Sec'y of State Visits Central Asia

The United States won't trade democratic reforms for security and stability in strategically important former Soviet states, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said Monday as she embarked on a trip to Central Asia and Afghanistan.

She also said she might inspect earthquake damage in Pakistan. Rice, who planned her trip before the weekend earthquake, said she would ask the Pakistani government whether her presence would help.

"I don't want to do anything that gets in the way of the considerable task" of rescue and cleanup, Rice said during a news conference on her plane. "I want it to be fully understood that being in the area, I would be most happy to go if that would be helpful."

On her trip, she will celebrate successful elections in Afghanistan (search) and in Kyrgyzstan (search), her first stop, but has no scheduled meetings with opposition political figures there or in Kazakhstan (search) or Tajikistan (search).

The Central Asia region is important to U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and the war on terror but is troubled by lingering authoritarianism, corruption and economic stagnation, leaving the United States with a difficult balancing act.

"What we have not been willing to do is to make a choice between our objectives in terms of the immediate concerns about military access and our objectives in terms of democracy," Rice told reporters en route. "We see there is an inextricable link between our strategic goals of democratization and fighting the war on terrorism."

The Central Asian nations Rice will visit have varying records of democratic reform.

Western observers praised July elections in Kyrgyzstan, calling the voting an improvement over parliamentary voting earlier this year. That flawed election led to an uprising that ousted longtime President Askar Akayev, who fled to Russia.

President Kurmanbek Bakiyev (search), a former opposition leader, has pledged to pursue an independent foreign policy, and questioned whether a U.S. base that supports combat operations in Afghanistan is necessary. Kyrgyzstan hosts both U.S. and Russian military bases.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld later won assurances from Kyrgyz officials that American troops could stay.

In Kazakhstan, the largest and most economically and politically sophisticated of the Central Asian states on Rice's itinerary, police raided the office of a pro-democracy youth group last week. The group's leaders said it was part of a government crackdown on opposition ahead of a presidential election in December.

Tajikistan's president has maintained a tight grip on power and has jailed several former loyalists and opposition leaders in recent years.

Rice is bypassing Uzbekistan, once the United States' closest friend in Central Asia but now on the outs with Washington after the government of President Islam Karimov (search) put down an uprising in the Uzbek city of Andijan in May.

The government says 169 people died. Residents say there were at least 200-300 victims and two opposition representatives claim the death toll passed 700.

The Bush administration, which thanked Karimov for his cooperation after Sept. 11 with a White House visit in 2002, called for an international investigation. Karimov then said U.S. troops had to leave an air base used to support U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan.

Rice won't stop either in Turkmenistan (search), whose authoritarian president allows no dissent, calls himself Turkmenbashi the Great and once decreed that January be renamed in his honor.