U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Mongolia Saturday to thank the country for its participation in the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to promote the growing U.S.-Mongolian military relationship.
After meeting with Mongolia's defense minister, Mr. Rumsfeld said Mongolian troops had contributed to the liberation of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, and helped put them on the path to democracy.
Asked whether Mongolia's neighbors, Russia and China, have expressed any concern about the growing U.S. military relationship with Mongolia, Secretary Rumsfeld asked, "why should they?"
"The relationship between our two countries is particularly focused on peacekeeping capabilities, something that the world needs and benefits from, and I can't imagine why you would ask the question," he said.
Mongolian Defense Minister Sharavdorj said he has heard no expressions of concern from China or Russia. He said the new danger in international security is terrorism, and Mongolia wants to establish close defense relations with all countries. He said Mongolia also has military relations with its two huge neighbors.
Later, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke to nearly 200 Mongolian soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, to thank them for their service. Mongolia has about 135 troops in Iraq, providing security at a coalition base south of Baghdad.
One Mongolian soldier is credited with shooting a suicide bomber as he approached the base driving a large truck filled with fuel. The truck exploded in a fireball that a U.S. official says would have caused widespread death and destruction on the base. Secretary Rumsfeld had a chance to meet that soldier on Saturday.
Mongolia has also deployed a training team to Afghanistan to teach soldiers in the country's new army how to operate mortars and artillery. In addition, the United States is training the Mongolian army in several skills, in an effort to help the country transform its Soviet-era military into a modern force, and build a 5,000-strong, world class peacekeeping unit that can participate in international operations around the world.
Some of the annual $18 million in U.S. military aid to Mongolia will go to building a peacekeeping "center of excellence" at a base near the capital, where troops from around the world can train.
One U.S. official says some leaders in Mongolia, which is surrounded by China and Russia, have come to refer to the United States as their "third neighbor."
Before he left Mongolia, Secretary Rumsfeld attended a cultural show and was presented with a horse, a traditional gift for honored guests. In keeping with the tradition, he asked the herder to take care of it for him, until his next visit. He named the horse Montana, because he said the Mongolian landscape reminded him of the northwestern U.S. state.
The secretary's plan to visit Kazakhstan on this trip was canceled, due to what officials called a "scheduling problem with the country's president," apparently related to next month's election.
He headed from Mongolia directly to Lithuania, for bi-lateral talks and a meeting with NATO officials and the defense minister of Ukraine, which is trying to join the organization.