Rumsfeld Fosters Ties With Tunisia

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, center, views ancient artifacts at the museum in Carthage, Tunisia. His trip was also to include stops in Algeria and Morocco.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, center, views ancient artifacts at the museum in Carthage, Tunisia. His trip was also to include stops in Algeria and Morocco. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Getty Images)

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

TUNIS, Feb. 11 -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said on Saturday that the United States wants to strengthen military ties with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco and played down the threat posed by al Qaeda in the three North African states.

Rumsfeld arrived in Tunis after a NATO meeting in Sicily to begin a three-day visit to the Mahgreb -- his first to the region as defense secretary -- and praised Tunisia's support in the U.S. campaign against global terrorism.

"They have been attacked by terrorists in this country," Rumsfeld told reporters at the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage, adding, "They have felt the sting of that type of violence."

Tunisia blamed al Qaeda for a suicide bombing in 2002 at its main Jewish shrine that killed 14 people, most of them German tourists.

Rumsfeld said that after visiting Tunisia he would travel to Algeria and Morocco. The United States has long-standing military ties with Tunisia and Morocco and recently began such relations with Algeria.

"We are continuing to participate with each one of these three countries in one way or another on a military-to-military relationship. And it's something that we value and want to strengthen," Rumsfeld said earlier in the day.

Rumsfeld said the three nations had been "constructive partners" in the campaign against global terrorism and would not be fertile soil for groups such as al Qaeda to use to put down roots.

"There are certainly places in the world that are attractive for terrorists and terrorist networks. They tend not to be countries like these three," he said. "They tend to be areas that have large ungoverned spaces where the governments attitudinally are more tolerant towards extremism. And that would not be the case in any one of these three nations."

Rumsfeld said he would discuss counterterrorism with the countries' leaders, among other topics.

Rumsfeld met Tunisia's president, Zine Abidine Ben Ali, as well as Defense Minister Kamel Morjane. He said they talked about Iran's nuclear ambitions and Tunisian political reforms, among other topics, but he offered no details.

Security sources and analysts in the region said Tunisia, as well as Morocco and Algeria, are concerned about efforts by al Qaeda to build support in the region for its campaign against the United States and other Western countries.

Intelligence sources in the region said al Qaeda had recruited scores of young men in North Africa and helped them enter Iraq to join the insurgency there, where some of them have died in suicide bombings.

"As with Egypt, we're nudging Tunisia to be creative and reform-minded, and it's delicate," said a senior U.S. defense official traveling with Rumsfeld. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

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