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Uzbek crackdown puts US in quandary

WASHINGTON -- The United States is negotiating long-term use of a major military base in Uzbekistan to expand the global reach of American forces, despite a brutal government crackdown on protests there last month, Bush administration officials said.

The talks have gone on behind the scenes for several months but have become more awkward for the administration since last month's unrest, which produced the heaviest bloodshed since the Central Asian country left the Soviet Union in 1991. Human rights advocates argue that a new pact would undermine the administration's goal of spreading democracy in the Islamic world.

The US military has relied heavily on Uzbekistan since 2001 in operations in Afghanistan, but on a temporary basis. US Special Operations Forces, intelligence and reconnaissance missions, and air logistics flights all use the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airfield in southeastern Uzbekistan, said an official report on US basing.

Now, as the Pentagon carries out a repositioning of US forces overseas, the Bush administration finds itself pursuing the strategic and geopolitical benefits of the Uzbekistan base even as it expresses deep concern about the country's political repression and worries about the risk of American troops caught in widening civil unrest.

''Access to this airfield is undeniably critical in supporting our combat operations" as well as humanitarian deliveries, said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman, who said the United States has paid $15 million to Uzbek authorities for use of the airfield since 2001. ''They've been a very valuable partner and ally in the global war on terror," he said.

Asked about the talks on long-range use of the base in Uzbekistan, Whitman said he ''wouldn't want to characterize any of our discussions with other governments." But he added: ''Clearly, our continued engagement we feel is pretty important."

Yet senior State Department and Pentagon officials said the security forces' killing of protesters last month has led to a high-level review of the military relationship and raised questions about whether, in the long run, ''Uzbekistan is the right place for us to be," a senior State Department official said. ''No one wants our troops in the middle of someone else's civil conflict or issues," the official said on condition of anonymity.

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