Uzbekistan, one of five former Soviet Central Asian republics, is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, hosting U.S. troops at Khanabad air base to support military operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

HISTORY: The territory of Uzbekistan was once at the heart of the trade route between China and the West. The fabled city of Samarkand (search) was the base for the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane's empire and the warriors he sent forth. In the 16th century, the Uzbeks conquered the area.

Two centuries later the Russians colonized the region they called Turkestan. The Soviets seized control after the 1917 revolution, creating the republic of Uzbekistan, which became independent after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

NEIGHBORS: A bit larger than California, Uzbekistan borders Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and shares an 84-mile border with Afghanistan. Soviet forces entered Afghanistan from Uzbekistan in 1979 and left in defeat a decade later by way of the so-called Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya (search) river at Termez.

POPULATION: Ethnic Uzbeks, a Turkic people, make up three quarters of the 25 million-strong population, Russians about 15 percent, Tajiks 5 percent, Kazakhs 3 percent and a scattering of other ethnic groups. Interethnic conflicts have erupted in recent years, particularly among Uzbeks and Persian-speaking Tajiks, and Uzbeks and Meskhetian Turks exiled to the region from the Caucasus under Stalin.

POLITICS: President Islam Karimov (search), a former senior Communist Party official, became president during the Soviet era, and was later elected president of independent Uzbekistan. Karimov runs the country in the style of a Communist boss, allows no dissent and has clamped down on non-state sanctioned Islamic groups.

RELIGION: A primarily Muslim nation, Islam in Uzbekistan was kept under strict control during the Soviet era, and only a few state-approved mosques were allowed to operate. Karimov has kept the same principle in place, but non-sanctioned Islam has spread and Uzbekistan has been the target of extremists in the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (search).

ECONOMY: Primarily agricultural; cotton is the main export and Uzbekistan is the world's third largest exporter of it. The largely arid nation, which depends heavily on irrigation, also has gold and oil reserves.