Thursday, December 12, 2002

In a region packed with squeamish U.S. allies, the newest nation is working overtime to be part of Washington’s plans for war against Iraq.

Eritrea, a tiny desert nation across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia, has even hired a Washington lobbying firm to press its invitation to American troops.

“Eritrea provides the United States with a strategic advantage and hospitable atmosphere that cannot be matched in the region,” says the Washington lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig LLP, which was hired by Eritrea in May for an estimated $50,000 a month.

In a press release titled “Why Not Eritrea?” that reads somewhat like a tourist brochure, the firm goes on to say:

“Based on current sentiment of the Arab community and the geography of the region, it is increasingly clear that failure to form an alliance with Eritrea is unconscionable.”

On Tuesday, during a visit by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to the Eritrean capital, Asmara, President Isaias Afworki, offered the United States the use of Eritrean military bases if a Washington-led international coalition decides to use force to disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

“We have very limited resources, but we are willing and prepared to use these resources in any way that is useful to combat terrorism,” said Mr. Isaias.

Asked if that included the use of Eritrean military facilities, Mr. Isaias replied: “That’s the least you can imagine.”

Mr. Rumsfeld did not say if the United States, which has 1,000 elite troops stationed on a warship off the coast, would take up Eritrea’s offer.

But he did say that the relationship between the United States and Eritrea, a strip of coastal desert not quite the size of Florida, was one that he hoped would evolve and “grow in the weeks and months and years ahead.”

The United States is prepositioning troops and equipment in the region, and Army Gen. Tommy Franks has made at least four trips to Eritrea since the September 11 terrorist attacks, suggesting that the Pentagon is interested in what Eritrea has to offer.

“It is not a bad idea to include Eritrea in the war on terrorism,” said Jack Spencer, defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation. “The Horn of Africa is incredibly important … . If we don’t include Eritrea, it is a part of the world that will breed terrorism.”

The United States, France and Germany currently have troops in Djibouti, a Muslim country on Eritrea’s southeast border. But like other Muslim nations in the region, Djibouti has expressed reservations about being used as a base in a war on Iraq.

Eritrea, which is about 50 percent Muslim and 50 percent Christian, is pro-American and has turned down numerous invitations to join the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic States.

But not all is well with U.S.-Eritrean relations. On Oct. 11, 2001, two Eritrean nationals who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Asmara, Alli Alamin and Kiflom Ghebrenichael, were arrested and have been held since then at an undetermined location on unspecified charges.

The State Department has made repeated requests that the Eritrean government give the men a fair and open trial, so far to no avail.

And in October, the Eritrean government accused the CIA of trying to overthrow its government. The accusation apparently involves a Clinton administration effort to recruit some Eritrean “spies.”

Eritrean Ambassador Girma Asmeron said yesterday his country’s lobbying efforts were geared toward attracting foreign investment.

“Our target is the private sector. We have gold. We have potash. We have fish, and this is how the system works in America: You need lobbyists and consultants,” he said in a telephone interview.

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