Rumsfeld Offers U.S. Support for Georgia

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) pledged full U.S. support Friday for this former Soviet republic and said Russia is obliged to withdraw its troops as promised.

Rumsfeld met with Georgia's interim leadership, including the acting president, Nino Burdzhanadze.

He was the first member of President Bush's (search) cabinet to come here since election protests forced Eduard Shevardnadze (search) to resign the presidency last month.

"We have had good meetings with the president and certainly wanted to underscore America's very strong support for stability and security and the territorial integrity here in Georgia," Rumsfeld said at a news conference with Burdzhanadze.

Rumsfeld mentioned a 1999 agreement, known as the Istanbul accords, which required Russia to remove some troops from Georgia but gave no final time table. Georgia had expected them out by 2001.

"The United States agrees that Russia should fulfill its commitment under the Istanbul accords to withdraw Russian forces from Georgia," Rumsfeld said.

Asked whether he believed the presence of Russian troops was an obstacle to Georgia's stability, Rumsfeld did not answer directly. "As I recall, Russia agreed to the Istanbul accords, which suggest to me that there was unanimity. And that would suggest to me that it was a pretty good idea," he said.

Of the approximately 5,000 Russian troops in Georgia, about 3,300 are covered by the accords.

Rumsfeld was also meeting with Mikhail Saakashvili, who led the opposition that resulted in Shevardnadze's resignation. Georgia has announced that a presidential election will be held Jan. 4.

The Bush administration is concerned about what it sees as a growing effort by Russia to exert its influence in Georgia and elsewhere in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Rumsfeld had planned to fly to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, earlier Friday but his plane was unable to land due to poor visibility.

Earlier in Kabul, Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said rival warlords in the northern region of the country, whose forces collaborated with American ground troops to help topple the Taliban regime two years ago, are making progress toward disarmament.

Rumsfeld met Thursday with the warlords, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta Mohammed, during a daylong visit to Afghanistan. He later held talks with President Hamid Karzai at his presidential palace.

At a joint news conference with Karzai, Rumsfeld said he made it clear to Dostum and Mohammed at a meeting in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif that the United States views the disarmament and disbanding of regional armies as "an important step for this country" if it is to gain enough political stability and prosperity to avoid becoming a haven again for terrorist organizations like Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

"Their response was certainly positive and appropriate," the defense secretary said. It was his first meeting with the two warlords and his fourth trip to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

At the outset of his meeting with the Afghan warlords, Rumsfeld welcomed them warmly, saying he recalled watching their progress during the war.

While the northern warlords helped defeat the Taliban, they are now seen in Washington and Kabul as an impediment to unifying the country, which has yet to establish a national army or national police force.

Col. Dickie Davis is the British commander of a "provincial reconstruction team" attempting to use both civilian and military tools to improve security and quell factional rivalries in northern Afghanistan. He told Rumsfeld that of the two main warlords, Dostum is the least active in disarmament.

"He's dragging his feet," Davis told Rumsfeld.

So far, Dostum has given up the military units he trusts least, while maintaining most of his heavy artillery and armor, Davis said.

Rumsfeld told Davis he could understand Dostum's reluctance to surrender the foundation of his power. "I don't think his position is unreasonable," Rumsfeld said.

During the warlords' meeting with Rumsfeld, Mohammed said he was proud to have been the first to give up heavy weapons. A Rumsfeld aide in the closed meeting quoted Dostum as acknowledging this with a smile, "Our side is a little slower, but we'll cooperate without any doubt."

At the news conference with Rumsfeld, Karzai said he was well aware of the problem of regional armies.