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Central Asia: Reaction Mixed To Possible War In Iraq

Central Asia has been a strong supporter of the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign in neighboring Afghanistan. But Iraq is a different story. Local observers say the potential U.S. war against Baghdad presents Central Asia's leaders with a dilemma. On the one hand, they want to strengthen ties with the United States. On the other, they are worried by the question of who the United States' next target might be once the Iraqi regime is overthrown.

Prague, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Unlike millions of people elsewhere in the world, residents of Central Asia have not taken to the streets to protest a possible U.S. war against Iraq.

The only exception was in the former Kazakh capital of Almaty, where approximately 60 people, mostly pensioners, gathered on 15 February to call for a peaceful solution to the Iraqi crisis. The modest demonstration, organized by the Kazakh Communist Party, was Central Asia's first public protest against the potential war.

But the 60 protesters may be just the tip of the iceberg. Dissatisfaction with Washington's policy on Iraq appears to be running deep in Central Asia. A number of recent opinion polls indicate most people in the region do not support the use of force against Iraq, either with or without UN approval.

Central Asia has been a key U.S. ally in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. Several countries in the region continue to host U.S. troops at their military bases, including Kyrgyzstan, which has more than 1,000 U.S.-led coalition troops stationed at a military airport near its capital, Bishkek.

But the president of Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akaev, is the region's most vocal opponent of war in Iraq. He has voiced support for efforts by France, Germany, and Russia to resolve the crisis through peaceful means. The Kyrgyz foreign minister, Askar Aitmatov, said Kyrgyzstan will not allow its territory to be used as a staging ground for a military attack on Iraq.

Uzbekistan, another key U.S. ally in the region, says it supports more-resolute steps in forcing Baghdad to disarm. Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov has said the international community "should take more decisive measures to make Iraq stop producing weapons of mass destruction in order to rid mankind of this terrible danger."

The reaction in Kazakhstan has been more cautious. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev did not raise the issue of Iraq during an international conference on peace and understanding held in Almaty last week. The country's political opposition has openly criticized the leadership for keeping silent on the issue.

How can the region's mixed message on Iraq be explained? Umed Bobokhonov, a Tajik journalist and publisher, said some Central Asian governments are facing the dilemma of having to balance an antiwar public against a desire to strengthen official ties with the United States. "Every country in the region wants to strengthen its relations with the U.S., which is one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world -- a superpower. Our countries to some extent are dependent on U.S. economic aid. Thus, many [Central Asian] governments are very careful with their official statements on the Iraq issue. For instance, the Tajik government simply says that it backs solving the Iraq crisis according to the UN resolution, but it never gives a strong statement regarding a possible war against Iraq," Bobokhonov said.

Some observers suggest that Central Asian leaders may view the Iraq crisis as a potential threat to their own political security. A number of opposition parties in Central Asia are welcoming the use of force against Baghdad as a "campaign against autocratic leaders."

Nurbolat Massanov, a historian and a prominent member of Kazakhstan's Democratic Choice movement, said a war against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would send a clear message to "other dictators in the world." "I support the U.S. and its allies in Europe who want to punish dictators, to punish Saddam Hussein. Punishing Saddam Hussein would mean punishing all other dictators in the world," he said. "That's why I support their actions. I think those actions are very responsible and politically correct."

The leaders of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the only officially registered Islamic movement in Central Asia, say they do not support a military solution to the Iraq crisis. But they insist their stance has little to do with Islamic solidarity. Muhiddin Kabiri, the deputy head of party, told RFE/RL that his party condemns military action in Iraq because it represents intervention against a sovereign state. "Of course, the Muslim population of Tajikistan has sympathy for, and solidarity with, the Iraqi people, who are also mainly Muslim. But as politicians and experts, we consider these issues from a different point of view," Kabiri said. "We would have the same stance if another, [non-Muslim] country was caught in the same situation."

Kabiri also said a war against Iraq without UN approval would endanger the world body's credibility and throw its future existence into question.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.