistan

Push for democracy could affect access to air base

June 14, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - In its struggle with Islamic extremism, the United States has had few better friends than President Islam A. Karimov of Uzbekistan, who has provided both intelligence and military facilities. But Karimov's regime 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 populous and strategically located of the Central Asian nations 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 leader who would be even less to U.S. liking, analysts said.

But 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 - known as K2 - 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 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 he is using the fight against terrorism as an excuse to crack down on domestic opposition, critics charge. On the other hand, Karimov has released a number of 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 Andijon killings as a response to a revolt by Islamic extremists who killed some 165 people. But the International Crisis Group, a Brussels, Belgium-based think tank, says most of the protesters were unarmed and the death toll might 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 because of diplomatic sensitivity. The rights group last week called the Andijon killings "a massacre."

Making matters more awkward are continuing Pentagon negotiations with Uzbekistan for long-term access to the bases. The United States has paid Uzbekistan $15 million since 2001 in "reimbursement of services" for use of the K2 airfield, according to the Pentagon.

U.S. officials said there was no conflict between the Pentagon negotiating with the Uzbek government at the same time that the State Department is ratcheting up pressure 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 State Department official said.

The International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and the rights group Freedom House wrote a letter June 9 to Bush calling on him to suspend negotiations over the bases until Karimov agrees to an international investigation of the Andijon killings.

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

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