- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Uzbek President Islam Karimov, whose country has provided critical support for the U.S. military campaign in neighboring Afghanistan, yesterday moved to cement his newfound standing in Washington.

Despite continuing human rights concerns in the central Asian nation, Mr. Karimov met with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell as the two countries signed a series of new agreements pledging closer bilateral military, economic and political ties.

Uzbekistan has been a clear winner in the months since September 11. Mr. Karimov has ruled the country since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1989.

The U.S.-led military effort in Afghanistan has severely damaged the militant Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which had close ties to al Qaeda. The Northern Alliance, the Afghan opposition group that helped oust the Taliban regime, has close ties to the Uzbek leadership.

The Bush administration has tried to walk a delicate line with Uzbekistan, whose help in the military campaign in Afghanistan has been vital but whose human rights record has been the target of frequent State Department criticism.

Mr. Karimov has been a "solid coalition partner" in the war on terrorism, Mr. Powell said at a Senate hearing yesterday before his working luncheon with the Uzbek leader.

"But at the same time, there are problems with respect to human rights in Uzbekistan, and we will not shrink from discussing them," Mr. Powell said.

Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters after the luncheon that Mr. Powell "stressed to President Karimov that the region's long-term security and stability are inextricably linked to the need to strengthen human rights and democratic institutions."

At least 1,000 U.S. military personnel have been assigned to a base in southern Uzbekistan since October. Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. military effort in the region, has said the United States is not seeking a permanent base in Central Asia, but the Pentagon has also said it wants to ensure access to the region in case of new crises.

The administration also announced a threefold increase in U.S. aid to Uzbekistan, although officials stress that the money is targeted not to the government itself. For example, the Export-Import Bank yesterday signed an accord on a $55 million credit for Uzbekistan, which will go to small and midsized businesses there to finance the purchase of American products.

Eight lawmakers yesterday released the text of a March 7 letter to Mr. Bush urging him to keep the pressure on Mr. Karimov to "confront human rights abuses" in Uzbekistan.

Among the abuses they cite: arrests of about 7,000 Muslim leaders and believers, mistreatment of prisoners, and harassment of the press and nongovernmental organizations.

Uzbek authorities say the human rights situation has improved in recent months, and Mr. Karimov himself has said the new agreements mark a "turning point" in relations with Washington.

"This means raising our relations onto an absolutely new level, ensuring strategic relations between us," he told reporters in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, before leaving for Washington Monday.

Mr. Powell and Uzbek Foreign Minister Adulaziz Kamilov yesterday signed a broad framework defining bilateral political, strategic and legal ties between the two countries. In the framework, the United States said it "would regard with grave concern any external threat to the security and territorial integrity of the Republic of Uzbekistan.

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