- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006

Bulgaria has agreed to open three military bases to permanent use by 2,500 U.S. troops who would be available for combat in the Middle East and other nearby regions. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will seal the deal when she visits the country this week.

Miss Rice, who leaves on a trip to the Balkans today, is expected to sign a broad defense-cooperation agreement with the new NATO ally that would authorize the stationing of foreign forces on its soil for the first time in its 1,325-year history, U.S. and Bulgarian officials said.

The final draft of the agreement, which was seen by The Washington Times, allows the United States to deploy troops from the bases for missions in third countries without the specific permission of the Bulgarian authorities, a sensitive matter for many Bulgarians.

“One of the key issues anywhere is our ability to use our soldiers where we need them,” said a senior U.S. official. “Otherwise, we would be tying ourselves [down]. The old model [during the Cold War] was that we had forces in Europe because we thought we’d fight in Europe.”

The possibility that U.S. troops would use a country with a large Muslim minority as a base for an attack on a Muslim nation, such as Iran or Syria, has provoked vocal opposition in Bulgaria. A nationalist party represented in the parliament plans to stage massive protests against the agreement during Miss Rice’s visit.

Another difficult issue during the negotiations involved jurisdiction over any crimes committed by U.S. military personnel in Bulgaria. It was resolved in a convoluted 10-line sentence, which the senior U.S. official said is standard for such documents.

“The Bulgarians waive the right to primary jurisdiction, but, in cases of particular importance, they recall the waiver and reassert their jurisdiction,” the official explained in much simpler language. He noted that most crimes committed by U.S. forces abroad “are fairly minor.”

A senior Bulgarian official said Sofia was satisfied with the arrangement and that the two countries would work together on a case-by-case basis in the event of any serious crimes.

Officials of both countries said the United States will not pay rent for its use of the Bezmer and Graf Ignatievo air bases and the Novo Selo army training range and storage facility. But, according to the agreement, it will cover “operational and maintenance expenses.”

“If we decide we need commercial property, we’ll pay,” the senior U.S. official said.

The senior Bulgarian official said that any new facilities built by the Americans will remain Bulgarian property during and after the Americans’ presence in the country.

The Bulgarians are hoping the agreement will generate employment in the country, but may be disappointed.

“We don’t plan on having that many permanent workers,” the senior U.S. official said. “But Bulgarian companies are eligible for contracts for services if they meet our requirements and standards.”

There will be 2,500 U.S. troops stationed on the three bases in southern Bulgaria at any given time, although their number could reach 5,000 during rotation periods, the official said.

The agreement, which has to be ratified by the Bulgarian parliament before entering into force, runs for 10 years and will be automatically renewed. Either side can terminate it with one year’s notice.

Miss Rice signed a similar agreement with Romania in December. It has been ratified by the parliament’s lower chamber and is currently awaiting approval by the Senate, said Sorin Ducaru, the Romanian ambassador to Washington.

Both Bulgaria and Romania are former Warsaw Pact countries whose strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East attracted Washington’s attention after the September 11 attacks, ensuring their admission to NATO.

Miss Rice will participate in a meeting of the NATO foreign ministers in Sofia and will also visit Greece and Turkey.

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