A senior State Department official Friday defended the decision by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to leave Uzbekistan off the itinerary of the Central Asian trip she begins next Monday. U.S.-Uzbek relations have deteriorated since violence last May in the Uzbek city of Andijan.
The two countries had developed close security ties after the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.
But the relationship soured amid the Uzbek government's resistance to an international inquiry into the Andijan events.
Daniel Fried, the State Department's top policy official for the region, says avoiding Tashkent on the Rice trip, the first by a secretary of state to the region in nearly four years, was an obvious decision - in his words, not a close call.
Mr. Fried, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Central Asian affairs, briefed reporters on Ms. Rice's trip next week that will include stops in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan as well as Afghanistan.
The assistant secretary, who did visit Uzbekistan in a trip to the region last month, said U.S. concerns go beyond the events in Andijan themselves, where human rights activists say Uzbek forces killed hundreds of political demonstrators.
We were very troubled by Andijan, and not simply the events themselves, but the reaction," he said. "But not simply Andijan and the reaction but a whole series of steps which frankly are troubling. Pressure on NGO's, curtailment of exchange programs, a general climate of fear in the country which I did not find in any other country I went to. These are very troubling."
Mr. Fried said while former Soviet functionaries have had leading government roles in recent years throughout Central Asia, there are signs of democratic progress in all the countries Secretary Rice will visit, including August elections in Kyrgystan he said were the freest and fairest the region has yet seen.
He reiterated the Bush administration will comply with an Uzbek government demand that it vacate the Karshi-Khanabad airbase it had been using for operations in Afghanistan, and said U.S. interests in advancing political and economic reform in the region will not be subordinate to security concerns.
The assistant secretary also said he does not see the United States as being in a competition with Russia and China for influence in the Central Asia, even though a regional grouping that includes the two powers - the Shanghai Cooperation Organization - issued a call in June for a deadline to be set for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area.
"We do not look at Central Asia as an object in a great game," he said. "We do not look at this as a zero-sum contest between us, the Russians and the Chinese. We have our own interests. Our own interests do overlap significantly with what I believe are Russian interests, that is we both oppose Islamist extremism and terrorism. We both oppose and are cooperating to help staunch the flow of narcotics across Central Asia, through Russia, into Western Europe."
Mr. Fried's regional counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Christina Rocca, said that in Afghanistan, Secretary Rice will congratulate Afghans on their successful elections last month, and re-state the long-term U.S. commitment to Afghan security.
Ms. Rocca rejected a questioner's depiction of the Afghan security situation as deteriorating. She said anti-government attacks in the run-up to the parliamentary voting had been just as expected and that U.S. officials do not see what she termed a particular resurgence of the Taleban.