The United States has decided to continue aid to help Uzbekistan dispose of Soviet-era weapons. But it has put the Uzbek government, a key ally in the war on terrorism, on notice that other U.S. assistance will be jeopardized, if it does not improve its human rights performance.

The Bush administration, in a toughening of its human rights position toward Uzbekistan, is warning the Central Asian nation that it could face a broad reduction of U.S. aid later this year, unless it improves its rights record in several key areas.

On December 30, the White House announced that President Bush had decided to grant Uzbekistan a waiver, under which U.S. disarmament aid to Uzbekistan could continue, even though it was determined that it had not met human rights criteria set forth for aid in the so-called Nunn-Lugar program.

Under that program, the United States has granted billions of dollars in aid to Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union to help them dispose of, and prevent the transfer of, stockpiles of Soviet-era nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

But State Department officials say there is no provision for a presidential waiver in the broader U.S. foreign aid bill for fiscal-year 2004 now nearing completion in Congress. They say Uzbekistan could thus face a cut-off of U.S. assistance, unless the administration can certify by April that it is making progress toward meeting international human rights standards.

At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Adam Ereli said U.S. officials have given Uzbek authorities a list of areas in which the country's human rights performance needs to be improved. "We are now engaged with Uzbekistan on steps they can take to meet these provisions, including looking to the highest level of government to condemn torture and take first steps to end its use; credibly investigating deaths in custody linked to torture; allowing domestic and international NGO's to operate without restrictions, and [allowing] opposition parties to register; protecting the rights of religious Muslims and religious minorities. And we've made clear that we're looking to Uzbekistan to make tangible progress on these issues," he said.

At stake for Uzbekistan could be tens-of-millions of dollars in U.S. economic and technical aid. By contrast, it has been receiving little more than $1 million a year under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat-Reduction program.

Officials here say Uzbekistan authorities have been repeatedly warned about their human rights record, and that the State Department's top human rights official, Lorne Craner, has visited Uzbekistan more than any other country during his tenure.

In its most recent global report on human rights practices, issued last March, the State Department cited some areas of improvement, but said Uzbekistan's overall rights record "remained very poor."

It said, while the Uzbek constitution provided for a separation of powers, President Islam Karimov exercised "nearly complete control" over all branches of government. It accused the government of harassing opposition political parties, and said security forces arbitrarily arrested citizens and mistreated them in custody, resulting in several deaths.

The U.S. report estimated that 6,500 Uzbek citizens are jailed for political reasons, including members of extremist Islamic groups, but also secular opposition politicians and human rights activists.

A spokesman for the private group Human Rights Watch said the U.S. decision means that, for the first time, Uzbekistan's relationship with Washington could suffer because of its political repression. He said real allies in the fight against terrorism give people peaceful avenues for expressing themselves.