U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says he and Tunisian leaders discussed expanding U.S.-Tunisian military relations Saturday in Tunis, where he is on the first stop of a three-day visit to North Africa.
A Tunisian military band and honor guard welcomed Secretary Rumsfeld and his delegation at the Ministry of Defense headquarters. After a half hour of talks with Tunisian Defense Minister Kamel Morjane, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke about one common experience of the two very different countries.
"Both of our countries have been attacked by violent extremists, so we know well the stakes involved in the struggle that's being waged," said Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld also met with Tunisia's foreign minister, and with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In a written statement, the president said they discussed ways to further develop U.S.-Tunisian relations, and also discussed regional issues including the situation in Iraq and the change of administrations in the Palestinian territories. President Ben Ali said Tunisia wants the advances in the peace process preserved.
On bilateral defense issues, Secretary Rumsfeld told reporters he and Tunisian officials discussed plans for a Status of Forces Agreement, which would specify the legal status of U.S. and Tunisian forces in each other's country, paving the way for increased military exchanges, exercises and joint operations.
"They're working on a Status of Forces Agreement, a SOFA, and that's moving along, and that would create a situation where we would be able to do more things, exercises and that type of thing," he said.
Secretary Rumsfeld said he also discussed political reform with the Tunisian leaders, as other U.S. officials have done in the past, including President Bush. Rumsfeld said Tunisia has made many changes in the last 50 years, and that the various sectors of society are developing at different speeds.
On his U.S. Air Force plane just before leaving Italy, where he attended a NATO meeting, Secretary Rumsfeld announced he will also visit Algeria and Morocco on this trip. He explained his reason for deciding to visit the three countries.
"Each country has, in its way, been providing moderate leadership and been constructive in the problems of the world and in the struggle against violent extremism," explained Donald Rumsfeld.
The secretary said he wants to strengthen U.S. military ties to the three countries, all of which he says have been helpful in the war on terrorism. They are all recipients of U.S. military aid, some of through the new Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative. That five-year, $500-million effort is designed to help countries in the region develop the capabilities needed to fighter terrorism, and prevent terrorist organizations from using remote regions of their territory as bases.
"There are certainly places in the world that are attractive for terrorists and terrorist networks," he said. "They tend not to be countries like these three. They tend to be areas that have large ungoverned spaces and where the governments attitudinally are more tolerant toward extremism."
Secretary Rumsfeld says the United States wants to build broader defense relations with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco - beyond just the fight against terrorism - and he noted that last year U.S. and Tunisian officials held the 20th annual session of defense consultations.