- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

Azerbaijan’s quest

Azerbaijan supplies troops to help the United States in Iraq, is aiming for NATO membership and does business with U.S. energy companies.

Nevertheless, many Azerbaijani politicians believe their country, like a Rodney Dangerfield nation, gets no respect in Washington, where a powerful lobby tilts U.S. policy toward Armenia, Azerbaijan’s regional rival, which has been occupying as much as 20 percent of Azerbaijani territory since 1992.

“It is very strange to us that Congress can’t resist pressure from the Armenian lobby,” said Anar Mammadkhanov, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament, on a visit to Washington this week.

Mr. Mammadkhanov, vice chairman of the committee on relations between Azerbaijan and the European Union, was one of seven Azerbaijani lawmakers who met with congressional leaders and officials at the White House, Pentagon and State Department. He said the lawmakers received the same message whenever they urged the United States to change its policy in the region and endorse their complaints against Armenia.

“We asked, ‘What else can we do to get the administration to change its policy?’ ” he said. The U.S. officials repeatedly referred to the power of the Armenian lobby, he said.

Mr. Mammadkhanov said the Azerbaijani lawmakers reminded the officials that the United Nations has called on Armenia to withdraw from a corridor that links that country to Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian enclave that declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1988.

That move sparked a conflict that took 30,000 lives and created more than a million Azerbaijani refugees until it ended in a cease-fire in 1994. Azerbaijan retaliated by blocking trade routes into its landlocked neighbor.

Mr. Mammadkhanov, on a visit to The Washington Times, criticized U.S. policy for trying to maintain a balance between the rival nations.

Azerbaijan maintains 150 troops in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to “prove we are a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism,” he said.

Armenia has no troops in Iraq and opposed the U.S.-led invasion, although Armenian President Robert Kocharian has been trying recently to get parliamentary approval to send a contingent of 50 noncombat troops to Iraq.

Mr. Mammadkhanov said Azerbaijan is “resisting pressure from Islamic countries” and from Russia over its troop deployment in Iraq.

U.S. policy toward Armenia also puts domestic pressure on Azerbaijani politicians.

“We have serious problems trying to explain this to our voters,” he said. “We’re not asking the United States to be pro-Azeri, just fair.”

Firm pays fine

A Massachusetts company agreed to pay nearly $1 million in fines to settle claims that it tried to defraud the government by inflating costs for the construction of the U.S. Embassy building in Venezuela, the State Department said yesterday.

The Perini Corp. insisted in 1995 that the government owed it more than $8 million for construction delays that the company blamed on the State Department, which rejected the claim. The company agreed to pay $998,500 in penalties.

“This settlement resolves the administrative claims, as well as the government’s allegations of fraud,” the department said.

The State Department accused Perini Corp. of violating the False Claims Act and the Contract Disputes Act, which is designed to prevent government contractors from submitting inflated claims as a negotiating tactic to force a settlement.

The Contract Disputes Act allows the government to impose stiff penalties on contractors that fail to prove their claims.

“In taking the actions which we have in this case, we hope to send a message to contractors to submit only legitimate claims,” said the department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.

The embassy was completed in 1995 at a cost of $37.2 million.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail [email protected]om.

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