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    US, Georgia, Sign Partnership Charter

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    The United States and Georgia Friday signed a bilateral charter on strategic partnership aimed at increasing cooperation in defense, trade, energy and other areas. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the deal should advance Georgia's bid for membership in NATO and other western structures.

    State Department officials stress that the charter is a not a mutual defense treaty, but they say it is a highly-visible sign of American support for the Caucuses state in the aftermath of its conflict with Russia last August.

    The agreement provides a road map for cooperation between the two countries across the spectrum of bilateral relations, including U.S. assistance to Georgia's military to help that country qualify for NATO membership.

    Russia invaded Georgia in August after the Tbilisi government tried to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia by force. The conflict left Russian troops in South Ossetia and another breakaway area, Abkhazia, and Moscow later recognized the nominal independence of both.

    But at the charter signing ceremony with Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze,  Secretary of State Rice reaffirmed U.S. support for the country's territorial integrity.

    "The United States supports, and will always support Georgia's sovereignty and its territorial integrity, as well as its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and its integration into the institutions of the Euro-Atlantic," she said. "The pace of Georgia's integration with NATO should depend on the desires of Georgians themselves, and on Georgia's ability to meet NATO standards."

    NATO leaders endorsed eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine at their Bucharest summit last year, but a U.S.-led effort to offer them a formal membership action plan was rebuffed by alliance members concerned about Moscow's reaction.

    After the Russia-Georgia conflict, NATO foreign ministers again endorsed membership for the two countries in principle, but through existing structures. In his remarks at the ceremony, Georgian Foreign Minister Vashadze said he hopes the charter with the United States will be one such vehicle.

    "This is something the Georgian nation has been aspiring to, and this is a stepping-stone which will bring Georgia to Euro-Atlantic structures, to membership within NATO and to return to the family of western and civilized nations," he said. "We're  very proud that we lived to see this day, and we would like to stress that we appreciate what the United States has been doing for us, and understand that this document of our strategic partnership brings not only rights, but also obligations for Georgia to be a responsible ally, to be a democratic open and liberal society."

    Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Matthew Bryza, the Bush administration's point-man for Caucuses affairs, said the United States will continue working diplomatically against any further recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhzia.

    Bryza said only Nicaragua and the Palestinian radical group Hamas had followed Russia's lead in accepting the two area's self-proclaimed independence and said he hoped Moscow itself will eventually realize it made a mistake.

    "The perspective is that we have to keep on fighting diplomatically through the Geneva process, more broadly in all of our interactions with Russia to make clear that it's violation of its own policy of supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, was a bad decision," he said.

    Bryza suggested that over time, a combination of economic and democratic strides by Georgia, and political outreach to the two breakaway areas, might persuade them to accept the authority of the Tbilisi government.

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