Kyrgyz Fear Iraqi Fallout

Bishkek concerned that use of Manas air base against Iraq could endanger Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz Fear Iraqi Fallout

Bishkek concerned that use of Manas air base against Iraq could endanger Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan fears potential security problems if the US air base on its territory were used in the war against Iraq nearly 3,000 km away.

So far the base at Manas international airport, 30 km from Bishkek, has been confined to supporting operations in Afghanistan. But concern has been raised in parliament that sending planes from Manas to attack Iraq might bring dangers for Kyrgyzstan.

A pledge by Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov that the base would not be used to hit Saddam's army was widely regarded with scepticism. He told a press conference on March 20 that Bishkek regreted that force had been used against Iraq without United Nations approval.

Since last year, Kyrgyzstan has supported Moscow's position that the Iraq question should be solved solely by political means. But the government is reluctant to upset the US for fear of losing vital foreign aid.

Elizabeth Ortiz, spokesperson for the US-led coalition at Manas, said the base was carrying out military and refuelling duties and supplying humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. "The military operations in Iraq cannot change our task here," she said.

Kyrgyzstan has provided the US with facilities at Manas since the end of 2001. According to officials, some 1,500 foreign soldiers are stationed there along with a number of military aircraft. The agreement was supposed to run out at the end of 2002 but so far there has been no talk of extending or cancelling it.

Ortiz said security measures around the air base have been strengthened since the war with Iraq began. Metal barriers and sandbags surround the airport perimeter. Visitors are more strictly inspected. "Furthermore, the movement of coalition soldiers outside the area will be restricted," Ortiz said.

Kyrgyzstan has no diplomatic relations with Iraq and none of its citizens are there. But there are about 1,500 Kyrgyz nationals in surrounding countries, most of them diplomats, their families and students. Government representatives said measures would be taken to send them home if the situation in the region worsens.

At a special sitting on March 20, Kyrgyz parliamentary deputies examined possible consequences for Kyrgyzstan of the war against Saddam. A majority of deputies condemned US actions in Iraq. Omurbek Tekebaev, leader of the Atameken (Homeland) party, said Kyrgyzstan was right to support the position taken by the majority of countries. "No one, even if they have unlimited resources, has the right to dictate to others how they should act," Tekebaev said.

At the same time, a number of deputies urged restraint in assessing events in Iraq. Alisher Abdimomunov, head of international issues in parliament and a former Soviet intelligence officer, said Kyrgyzstan, as an inexperienced nation, should take a neutral position on such issues for the moment.

In an interview with IWPR, Abdimomunov said, "Taking a particular position on global conflicts and wars only damages us. We have bitter experience in fighting international terrorism, from which Americans and their partners have protected us and continue to protect us, and this cannot be ignored."

Deputy Ishenbai Kadyrbekov, who has considerable authority in parliament, said that after the war in Iraq, the US might re-examine its financial relations with countries according to the attitudes they took towards the conflict.

"Kyrgyzstan's position on the Iraq issue may influence Washington's policies and we might be deprived of financial aid which we cannot do without," Kadyrbekov said.

Aitmatov told the press conference that Washington would remain a strategic partner of Kyrgyzstan. "The US helps our country to ensure national security and independence and to carry out democratic reforms," he said.

But given his country's vulnerability in the region, he was careful not to send the wrong signals to Russia. "Of course, it is difficult for us to compare our relations with the US and Russia. But both these countries have special interests in Central Asia."

Sultan Jumagulov is a BBC stringer in Bishkek

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