- The Washington Times - Monday, March 11, 2002

New U.S. ally Uzbekistan may provide a key to long-term stability in central Asia, adding importance to President Islam Karimov's visit to Washington that begins tomorrow.
"Uzbekistan has the largest population in Central Asia 25 million and is strategically located right in the middle of it all," said Nick van Praag, a World Bank spokesman.
The International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development were among a handful of groups, government officials and academics who discussed greater aid packages to Central Asia at a recent U.N. Development Program conference in Berlin.
Uzbekistan shares a border with Afghanistan, has a well-equipped military and is governed by a leader who has warmed to Washington since September 11, a State Department official said.
There are about 2,000 American troops stationed in the country.
"Uzbekistan is the linchpin for economic stability for the entire region," said Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution analyst.
She and others said Mr. Karimov's talks with President Bush will likely focus on the quest for regional economic stability and cooperation against Islamic militancy in Uzbekistan, which is 80 percent Muslim. Uzbek officials declined to be interviewed about the visit.
Mr. Karimov, who has ruled Uzbekistan since it was part of the erstwhile Soviet Union, governs more in the style of a Soviet autocrat than a democratic statesman, analysts say.
Elected in 1991, he served successive five-year terms and in January held a referendum to extend his term by two years, overriding limits in the constitution. Observers said the referendum failed to meet international standards.
The move could signal that Mr. Karimov is setting the stage to rule indefinitely, Miss Hill said.
Uzbekistan has faced security threats from extremist Islamic groups, including a 1999 attempt to assassinate Mr. Karimov in the capital, Tashkent.
Groups active in the country include the Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan (IMU), which reputedly has ties to al Qaeda, and Hizb-ut-tahir, an Islamic missionary movement that seeks a nonviolent overthrow of secular governments around the world.
The IMU suffered a serious blow when military leader Juma Namangani was killed by U.S. forces in northern Afghanistan in November. A State Department official said, "There is a presumption there are active cells in Uzbekistan, but they are maintaining a low profile."
Mr. Karimov, who resisted economic reforms in the mid-1990s, now seems more receptive. The State Department recently announced the United States will contribute $60 million in aid this year on top of a one-time commitment of $100 million.


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