After cutting off U.S. access to a key military base, Uzbekistan has also quietly terminated cooperation with Washington on counterterrorism, a move that could affect both countries' ability to deal with al Qaeda and its allies in Central Asia and neighboring Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The government of President Islam Karimov, one of the most authoritarian to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union, has made a broader strategic decision to move away from the 2002 agreement made with President Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and is cooling relations with Europe as well, the officials said.
The move follows tough criticism from Washington and the European Union over Uzbekistan's crackdown on protests in May in Andijan province, where human rights and opposition groups say hundreds died. Uzbekistan has charged that terrorists initiated the violence.
As tensions deepen, Karimov is shifting his strategic alliance toward Russia and China, the officials said. In July, Tashkent banned U.S. troops and warplanes from the Karshi-Khanabad air base, which was used for counterterrorism, military and humanitarian missions.
Because of the internal Uzbek crackdown, the European Union laid the groundwork yesterday for a vote expected on Monday to impose new sanctions on Uzbekistan for failing to allow an independent international inquiry of the Andijan incidents. The measures include an embargo on arms and any equipment that could be used for internal repression, and visa restrictions for any Uzbek official linked to the violence, European diplomats said.
Senior officials from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council held three hours of talks with Karimov on Tuesday to express U.S. concern about Uzbek human rights violations and the deterioration in relations between the two countries.
"We do want to cooperate, but it has to be across the board, not just on counterterrorism and security but also to support democratic and market reforms," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said yesterday in a telephone interview from Kazakhstan. He called the recent Uzbek decision to cut back on counterterrorism cooperation "very disappointing."
A spokesman from the Uzbek Embassy in Washington said his nation is still cooperating with the United States but would not comment further.
The E.U. has been pressuring Washington to impose similar sanctions, but the Bush administration wants to give Karimov one last chance to renew cooperation. "The United States is going to look very closely at whether Karimov responds to our message, and, if not, we will draw conclusions," Fried said. "We're not talking about six months. My purpose was not to drag out the process."
The Bush administration has concluded that Karimov fears democracy more than terrorism, officials said. The biggest threat to his government is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which a State Department report says has been involved in attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan and has plotted attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Central Asia. Aligned with al Qaeda, it seeks to overthrow Karimov and create an Islamic government, the report says.
The Uzbek issue is gaining more attention on Capitol Hill. Reps. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.) and Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.) held a news conference yesterday to urge the White House to end all Pentagon payments to Tashkent and to go to the United Nations to bring the Uzbek leader to justice.
Karimov "inflicts immeasurable pain and misery on his own people and then evicts us from a strategic military facility -- and the Pentagon's idea of a penalty is the gift of millions of U.S. tax dollars," Delahunt said. The Pentagon recently agreed to pay $23 million for past use of the K-2 air base.