The United States and Uzbekistan have completed a series of senior-level meetings in Washington with a pledge to build a "qualitatively new" long-term relationship. Secretary of State Colin Powell will visit Uzbekistan as part of the nine-day trip to Europe and Central Asia he begins next Monday.
Uzbekistan - which borders Afghanistan - has emerged as a key US ally in the war against terrorism, and the five days of talks here reflected the rapidly-expanding relationship between the two countries.
The Uzbek delegation headed by First Deputy Prime Minister Rustan Azimov held a final meeting Friday here with Secretary of State Colin Powell. A joint statement said the US side expressed "deep appreciation" for what was termed Uzbekistan's "historic decision" to broadly support the international coalition against terrorism.
It said both governments expressed a commitment to a "qualitatively new" long-term relationship based on common objectives to combat terrorism, eradicate what were termed the "social, economic and financial sources of extremism" and to strengthen security in Central Asia.
The talks were mainly focussed on economic issues, and the joint statement said the Uzbek team pledged to accelerate market reforms including currency convertibility, while the United States pledged to expand aid and cooperation to advance those goals.
But at a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said political issues were also discussed including Uzbekistan's human rights record, which has been sharply criticized by the United States and independent monitoring groups. "Our view of the situation in Uzbekistan is quite clearly stated in our [annual] human rights report," he said. "So I think we've described the situation there in some detail. But I would say that as the Secretary [of State] has often said to people from all over the world, that the process of economic reform, the process of rule-of-law, the process of anti-corruption efforts, these are all essential to development. And those are the things we intend to support."
Human rights groups have criticized, among other things, repression and arrests of members of independent Muslim groups there, media censorship and the effective ban on political groups other than those aligned with President Islam Karimov.
Uzbekistan, in an unprecedented move by a former Soviet republic, authorized the United States in early October to use bases in the country for military operations in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan has also become a key staging ground for moving humanitarian aid into the war-torn country.
Spokesman Boucher said to advance the aid effort, a team of US Army engineers is in Uzbekistan to help counterparts there reopen the so-called "Friendship Bridge" spanning the Amu Darya River along the Uzbek-Afghan border.
Reopening the bridge, which has been closed for five years, would greatly increase the ability of the UN's World Food Program and other relief groups to get food supplies into Afghanistan, augmenting shipments now crossing the river in barges.
Underlining the emerging US-Uzbekistan relationship, Secretary of State Powell will visit the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, in a week's time as part of the lengthy trip to Europe and Central Asia he begins on Monday.
A stop in neighboring Kazakhstan, another former Soviet republic, is also planned before Mr. Powell pays a two-day visit to Moscow.
A senior official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity went to some length to stress that the United States does not intend to have a long-term military presence in Central Asia.
He also said the US effort to improve ties with Uzbekistan and its neighbors is not a bid to replace Russia or its influence in the area, or to detract from the Central Asian states' ability to have good relations with Moscow.