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US defense chief courts the put-out president of Azerbaijan, key supply hub for Afghan war

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates tried on Sunday to soothe the put-off president of this former Soviet republic that helps move supplies and soldiers to the U.S.-led war in landlocked Afghanistan.

Tens of thousands of war-related flights have crossed over Azerbaijan since the Afghan war began in 2001, and last year alone about 100,000 U.S. and allied personnel passed through the country. Azerbaijan also is part of an overland supply chain that is a critical alternative to the primary land route through Pakistan. About one-quarter of all war goods come through the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation.

President Ilham Aliyev has complained that he gets too little attention from Washington and that U.S. officials have not done much to resolve a festering ethnic conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. He is also irritated by mild U.S. criticism of his track record on human rights, press freedom and elections.

Gates met with Aliyev after attending a defense conference in Singapore, where he told reporters that his stop in Baku was meant to reassure the president that the United States does not take him for granted.

"It's important to touch base and let them know they do play an important role," said Gates, who was the highest ranking U.S. official to visit since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009.

Gates carried a letter to Aliyev from Obama. More high-level visits are in the offing, the Pentagon chief said.

Aliyev succeeded his long-ruling father in 2003 after an election that the opposition said was rigged. He won a landslide re-election in 2008 that international elections monitors called flawed. A referendum last year set him up to rule indefinitely. The country functions more as a monarchy than a republic.

The imperatives of fighting a long war in a country without seaports has forced the United States and NATO to cut deals with unsavory leaders and sometimes unscrupulous businesses that get goods and soldiers in and out.

The supply dilemma has been most apparent in Kyrgyzstan, home to an air base that is the main air transit hub for the war, but involves deals with other former Soviet republics and sometimes uneasy cooperation with Russia.

"I don't feel that anybody in particular has us over a barrel," Gates said. The transit routes "are the most efficient and cost-effective way" to supply the war. The U.S. isn't overlooking undemocratic practices in the interest of expediency, Gates said.

"If you ask the leaders of these countries they'd say we have not ignored these issues," he said.

Concern about creeping authoritarianism in Azerbaijan was one reason top U.S. leaders stayed away. Aliyev's protests include postponing a joint military exercise with the U.S. and demanding that the U.S. go over its books to ensure Azerbaijan was properly paid for allowing commercial overflights.

The accounting turned up about $2 million in back fees owed by contractors, a U.S. official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the payments have not been completed. The Pentagon will pick up about $900,000 of that because some of the contractors it hired are no longer in business or are insolvent.

Strategically located between Russia and Iran, Azerbaijan is a crucial link in Western efforts to reduce reliance on Russian energy exports and a target in Moscow's tug-of-war with the U.S. over regional influence.

The U.S. and European Union have cultivated warm ties with the country beyond its utility in Afghanistan. Azerbaijan has abundant oil and gas and provides an energy export route bypassing Russia and Iran.

Russia has done the same, sealing a deal a year ago to buy 500 million cubic meters of gas annually.

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CIA background on Azerbaijan: http://tinyurl.com/25v2yq

(This version CORRECTS that Gates is highest ranking U.S. official to visit since Obama took office)