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Obama stresses importance of Azerbaijan to Afghan war effort, moves to improve relations

BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) — In a letter to the leader of strategically important Azerbaijan, President Barack Obama acknowledges the difficulties in the relationship between the two nations, but says he's confident the issues can be resolved.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates hand delivered Obama's letter Sunday during a meeting to improve relations with the 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.

In the letter delivered by Gates, Obama thanked Aliyev "for the partnership between our two countries."

Obama said the decision to open Azerbaijan's roads, rails and airspace to the Afghan war resupply effort "has further strengthened your country's stature as a stedfast security partner."

"I am aware of the fact that there are serious issues in our relationship, but I am confident that we can address them," Obama wrote.

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 Obama took office in January 2009.

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.

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.

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