Visiting this small, oil-producing country, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld expressed thanks Wednesday for its assistance in the war on terrorism and discussed deeper U.S. involvement, including help in intensifying Azeri patrols of the Caspian Sea and the possible use of Azeri bases for U.S. military operations.
The Pentagon leader dodged questions about October's disputed election of Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his ailing father, Heydar, amid evidence of voting irregularities cited by international observers and the U.S. State Department.
Greeting Aliyev at the start of a meeting in the presidential building, Rumsfeld congratulated him on the election victory. But asked at a news conference afterward about whether the vote met international standards for free and fair elections, he offered no opinion.
Instead, Rumsfeld focused on the growing strategic importance of Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that has emerged as a key U.S. ally in a region between Iran and Russia that is of increasing concern to Pentagon authorities.
"The United States has a relationship with this country. We value it," Rumsfeld said, standing beside the Azeri defense minister, Col. Gen. Safar Abiyev. "And certainly we intend to continue that military-to-military relationship with the new administration."
In a speech last month, President Bush declared a U.S. commitment to the spread of democracy in the Middle East and the rest of the world, saying that the success of democratic government in Iraq would "send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran, that freedom can be the future of every nation."
On quick visits to Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria on Tuesday and Wednesday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell voiced a similar message, calling on the countries to continue democratic reforms and respect human rights.
A predominantly Muslim nation of 8 million people, Azerbaijan was one of the first countries to offer the United States support after the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to defense officials. It has allowed U.S. military planes to fly through its airspace for operations in Central Asia and the Middle East, and has sent small contingents of troops to serve in the U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In return, President Bush last year and again this year waived a ban on security assistance imposed on Azerbaijan a decade ago over a territorial dispute with Armenia. This has allowed about $3 million a year in military aid to flow to Baku to fund peacekeeping-training and education programs.
As a next step, Pentagon officials say they see Azerbaijan, which is on the west coast of the Caspian, enlarging its naval and reconnaissance forces to guard against trafficking in weapons and drugs and against potential transit by terrorists in the region.
The United States recently delivered a Coast Guard cutter to Azerbaijan as part of its assistance. Rumsfeld said that Air Force Gen. Charles F. Wald, the deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, was in Baku recently to discuss ways of broadening cooperation in maritime and other military missions.
Azerbaijan also factors significantly in Pentagon plans to shift away from the large, permanent facilities in Germany and other European countries, and instead rely on smaller, skeletal bases and other military arrangements, such as rights to use local bases temporarily, in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.
The subject came up in the talks here, but Rumsfeld said no specific proposals had been presented. Other defense officials said the possible options for Azerbaijan ranged from use of Azeri territory for occasional training of U.S. troops to the permanent stationing in the country of equipment and small numbers of American troops.
Abiyev said at the news conference that his country would be willing to consider any future U.S. proposal to base American troops in the country or allow access to bases for periodic use. He also said that he and Rumsfeld had discussed ensuring the security of a new oil pipeline across Azerbaijan to Turkey and the Black Sea that is due to start operating next year.